“Muscle Memory (Or, the Key to Living Happy)” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
Can we turn happiness into a habit? Let’s find out as we explore the philosophy of Stoicism with Rev. Melanie.
When available, a revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Prayers, readings, and songs from this week’s service are also provided below.
Community Circles – Are you left with questions after a talk, or did an idea so resonate with you that you want to explore it further? In our Community Circles, we build relationships with others, share ideas and insights, and support each other as we apply these principles in our daily lives.
Wednesday June 23, 7:00 – 8:30 pm EDT. Community Circle Zoom Meeting/Discussion: We’re going to watch and discuss a great TED talk called “On Being Wrong,” by “wrongologist” Kathryn Schultz. In this funny and entertaining talk, she explores how hard it is to admit we’re sometimes wrong, why we can’t admit it, and then shares how to find the freedom that comes when we do. You’ll find a link on our website. See you at 7!
Opening prayer from the Black Catholic Ministry, Archdiocese of Baltimore, adapted from Racial Healing and Liturgical Resources.
We pray, O Lord, for change.
Jesus, you revealed God through your wise words and loving deeds, and we encounter you still today in the faces of those whom society has pushed to the margins. Guide us, through the love you revealed, to establish the justice you proclaimed, that all peoples might dwell in harmony and peace, united by that one love that binds us to each other, and to you.
And most of all, Lord, change our routine worship and work into genuine encounter with you and our better selves so that our lives will be changed for the good of all.
This blessing was written in honor of two Unitarians, Rev. Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha Sharp, who during WWII left their two small children behind in the US, and traveled to Europe to assist escaping Jews, including transports of children. They later became the second and third Americans honored by Israel’s Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, an honor granted to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
All That We Share Is Sacred
As we gather together, may we remember:
When you share with me what is most important to you, that is where listening begins.
When I show you that I hear you, when I say your life matters, that is where compassion begins.
When I open the door to greet you, that is where hospitality begins.
When I venture out to bring you to shelter, that is where love begins.
When I risk my comfort to ease your suffering, when I act against hatred, violence, and injustice, that is where courage begins.
When we experience the full presence of each other, because of our shared humanity, because of our differences, that is where holy gratitude begins.
May this space be a table that is not complete until all are welcome.
May this table be a space of beauty where together we create a series of miracles, and where all that we share is sacred.
May it be so.
By Andrée Mol
“Muscle Memory (Or, the Key to Living Happy)“
Welcome – thanks for joining us. We are continuing our series on joy, on happiness. A foray into philosophy – one that helps us build the mental habits that bring us happiness.
We’ve all heard of muscle memory – you haven’t ridden a bike for thirty years, but you get on and you’re riding again. You pick up a tennis racket, and you have your serve back (or close to it); you remember how to hold the racket. You learned these things by doing them over and over, and somehow some part of your brain remembers. We train our mind through this repetition.
We can also train our minds without actually performing the activity. Cellist YoYo Ma once said that:
“. . . practicing is not only playing your instrument, either by yourself or rehearsing with others – it also includes imagining yourself practicing. Your brain forms the same neural connections and muscle memory whether you are imagining the task or actually doing it.”
Amazing stuff. Here’s a wonderful example.
Colonel George Hall was a U.S. pilot during the Vietnam war. He was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965, and was held for 8 years by the North Vietnamese, including at the infamous Hanoi Hilton. During those 8 years, he maintained his sanity and his hope by visualizing himself playing golf. He honed his skill of visualization beyond anything most of us can imagine. He developed a virtual golf course,18 holes. He imagined getting dressed – his shoes, his pants, shirt and socks.
He visualized down to the smallest detail. He played each hole, feeling the heat, wind, sand, the feel of the club, the sound of the ball. He watched it fly, land, and roll.
When Col. Hall was released from captivity, he resumed playing golf. After a few weeks, he was shooting a 76, the same as he shot before he went into captivity. His powers of visualization, the detail and discipline he put into this exercise, made all the difference in his ability to maintain that skill.
Training our minds can change everything, if we do it with discipline and focus. It’s why we here at One World emphasize practice. Using the power of our minds to bring us lives of peace and balance involves working at it daily – those “aha moments” are wonderful but the way you build any habit, including habits of the mind, is by practice. No shortcuts.
So today I want to talk about a philosophy that gave us wonderful tools to practice ways to improve our lives. I want to share some thoughts on the Greek Stoics.
I love the stoics. As a philosophy, it is practical, it is comprehensive, and you begin to see its benefits immediately.
Stoicism was founded around 330 bce by a philosopher named Zeno. Why is it called stoicism? The name “Stoicism” derives from the Ancient Greek Stoa Poikile, or “painted porch”, a colonnade decorated with mythic and historical battle scenes, on the north side of the Agora in Athens, where Zeno and his followers gathered to discuss their ideas. Sometimes Stoicism is therefore referred to as “The Stoa”, or the philosophy of “The Porch”. Some of its more famous practitioners have been the emperor Marcus Aurelius, the statesman Seneca, tutor of Nero, and the slave known as Epictetus.
