Training the body, training the mind – and chasing divine indifference

desert landscape

 3. The question which I ponder most of all is this; if the body can be trained to such a degree of endurance that it will stand the blows and kicks of several opponents at once and to such a degree that a person can last out the day and resist the scorching sun in the midst of the burning dust, drenched all the while with their own blood, – if this can be done, how much more easily might the mind be toughened so that it could receive the blows of Fortune and not be conquered, so that it might struggle to its feet again after it has been laid low, after it has been trampled under foot?

For although the body needs many things in order to be strong, yet the mind grows from within, giving to itself nourishment and exercise. Yonder athletes must have copious food, copious drink . . . and long training besides; but you can acquire virtue without equipment and without expense. All that goes to make you a good person lies within yourself.

Seneca – Letter LXXX. On Worldly Deceptions

Today is a good day. I’m back to my routine. I got to bed at a decent hour last night, and I slept till I wasn’t tired anymore. I got up, got my exercise and breakfast, and now I get to sit and write for a couple of hours till I head in to the office. I get to listen to my music — a slow groove on Pandora — and just settle into the flow of thoughts for a while. Uninterrupted by all the excitement that’s bound to happen, later.

It’s encouraging. But it’s also discouraging. The low I’ve been in, for the past couple of weeks, has dragged me down in ways that don’t exactly speak to my Stoic commitment. And I’ve felt as vexed by the slings and arrows of the world, of late, as I was once indifferent to them — flush as I was with my Stoic resolve. My father has been ill. I’ve traveled back and forth to my parents’ place, twice in the past 2 months. Work has been crazy and irritating. My partner’s health has been up-and-down. I got a nasty case of poison ivy and have been on meds that have made me much more volatile than usual. My aunt died. I’ve been off my routine. My diet has shifted (from the travel). I haven’t been able to swim for the past 2 weeks, thanks to the travel and the poison ivy. I’m all discombobulated. Turned around and tired.

Kind of the perfect storm for an autistic person like me.

But none of this should matter to me, quite frankly. None of it. It’s not just a new Stoic ideal — it’s always been my ideal. My goal has always been: to be indifferent to external conditions, and continue on with sound mind (and body), keeping to my path, regardless of what’s going on around me. Keeping up with my reading. Keeping up with my writing. Staying the course of equanimity, regardless.

I know, I know… easier said than done. But still. That’s how I feel.

And it occurs to me, as I read the Stoics, these days, that some of what they say needs to be put in context, in order to be useful. And certain parts of their philosophy need to be disregarded. Namely, their emphasis on the mind, rather than the body. I’ve read some passages, where Stoics (can’t remember which, but it’s been more than one) have admonished their friends/readers/followers to pay less attention to the body and more to the mind. To not put a lot of emphasis on physical fitness, but focus wholly on the mind.

Roman Litter

In the context of their time and place — ancient Greece / Rome, long before there were cars and gadgets and machines to do everything for them/us — there was no lack of opportunity to get your exercise.  Go for a good walk. Lift and carry things. Expend some energy. Not everything was made of a featherlight composite that was as durable as it was light. Not everything was handled for them by a machine. Yes, some of them had slaves who did things for them. And some of them had litters they could ride in. But getting through life wasn’t a simple matter of figuring out which button to push, to get the thing / result you wanted.

Nowadays, we’re living under very different conditions. And actually, if you want to train your mind, you have to keep your body going, as well. More and more research correlates a sound body with a sound mind. And I can definitely tell that my mind is not working as well as it could, when I haven’t been exercising properly… like for the past couple of weeks.

As much as I’d like to think my state of mind is completely independent from my physical state, science tells us otherwise. And my experience does, too. So, I can’t take the Stoics too seriously, when they laud the mind over the body. Both of them have to work together — and that’s never more obvious than when I’m regarding my autistic experience. Autism is such a physical phenomenon, for me. And for many others. We’re wired. We’re connected in ways that many neurotypicals aren’t (and don’t understand). Sensitive. Like we’re cats covered with whiskers that pick up on everything around us and send continuous streams of signals to our sensitive systems.

Info overload.  It takes a special kind of relationship to the rest of the world, to manage it. And that special relationship, for me, includes a healthy dose of exercise, to tame the physiological reactiveness and “reset” my sensors at the beginning of each day.

When I take good care of my body, my mind follows suit. And I can actually attain that state of divine indifference I cherish. Actually, when I think of it, I shouldn’t even cherish that state. It shouldn’t make any difference to me. Which is yet another paradox — the most valued state is one that can’t possibly value itself. So, the minute I start feeling smooth and groovy about my indifferent state, I know I’ve slipped out of it. The only way I know it’s “working”, is if I don’t have any awareness of it at all.

Interesting.

Well, anyway, I’ve got another hour before I need to start my daily hustle. I’m back on my schedule — not that it should matter — and I’m feeling more like myself — not that it should affect me — and life is good — not that it should make any difference. I’m learning as I go, noticing the most interesting things.

