Notes on the “Discipline of Assent”

September 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Epicurus once said

“Falsehood and error always depend upon the intrusion of opinion when a fact awaits confirmation or the absence of contradiction, which fact is afterwards frequently not confirmed or even contradicted following a certain movement in ourselves connected with, but distinct from, the mental picture presented- which is the cause of the error.” (Letter to Herodotus)

Which essentially says that whenever something happens to us, or when we decide to do something, we hold an opinion in addition to a fact in its plainness and nakedness.

“My house has burned down”

This is a fact.

“Something bad has happened to me. I have suffered.”

This is an added opinion to the fact.

These things which I am telling myself. Are they objective? Is this the only way to see it? Is it possible to see it in another way? Are my views influenced by the beliefs of my friends, family, or someone else that presumably has “authority”?

Marcus Aurelius adopted this philosophy as well.

“That you don’t know for sure it is a mistake. A lot of things are means to some other end. You have to know an awful lot before you can judge other people’s actions with real understanding.”

Meditations, 11.18

More to come on this Socratic nature of the questioning of knowledge, focusing on questioning of “self-knowledge”, “inner thoughts”, and outward actions that result from them.


Unselfconscious Gentleness

July 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here’s something to think about whenever you feel hurt:

The Greeks have known since the time of Homer and Hesiod that it is possible to modify people’s decisions and inner dispositions by the careful choice of persuasive words.

The right way to act upon other’s consciences:

Showing benevolence to people who have made mistakes. In word and action,

“not chiding him and making him feel that we are putting up with him, but with frankness and goodness, …

with gentleness, without irony, not reproachfully but with affection, with a heart exempt from bitterness…

as a person to another person, even if others are standing nearby.”

-Marcus Aurelius Meditaitions (XI.13)

Here Marcus means that gentleness in itself, is such a gentle thing. That merely to want to be gentle means ceasing to be gentle, because any kind of artifice or affectation destroys gentleness.

We can act effectively upon other people only when we do not try to act upon them. Only pure gentleness and delicacy have the power to make people change their minds, even to convert and transform them.

Similarly then, when we want to do good to others, our intention to do good will be truly pure only if it is spontaneous and unselfconscious. The perfect benefactor is unaware of what he is doing.

“We must be one of those who do good unconsciously.”

Meditations (V,6,3)


*This post is adapted from Pierre Hadot’s “What is Ancient Philosophy?

The Best Defense Against Melancholy

January 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

photo by Ranoush

I might have found my ultimate defense against loss and grief. Its adoption and use though, is much more difficult than expected. Still, it is arguably the best balm to grief, anxiety, and sadness.

Every now and then, I get migraine headaches- the kind that leaves you with numbing cranial pain on the side of your head.  You’d have to be resting in a quiet dark room to feel any better.

Prior to the actual headache occuring, most migraine sufferers would experience visual distortions (dark spots/scaly bright patterns) that serve as premonitions. These premonitions are a sign of what’s to come, and have a downer-depressive effect. It has often left me in throes of helplessness and depression for a short period of time.

Ultimately, my psyche has found a remedy. It wasn’t pills the doctor gave though. It was the acceptance of and preparation for the inevitable headache that was to come, that brought relief to the pain of denial and anticipation. It amazes me how confronting our fears and worst possible scenarios brings about tranquility.

“Of course you are Pain- pain which the gouty man scorns, the dyspeptic suffers while he indulges himself, the girl endures in childbirth. You are mild if I can bear you and short lived if I cannot.”

This little trick is also an excellent strategy with life’s tribulations.

A note to self:

You worry yourself about with expected and unexpected misfortunes that will come to you in the future. You dread an event over the horizon that will bring you discomfort and unhappiness. Thus you suffer in advance, for an anticipated future you believe will be wretched.

You’ve been trying to teach yourself this idea of acceptance of the Worst Possible Outcome. To get rid of anxiety, expect whatever you’re afraid would happen, to happen in any case. Visualize the outcome as real as you can. It may give you some of the expected pain and unhappiness, but its magnitude and duration, will be less than you feared it to be.

This suppsed training to become “fearless” isn’t as pretty as it sounds. This develops in you, the ability to see things for what they truly are, and not color events with your own judgements.