One of the books I’m using for this talk is Massimo Pigliuci’s How to Be a Stoic – a great beginner’s book if you will, on Stoicism.
Live a happy life.
As a supremely pragmatic group, Stoics believed that the goal of any philosophy is to enable us to live a happy life. Indeed, if your philosophy does not result in a happy and meaningful life, they urge you to forget it and find another one. Any useful philosophy must fit our nature as rational human beings or it doesn’t fit at all.
The Stoics saw our reason as our saving faculty, and their practices teach us how we can discipline and develop it. Purpose – to be happy individually and together, in community.
So let’s talk about reason. The concept of reason can also get a bad rap in spiritual circles. We may think of it as anti-spiritual, or as non-spiritual, as spirituality is in the greater consciousness, the heart, places we can’t think our way into. I’m spiritual, not rational.
I hope we don’t set up such a false dichotomy. We would be adrift without our rational ability. It’s our reason that helps us to organize and understand our emotions and our experiences. Our reason persuades us of the utility of peace over conflict, virtue over venality. Our rational ability and our hearts have to inform and balance each other, and that may in fact be the essence of a balanced life.
The Stoics believed that nature gave us the ability to reason, and our lives improve when we train it and use it well. Sounds simple but it’s a lifelong task. We’re not born knowing how to do this – we have to work at it, and learn, and that is the practice of philosophy.
So what is this philosophy, and what does it do for us? Well, first, let’s talk about what it isn’t. It is not keeping a stiff upper lip when you hurt yourself. It is not being an emotionless automaton.
Stoics have emotions and show them, and are thoroughly engaged in all aspects of life. However, the philosophy encourages us to practice principles that prevent our emotions from running their lives. Instead, we cultivate awareness, clarity, and mental tranquility, even in the midst of chaos. As they said, the winds may howl but I will not be swept away.
Stoicism is . . . available to all of us.
The next wonderful aspect to Stoicism is that it’s available to all of us. It doesn’t require belief in the divine, or in any ultimate power. You can be a believer, an agnostic, an atheist – doesn’t matter. The Stoics, by and large, believed that the Universe could be understood by reason, and that this universal reason, or what they called logos, was apparent in inanimate matter.
There was nothing paranormal; the closest image that comes to mind is Einstein’s conception of God. Einstein looked out at creation, at the movement of the planets and the operation of gravity and time, and decided that the notion of an anthropomorphic God had no place in this divine dance. Instead, he saw a God that operated through the laws of nature he was discovering. God was nature, all of creation was divine intelligence continually becoming.
In 1954, he said “I do not believe in a personal God …. If something is in me which can be called religious, then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
He later said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
To the extent many Stoics saw a divine presence at all, it was confirmed in the operation of our reason.
The first lesson.
The first lesson stoicism teaches us, which we here know well, is to put our effort, focus and energy on those things we can control, and forget the rest. As Epictetus said, “we must make the best of those things that are in our power, and take the rest as nature gives us.”
Where else do we see this? In many faith traditions. Look at the most ancient – one of the Hindu traditions – in the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna teaches that you have the right to your actions, but not your action’s fruits.
Detaching from outcomes.
Detaching from outcomes is so easy to say but so tough to do. That’s why I’m mentioning it here, even though we have had many talks, and speakers, sharing this lesson. Think of Brian Perry, and his hula hoop.
Every day gives me examples, small and not so small, of how I have failed to live up to this precept. Think about your own life – think about your day, as we sit here on this Sunday morning. What have you worried about today that is completely outside your control?
The analogy Epictetus gives is that of a ship’s journey.
When he chose to set out on a journey, he could choose the ship and make sure it was seaworthy. He could choose the pilot, finding the best that he could. He could select the most auspicious time to travel, based on what he knew about weather, tides, traffic, and other variables.
That’s it. Whether he makes it to the other shore or not depends on so many factors beyond his control. A storm may blow up. He may be knocked overboard. The pilot he selected may become ill or die, and a substitute may not be as skilled. The winds may not blow.
Why spend energy on eventualities you cannot affect? You have done all you can. Put your energy where it can make a difference, and don’t waste time focusing on areas you can’t control. Give it no energy.
The good news here is that we control entirely what is the most important – how we choose to see and respond to our world. How we show up. In short, if I were a Stoic, I’d talk about how well I develop and demonstrate the qualities they called character, or virtue.
Not virtue as it’s come to be known in a religious sense. Rather, to know who we are, what’s important. Pigliucci writes that the Stoics got their understanding of virtue from Socrates, who saw wisdom as virtue’s underlying aspect. He called wisdom the “chief good” in helping us live in harmony internally and with each other.
Our character determines how we respond to the circumstances of our lives. So, even though we can’t control how events spin out, the Stoics give us constructive ways to think about and navigate what we can control and what we cannot control. They put the focus on us, not on the winds that blow around us.