And that’s about the most I can ask for, at any given point in time.

So, there ’tis. All grist for the mill.

What’s in a name? Simone in pain

light streaks in darknessThrough a strange fluke of faith, family, and passing conversation, I recently became acquainted with the philosopher Simone Weil. I’ve heard of her in the past, and I’ve even quoted some of her sayings in some of my earlier writings, but I didn’t know nearly enough about her. I didn’t even know how to pronounce her name. In search of an audio clue, I downloaded a biography of her by Francine du Plessix Gray, and my question on pronunciation was answered within the first 30 seconds.

I continued to listen beyond the first 30 seconds, however, in part because the narrator of the audiobook had a very enjoyable voice and a great accent, and also because right from the start, the story captured my interest and held it. I ended up listening to the book while I was driving home from visiting my family, taking note along the way, even laughing out loud, when the narrator would point out some “quirk” that Simone had, which to me was quite obviously an autistic trait.

Example after example came out – her black-and-white thinking with which she refused to give way, her intense giftedness, her facility with learning languages, her disordered eating, her confusion at sending the wrong signals to potential sexual partners, her eagerness to spend time with men more than women, her habit of dressing in men’s clothing, her self-harm, her ability to blend in with others my mimicking their manners and ways of speaking, her intense focus and all-consuming devotion to her subject(s) of study, and finally – but certainly not least – her avoidance of human touch.

As I understand it, her friends in particular took note when she didn’t want them touching her. She wouldn’t link arms in that fraternal way, and she did not freely kiss and hug even her friends – which must’ve been strange in France. I’ve worked in France, and interacted with a number of French folks, and the lack of a comradely kiss  – even among virtual strangers – was taken as an affront. I can’t even imagine how it must have struck her friends, when she would not allow any physical contact from or to them.

Her tactile avoidance was mentioned a number of times in the biography I listen to, and each time it became clearer to me that she probably had some level of tactile defensiveness, as many autistic people do. It’s not at all uncommon for autistic individuals to avoid contact, to shrink from touch, and to experience even the friendliest and one in arm as a violent blow. Sensory dysfunction – including tactile pain/discomfort – is one of the hallmarks of autistic experience. Pain in general can be pervasive as well – involving all of the senses, which are turned up to the highest volume – higher than most narrow typical individuals can imagine.

In my own life, when I am stressed, I cannot stand to be touched — especially not lightly. Every touch feels like a blow, and I pull away from any advances, no matter how innocent or friendly they are. With Simone’s eating disorder and the unavoidable stress that would have put on her system, her pain — if she had it — might have been intolerable. Or at the very least, intrusive.  Uncomfortable. Pain.

Hearing the narrator talk about her disordered eating, called out as anorexia, the way that she pushed herself when she was physically weak, the way she said herself to challenges which you knew to be beyond herself, as well as her often inhospitable living conditions – for example, not heating her home adequately and living in freezing cold temperatures during the winter – it all sounded exactly like someone with sensory dysfunction and a whole lot of pain who created conditions that would both heighten the sensations to the point of inducing delirium and also eclipse one sort of pain with the experience of another.

I, myself, often push myself through pain, using the negatively nociceptive experience as both a motivator to escape my current condition, and using the intense focus on whatever I was doing to block out any sense other than the object of my rapt, arduous attention. At times, I can push myself so hard, that a kind of delirium sets in — an altered state that lifts me above my pain-wracked body and the intrusions of the tactile world. In fact, much of what I’ve done in my life has been for the sake of escaping the pain of senses turned up to “extra sensitive”. It’s well nigh impossible to explain to a neurotypical individual without sensory issues, just how it is to live in a body that seems to conspire against you at every turn. It blocks you from human contact. It cuts you off from even the most innocent touches. It keeps you at arm’s length — and more — from those around you, whom you may long to feel close to, but can’t. Literally can’t.

For me, as with many other autistic individuals, such pain is not an unfamiliar experience. In fact, if anything, it’s the hallmark of my every day life. I won’t belabor the subject here with details about how … shall we say, “challenging” it is to function in a neurotypical world where people seem to be about as sensitive as a block of wood. Suffice it to say, I know exactly what it feels like to transport myself from the hell of sensory overload to the heaven of all-consuming, devotion to abstract thought about complexities that most people can’t be bothered with. That solace, that refuge, has a rarified quality to it, and in the silence of my own mind, in the comfort of my own thoughts (which defy vocalization, but find their way onto paper much more easily), I find peace. A frenetic, associational, eloquent peace.

But this is not about me. It’s about Simone. It’s about Simone Weil – Simone pain – Simone Vile. It’s about her name. For if she was autistic (as I am convinced), she may well have been synaesthetic, as well — having the ability to physically sense abstract concepts in her life. Some synaesthetes experience numbers or days of the week as colors. Some experience distinct sensations at the sounds of words — tasting them, or having a soft or hard or some other sense that accompanies the words. The German language is like that for me. Every single word feels to me like what it means. English, somewhat, but not so much. French, too, has its own sense, but since I don’t speak it well, it doesn’t have much of a “sensory footprint” with me.