“The discipline of Perception requires that we maintain absolute objectivity of thought: that we see things dispassionately for what they are…

It is not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of Perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.”
-Gregory Hays, introduction to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

Contrary to popular belief, positive thinking and unfounded optimism is disastrous and harmful: it leaves you unprepared for the lashes and torments that life hurls at us. Prepare yourself for whatever Fortune has in store for you.

Another often practiced, but harmful attempt at a solutin you must avoid is the use of Opiates.

Sometimes we divert our minds with social activities and potential time-wasters: spending every spare moment with friends at the bar with a few beers, the latest movies, facebook, youtube, and whatnots. In the midst of these distractions are the reminders of your grief and loss.

It is better to conquer your sorrow, than to deceive it.

If merely cloaked under pleasures and busy-ness, our hunted minds eventually come back at us stronger than ever.

“But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed forever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long and pleasant journey abroad, or spend alot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All these things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief, but hinder it. But I would rather end it rather than distract it.”

It is true then that by facing it, the Truth sets you free.

Want To Become God-like?

December 26, 2010 § 2 Comments

photo by Sacred Destinations

A friend recently asked me about the coldness of the Stoic-philosophy, and that its ideas seemed to deny or block out one from feeling humanistic emotions. Stoic philosophy in its basic foundations, under Zeno certainly came across that way, and also giving meaning to the way the word “Stoic” is used and defined in the English language.

In later times it was given a more human element from interpretations by famous Roman advocates such as Seneca the Younger and Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The ideal man is not one that is completely immune to whatever life throws at him, but one who can rise above what ever happens to him.

Robert Greene wrote a chapter on the Grand Strategy of Life in his “33 Strategies of War”. He describes a belief that I think Epicurus and Seneca might have agreed on as the “ideal man”, no matter how difficult it is to become one. The idea of  the “ideal” springs from Hellenistic philosophy of various schools: Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Cynicism. Much of which were adopted by the Romans.

Excerpt from Chapter 12: Lose Battles but Win the War: Grand Strategy

from Robert Greene’s The 33 Strategies of War

Thousands of years ago, we humans elevated ourselves above the animal world and never looked back. Figuratively speaking, the key to this evolutionary advance was our powers of vision: language, and the ability to reason that it gave us, let us see more of the world around us. To protect itself from a predator, an animal depended on its senses and instincts; it could not see around the corner or to the other end of the forest. We humans, on the other hand, could map the entire forest, study the habits of dangerous animals and even nature itself, gaining deeper, wider knowledge of our environment. We could see dangers coming before they were here. This expanded vision was abstract: where an animal is locked in the present, we could see into the past and glimpse as far as our reason would take us into the future. Our sight expanded further and further into time and space, and we came to dominate the world.

Somewhere along the line, however, we stopped evolving as rational creatures. Despite our progress there is always a part of us that remains animal, and that animal part can respond only to what is most immediate in our environment- it is incapable of thinking beyond the moment. The dilemma affects us still: the two sides of our character, rational and animal, are constantly at war, making almost all of our actions awkward. We reason and plan to achieve a goal, but in the heat of action we become emotional and lose perspective. We use cleverness and strategy to grab for what we want, but we do not stop to think about whether what we want is necessary, or what the consequences of getting it will be. The extended vision that rationality brings us is often eclipsed by the reactive, emotional animal within- the stronger side of our nature.

More than we are today, the ancient Greeks were close to the passage of the human race from animal to rational. To them our dual nature made us tragic, and the source of tragedy was limited vision. In classical Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex, the protagonist may think he knows the truth and knows enough about the world to act in it, but his vision is limited by his emotions and desires. He has only a partial perspective on life and on his own actions and identity, so he acts imprudently and causes suffering. When Oedipus finally understands his own role in all his misfortunes, he tears out his eyes- symbols of his tragic limitation. He can see out into the world but not inward into himself.

