Adventures in Stoicism – Week 1

'News gets out that the Stoics' annual party has been cancelled.'

‘News gets out that the Stoics’ annual party has been cancelled.’

So, as readers of this blog may be aware, I’m doing a course in Stoicism, giving some Western philosophy a go, taking a break from my studies in Eastern traditions. The basic premise behind Stoicism really intrigues me. It all boils down to “living in agreement with nature”. The course describes it as thus:

“Stoicism is a complex philosophy in some respects and it’s beyond the scope of this training to go into it in much detail. However, the central teaching was summed up fairly concisely. Stoicism teaches that the goal of life is “living in agreement with Nature”. The Stoics took that to mean, not retreating to a quiet life in the countryside, but rather living “in accord with virtue” or excelling as a human being. Living in agreement with our own nature means flourishing and fulfilling our potential, by cultivating reason and thereby achieving strength of character and practical wisdom. The outcome of our actions, whether we achieve external “success” or “failure”, is therefore less important than the nature of our own character.”

Being a Druid, the whole idea of living in agreement with nature I find highly appealing. It is, after all the goal of the Druid, is it not? For this course, I am taking the Stoic goal word for word here, and not adding on the extra interpretation that so many seem to use, that being, living in accordance with our own nature, or living in accordance with human nature. To me, that seems an unnecessary addition, and not quite in tune with my religious beliefs. It seems to separate the human from nature, where in my mind human nature is a part of nature, just we humans are a part of an ecosystem. To separate the human from nature, to create any lines of division are completely illusory; mental constructs created by human beings for whatever reason: superiority over other beings, separation from the material and the spiritual, and so on. I’m taking the Stoic goal word for word here, because it makes much more sense to me on my quest for integration.

The next aspect of the course that should be interesting is as follows:

“Your overall goal in this four-week training program is to learn to live more consistently in accord with traditional Stoic values, or with “virtue” and practical wisdom, and to evaluate the results for your quality of life. The most important aspect of this will be training yourself to consistently place more importance on your own character and actions than upon external events. You’ll also be training yourself to cultivate mindfulness so that you avoid going along with any thoughts, actions, or feelings, that may interfere with that goal.”

Having studied Eastern traditions, namely Buddhism for so many years, this both makes total sense to me and also presents a different point of view from which to operate. Within Buddhism, we are taught very similar concepts, cultivating mindfulness so that we do not fall into the traps of bad behaviour, allowing our thoughts and feelings to control our lives. As Lao Tzu said, ““Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” That makes perfect sense, and is a very noble thing to do. The difference in Stoicism lies perhaps in the cultivation and support of your own character, identity or self. Within Buddhism, we are taught not to transcend the physical or the material, as so many people wrongfully assume, but to transcend the notion of a separate self to the rest of existence. By living mindfully, wholly within our bodies, aware of our actions, thoughts and so on, we see that the illusion of separation is just that, an illusion. There really is no self.

In Stoicism, there is indeed a more defined sense of self, one that must be cultivated in order to live in accordance with nature. It goes without saying that placing more importance on your own actions rather than external events is the way forward to creating a life of harmony, but the difference lies in the importance of your character as well. Maybe Lao Tzu’s quote above bridges the gap between Buddhism and Stoicism, for it mentions the importance of character. On the other hand, maybe I’m misinterpreting the whole thing, and confusing “character” with “self”. It will be interesting to see if I can make that distinction as the course progresses, in accordance with the principles behind Stoicism.

What I love, and what works with the philosophies that I have previously studied, but perhaps doesn’t stress as much as Stoicism does, is the following from the course:

“Some things are “up to us”, or under our direct control, whereas others are not up to us.

  • Encheiridion, 1


In the next sentence, Epictetus explained that Stoics mean what is “up to us” in the sense of being completely voluntary and within our sphere of control. In a word, as he puts it, this means our actions. That includes our external behaviour but also certain mental acts, such as voluntarily judging something to be desirable or undesirable. Everything else is only under our control indirectly, as a consequence of our actions, which means that other factors can always intervene to thwart our intentions. Those things, which are not our actions, are referred to as “externals” or “indifferent” things. The Stoics often sum up the most significant and problematic externals as: health, wealth, and reputation. Pain and pleasure are also “indifferent” in the sense of being things that happen to us, rather than things we do. When our voluntary actions are good, that’s called “virtue”, and when they’re bad, that’s called “vice”. So acting with virtue rather than vice, in this sense, is the main thing that is “up to us”. Indeed, we’re told the Stoics sometimes defined the fundamental goal of life as “living in accord with virtue”.

Epictetus goes on to say that the root cause of most emotional suffering is placing too much value on these external things, on things beyond our direct control. Becoming overly-attached to externals makes us all the “slaves” of our passions, he says. That’s definitely something worth thinking about, isn’t it? The Stoics therefore repeatedly advised their students to notice when they were experiencing unhealthy emotions or desires, feelings they might want to change. When this happens we’re to pause for a moment and try to grasp very clearly what aspects of the situation are entirely within our sphere of control.”

