I’m a newcomer to philosophy. That’s my way of saying that I’m no expert; I’m just playing around with ideas. I’m stumbling my way through the hordes of information out there at our fingertips, diving down eclectic rabbit holes to fetch whatever nuggets of insight I can use to better understand the world. Being a trained yoga teacher, it’s easy to stay within the teachings of this lineage - and there is plenty of actionable wisdom to devour. But I find myself hungry for a variety of ideas, communicated in diverse ways, targeted at entirely different people.
For so long I steered away from any kind of ‘spirituality’ because I equated it with subscribing to systems of thought in the absence of curiously exploring, questioning, and learning through direct experience. In a search for underlining truths that can help us lead happier lives, I’ve opened up my receptivity to whatever ideas may fall into my lap.
So far on this journey, the schools of philosophy that seem to have a nexus point within my own worldview are those of Yoga, Stoicism and Buddhism. Though I’m sure I’m not the first to make this connection, there are common threads that have found their way organically into my consciousness, and are informing what I share with my students.
What these philosophies seem to share is the underlying truth of life: the existence of pain and suffering. Their solution? Observe, accept, bounce back.
That suffering exists is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism; the Yoga Sutras describe the unavoidable fluctuations of the human mind that cause suffering; and the Stoics approach responding to suffering as the very art of living. They all reach the conclusion that shifting mindset will alleviate our pain. And the common theme among their strategies is unequivocal: face reality. Specifics of each esoteric tradition aside, the essential teaching is to wade through the noise of our upbringing, culture, and coping strategies, and find behind it all a clear-sighted, lucid consciousness, a ‘true self’. Once awakened, this perceptive awareness can witness the irrational the mind, chuckle at its foolishness, and return to our baseline of contentment.
To Stoic philosopher, Seneca, the very essence of philosophy is mastering how to recover from the frustrations of life. Frustrations, says Seneca, are unassailable. It is the accompanying emotions of rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness and paranoia that we have the power to transcend.
A relatable example to use is anger, which Seneca describes as “the swiftest route to insanity”. Being from a family whose blood runs hot and emotions are expressed through hysterics, I’ve had my fair share of dalliances with anger. The more I become aware of my emotions as they bubble up from within, the more I observe outrageously exaggerated reactions to unfolding events. Take, for example, the undignified woes of public transport. I frequently find myself spiralling into a seething, white-knuckled rage when I miss a train by 30 seconds. Do I really expect that the train (for which I don’t bother to check the departure time) to leave the station just as I am comfortably on board in a satisfactory seat? Why is waiting five minutes for the next train completely unacceptable? Am I really so naively hopeful, despite all previous experience to the contrary, that the stars would align to gift me an effortless journey? Given my furious response, it would seem that so lost am I in this unfounded fantasy, that I adamantly refuse to accept what is. This naivety of optimism creates a great chasm between expectation and reality - what Alain de Botton describes as “the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality”. Such a discrepancy is the very cause of suffering.
No matter how loudly advocates of ‘positive thinking’ affirm that you can wish your problems away (and they are out there screaming their quotable affirmations), every being on this planet is consistently experiencing some form of suffering. Monks may seem serenely at peace, but this is not a perpetual state; they too encounter frustrations, and are as susceptible as the rest of us to primal emotional reactions. But they are trained to reign back the mind, to bring it back from indulging in the associated emotions of suffering, the drowning in resisted pain. This is not a single achievement, but an ongoing practice.
The mindfulness practices of yoga and Buddhism teach us to observe what arises. Not just extrinsic circumstances, but things from within our own body and psyche. This normally begins with simply watching the breath, mentally scanning the body, or noticing subtle physiological changes during a physical practice. By focusing attention on these minute sensations, we are fine-tuning our concentration and drawing ourselves fully into the present moment, relinquishing distractions from our noisy thoughts - even if it’s just for a moment. We are training to be the witness, the ever-present watcher behind thoughts and feelings that arise. Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard teaches that if you focus your attention on an emerging emotion instead of the object of whatever your rage or sadness is directed at, you will realise how irrational it is. Your negative emotion, now witnessed and exposed by the rational mind, will evaporate. There is no such thing as good or bad, only what is. We ascribe our interpretations, desperately trying to categorise in our fearful search for certainty. So, neutralise negativity by being aware of the very construction of thought and feeling.
In Ashtanga Yoga philosophy, the concept of santosha, translated as ‘contentment’, refers to the acceptance of all that life brings. By practicing santosha, we are able to select happiness as a choice. It is the antithesis of desire, a sense of lacking, or envy. This is not as simple as ‘positive thinking’, which can essentially be glorified denial in the form of instagram posts and expensive seminars, setting up good-intentioned believers for a rude awaken when reality smacks them in the face. Accepting what is includes accepting our current circumstance, and, without judgment, acknowledging when we feel a resistant emotion surface. Denying what is in the plight to become a ‘positive’ person is fighting against an unbeatable opponent; reality will always win. As the Buddhists teach: suffering = pain x resistance. Better to conserve our energy for cultivating composure and sharing that peace with whoever you encounter.
