As I add another digit to my life’s marker this month, sometimes I can’t help but look back and check to see if I have really grown worthy of my age. I found that through several trials and heartaches these past year, what helped me the most are the things I learned exploring and reading about personal philosophy.
These are some concepts that I find worthy of sharing to everyone. As they only touch the general idea behind each concept, I will leave it to the reader to decide whether they are ideas worth looking deeper into.
The Dog and the Cart
This concept came from Cleanthes, a Greek philosopher and one of the first Stoics. Imagine a dog that is tied to a cart. The cart moves along a road, towing the dog behind it. Obviously the dog cannot really travel on its own, as its neck is being constantly dragged by the much bigger cart.
In this illustration, the dog represents man, and the cart represents life (or fate). Our lives are constantly moving, we grow older whether we want it or not. Time does not stop for our excuses.
If you move against the direction of the cart, you will be hurt. Continue to do this and your neck will hurt due to the pressure, and in the end you will still be dragged. Why do you keep fighting against it? There is nothing to be gained by arguing with reality.
This does not mean that you are completely helpless. The dog can still move on its leash while following the cart. It is impossible to go anywhere you want to go, to see everything you want to see. The cart does not stop. But you can still stop for a while and smell the flowers on the side of the road. You can still move and make the path more enjoyable.
The Two Arrows
This is a Buddhist metaphor that comes from a question:
‘If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?
It is common sense that it is more painful if you are struck by a second arrow. What does this question even mean? Even though it is common sense, people tend to get struck by the second arrow in life.
Every “bad” event is actually composed of two events happening (or two arrows). The first event is the actual thing that happened (first arrow), and the second event is our reaction to that happening (second arrow). People tend to stay still, get hit with the second arrow, and suffer instead of moving forward and avoiding it.
After something bad happens, we sometimes dwell on the pain, anger, frustration, and the injustice of the event. These only serve to worsen the situation, not alleviate it. We need to be aware that the second arrow can be avoided. In life, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.
The Shoreline of Ignorance
As the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance—the boundary between the known and unknown.John Archibald Wheeler
As you go through life you accumulate experience and knowledge about the world around you. After years studying and working on a specific field, you eventually become an “expert”. Once you reached this status, it is time to rest on your laurels, right?
Actually, what you have done is to just increase the things you do not know about. As your knowledge grows, you become more familiar with other aspects or related branches of that knowledge. Learning more does not make things clearer, it just leads to more questions.
Beware of the trap of omniscience. If you find yourself saying that you already know everything there is to know on a particular topic, this means that you have not gone deep enough. It is better to know what you don’t know, than not knowing what you don’t.
A story is told of a victorious general who returns to the city of Rome after a battle::
When a general returned in glory to ancient Rome, he was accompanied in his procession through the streets by a slave whose job it was to remind him that his triumph would not last forever. “Memento mori”, the slave whispered into the general’s ear: “remember you will die”.
Today we tend to avoid the topic of death. We act and live our lives as if we will live forever. As if tomorrow is guaranteed. In reality, death is the only certainty in our lives. Everyone in the past has faced death. Everyone in the present will face it someday.
Instead of avoiding death, we must embrace it. The universe thrives through a constant state of creation and destruction. If beauty does not fade, then it would not be beautiful at all. Without death, life is meaningless.
How do we apply this concept in a practical sense?
One way is to go to sleep every night as if it is your last. Pretend that you will not wake up in the morning. Is there something I need to say to someone? Will my loved ones be fine? Am I ok with leaving this world or would I be full of regrets? The answers to these questions will guide you on the things you need to do the next day.
Another way is doing the Stoic exercise of premeditatio malorum. This is to visualize in your mind the thing that you most dread or a possible negative outcome of your actions. Try and simulate as much as possible how you will feel when it happens. While this may be sometimes difficult to do, this helps you to prepare for a negative event, allow you to brace yourself when it actually happens, and finally to accept it when it does.
Consistency Beats Intensity
We have previously discussed this in detail as it relates to our finances, health, and personal development. Those articles show some practical and actionable items that we can do to improve our lives in general.
A common hindrance in successfully implementing life improvements are that we don’t keep doing it. Our default (“lizard”) brain does not want us to do things that are hard, difficult, or dangerous as it may threaten our physical survival. However, these are the core elements of success.
To get around this, we do small, easy tasks than large, difficult ones. Smaller tasks are easier to complete. Completing tasks lead to consistency. Performing consistent, small actions in a prolonged period of time leads to habits. And it is these habits that enable us to be successful. Habits have less friction;they are already integrated in our daily life and no longer needs to be fitted in.
In order to develop consistent habits, set tasks that are:
- Easy to do
- Easy not to do
- Part of an established habit
When in doubt, keep moving
There will come a time in all of us where something big needs to be done, but we are flat on our feet. How can I accomplish this gargantuan task?
Or it could be, “It doesn’t really matter, I’ll sleep on for now and deal with it next time“.
In times like these, we say that we just don’t have the motivation to do it. But what is motivation? Is it an emotion? Is it a feeling?
The word “motivation” comes from the Latin word movere, which means to move. Motivation involves movement. I would say motivation requires movement. You need to move to gain motivation, not the other way around.
So when these gargantuan things come up, when we encounter tasks that we do not want to do, the first thing we need to do is to move. Take a small step. Do not turn back from the thing that scares you.
When things are bad, don’t stop. don’t let up. Don’t allow yourself to give in. Instead, put your head down, put one foot in front of the other. Keep moving.Jocko Willink
Photo by Giammarco on Unsplash