Again, using reason, they gave us a wonderful way to think about, and use, this distinction.
The circumstances of our lives are what the stoics called “indifferents.” Preferred indifferents, which are good circumstances happening for us, and dis-preferred indifferents, which are the challenging events in our lives.
It doesn’t mean that we are indifferent to them. It just means that whatever they are they have no impact on how we choose to show up.
Let’s use the image of a ball, in sports. When a game is being played, it’s not the ball that’s important, but the skill we use handling it. That’s what makes us win or lose. Epictetus used the example of the life of Socrates this way:
“[Socrates] was like one playing at ball. What then was the ball that he played with? Life, imprisonment, exile, taking poison, being deprived of his wife, leaving his children orphans. These were the things he played with, but none the less he played and tossed the ball with balance. So we ought to play the game, so to speak, with all possible care and skill, but treat the ball itself as indifferent.”
Put your energy where it can make a difference.
No matter our circumstances, our response is entirely within our control. We play the ball with skill – or not. Even if we play with extraordinary skill, we sometimes lose. Doesn’t matter; our job is to bring our skill to the game, whatever the “ball” is.
Although we know this truth, we still worry over so many things. Those we love may get sick, we may lose a job or suffer some other reversals, events in our world will lead to chaos or tragedy. What do the Stoics teach us here? They say yes, all these things may happen. Yet, because their system of philosophy is eminently practical, they give us a discipline to prepare ourselves so that we are not swept away.
So, the first practical tool is to be very clear about what we control and what we don’t. Put your energy where it can make a difference.
Second, they urge us to face the possibilities head on. In a practice they called “premeditatio malorum,” or meditating on evil and troubles, they encourage us to consider those outcomes we fear, calmly and intentionally. Review all the possibilities, so that if one occurs we are not taken by surprise. We are ready.
“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events… Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.”
When we do that, when we have sat with what might actually happen, we move through the fear to a place of clarity. When we are clear, we become aware that if it happens we can get through it.
Conversely, if it doesn’t happen, we have cause for gratitude about the blessings in our lives. Everything turned out well. The ship made it, the crop didn’t fail, we lived, our family member recovered. It could have been otherwise.
This ability to be ruthlessly clear about the fragility of life enabled Stoic practitioners to draw all the more joy from it. Every moment mattered. Life can be short – live it, with joy in the moment and gratitude for all that we have.
Third, they teach us to carefully and clearly examine what is actually going on, without being diverted by assumptions or fears.
Epictetus here said:
“Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.”
Be aware of what you are telling yourself about this event. What am I feeling? What am I telling myself happened? Am I correct? Look at what is happening, in all its aspects. We don’t put our heads down, afraid to look but being preoccupied by what we fear this thing is. Seneca knew this and said:
“Some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”
Mark Twain put it this way, saying: “my life has been filled with tragedies, most of which never happened.”
Our lives are improved when we can lift our heads and see clearly what is going on around us. Don’t anticipate troubles.
See the gift in all of life.
Next, they teach us to see the gift in all of life. Not to love the good news and avoid the bad, but to be grateful for all of it. The Stoic principle embodied here is what they called “amor fati,” or love of fate. Our lives are enriched by all of it, and are diminished when we turn away or hide from adversity. We welcome life as it happens – all of it.
The Stoics believed that the events coming at us are our greatest teachers, and challenges in life are not to be tolerated but are to be welcomed. As Marcus Aurelius put it “A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” All that life hands us is an opportunity to learn more about how to live with integrity, and what the Stoics called virtue. Remember, the goal is to live a life that is happy. We cannot be happy if we are upended by every challenge or difficulty, if we fall victim to fear. Challenges, even disasters, will happen; the bedrock of your happiness, your peace, must be founded on our ability to weather them.
As Seneca said “I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent— no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
Epictetus gives us a wonderful image for navigating life’s difficulties, and it’s one I refer to frequently. He taught that:
“Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, don’t lay hold on the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried; but by the opposite, that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it, as it is to be carried.”
We get to choose which handle we will grasp when approaching any life challenge. The one that leads to anger or fear? Or the one that leads to appreciation and growth? Each situation has two, and we have the freedom to choose.
Life can be more.
The Stoics teach us that life can be more. We do not need to be buffeted here and there by the winds that inevitably blow. Whatever happens, we will not be swept away.
About Rev. Melanie
Rev. Melanie Eyre is an ordained Interspiritual Minister and long-time student of the world’s many diverse faith traditions. She has served as One World’s Spiritual Director since 2015 and is the founder of the North Fulton Interfaith Alliance here in Georgia. Outside of One World, Rev. Melanie has a beautiful family and enjoys officiating traditional and non-traditional rituals and other special ceremonies that mark important life transitions – weddings, baby blessings, and celebrations of life.
For more about Rev. Melanie and her practice, visit her website: Memorable Services with Heart.
Awake, Awake written by John Philip Newell and David E. Poole
Diamonds and Tears written by Suzy Boggus
This service aired on June 20, 2021