Focusing on what is under our control, and what is not, is indeed a part of Buddhism. However, the stress that the Stoics put on this concept in relation to living in virtue is much stronger. Attachment to our thoughts and emotions is very similar within the two traditions, and mindfulness of when we are acting out inappropriately is a key concept. However, within Stoicism the difference lies in that we perhaps don’t detach from all emotions or passions, but instead cultivate virtue over vice. I am hesitant in this regard, worrying about cultivating a sense of pride that might impede the Stoic sense of being. Buddhism states that all attachments, to the good or bad, are impediments on the way to enlightenment. The goal of integration is to move beyond attachments into a pure moment of utterly being. Stoicism doesn’t ask us to move beyond striving to do good, to excel in virtue, to perhaps in a sense attach to these ideals. There isn’t the “goalless goal” in Stoicism that there is in Buddhism. It’s fascinating.

With these goals and concepts in mind, working them with my Druidry is, I think, going to be an enlightening experience. I’m eager to see if it truly does lead towards a life in accordance with nature. After working this week with the course, already some things are starting to “click”, and work easier than with some of the Eastern concepts. Then again, it may simply be my interpretation of these concepts that is the greatest challenge towards understanding and integration.

Pagan Apathy?

For a while now, I’ve noticed that on some official and public pagan groups there seems to be a lack of input from members – a lack of contribution, as it were.  It often makes me wonder why people take the time to become a member of something and then sit back and not want to participate in any shape or form.  I also fully understand those who are quietly learning, putting out feelers and coming to an understanding of their path, and thereby don’t feel that they can or should contribute.

What I have believed for a long time now is that everyone should have their say.  As in my previous post about honour, everyone has an inherent value.  What seems to be growing, however, in the pagan community is apathy when it comes to contributing to the whole.

Take for example The Druid Network. When I first joined many, many years ago it was a burgeoning place filled with new ideas and articles being contributed by people following every imaginable Druidic path. It was a veritable goldmine of information, and I spent weeks and months going through it, learning from it, reading new articles.  I was inspired, fully charged and wrote many articles for TDN myself return. Nowadays, I haven’t noticed any new articles at all – over the last couple of years the input seems to have dramatically decreased.  Why should this be?

With the collapse of the economy, I can understand that many people have to work harder just to keep their head above water. Then there is also the increase in social media, where information is being exchanged via Facebook and Twitter rather than in people taking the time to write their own articles about an issue.  I believe that the increase in passive screen entertainment as well has a lot to do with it – we are waiting for others to wow and dazzle us with their insights.  We have become a passive culture, in cushy armchairs or sacked out on the sofa waiting for life to come to us.

I also believe that more and more people are wanting to get something in return.  Membership to TDN, having access to their social media site and getting quarterly newsletters isn’t enough for some people.  A lot of people, when asking about membership for TDN, say “What’s in it for me?”  This is something that I think really needs to be addressed in paganism today.  We already live in a world full of me, me, me, I, I, I – we are already taking more than we need and giving very little in return.  We need to look at the bigger picture, and see Druidry and Paganism for what it is, and not for what it can give us.

Is it the introspective nature of Neo-Paganism that is causing this?  We must first heal ourselves before we can heal the world? We must look within before we look to others? I don’t believe this for a second, but this is just my personal opinion. Having been blessed with the curse of self-awareness, humans tend to forget that there is a much bigger world out there, and that they often don’t see the big picture.  The may believe that they see more than other creatures around them with this heightened sense of self-awareness, where in fact they have put on blinkers to everything by being so darned self-aware. If you are self-aware, how aware can you be of others and the world around you? How can you look outwards if you are always looking inwards?

I had to take a step back from TDN a few years ago, and retire as Trustee due to lack of time. I had just started my own dance company, and began writing again.  I currently have three jobs.  I haven’t been able to contribute to the newsletter, or offer any articles lately, but that is something which I aim to redress very shortly.  My giving back to the community comes in many shapes and forms, and I hope that I can offer TDN some of that again(in some shape or form), as well as what I currently do for Moon Books, SageWoman, my own personal practice and priestly duties.  I’ve never really thought about “what can this do for me” – I’m always wondering “what can I do for it?” and, though this sometimes makes me run ragged, I think is still a better way of being in the world, of contributing to it in a positive way.

Much as in group ritual, sometimes it is an absolute joy for a fellow priest to take a step back and simply enjoy the ceremony. However, to do this all the time is selfish.  We must find a balance between give and take. We must also realise that everything we do can be a participatory act, and not simply a passive one.  From ritual to prayer to memberships, what we do is more important that who we are.

Let us break the chains of apathy within the pagan community. Let us give of our inspiration, to inspire others, to share in the awen.  Contribute to your local moot, or pagan newsletter, or website.  Offer songs back to the land at twilight, and dance with the gods around the fire.  Know that you matter, that you have a say in your religion, your path or your philosophy.  Don’t sit back and watch it happen around you. Get up and turn the screen off, and get out there.  We are human beings – let’s bring the being back into it.  Shake off the shackles of passiveness and know that you can make a difference, in whatever form you may.  And most important of all, don’t let others do it for you.