Daring Greatly

IMG_1830I finished Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly about a week ago while in London for Stoicon. I saw one of Brown’s TED talks years ago. I haven’t re-watched it recently. Many friends and even people I barely know have recommended Brown’s books to me so I thought I’d give one a try. Daring Greatly seemed the most appealing for what I want right now in my life. I would love to be more courageous and daring. Brené Brown makes a killing from her best selling books and also rakes it in as a popular keynote speaker. I was curious to see what she offers.

My initial reaction to this book was confusion. I had seen it marketed as psychology and self-help, neither of which I found here. Brown is a self-described shame researcher, but if this were a psychology book about shame, the Super-Ego would be mentioned at least. It’s not self-help because there are no practical suggestions or tools given for actually becoming more vulnerable and thus, courageous. I was also confused about what constitutes “shame.” For Brown, the shame tent is nearly all-encompassing. Self-loathing, fear of rejection, embarrassment (even though she says not), anxiety, overwhelm, discouragement, feelings of unworthiness, and perfectionism are all “shame” for Brown.

I also found myself wincing as I read. Brown’s constant reference to her credentials and popularity is off-putting. She seems to have an overpowering need to establish herself as an expert. It’s as if she were constantly asking, “Do you believe me know? And now? How about now?” On a related note, in the book she talks about how we wince when someone overshares. She attributes the compulsion to overshare to shame (of course) and justifies her own oversharing as acceptable because she only opens up about personal issues she has already worked through. I have not seen Brown on tv and barely remember her TED talk, but I imagine her to be a very charming and engaging speaker in person. She likely has an attractive personality and that’s why she gets away with oversharing and, well, neediness. Because she is so vibrant she comes off as being real and authentic in her neediness rather than tedious.  I should clarify that I didn’t flinch so much at her oversharing since she brings a lot of self-awareness to it, but to her need to convince readers that she is an expert.

Her book appears to be a description of the results of a sociological study rather than psychology or self help. However, as far as her research methods go, I am left with the question: How is this any different from someone talking to a lot of people and finding her own personal issues in other people’s stories? It’s a very human response for sure, but I’m not sure I’d call it scientific or research or data. Also, the entire tone of the book seems to be, “Did you know there is this thing out there called shame? and I have personally discovered  and uncovered it as the source of all of society’s ills!” There is zero historical context or mention of past shame researchers.

The truth is, a week after reading this book, very little of it sticks with me. There was a lot about the paralyzing effects of perfectionism. That is something I became aware of in myself and started dealing with in my early 20s. I couldn’t relate to many of her personal anecdotes. I did like the paragraph about Kristin Neff, self-compassion researcher but I had already seen Neff’s TED talk. In fact I had recommended here her website and self-compassion exercises as practical and useful.

I really can’t think who I would recommend this book to in spite of it being so popular and lauded. In its place I would recommend Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the voice of vocation by Parker J. Palmer if you are looking to feel more centered and grounded in your authentic self. I liked Freeing Our Families from Perfectionism by Thomas S. Greenspon.

I have to say I even question the importance of vulnerability in courageous action as compared to wisdom and discretion. Why was Catherine the Great such a powerfully courageous monarch? Because she was wise. She started reading practical philosophy as a young girl and sought to develop her own personal philosophy of life that guided her every action. She was courageous because after years of seeking wisdom in books and from her own astute observations of court life, she was expert at assessing risk, whether it be in a personal relationship with an advisor or a war with millions of lives at stake. I would like to be vulnerable in the way that Catherine the Great was, to have the ability to dispassionately take stock of my weaknesses and strengths, to be humble enough to take good counsel and yet confident enough to make my own decisions.

I have made some brave decisions in the past few years of my life. Many people have asked me how I got that courage and just now I have been reflecting on that. I think my dad encouraged me to be both wise and daring as a kid. Many times he would see that I wanted to do something, like to ride a spirited horse for example, but my fear kept me back. I remember his voice as he told me, “You can do it and you will be fine. Yes, that’s it. You’re doing great!” Many times these attempts ended in the “failure” of me being thrown from the horse and experiencing physical pain, but my father made me see these instances as triumphs over fear. I learned from him that you have to go for it and that sometimes pain happens. Pain is pain, nothing more and nothing less. As Marcus Aurelius said, “Pain is neither intolerable nor everlasting if you bear in mind that it has its limits, and if you add nothing to it in imagination.”