The Greeks, however, also recognized the potential for a higher human possibility. Far above the sphere of mortals were the gods on Mount Olympus, who had perfect vision of the world and of both the past and the future; and the human race shared something with them as well as animals- we were not only part animal but part divine. Furthermore, those able to see further than others, to control their animal nature and thin before they acted, were humans of the most deeply human kind- the ones best able to use the reasoning powers that separate us from animals. As opposed to human stupidity (limited vision), the Greeks imagined an ideal human prudence. Its symbol was Odysseus, who always thought before he acted. Having visited Hades, the land of the dead, he was in touch with ancestral history and the past and he was also always curious, eager for knowledge, and able to view human actions, his own and other people’s, with a dispassionate eye, considering their long-term consequences. In other words, like the gods, if to a lesser extent, he had the skill of looking into the future. The consummate realist, the man of vision, Odysseus was a character in the epic poetry of Homer, but there were also historical versions of the ideal: the political figure and military leader Themistocles, for example, and Alexander the Great, raised to heights of combined intellect and action by Aristotle.

The prudent man might seem cold, his rationality sucking pleasure out of life. Not so. Like the pleasure-loving gods on Mount Olympus, he has the perspective, the calm detachment, the ability to laugh, that comes with true vision, which gives everything he does a quality of lightness- these traits comprising what Nietzsche calls “Apollonian ideal.” (Only people who can’t see past their noses make things heavy.) Alexander, the great strategist and man of action, was also famous for revelry and festivity. Odysseus loved adventure no one was better at the experience of pleasure. He was simply more reasonable, more balanced, less vulnerable to his own emotions and moods, and he left less tragedy and turmoil in his wake.

This calm, detached, rational, far-seeing creature, called “prudent” by the Greeks, is what we shall call the “grand strategist”.

We are all of us to some extent strategists: we naturally want control over our lives, and we plot for power, consciously or unconsciously angling to get what we want. we use strategies, in other words, but they tend to be linear and reactive and are often fractured and struck off course by emotional responses. Clever strategists can go far, but all but a few make mistakes. If they are successful, they get carried away and overreact if they face setbacks- and setbacks are inevitable over a lifetime- they are easily overwhelmed. What sets grand strategists apart is the ability to look more deeply into both themselves and others, to understand and learn from the past and to have a clear sense of the future, to the extent that it can be predicted. Simply, they see more, and their extended vision lets them carry out plans over sometimes-long periods of time- so long that those around them may not even realize that they have a plan in mind. They strike at the roots of a problem, not at its symptoms, and hit their mark cleanly. In moving toward becoming a grand strategist, you follow in the path of Odysseus and rise toward the condition of the gods. It is not so much that your strategies are more clever or manipulative as that they exist on a higher plane. You have made a qualitative leap.

In a world where people are increasingly incapable of thinking consequentially, more animal than ever, the practice of grand strategy will instantly elevate you above others.

To become a grand strategist does not involve years of study or a total transformation of your personality. It simply means more effective use of what you have- your mind, your rationality, your vision. Having evolved as a solution to the problems of warfare, grand strategy is a military concept. And an examination of its historical development will reveal the key to making it work for you in daily life.


(bolding by me)

Serendipity In Hanoi

December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Recently, I spent 10 days in Northern Vietnam, most of which I was helping to manage student volunteers at a local orphanage. After my responsibilities were done, I was most lucky to spend time with Vietnamese friends in the beautiful highlands of Sapa.

Hanoi in the fall certainly feels different than when I was here last summer. It is 21 degrees Celsius. I am wearing jeans, t-shirt and a sweater, instead of t-shirt and shorts, and flip-flops. Instead of blue skies I get mostly grey. But everything feels much more at ease than in summer. I can stroll along Hoan Kiem without breaking a sweat, keep hands in my pockets, sit down on a nearby bench to people-watch. Even Fanny’s ice cream tastes unique in the fall. No thirst to slake, no heat wave to cure. Just simple enjoyment of frozen Franco-Viet delight.

It is during this fall in Hanoi that my thoughts do ramble to many who say that “one week in Vietnam and you’ve seen it all.”

This is a city where you will be punished with frustration, confusion, disappointments, dissatisfaction, dry mouths, and god-forbid, boredom.

All you have to do is be impatient.

If you have a checklist of things you want to do, see, and buy in Hanoi, you will not leave here feeling happy and satisfied with your holiday. Even if you’ve managed to tick off almost everything on your list. Simply put, this is not a place for you to “get things done”. And that is a good thing. Because it means serendipity has a greater chance of befalling upon you.