For those who are not ready to take to the yoga mat or meditation seat, Stoic philosophy is helpful introduction to mindset training without explicitly ritualistic practice. The Stoics teach that we have no control over unfolding events, but our power comes from the ability to choose our reaction. Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, came to the same conclusion: his famous maxim is that between stimulus and response, there is the space to choose. If sufferable obstacles are simply part of the terrain of this life, resisting their existence is a waste of precious energy. Studies have found that it is only when stress is perceived as such that is actually has a negative effect on one’s physiology. So if bumps in the road are certainties, they should not be resisted as unacceptable nuisances, but embraced as mere details within the wider picture of life. Better yet, use them as resistance training to strengthen your character.
The Stoics’ contribution translates in my own understanding as a delightful dose of cynicism (unashamedly beloved by my British culture) to add to the more fanciful practices of the Eastern traditions. They help me to articulate that life is just a bit shit sometimes, but we can keep calm and carry on. We will always feel somewhat inadequate, the pang of jealousy will always arise, and sometimes we will just get the urge to smack the face of whoever is in the car that just cut you off. The practice here is witnessing your reaction, acknowledging it as an emotional reflex, and distancing yourself from it. Thereby, it will be set free.
I’m only at the first steps of this practice. I’m witnessing my entrenched reactions arise, I’m acknowledging that they are merely habitual responses...but I’m still indulging in them. While watching the process unfold, I still seem unable to step in before the anger, irritation, jealousy or impatience take over my body, commandeering my actions. Behavioural patterns run deep, and this is never more apparent than with the very people you developed those patterns alongside - family. Family dynamics represent the very framework that taught us what reactions are appropriate to a given situation. Overcoming that programming is probably the hardest pursuits in self-development. As Ram Dass says: “if you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family”.
When we step into everyday circumstances, the algorithm our primitive mind has so expertly coded for us is quick to step in. Negative thoughts are hardwired into our brains - we evolved to be suspicious of threat, or else we wouldn’t have survived. The clutter of cultural programming and upbringing force us to bolster up our egos to drown out the perceived terror of reality. That’s all irrational behaviour is: fear. It is only when we trust the world that we can let down our barriers. The issue comes when we identify with those negative thoughts and feelings, believe them to be part of our identity. For me, it feels like I’ve stepped into a wholly separate persona when I start to become saturated in these feelings of frustration or anger - an alter-ego my friends actually identified and nicknamed Susan... I find it hard to take responsibility for these irrational reactions, because they feel so outside of me. I love the way Alain de Botton speaks of exactly this circumstance:
“In calmer moments, the angry may apologise and explain that they were overwhelmed by a power stronger than themselves, that is, stronger than their reason. ‘They’, their rational selves, did not make the insults and regret the shouting; ‘they’ lost control to dark forces within. The angry hereby appeal to a predominant view of the mind in which the reasoning faculty, the seat of the true self, is depicted as occasionally assaulted by passionate feelings which reason neither identifies with nor can be held responsible for.”
To be quite frank, it feels disheartening and exhausting to watch myself succumb to such text-book pitfalls. Despite a dedication to a life and career of sharing happiness, progress is still painful slow. Sometimes it feels like I’ve gathered together a great big supply of joy, and before I know it it’s been depleted again. But with these teachings in mind, I also have faith that there is always the opportunity to refill that supply. The more we accept that droughts will come in the way of life’s inevitable setbacks, the more we can prepare with reserves and resilience.
I don’t expect progress in this most fundamental of areas to come easily, but freedom to react without the irrational software we’ve inherited seems to be the greatest key to a peaceful and happy life. I don’t want to settle for a life at the whim of alter-ego Susan, always ready to pounce at ingrained triggers at some misplaced attempt to protect me from the unknowable world. Through a unique blend of all of these practices, each of us can find our own way into clear-headedness - an objective view onto the melodramas we conduct for ourselves. Flexing the muscle of conscious reflexion makes us more and more prepared for the next test. Progress might be slow, but they are incremental steps in the right direction - so, on we go. When anger comes up, let’s use it as a lesson to teach us about the workings of the mind. What deep desire or fear is being expressed?
All we can control is our reaction here and now. No matter how many times we succumb to the destructive cycles of behaviour, the next moment is ours to determine. With this philosophy of our inherent bounce-back ability, we must accept where we are now. But know that we always have the choice to gracefully return to the contentment that is our natural state. That’s the main lesson: face reality, reserve judgment, and choose to come back to peace. When you get lost, start again. And again. And again.
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” ― Maya Angelo
“A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt, It Seems to Me: Selected Letters