Stoics and the Zombie Apocalypse

Imagine a reality show in which a lazy, spoiled, selfish young man is made to believe that the world is coming to an end. After experiencing a special-effects-laden meteor shower, he awakens to find himself in an abandoned hospital in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Civilization has collapsed. He goes on to meet people who demand of him the qualities of courage, compassion, and leadership that lied buried beneath his malaise and sense of entitlement.

Such a reality show exists. I just watched it and you can find it here. It was the brainchild and production of Derren Brown, British illusionist, mentalist, trickster, hypnotist, painter, and writer. Brown is evidently so famous in Britain that he has hordes of devotees and even stalkers, which is why his presence at this year’s Stoicon 2015 Event in London could not be publicized. This particular reality show was Brown’s idea of an extreme Stoic experiment. He discovered the ancient Stoics while reading Montaigne (his taste in philosophers is what makes him sexy, surely) and he took a shining to them. Here’s what he says in an article he published at Radio Times:

The Stoic philosophers advise us to regularly rehearse the loss of everything we love. Only that way can we learn to value what we have in life, rather than fixate upon things we don’t. It seems our psychological landscape hasn’t changed much since Seneca was penning advice to his protégés of ancient Rome. Those who study desire keep coming across the same answer: that to master desire, we must learn to want what we already have. We are bombarded daily by overt and covert messages from advertisers, media and peers, conditioning us to hanker after the latest, shiniest, most retinally-screened trinket, or to claim for ourselves our bigger house or faster car or sexier partner. And we may find ourselves anxious and distracted if we don’t find a way of acquiring these things, but more interestingly we only enjoy them for a very short while before reverting back to our former dissatisfied state. This hedonic treadmill keeps us moving forward at whatever level of happiness to which we are pre-disposed, and despite the spikes of momentary glee as some new status symbol comes our way, we don’t really grow any happier. The joy of the car and the house and the phone doesn’t stick around. The way to feel satisfied, and to know that your desires are being truly met, is to hunger after what you have already in your life.

Jules Evans interviewed Brown at the Stoicon Event on Saturday. I’m not British and I had no idea who Brown was before this event, but he struck me as thoughtful, creative, imaginative, modest, and that he cares deeply about philosophical issues. He also has “it.” Whatever “it” is, the man’s got it in spades. I include a picture of him here even though I look terrible in it–London is so bad to my hair. Brown is on the right. He doesn’t look like much, does he? Well. William Irvine (to the left, very funny and personable author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy) and I both agree that Brown is sexy.


I liked what Derren Brown said in the interview about the practice of Stoicism not being about achieving “happiness” necessarily, but about living large. Creating a bigger, more meaningful life. That is what I have gained from Stoicism, and what I continue to seek from it. As I said at the beginning of Stoic Week, I renamed it Joie de Vivre Week for myself. My intention for the week was to stop focusing on the negatives in my life, especially those things which I do not control, and thus increase my joie de vivre. It’s worked. I do feel more joy after my study and meditation during Stoic Week and my attendance at the Stoic Week Event.

This year and last I had the opportunity to socialize a bit with the Stoic Event presenters, mostly academics in Philosophy. So, philosophers. Sounds like a really swinging crowd, doesn’t it? Or people you would do anything to avoid, more like it. I found them charming. At least, from the little I know them. They seem friendly, open, warm, funny, self-effacing, and easy to talk with. They have joie de vivre!

IMG_9475Here with Massimo Pigliucci, professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College (London was messing with my hair again). Massimo is organizing and hosting next year’s Stoicon in New York.  I also got to talk with Donald Robertson who besides writing the excellent Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, has written the Stoic Week Handbook and has a Stoicism Facebook group of nearly 10,000 members. The man has a Scottish accent to die for. I overheard Donald and Jules discussing a book of Stoic memes they plan to co-write to be entitled “Philosophical Tapas: Daily Stoic Affirmations.” I think Don should narrate the audio version.

