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“The Pursuit of More” from a Stoic perspective, with Rev. Melanie Eyre

“The Pursuit of More” ~ Rev. Melanie Eyre

Join us for our weekly online gathering as Rev. Melanie examines the pursuit of “more” through the Stoic lens of Amor Fati.

Talk starts at 22:11 – Watch this talk on YouTube (high-speed available)
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A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the Deaf and hard of hearing, including prayers, readings and songs.

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PRAYERS:

Opening Prayer

Eternal God, we give thanks
For the gifts of life, wonder beyond words;
For the awareness of soul, our light within;
For the world around us, so filled with beauty;
For the richness of the earth, which day by day sustains us;
For all these and more we offer thanks.
Blessed are You, Eternal, Your Name is goodness,
and to You we offer thanksgiving.

Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams

Community Prayer

The following is an adaptation of a prayer that was given as the Closing Prayer at the San Francisco Interfaith Council’s 18th Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast on November 24, 2015. In honor of San Francisco’s Sanctuary Movement, the theme of the event was “Faith and Sanctuary: There Are No Strangers.”

In a Chassidic tale, a rabbi asks his students how they can tell when the night has ended and the day has begun. 

“Could it be,” one asked, “when you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” 

“No,” the rabbi answered. 

“Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” another asked. 

“No again,” the rabbi replied. 

“Then what is it?” the pupils demanded. 

The sage answered: 

“It is when you can look at the face of any man or woman or child and see your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.” 

In a world in which so much darkness surrounds us – violence, hatred, division – shedding light has never been more urgent. 

Every day we make decisions that determine whether there will be more darkness or we will see the light of our brother or sister – from the homeless on the street to our brothers and sisters of different faiths and ethnicities, to those with whom we have political differences, to refugees desperately waiting to reach our shores and build a better life. 

As we approach Thanksgiving and soon Chanukah, Kwanzaa and Christmas – holidays of light – let us be blessed with the knowledge that it is both our eyes and ears that determine whether we see the face of our brother and sister, hear them and stand with them – even when we see the world differently. And let us give thanks that we have been endowed by our Creator to look at others and know that we are looking at our brother and sister; and to act in ways that never break that bond. That is the true meaning of being created in the image of God. That is the true spirit of Thanksgiving. 

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe who has given us life, who has sustained us, and who has brought us together as a community at this special season. Amen.

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TALK:

“The Pursuit of More” with Rev. Melanie Eyre

Nov 22, 2020

Good morning and welcome.

This month we’re exploring the theme of gratefulness, more particularly the principles and practices we can apply to create more space in our hearts, in our interior life, so that we can live with the peace and equanimity that flows from a life gratefully lived. That help us maintain this peace in the midst of all that life sends us.

Author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” I love that image – it tells me that so often when we are forced to jump off that cliff, make that change, experience that loss, we don’t think we have the ability to weather it. We don’t yet have our wings. We just have to know that we will develop them… as we fall. Life pushes us off that cliff, and we have to learn to fly.

What a great metaphor for our lives. We are always developing those wings.  We need the tools that enable us to keep going, in confidence and without fear. When we have found the tools that work for us, we can maintain our balance in all circumstances. The wings we develop help us live lives that are larger, more happy, more full.

There are so many wisdom paths that give us these wings. Today I want to talk about philosophy – more particularly, about Stoic philosophy.

Before you all decide there’s something more pressing in the next room, let’s consider the possibility that philosophy gets a bad rap. We may have an image of it as a discipline which is kind of quaint, a holdover from times past not really suited to our world today. high-minded irrelevancies that mean nothing to actual lives here on the ground.

Let give you an example. If your best friend came up to you and announced that her daughter was going into pre-med in order to become to be a brain surgeon, you would both be thrilled. What an accomplishment!

Contrast this with your best friend confiding in you that her smart, accomplished daughter is pursuing a degree in philosophy. I think you’d be offering your condolences and imagining her future looking for gainful employment.

Let’s not sell it short. Think of it in the way you think of spirituality-a way to see your world that helps you live with balance. Surely we pay attention to such wisdom.

The Greek Stoics had the same investment in the study and practice of philosophy, the same belief that this discipline would ground and transform their lives. They regarded the study and daily practice of philosophy as absolutely essential to living a life of happiness, or eudaimonia. Indeed, it was so important that they encouraged us to put all else after it. What, after all, is more important than the question of how we live our lives?

Major Stoic philosophers have included Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Cato the Younger, Zeno, and Epictetus. The philosophy has been with us since about 350 BCE, and is undergoing a renaissance these days. Why? Because in a world that seems to be spiraling out of control, Stoicism gives control and balance back to us, and reminds us we never lost them.

Stoicism is practical, it is comprehensive, its benefits are immediate.

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 speak to our reason as our saving faculty, and their practices teach us how we can discipline and develop it.  

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. A central Stoic precept is the winds may howl but I will not be swept away

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.”  

The analogy he 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, and find the best that he could. He could select the most auspicious time to travel, based on what he knew about weather, tides, traffic, or 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.

That 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. It’s a good one to be reminded of. 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 which is completely outside your control?

The fact is that we have little control over the circumstances of our lives. We have some, but not a great deal.

The good news here is that we control entirely what is the most important- how we choose to see and respond to our world. No matter our circumstances, our response is entirely within our control. We often say that, but the challenge is to hear it, and internalize it.

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. So, because their system of philosophy is eminently practical, they give us a discipline to prepare ourselves so that we are not swept away.

First, 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 occurred we are not taken by surprise. We are ready.

Seneca wrote:

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.

Second, they teach us to carefully and clearly examine what is 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. He said my life has been filled with tragedies, most of which never happened.

How our lives are improved when we can lift our heads and see clearly what is going on around us.

Third, 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.  

Epictetus gives us a wonderful image for approaching life’s difficulties. 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.

 Ryan Holiday, author of many works on the Stoics, wrote a while back about a gratitude practice he uses, based on the principle of amor fati. Instead of listing those positives in his life, for which he was surely grateful, he modified his list to identify those challenges, disappointments or outright failures that had been his best teachers. He reflected on what each had taught him, how he had learned through them to live a life of greater happiness.

This is how the Stoics teach us that life can be more. Even in a world in which our control may be limited, we have the option to see life in a way that is unlimited. It takes practice, and discipline, but we can do it.

So, on this Thanksgiving week, let’s recognize we have so much to be grateful for. The people and comforts in our life that lift us up, as well as all that threatens to weigh us down if we let it. The Stoics give us valuable tools for lifting even these by the right handle, and using them to become happier and wiser. Thank you for listening, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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READING:

A reading from Seneca.

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. ..The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”

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MUSIC:

Opening Song

“Joy in the Morning” written by Asha Lightbearer

Feature Song

“Simple Gifts” written by Joseph Brackett

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This service aired on November 22, 2020.

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