1. An unsought, unintended, and/or unexpected discovery and/or learning experience that happens by accident and sagacity.

Serendipity is god’s gift to the routine-weary, to-do-list tied, 9-5 grounded life of any aspiring traveller.

Hanoi is not Singapore. Hanoi is not Bangkok. Hanoi, is Hanoi.

If you want a different experience from what you’ve been having back home, you have to live the Vietnamese experience. The overused but somewhat appropriate cliche here is “When in Hanoi, do as the Hanoians do”.

That means taking two hour lunch breaks (includes one hour of siesta), spending forty five minutes with your iced drip coffee while you amaze at the shoe-shining skills of street shoe polish-guys, who are masters at the art of making your shoes shine as bright as mirrors.

I don’t want to lose my national identity and cultural habits of a Singaporean. I only ask to become self-aware of them. So that I can shed them when it’s beneficial to do so. After all, aren’t I here in Hanoi for some rest and relaxation?

The mind must not be kept continuously at the same pitch of concentration, but given amusing diversions. Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest


Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher was a great critic of mindless wanderlust and hurrying from place to place, however. That the drifting from location to location in pursuit of various sights and experiences is a sign of a hunted mind, weighed down by emotions and troubles. One is still harassed by the tossing and waves that hit us from the daily routines back at home. So instead of putting our burden down, we carry them wherever we go. It is something worth noticing in ourselves, when we travel.

Of course it sounds easier said than done, and the ideal form of travel (with the intention of relaxing) would of course have a deep immersion into land, people and culture. In fact not many of the tourist trails can provide this. One must then choose his travel companions carefully. Will my fellow traveller remind and reinforce habits and trappings of life back home? Will I be harangued by things I want to put down, even if just for fourteen days? How can I have a tranquil mind if at all times of the day my manner of action, speech, and thought is no different from what I experience back home?

“But I have no friends or family in these places I visit!” you say. Ye of little faith in Serendipity, I reply.

What’s the worst that can happen if you’re alone in a foreign land? That you may spend the entire trip alone? There is much that you can experience yourself in a place you don’t know. After all, the joke goes that if you can’t stand the company of yourself, how dare you inflict “you” upon others? Be prepared to be alone most of the time. Love companionship, but be at ease and be prepared to do without it.

Yet no one is truly alone in a foreign land. You will have to sharpen your senses of empathy and social being to look for directions, buy necessities, and find a restaurant. With experience, you will make new friends and acquaintances. Can you withhold judgment on others’ practices and habits? Would you be curious about them instead? Why aren’t men usually seen in the kitchens of Vietnamese households? Why are the streets of downtown Saigon eerily quiet on a Monday between 12 to 2pm?

Earnest curiosity and an appetite to learn from locals brings rewards in spades most of the time. Maybe you’ll receive warm hospitality beneath apparent wariness and coldness from locals.

Serendipity came knocking when I had no plans for my weekend in northern Vietnam, when I couldn’t help but notice the dedication of a few local volunteers who helped out our group of students, who were volunteering at a local orphanage. Serendipity knocked thrice when curious conversations and genuine attempts at friendships ultimately gave birth to a weekend with guided locals in her beautiful highlands hometown of Sapa.

Serendipity also made sure it was more than an amusing diversion or relaxing trip: the time in Sapa became an unforgettable dream.

Perpetual Spring

November 9, 2010 § 2 Comments

“A man standing by a spring of clear, sweet water and cursing it. While the fresh water keeps on bubbling up. He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained.

To have that. Not a cistern but a perpetual spring.

How? By working to win your freedom. Hour by hour. Through patience, honesty, humility.”

-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Events that happen to you, people that you encounter, are nothing more than that. Mud and dung is the perception what we make of these things that happen to you. An event, i.e. your house has burned down, is just that. If you think “Something unfortunate has happened to me”, then that is perception. By no means are you forced to accept this, and there are countless other ways to interpret things that happen to you.

The perpetual spring, or the logos (natural reason / providence) is unchanging. You only need to realize that harmony in your life to it comes from the only things you truly control: your actions and your thoughts.

Need another example? Derek Sivers’ favourite fable

When You Wake Up In The Morning

November 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own- not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me with ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.

-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Gregory Hays translation)

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