Speaking of voices, I went to my voice lesson today not having practiced at all and with a slight cold. Neither my teacher nor I expected much of me in the lesson, and yet I proceeded to effortlessly execute a range exercise I struggled with last week. My teacher gasped and looked at me in shock. “What did you do different?” she asked. I shrugged and said I didn’t know. She asked me to do the same exercise again and I was able to do it twice more perfectly. She said she can tell I return from London with a different energy. I can feel it, too. She said that not only was I able to do the exercise better, but my voice sounded better. We think it might be due to a combination of bringing back a new energy from London, not overthinking, and having low expectations.

Stoicism helps a lot with limiting the overthinking and managing expectations. The philosophy lends itself to focusing on this moment and bringing your best to it. This weekend I was struck with what a simple and complete philosophy it is. I just finished reading Daring Greatly by Oprah darling Brené Brown, a shame researcher who writes these obscenely popular books about vulnerability, courage, and authenticity. While the book was motivational and interesting, I couldn’t help but compare this self-help book to the more elegant and simple Stoic writings. Do you want to stop feeling shame? Then stop caring what people think of you. People’s opinions of you are outside the realm of what you control. Make the center of who you are within yourself, grounded in your own principles and values. When you practice Stoicism, you naturally become more appealingly vulnerable, courageous, and authentic.

More Stoic thoughts to come. (And I was just kidding about Don and Jules’ Philosophical Tapas. Unfortunately, no such book is in the works. ;))

putting on your spiritual condom

Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.” -Epictetus

People seem to like the term “spiritual condom,” which I used in this post in the context of being physically intimate. I said that a condom may protect you from STDs, but what about the person’s emotional diseases, so easily transferred in such close contact? Where is the spiritual condom to protect you from those? I’ve been thinking that I need a spiritual condom for everyday wear. And certainly not because I’m having sex with emotionally-troubled people! I need one to just get through a day of casual contact with people without picking up an emotional virus.

In the past two and a half years that I’ve been out in the world, I’ve met and interacted with all kinds of people. It’s been good for me to have to go out and make new friends. It’s been good to meet guys, flirt, and go on dates. Sometimes it’s been fun and sometimes I’ve made a complete fool of myself, but it’s always been good for me. You can only grow by trying new things that take you out of your comfort bubble. I needed to learn an entirely new set of social skills as a single and I’ve made some progress, thank merciful heavens.

One major difficulty I’ve had, however, is keeping other people’s false beliefs, born of fear, insecurity, and hungry egos, from finding their way into my own belief system and making me spiritually sick. I was vulnerable to this because I already felt lost and depressed, so my defenses were down.

There is a whole lot of spiritual disease out there. And I’m not talking about the obvious cases of fully corrupted souls, but rather the insidious little character-weakening spiritual defects that we all have to some degree. I know that I have enough of my own defects to deal with without picking up other peoples’, and of course these emotional viruses can be caught through casual day-to-day interaction that is far less intimate than sex.

Here are just a few examples of the kinds of people who make me want to put on a spiritual condom:

I’ve met several guys who are resentful of beautiful women. They have been rejected too many times I suppose. They enact a passive aggressive revenge by acting superior and dismissive toward women they find attractive, and if they can, getting in the occasional personal comment that makes the attractive woman feel stupid or superficial or ugly.

There is this woman I know who shellacs the makeup on and in general looks like she spends hours per day in front of a mirror to perfect her look. She also compulsively self-affirms in conversation, is a know-it-all, has really affected mannerisms, posts pictures of herself on FB wearing next to nothing, and just screams in every way for some kind of acceptance or validation.

There are people who counsel me to make choices based on fear or insecurity. This may be a silly example, but it’s something I hear a lot and it illustrates my point. I tend to date men who are younger than I am, sometimes quite a bit younger. I don’t have anything against men of my age or older, but they don’t tend to ask me out for whatever reason. Or maybe I don’t find as much in common with them, I don’t know. Because yes, now that I think of it, men my age and older have asked me out, but it’s not specifically because of their age that I turn them down. Anyway, you would not believe how many people have told me that I should not let a relationship with a younger man get serious because eventually I will look old and he will leave me for a younger woman.