And the more I think about it, the more I suspect at Simone’s surname itself — something she carried with her through her relatively short life — the more I suspect it may have set the tone for her experience, her pain, her devotion to suffering.

Her last name, Weil, really only works synaesthetically when you’re speaking French. In English and German, it can be… problematic. It’s my understanding that Simone was fluent in both English and German, which could have been a problem for her as a child who grew up speaking both. For the French pronunciation of the name, when spoken, is a homonym with the German word Weh — meaning pain, ache, hurt. If something hurts you, Es tut Weh – It does you hurt. “Ach Weh!” is an expression of dismay. To someone standing on the outside, without an autistic or synaesthetic sensibility, this might not seem like a big deal. But for those of us who have a deeply visceral experience of our world – including our own names – this easily could have had a significant impact on her, even if only subconsciously.

Now, if you pronounce her surname with a German pronunciation, Weil is a homonym for Vile. Disgusting. Distasteful. She refers to herself and other aspects of her life as “disgusting” in a number of places, as I understand it, and again I have to wonder if that can be traced back to her name. Or, in any case, the German pronunciation of her name, recorded from an English viewpoint. Again, if you consider the intensely visceral experience that the autist has in life, including a profoundly moving, synaesthetic experience of words, numbers, even days of the week, you can see how carrying a name like hers could have been problematic.

There’s much more to consider in terms of Simone in pain, but this I think is important start. As the rest of the world wonders at her intensely focused nature, her prolificness, her uncompromising approach to so much in life, when you look at it in terms of the autistic experience, perhaps it’s not quite as mysterious as many seem to think it is.

As I examine her life in retrospect through the lens of actually autistic experience, I believe there’s even more that has a chance to come to light, illuminating both the mysteries of Simone Weil – Simone Weh – and the autism that inspired her, impelled her, and may have even driven her to self-destruction.

This is just a start, but I think it’s a good one.

At least, it feels that way to me.

Stoic Women: Simone Weil

I only recently discovered Simone Weil, but I’m so glad I did. If you look closely at her relatively short life, autism is very much a part of it.

Stoic Compass

Since writings by ancient Stoic women unfortunately did not survive, I have been looking for writings and quotes by modern women, that could have been written or inspired by ancient Stoics. Doing some research I came across French philosopher Simone Weil.  Her brilliance, ascetic lifestyle  and knowledge made her a unique philosopher, half anarchist half mystic.
18395

Simone Weil’s lifelong philosophical inquiries came from many sources, but the ancient Greeks were the most important of all; she was a precocious student, proficient in ancient Greek by age 12. Despite her professed pacifism, she fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about political movements of which she was a part and later about spiritual mysticism. Her book The Iliad, or the Poem of Force is one of her most celebrated works- an inspired analysis of Homer’s epic that presents a nightmare vision of combat as a machine in which all humanity is lost.

Although born into a…

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Simone Weil : attention, attainment, and autism

photograph of Simone Weil

Simone Weil

I suddenly had the everlasting conviction that any human being, even though practically devoid of natural faculties, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth reserved for genius, if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment.  … the same conviction led me to persevere for ten years in an effort of concentrated attention that was practically unsupported by any hope of results.

Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul. Every effort adds a little gold to a treasure no power on earth can take away.

Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 64, 107-108

Via Ekāgratā — Hold It All

As I said the other day, I’ve just recently discovered Simone Weil. I’ve actually been vaguely aware of her for years. I’ve cited quotes from her in some of my writing, over the years. But I never really delved into her work or life… until a chance discussion with my sister about her, and I looked up an audiobook biography of her.

My intention was to simply confirm how you pronounce her last name. Since I speak German, I’d always assumed it was pronounced like the English word “vile”, but as it turns out, it’s pronounced like the German word “weh” — “VAY”  for the non-English-speaking crowd.

I’ve got a ton of thoughts about Ms. Weil, many of which came to me on my 9-hour drive home from my parents’ place, yesterday.  What jumps out at me — and this is only from listening to one biography — is just how autistic she was. So many of her defining qualities and traits — stubbornness, refusal to compromise, avoiding human touch, getting confused about “messages” sent to men, anorexia, compulsive perseveration on a narrow range of topics, the ability to concentrate with ferocious exclusion of everything not on her radar… monotone voice, lectures which “wandered” from topic to topic, her deep-deep exploration of certain authors with her students, her untimely death (autistics apparently often die before the neurotypical average ate), her habit of dressing in men’s clothing, and most of all her passion and prolific writing — it all sounds so incredibly autistic to me.

It also sounds a bit Stoic. She even used a pen-name of an ancient Stoic for one of her works, so even though my admittedly scant preliminary research hasn’t turned up much evidence that she was heavily invested in the Stoics, the issues she faced must have made Stoicism an appealing philosophy and life practice.

There’s so much to say about this, and I want to say it (all) in a way that does her justice. But my sensory issues are pinging on the high end of the spectrum today, what with the weariness of all that travel, the Benadryl I’m taking for my poison ivy which is whacking me out and putting me into a sensory bubble that’s delaying the registration of sensory inputs, and now my fevered interest in this Simone woman whom I’ve just recently decided to get to know… So, I may not be up to the task.

Jotting notes. Keeping track. Jotting more notes. Running mental commentary. Fitting it all together. I’ll be writing more — so much more — in the future. For the sake of thematic integrity, part of me wants to start a completely separate blog devoted to the Autistic Simone. But the last thing I need, right now, is yet another web property to manage. So, I’ll keep my exploration and commentary constrained to this space — and possibly over at Aspie Under Your Radar, as well. Ms. Weil was most certainly One Of Us.

Studying Simone is about more than getting to know her writings. It’s also about better understanding the nature of her devotions, her passions, her “idiosyncracies” which alarmed her friends and annoyed her enemies. I personally believe it’s impossible to fully understand the nature of the work of an autistic artist/writer/philosopher, especially their passions and fervor, unless you fully understand the role autism played in shaping them and making their life what it was.

Furthermore, this is a fantastic opportunity to better understand autism in the context of a famous  and highly regarded woman, whose nature was shaped by her unique neurotype, along with the female phenotype thereof. Her example stands out clearly, and her behavior was — to the trained eye — so unequivocally autistic, that the more closely we study her life and words, the more insights we can gain into the autistic experience as it manifests in women.

It’s my hope that scholars and fans of Simone Weil will find their way to my writings on this. I also hope that autism researchers and those who want to know more and better understand, will also find their way here. Mme. Weil provides a fantastic kaleidoscopic sort of portal into the world of autism, and her larger-than-life examples can do much to illuminate a confusing and oft-overlooked population — autistic women and atypically presenting men alike. Not to mention the non-binary folks who will most certainly identify at least a little bit with her outward presentation.

There’s a lot here to explore. And I’ll do that. For now, though, my meds are numbing me out and making it hard to type letters in the proper sequence. So, I’ll take a break, do some more reading and listening, cobble together some notes, and come back later, when I’m more coherent and able to keep up with the words I’m stringing together.

As Simone said, all those years ago:

… any human being, even though practically devoid of natural faculties, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth reserved for genius,

That is, any one of us, no matter how “unschooled”, can dig deeply into the realms of truth. Especially with reference to her.

if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment. 

Her experience — indeed, the experiences of countless autistic individuals who don’t fit the criteria laid out for 8-year-old middle-class white boys — needs to be focused on in an intentional and deliberate manner. To this task, I bring my full attention, though my direction may vary, from time to time.

… the same conviction led me to persevere for ten years in an effort of concentrated attention that was practically unsupported by any hope of results.

These things don’t happen overnight. You have to work at it. Concentrate. Persevere. And what better person(s) to do this, than her autistic peers, who may have had far less privileged preparation than she, but can still nevertheless partake in the sharing of her experiences. It’s the hope of communion, the desire and drive to uncover the truth… regardless of whether or not it all appears to succeed. This site is fairly unsupported by any hope that it will spread far and wide, especially with academics, since I have no official degree or academic pedigree. And yet, I cannot give up. I must continue. Obscurity or no. Drugged-out reactions or no.

Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul. Every effort adds a little gold to a treasure no power on earth can take away.

Even if things don’t seem to be taking off, still we must persevere. We must continue with the work. For one day — and who knows when or how or why — all the effort we/I have put into this enterprise will return something of such value that nothing out there can ever tarnish it. Indeed, it already is. The Work is its own reward. Indeed, it truly is.

And with this, dear reader, I leave you — for the time being.

Much more calls to be discovered, explored, plumbed, and probed.

And so I shall.

I shall indeed.

Of #Stoicism, #Autism and #Loss

My ultra-autistic aunt just died without ever getting a diagnosis or adequate support or considerations in her long life.

My mom covered for her, her entire life. Took up for her, fought bullies for her, ran interference with angry employers, basically made sure she had the best life possible.

And she had 78 relatively good years, compared to many who have nobody to take up for them.

It’s crushing, though, knowing how hard she had to struggle, how alone she was, how hard she worked to be part of things, and how mean people were to her.

She was such a part of my life, growing up.

And my grandparents often called me by her name. I was so much like her, growing up, and now she’s gone, and all I can think about is how close we were… and yet how impossible it was for us to really experience closeness due to constant . relentless . unforgiving . brutally punishing environmental stressors.

I never interacted with her in a situation that WASN’T overwhelming for both of us. We’d both just sit there, staring off into space, just trying to make sense of all the frantic sensory physical contact. It was way too painful for both of us.

I know that now. I didn’t before. It never really sank in. But now it is.

Crushing.

I know that, as a practicing Stoic, I should be more reasonable about this. I should condition myself to take loss in stride, and treat this like I would treat another person’s loss. Like just another part of life as we know it. Life, death, life, death… the endless cycle, which we can all reasonably expect to confront many times in our lives.

But detached reason not happening for me, today. I’m not sure when it’s going to happen. Reason does make itself known, here and there, and I get flashes of relief from realizing that this is just part of it all, and there were a lot of good things to celebrate and appreciate. Still, the fact of how hard it was for her to just be in the spaces we shared — and how hard it was for me just be, as well, it still burns. It aches. It feels like ground glass being rubbed into my heart.

And I weep. It started last night, when I got the news that she was probably going to pass pretty soon. And it came on me again, this morning. Just that ache. That void. The keen sense of loss of things that will never be. That loss of what might have been (under different circumstances) is keen, and it cuts. It’s about as illogical and unreasonable as it comes, but there it is.

There it is.

As much as I know that it’s all part of the flow, all part of what just happens as part of our sojourn here, there is still the pain. And it has its place. Tears have their place. Because, like it or not, autistic or not, we are — each and every one of us — connected. And perhaps those of us who are autistic are even more connected than others. The science points to it, actually. A hyper-connected brain has been proposed as the “cause” for autism, to begin with — a divergence in the pruning of synapses (autistic folks have more). Some call it a “failure” of synaptic pruning, while I (and other autistics) say it’s an evolutionary advantage that hasn’t yet been fully appreciated or understood.

That connection, I believe, is more than just synaptic. It’s also biochemical. And I believe that our connections with others actually trigger certain types of chemical reactions in our bodies, which literally shape us into the people we are. It’s structural. It’s intertwined with who we are and how we are. And when the people who help makes us who we are go away, it cuts out a part of us in a deep and abiding way.

That’s where the sadness comes in. And the tears. I believe that they serve a structural purpose, readjusting our biochemical composition through the hormone releases that happen when we cry, when we mourn. I don’t mean to be overly logical about it, but I do need to find reason in it, and not just dismiss it as a distraction that wouldn’t trouble “a proper Stoic”. I need to find a rational explanation that makes room for both my Stoic practice and also the very real and human need to grieve.

I never used to cry. It triggered migraines with me. So, I had to find ways to keep myself from crying, so I wouldn’t be literally debilitated by my emotions. I also didn’t understand the biochemical connection between tears and re-regulating my system. Now my migraines have been well-controlled for over a year, and I find myself able to just cry without paying a steep price. Now I understand that hormonal regulation piece of things, and crying now actually serves a purpose for me.

So, I do it. Not a lot, because it still leaves me feeling debilitated. But I let myself do it, when I need to.

I let myself feel the loss. I let myself feel how important she was to me. Even if we weren’t nearly as close as we might have otherwise been. Even if it was logistically impossible for us to form a greater bond than we did. Even if my own sensitivities kept me from being able to fully include her in my life — and vice-versa. Even if we were both mysteries to one another in many ways… She was still a huge part of my awareness.

And now I so keenly feel the pang of that loss.

Of course, it will pass. These things always do. But what won’t pass is the knowledge that things were never what I wanted them to be. Things were never what they could have been. Because of ignorance. Because of hostile conditions. Because… that’s just how things shaped up, given the circumstances of our lives.

There’s something to be said for accepting things as they are, and making peace with it. At the same time, there’s something to be said for seeing what can be made better — and taking the steps to make it that way.

That’s why I blog. That’s why I write. That’s why I publish. This one small voice speaking, this one small personality dancing on the stage of life.  Maybe, just maybe, someone like my aunt will see these words, will realize they’re not alone, and something might shift for them.

However small that shift might be, it’s still something.

It’s still something that can turn out good.

Better than it did before.

Getting to the #stoic good

boy walking on railroad tracks

8. Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

9. Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.

– Epictetus: The Enchiridion

What will I choose today?

I’m feeling sore from my exercise, yesterday, and I’m a little cranky about an upcoming vacation. You wouldn’t think that vacation – of all things – would set me off, but it’s a change to my routine. And it’s with my parents, who are non-stop sensory-seeking, and are extremely challenging for me to deal with.  Constant talking. Non-stop. Constant processing, intellectualizing along philosophical lines that I disagree with (but won’t argue with them, because they’re entitled to their own opinion). Constant movement. Action. Zero down-time.

Yeah, I’m pretty tense about it, to be honest.  And when I spend time with them, things never, ever go the way I would prefer them to.

Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

Part of me wishes that Epictetus were here, in my shoes, to deal with my parents. He might be a little less cavalier than he sounds. Then again, he was a slave before he became a philosopher. And I’m sure, living in Roman times, ~2000 years ago, it was no picnic. Plagues. Pestilence. War. Corruption. The works. Sorta kinda like what we’ve got going on now…

So, I can stop complaining, now. I can quit feeling sorry for myself. I live in the 21st century, and I’d much rather be here now, than back there, back then.

Plus, I have a lot of cause to be grateful. My parents and I weren’t on the best of terms for a number of years. And they didn’t treat me well, either. My sister actually told me that my parents were much harder on me than on the rest of the kids — suspicions confirmed. I’d always felt that way, but I figured it was just my imagination. Turns out, it wasn’t. My parents “had it out for me” from a very young age. Must have been something to do with my non-compliance. I was very non-compliant with them. To me, their heavy-handed exercise of authority wasn’t logically warranted. Saying “Because I said so,” was no reason for doing anything. Yeah – I had attitude problems, according to them.

So, we didn’t get along at all, for a long while. It was partly me, partly them. But really, it was mostly them. I tried so hard, for so many years, to meet them halfway, and they wouldn’t do it. I extended myself, made lots of effort, and I deferred to their sensibilities in their own house, even though I didn’t agree at all with what they were about… even though the foods they ate tore up my stomach… even though just being around them was an exercise in punishment — which I gladly took, because I really wanted to make it work. Plus, what was I supposed to do? Just stop living, because of my pain and sensitivities? That was never going to happen.

It was my choice to be around my parents. It was my choice to show up for my beating. That was on me. Because the pain was worth it to me. And learning how to live through it was the best kind of training for an excellent life I can think of.

Anyway, this weekend, I’m spending more time with my parents. Four days, about.  I’m in pain. And I expect to be in pain for pretty much the entire time I’m with my parents. Of course, there will be a lot of good times. Needless to say. But the whole experience is going to come at a price. And I need to gird myself in advance.

This is nothing new. Although on a certain level, it sounds unpleasant and problematic, it’s just part of the whole. And I learned a long time ago (through a practice which I eventually learned was Stoic in nature), to take the bad along with the good, and put up with a whole lot of bad, in order to get to the good.

See, I’ve always had a very clear sense that I have a choice in how I feel about things. I have a choice in how I react to things (or if I ever do react — sometimes I don’t). Epictetus said it well:

Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.

Pain is a hindrance to the body (and mind — I do get foggy), but not my ability to choose. I can do plenty of things while I’m in pain, and I can do a large number of things quite well while aching and feeling like I’m going to fall apart. Pain doesn’t prevent me from picking and choosing what I’ll do with myself — unless that is my choice.

Sensory sensitivities are painful to the eyes, the ears, the skin, but they don’t inhibit my ability to choose.  I can certainly use sunglasses, earplugs, and I can either wear clothing that doesn’t hurt me — or keep my attention so focused on things other than the sense of uncomfortable clothing that I don’t even notice it. I’ve got skillz I’ve developed over years and years for dealing with my sensory issues — not least of which is my intense focus that blocks everything else out.

So, while my skin may feel like it’s being peeled off… my eyes may be blinded by shafts of brilliant sunlight… and I may double over in pain from a sound that hits my eardrum just the wrong way… none of that keeps me from choosing how I’ll handle it, or what I’ll do next. Nor does it necessarily need to wreck my day.

Sure, it’s tiring. Sure, it’s draining. But that’s all part of it. You wouldn’t expect a marathon runner — no matter how in-shape or accomplished — to feel bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after running 26.2 miles in one stretch. Nor would you expect the most accomplished mountain climber to go out dancing, the night they get back from their trek up Everest. That’s just ridiculous. And the same holds true for me, each day, when I’ve “left it all on the field” — worn myself out, wrung myself dry of all energy — in the course of just living my life to the fullest.

So, yeah — hindrances come, hindrances go. My autistic issues are hindrances to my sensory experience, and they do complicate things. But they aren’t hindrances to my choice — my ability to direct my attention and energies in directions that make more sense.

When I remember what the nature of my experience is — autistic, all the way — and I agree to work with Nature as it presents itself to me in my own particular instantiation, things become quite clear. When I understand the physics of my situation, accepting things as what they are, rather than what the rest of the world wants/expects them to be… Stoicism lets me sort it all out.

In short:

  • See and address things as they are. Quit wishing they were another way.
  • Deal with it. Work with the inherent qualities of the circumstances.
  • And move forward. It’ll happen. It always does.

That gets me from the seeming bad to the essential good, in relatively short order.

Epictetus and “little things”

multi-colored board game pieces

12. If you want to improve. . .

Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself, “This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquility, and nothing is to be had for nothing.” When you call your servant, it is possible that he may not come; or, if he does, he may not do what you want. But he is by no means of such importance that it should be in his power to give you any disturbance.

It’s not always easy to keep an even keel in the midst of daily life. I have my ideas about how things should go, the patterns I think the flow of life should repeat. I’m an  Aspie. I love my patterns(!) And when things don’t go the way I expect — or they go directly against how I “need” them to go — it’s pretty easy for me to get twisted up in it all.

Indeed, being on the autism spectrum is a recipe for sweating the small stuff. We’ve got a keen eye for detail, symmetry, the proper (and improper) ways to do things, handle things, make things come out the way they (most certainly) should be.

And the anxiety that comes from the idea that they won’t flow seamlessly as hoped / expected… well, that can be pretty disruptive. Especially when the anxious fears come true, and things really don’t turn out like they were supposed to. At all.

But here’s Epictetus admonishing his readers (over thousands of years) to prize equanimity over things turning out the way they’re supposed to. It’s better to have a level temper and be of calm mind and disposition, than to get all twisted up over stuff. Even if that stuff seems to matter. Even if that stuff is life-or-death. That’s the great unexpected gift of Stoicism — a training program for not letting even the Big Stuff rock your world off its axis. Short on money? It’s better to have a calm mind and disposition than to be flush with cash. Don’t let it get to you. People who report to you not doing their job? Meh. It’s more important to maintain your composure than have perfectly responding direct reports (in his case, servants).

It sounds like a tall order, but that’s the path Stoicism puts us on. And to get there, we have to work our way up from the little things to the Big Things, one unpleasant experience at a time.

Spill the oil? Get ripped off? Nobody said it’s easy to take them in stride. But those things are part of the price you pay for a stable temper and a level disposition. After all, you can’t practice your composure, if everything is turning out the way you want it, every time you turn around. You don’t build ironclad character from only good fortune. Where’s the challenge in that? Where’s the practice? The demand? The need for rigor?

Now, some folks interpret difficulties as a sign that you’ve done something wrong in your life — either you didn’t manage your present situation properly, or perhaps you “have it coming to you” from some prior laxity or bad deed. Some folks even go back to prior lifetimes to find explanations for the pains that people must endure. It all sounds a bit judgmental to me, to be honest… Whatever the “cause”, we all have things happen to us that don’t seem to have any basis or reason at all. Sh*t just happens. And deal with it, we must.

To me, it’s far more productive to take each challenge and difficulty as an opportunity to grow and change and refine my character. From one sticky situation to the next… and there always seems to be a next… That gives me plenty of opportunity to grow and change, to watch my temperament, to observe how I handle things, and improve as I go. To exercise my free will in how I’ll respond, and to refine my approach, when I find something isn’t working, and I’m getting all twisted up over stuff I’d rather take in stride.

I’m not sure I’m ever going to have the kind of equanimity I prize. But given the myriad aggravations that cross my path, each day, there’s no lack of opportunity to work on my technique. If I must suffer, at least I’ll suffer in style.

Over the little things.

All those @#$&% little things.

Sharing: BE DILIGENT IN YOUR PURSUIT (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English 1.10) | THE STOIC GYM | Blogs of Stoicism, self-help, the good life, reviews

Epictetus sculpture

This is just what I needed to be reminded of today.

I tend to be fairly diligent in my areas of specific focus. But I don’t take them as seriously as I probably should. This Work is important. And it should be imbued with the respect and dignity it deserves.

This is a great reminder.

April 8, 2017 | By Dr. Chuck Chakrapani

 Key ideas of this discourse
  1. We don’t pursue our goals as diligently as people after power pursue theirs, even though our goals are highly worth pursuing.

  2. Both teachers and students should stop being lazy and indifferent.

  3. We all should stop being lazy and indifferent and pursue our goals diligently.

Read the rest: BE DILIGENT IN YOUR PURSUIT (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English 1.10) | THE STOIC GYM | Blogs of Stoicism, self-help, the good life, reviews

Epictetus on “Aiming for greater things”

stone cottage in a valley looking towards mountains

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.

– Epictetus: The Enchiridion 1.3

I tend to get spun up over stuff. So, what else is new? My sensory issues get “out of whack”, with my hearing intensified (especially with certain pitch ranges), my sight sensitized to bright sun, my sense of touch picking up on every single thing that even comes with inches of me, and my whole system seemingly turned into a tuning fork that changes its vibration to a different tone, every time it encounters a shift in frequency.

Consequently — my system being what it is — I get tired. It’s pretty demanding, interacting with a world that never turns down the volume, never stops spinning, and is constantly firing off different “excitations” at me, to catch my attention. The world, indeed, seems built for people who are asleep. They constantly need to be roused out of their stupor, their haze of physical and mental inactivity to pay attention to what the marketers, salesmen, and promoters of the world want them to pay attention to.

Everything around us, it seems, is a variation of some sort of promotion, some sort of agenda. Usefulness and reason don’t seem to play into it much. For people who aren’t inclined to reason or philosophy or understanding how things work in the world, it’s fine.  But for people like me, it’s taxing. It’s draining. It pulls on my limited resources and squanders them.

If I let it.

That last piece is the key. After all, I have a choice in where I want my attention to go. True enough, I’m proverbially swimming in a vast pool of constant sensory inputs. But I’m also autistic. And that means I have the ability to block things out par excellence,  so that they don’t constantly intrude on me. I can effectively direct my laser-like attention in whatever direction I want, I can narrow my focus to a pinpoint, to where I am untroubled an uninterrupted by anything other than what I want to focus on. True, it takes a fair amount of energy to do this, and some days I get to the end, and I’m literally shaking from the effort.

But my attention was my own. My choice of focus was my own. And I reached the flow state that I crave… that suits me best.

That flow state — “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” Source: Wikipedia — is what I consider the “greater thing” of my life. (SoniaBoué talks about it in some detail here.)

