“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” – Seneca
In a recent Masonic Philosophical Society meeting, we discussed the likeness of Stoicism to Freemasonry. Seneca, Zeno, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius all took center stage. It was a lively discussion and the argument that Stoicism and Freemasonry are the same was extremely compelling. As I always do, I went on my own journey to rediscover what I had learned in school about the Stoics; with what I knew about Freemasonry, I felt that I was well armed to learn some new ways of looking at the Stoics.
I first went to TED Talks, where I always find a wealth of great ideas and food for further thought. There is an excellent animated video on the Stoics, by Massimo Pigliucci, entitled The Philosophy of Stoicism. It’s a very well done quick course on the Stoics. Another excellent TED talk on Stoicism is by Ted Ferriss, “Why you should define your fears and not your goals.” This is about 13 minutes long and is a very practical look at why Stoicism is beneficial and how you can use it in daily life.
What was very interesting was a single quite that Ferriss said helped him change his life: “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
Huh, I thought. Of course we do. But why? Another recent reading foray brought me to another idea: time. We humans understand time only superficially, as it applies to us. Our brains are wired to understand and extrapolate possible futures, opportunities missed in the past, and move our lives to live in synchronicity.
There are factions of large people, including myself at one point, who thought that “living in the moment” was the key to being happy. I now don’t think we’re wired that way.
In a recent article in the New York Times, author and professor of psychology Martin E.P. Seligman agrees. “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment” examines how our minds work and why. He and his co-authors have outlined this process in their book, “Homo Prospectus.” The article, and the book, are really discussing the philosophy of Stoicism to make it through life.
Time. We are subjects of Time.
What really solidified this for me was listening to a recent Radiolab episode, which was a repeat of their first season, discussing “Time.” In it, the two podcasters discussed the idea of time and living in the moment. Robert Krulwich takes his co-host on a journey of reason.
Our mind does not process data at the time it is created. Smell, sound, and light – these are all generated by something and transmitted over some distance to our surroundings, where we pick it up via our senses, and whereupon it is interpreted by our brains. This distance travel take… time. It is not instantaneous. Our minds process – speed is only a matter of relativity. Ergo, we are never experiencing the moment. We are always processing memories. And memories are always subject to misinterpretation.
It’s no wonder we fear. We cannot live in the moment and must always interpret the past to create possible futures. Truly, like we never really touch anything, due to the molecular distance between surfaces, all that we have is an interpretation of our surroundings, received and processed in past, to guide us in our futures. Spending the time to put emotion into it grounds it even future in “memory.”
To pull ourselves out of time is impossible, and thus, living in the moment is impossible. Ergo, we need a tool to bring us around to dealing with these memories in such a way as to not freeze us in our tracks. We are brought back to, again, the wisdom of the Stoics. “A bad feeling is a commotion of the mind repugnant to reason, and against nature,” stated Zeno of Citium.
Our modern psychologists agree:
“Homo prospectus is too pragmatic to obsess on death for the same reason that he doesn’t dwell on the past: There’s nothing he can do about it. He became Homo sapiens by learning to see and shape his future, and he is wise enough to keep looking straight ahead.”
– From Homo Prospectus, by Martin E. P. Seligman, Peter Railton, Roy F. Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada