I never thought of myself as a stoic, but I might be wrong. If you have heard of Stoicism, it might be because you learned about it briefly in some high school or college course. It is philosophy. You might say that Stoics are calm and almost without  emotion. They don’t show what they are feeling. Stoics can endure pain and hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. They accept what is happening.

But all that isn’t really accurate to the origin of Stoicism. For example, another misconception is that Stoicism is a religion. Although the Stoics made references to the gods in their writing, this was a philosophical, rather than religious, doctrine.

The Stoics were a group of philosophers who first began teaching their ideas in the Hellenistic period. Stoicism was founded by a man named Zeno, who lived from 335-263 BC.

Stoics were not opposed to emotions entirely. They were opposed to negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fear.

I don’t think many people today would label themselves as stoic, but some of the principles of Stoicism can probably make you happier and a better person.

Zeno put death in the forefront of things to consider. But what that means is that you should cherish each day of life. Stoicism is certainly not the only philosophy that encourages living in the present. (Buddhism is another.) It seems quite modern to be “mindful” of the present moment and to make that a practice. That might involve meditation, or solo walks in nature.

It also means you are more conscious of being thankful for things that we do have. Zeno wouldn’t have kept a gratitude journal as some people do these days, but he would probably approve of the practice. This little act of mindfulness does have value, like keeping a food journal when you’re on a diet so that you consciously spend some time considering what is happening to you.

In writing about what Stoicism is not, William Irvine says:

Although Stoicism is not itself a religion, it is compatible with many religions. It is particularly compatible, I think, with Christianity. Thus, consider the so-called “Serenity Prayer,” commonly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It echoes Epictetus’s observation that some things are under our control and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will spend our time dealing with the former group of things.

Stoicism was modified by the Romans, most prominently Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, and you can still read their words, even on an e-reader.

Stoicism has evolved and a kind of modern stoicism exists. How would the Stoics of old cope in our times? Seneca said, “Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” People are still finding reasons Stoicism matters today.

Maybe more of us are Stoics than we thought.

 

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The creation of man by Prometheus. Marble relief, Italy, 3rd century CE.

“A man is a god in ruins.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost

 

The story of Dr. Frankenstein and the “monster” he created is now 200 years old. Most people think of it as a horror story, but it was intended to be much more.

If you ever read the book, rather than just seeing any of the almost 100 movie incarnations of the monster, you would know that it has a lot to do with man’s consideration of mortality.

You may heard about the story’s origin. In 1818, Mary Shelley published the first edition of Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, but it began on a stay near Lake Geneva with her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, and fellow poet Lord Byron. Trapped indoors by storms and bored, they decided to have a little ghost story writing competition. The story that Mary created wasn’t so much a ghost story, but her story idea led to the novel.

Mary

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

I only learned recently in reading a new edition of the novel that Mary Shelley had lost a premature baby daughter when she was only 17. She was haunted by thoughts and visions of the dead baby. She wrote in her journal that in a dream she saw her dead daughter brought back to life after being robbed vigorously in front of a fire.  It was only two years later, when she was 19, that she wrote the novel.

In movie versions of the novel, electricity sent through a human body brings the dead body to life. There were experiments done in her time, such as those by Alessandro Volta, to find the connection between electricity and the way our muscles move. But Shelley never described the details of the reanimation process. She describes the scientist finding an “elemental principle of life” which allows him to give life to inanimate matter. He realizes the God-like power this offers him and hesitates to use it. But finally, after two years of constructing a body using materials supplied by “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house,” he finishes his creature and brings him to life.

Dr. Frankenstein never gives the creature a name. (“Frankenstein” is the doctor, not the creature, but the movies have made that distinction unclear.) Shelley intended the result of the experiment to be considered a monster to be pitied. Certainly, one theme of the novel is the dangers of man “playing God” – a theme that is very relevant today as we experiment with genetics and artificial intelligence.

Mary Shelley subtitled her novel “The Modern Prometheus” and she expected her readers to know the story from Greek mythology of the Titan Prometheus. His name means “forethought” and he is a troublemaker for the other gods. He is credited with the creation of man from clay, done at Zeus’ bidding. But he defies the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. A hero to mankind, his theft and gift enabled progress and civilization. But Prometheus is punished by Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, and sentenced to eternal torment bound to a rock. Every day for eternity an eagle (emblem of Zeus) would feed on his liver. The organ (which the ancient Greeks considered to be the seat of human emotions) would then grow back only to be eaten again the next day.Prometheus is freed from his torment by the hero Heracles (Hercules).

Shelley’s scientist is a strange combination of ideas. He is heroic, tragic, genius, madman. Lord Byron was a fan of the play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and Mary’s husband Percy wrote his own Prometheus Unbound a few years later, so perhaps this topic was part of the Lake Geneva conversations.  Prometheus came to be viewed as a symbol of human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge. But he also represents the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. The Romantics viewed him as someone whose best efforts to improve human existence resulted in tragedy.

“Modern Prometheus” was a term coined by philosopher Immanuel Kant in reference to Benjamin Franklin and his experiments with electricity. (Mary’s father was the political philosopher and novelist William Godwin, so it is likely she was aware of this reference. Dr. Frankenstein comes to see his creation as a monster and regrets giving it life. He decides that death must be viewed as a final thing.

The movie versions of her story, as with many other movie versions of novels and of real life, have made deeper impressions on audiences. The serious themes that Mary wanted to address are made less important in the films, while the horror of the “monster” and the “madness” of the scientist are brought to the front.

Frankenstein is a Gothic novel and clearly a part of the Romantic movement, but is also a very early example of science fiction. It can be argued that it is the first true science fiction story when compared to earlier stories that are more fantasy. This scientist and his modern experiments in the laboratory that echo some of the science of today does what most modern sci-fi still does. It looks at where we are and imagines where that might lead in the future. Like much sci-fi, her story is a cautionary tale, a warning.

 

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed …” (Draft for Frankenstein)

The first edition of the novel was published in 1818 in three volumes (the “triple-decker” format was typical for 19th-century first editions) with only 500 copies and without Mary’s name on the book.  A second edition in 1822 had two volumes with her name on the title page. By then a successful play, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake, had driven some demand for the novel.

It wasn’t until 1831 that a one-volume edition appeared. Mary heavily revised the novel to make it “less radical” and this is the version that is generally read today. But there are versions of the original “uncensored” edition and some nice annotated versions that I would recommend as they give the reader background on elements of the story. There is even a version called Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. I have read all of them and the story continues to interest me as I read more about Mary Shelley and think about how her story applies to our modern times.

 

​Long ago, a girlfriend who was deeply into astrology while I was into astronomy, told me that the planets move through the sky and the 12 astrological signs, at varying speeds.

I pay a lot of attention to the Moon and learned that it changes signs once or twice a day. On the other extreme, Saturn spends about 3 years in each sign. Helen told me that the planets take on traits of the sign they are in at that time. Any astronomer will tell you that the signs (constellations) have no effect on the planets, but my girlfriend would have said that it causes a planet to act differently from its normal impact.

Helen did my natal chart (the placement of each planet at time of my birth) because she didn’t believe at all in the general horoscopes for signs that we frequently see online, in newspapers and magazines. You need to look at your very specific chart.

Ganesha

There is a New Moon tonight, January 16. An astrologer might remind me that can be transformative.  Vedic astrology puts this New Moon in the Uttara Ashadha which is symbolized by an elephant’s tusk, and connected to the Hindu elephant god, Ganesha. Ganesha is the “Remover of Obstacles.”

This New Moon is conjoined with Venus which we associate with romantic relationships and friendships and even non-romantic alliances. Combine this with a transit of Mars into Scorpio and we get the ability to transform in positive ways.

What does this mean for my life for the next few days, weeks, and months?  I don’t know.

I read that in India, the new moon is celebrated as Mauni Amavasya. It is a good time to take a vow of silence and do some silent reflection. I’ll stop here.

Last spring, I wrote about the Law of Attraction and the LOA came up in a conversation this past week. A friend asked me if I had ever heard of it. I said I had. He asked me if I ever tried using it to my advantage. I said I had not.  Why not, he asked. And I didn’t have an immediate answer. We discussed it.

This “law” has a pretty big community online and plenty of pages talk about it, including Wikipedia. Of course, there are books about it too.

It is not a new idea. It has been around since the late 1800s.

It has been covered several times in Psychology Today which looked at what they see as “the truth” about it. An article titled “Throw Away Your Vision Board” got a lot of hits online (many of them negative about the topic even being covered by the magazine) and a follow-up to the first article.”

If you have not heard of it before, this law, or technique, might sound a lot like a scam. The idea is that you can use it to manifest the things you want. If someone told you that by using the LOA you would be able to attract into your life whatever you are focusing on – a person, a new car, or a job – you might be interested. The belief is that LOA has the power, using just your mind, to translate whatever is in your thoughts and materialize them into reality.

That friend that I had a conversation with recently said it was described to him as “think it and it will become true.” I don’t think believers would describe it as being that easy. Hey, we have all wished for things and not gotten them. In broader terms, LOA is saying that if you focus on negative thoughts, negative things will be attracted to you. A focus on positive thoughts will attract positive things and lead to you achieving your goals.

Become what you want to attract. It sounds much too easy.  But will the Universe respond to your positive vibrations?

If you dig a little deeper into LOA, you will find tactics like using vision boards or mantras. You will find most of these techniques used in other self-help book that are not about LOA. But I have read that the law of attraction is not so much things you do, as how you live.

My friend decided after our conversation that it sounded similar to him to weight loss programs. Someone is always coming up with a new diet plan, but essentially what needs to happen in order to lose weight and keep it off is for you to change the way you live.

I can accept that negativity attracts negativity. Being positive probably will improve your life. But I don’t know that positivity alone can get you things.

Read some sites about the law of attraction and you will find a lot of generalizations for how-to: follow your inner truth,  listen to the universe, and pay attention to the messages and signs it presents to you.

The writer of those articles in Psychology Today ended up digging deeper into LOA and writing a book about it – Throw Away Your Vision Board: The Truth About the Law of Attraction. Spoiler alert: His conclusion is that there is no Law of Attraction. But he also has his own “Key to Achieve Principles” and The Action Board goal-achieving system. Self-help attracts self-help. Help yourself.

A chapbook worth of years ago, I was taking instruction at a Zen Monastery. I had already tried Zen on my own and with some local groups. I was pretty well versed with the basics and thought it was time to get more serious with a residency.

On my first weekend retreat, we would wake up before dawn, eat a very quiet and basic breakfast before about 8 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent dinner in the zendo (oryoki) and some silent work practice.

When I the opportunity to talk 1:1 with the abbot, he asked me how my zazen was progressing. Za means “sitting.” Zen comes from the Sanskrit and means meditation. My early zazen was all about concentration and focusinf on following or counting my breath. But I thought I was ready to move to zazen as self-inquiry. That wasn’t going very well, I told him.

I explained that I could not seem to empty my mind  and though I could dismiss thoughts, another one soon replaced it.

“You have monkey mind,” he told me. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in the tree.”

It wasn’t an original observation. Monkey mind is a real thing. It is a phenomenon that is especially noticeable when you are trying hard to be still.

Being mindful and still is a good thing sometimes, but the monkey isn’t into it.

You need the monkey.  That brain lets you move from task to task and think fast. Pretty important in this fast-paced world. But you need to be able to turn off the monkey brain. Just like you need to turn off the TV news and music and conversations and life’s noise sometimes.

How do you do that? I have tried lots of “techniques” with limited success. One general approach is to give in to the monkey mind. That’s what I did at the monastery. I don’t mean that I stopped meditating. I gave the monkey some space.

When I’m writing, especially poetry,  I let the monkey take me other places.

When I want him to hop off the tree, I sometimes chant a little mantra. I sometimes meditate and focus on a point somewhere in the room. I especially like doing some walking meditation. That is kinhin which is often practiced between long periods of the sitting zazen meditation. I can walk and focus on something while the monkey follows me at a distance hopping from tree to tree beside and behind me.

 

Some people advise that you should tame the monkey. I’ve made peace with the monkey.

Yes, the Earth is closest to sun on January 2/3 for this entire year, but don’t expect to feel it.

It certainly will not feel any warmer where I am (actually it’s colder than yesterday and tomorrow is even colder). This perihelion will happen at night (10:35 p.m. EST) for me and it will be quite cold then. (It happens on the morning of January 3 5:35 UTC in Europe and Africa.) Perihelion, from the Greek roots peri (near) and helios (sun), will bring us within 91,401,983 miles (147,097,233 km) of the Sun. Though we won’t feel any hotter, Earth is about 3 million miles (5 million km) closer to the sun in early January than it is in early July. This happens every year in early January. And we will be farthest away (aphelion) from the sun in early July. Seems counterintuitive to us in the Northern Hemisphere.

The difference in distance between perihelion and aphelion isn’t that much because Earth’s orbit is very nearly circular. That is why the tilt of our world’s axis is what creates winter and summer on Earth. My Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun now, so it is winter.  The day of maximum tilt toward or away from the sun is the December or June solstice, but even that won’t make for the hottest or coldest days of the year. This tilting may make seasons, but atmospheric conditions make our weather change. I blame those Arctic blasts for my car’s dead battery this morning.

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While walking in a small woods... Or by a turtle. Celebrating the life our friend Peter Wolf. Maybe it’s missing an R, but think of it as a verb suggestion. Tracks onto the deck. No tracks off.  Flying reindeer? Waiting for winter to get pushed back into his cave for a few days.  @ellendenutophoto

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