It’s not a “greater thing” just because it relieves my distress, soothes and calms me, but because it makes it possible for me to reach the heights of my life, and achieve an elevated state of body, mind, and spirit that transports me beyond the immediate limitations of my corporeal existence. It opens up channels to a different sort of physical experience — one that’s attuned to the Eternal, the Immutable, the fundamental, transcendent principles of the world around us. The flow state both takes me above, and also lets me really dig into what’s around me, losing my limited self in the activity in front of me, bringing amazing things along with it, in the process. It’s a timeless connection with a seemingly divine flow that courses through all of life — if you know where to look for it.

The “greater thing” of flow state is in itself a gateway to yet other greater things, more lasting accomplishments, a connection with the distant past, as well as the threads that point me to the future. And that makes it possible for me to engage ever more deeply with my present, attending to the “lesser things” like moving up in the world, acquiring various and sundry objects, and puttering about my daily life… not to mention the continuous onslaught of sensory inputs that can seriously drive me to distraction, if I let them.

It’s when I get caught up in the aggravations around me — the fussing at work, petty disagreements with my partner, the bright sun, the feel of a clothing seam on my skin, or a sound that I can’t tolerate — and they come front-and-center with me, that my life goes off the proverbial rails. Likewise, when I take my focus off the big picture and zero in on the “grind” of dealing with minutiae of my daily life, I get sidetracked into a proverbial ditch.  It’s not pretty when that happens. And it can take me quite some time to regain my orientation, because I get tired… which tweaks my sensory issues even more… and then it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of downward spiraling into  “Poor Me!” thinking, ruminating on my ill-fortune, dwelling on my disadvantages and disability… the whole shebang of extended wailing and gnashing of teeth.

It’s not pretty. And it’s pretty damned uncomfortable.

But, in truth, there’s always a way back. Because I seem to have an insatiable appetite for the greater things of life — unbroken connections with the past, an eye to the future, and a swinging of my own personal pendulum of attention drawing me back to my single-minded focus.  In fact, one of my biggest self-soothing “stims” is immersing myself in study of one of my areas of concentrated interest. And the act of relieving pressure from the lesser things ushers me into contemplation of the greater things.

Good thing, too. ‘Cause seriously, folks, I’m pretty miserable when I get bogged down in the lesser. And ironically, the only time the lesser things get sorted, is when I am fully focused on the greater.

Funny how that works. And yet, some Greek guy from 2,000 years ago called it out as a fact. Yep, rings true for me.

So, for today — and even beyond, insofar as I can maintain my attention and focus — it’s all about the greater things. Flow. Finding peace and equanimity in the midst of it all. And just getting on with it.

For the greater good.

Remarkably calm – of #stoicism and #autism

Alligator doing a happy dance

Alligator doing a happy dance

Somehow, for some reason, I have ended up back “in the stoic camp”. To be clear, I’ve always been inclined to stoicism — dealing with whatever comes as it is, rather than what it appears to be… facing pain and disappointment with a cheerful view that sees it all as opportunity… finding the good in everything, even when things look horribly dismal.

Life is full of choices, and how I look at things is the #1 thing that’s actually in my power. The rest of stuff, not so much. That fact has guided me through the years… through all the autistic years… making it much easier for me to deal with the rigors of living an autistic life with fortitude and creativity.

For some reason, I got away from it. There are lots of reasons, actually.

Anyway, now I’m back in touch with my stoic self. I’ve been reading Epictetus, Marcus, Seneca… in bits and pieces, drips and drabs, listening to audiobooks… and really thinking about what’s being said. Really, really thinking about it all.

And it’s good. It occupies my mind in ways that make the most of my orientation — reason and logic! give me reason and logic! — and place me within a larger tradition of philosophy that’s both intellectually appealing and really, really applicable to my life.

The best thing about it, is that I’ve been remarkably calm, this week.  After struggling so, so much for weeks at a time — family illness, drama at work, business travel, fighting off a cold, myself — I’ve found a place of downright astonishing equanimity that’s, well, delightful.

I’m happy. I’m engaged. I’m involved in my life to an extent that I hadn’t been for many, many months. I’m pretty much content. And I don’t feel like such a failure. That feeling hounds me, dogs me, keeps nipping at my proverbial heels, when I think back on all the screw-ups and confusion and opportunities I missed / passed up, because my autistic issues got the better of me. I’ve felt like a failure much of the time, my whole life, because I was so different, and I could never seem to meet the basic requirements for success that seemed to come so easily to others.

But now… that’s changed. For how long, who knows? But right here, right now, I don’t feel like that. I’m actually feeling pretty fine, and not only am I clear on where I stand with myself, right now, I have a connection to a stoic thinking/living tradition that’s been going on for a very long time… and will continue to, as it gains traction and popularity.

It’s remarkable. And quite wonderful.

I’ll leave you with this gem from The Enchiridion by Epictetus (written 135 A.C.E.)  Translated by Elizabeth Carter

1. Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.