So, how could my reactions to these people cause emotional illness to take root in me? I could respond to resentful men who try to make me feel bad about myself by either allowing them to make me feel bad about myself, or putting them in their place to make them feel worse than they already do. The insecure, self-validating woman annoys the hell out of me and sometimes I am tempted to make fun of her to her face or gossip about her behind her back. (Ok, I admit to having gossiped about her.) The people who tell me not to get a young boyfriend appeal to my contrary streak and make me want to go out and get a 25-year-old boyfriend just for the satisfaction of parading him around in their faces.

I don’t want to be the kind of person who does any of those things. I don’t want to enter into energy-sucking negative dynamics. I want to take a broad view of people and accept and love them, regardless of where they are in their journey. Or if not love them, at least respect them in spite of their weaknesses. I mean respect in the sense of not losing sense of their humanity. I don’t want to give in to my contrary streak and waste my one wild, precious life proving people wrong. I prefer to be free to pursue my own agenda, my own passions and interests.

So how can we fashion ourselves a spiritual condom to wear around town?

I’ve found that Stoicism provides some effective methods. Here are three.

  1. Marcus Aurelius says, “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.” You can personalize this as needed. I might tell myself, “Today I will come across men and women who will try to feed their egos at my expense, people who are well-meaning but governed by fear, and those who give off a negative vibe–all of them due to those people just being people.” (I substitute this last part because I’m not sure I agree with Marcus Aurelius that mere ignorance causes character flaws.) Reminding yourself every morning that people are like this is helpful because it removes the element of surprise and you are therefore less likely to react stupidly when someone pushes your buttons.
  2. Marcus Aurelius also says, “Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” This is great because it distracts you from engaging in negative interaction, and at the same time provides you with an opportunity to examine your own character. Also, it inevitably makes you more humble. So when a resentful man lets me know I’m not all that, I can wonder, “Am I ever resentful toward men?” When I’m around the annoying woman, I can ask myself, “Do I ever engage in similar public displays of self-affirmation?”
  3. Each morning, briefly meditate on the kind of person you want to be. Remember your values. Bring to mind the positive example of someone you want to emulate. I often think of my father, who had a reputation for accepting people as they were and enjoying them. It’s a rare quality that he had in abundance and that allowed him to influence those around him in a profound way.

why philosophy?

Averroes in a detail from Raphael’s “School of Athens”

I’ve had quite a few compliments on the new blog title. I love the name Philosofina! I’m glad I’m not the only one. But several people have asked why this title and why, for that matter, am I so in to philosophy?

I believe that living life well is an art that must be studied and practiced like any art. I don’t want to be carried along with the popular current, nor do I wish to follow my natural tendency and go against the popular current just for the sake of being contrary. I don’t want to be manipulated by the popular media, nor do I want to live my life as some sort of statement against the popular media. I want to do and be what is beautiful and good, though I’m not always sure which of those two should come first.

I was raised in the Mormon church and I was a strict adherent to the Mormon lifestyle and faith until about three years ago, when I stopped practicing. When you are an active Mormon, your life is living your faith. Everything I did, I did it Mormon style. Many of my waking hours were taken up in either personal scripture study, meditation, and prayer, or somehow serving in the Church. I saw life through a Mormon lens. Obviously, when I stopped practicing, it left a void. My beliefs, values, and lifestyle choices were all thrown into chaos. I had to try new experiences and ways of living, ways of thinking and relating to the world. I looked at other faith traditions, wisdom literature, and practices. I’ve slowly begun to develop my own philosophy of life.

However, I don’t think that developing your own philosophy of life is incompatible with being Mormon or a believer in any other strict, orthodox faith tradition.In fact, the practices that Stoics and Epicureans developed over many centuries to live their values work just as well for Mormons striving to live the strict dictates of their faith.

Right now I’m reading this excellent biography of Montaigne, for whom living à propos was “the great and glorious masterpiece” of a life well-lived. Montaigne, with his exceptional classical education, looked to the ancients for help on how to live appropriately: how to respond when life throws you a curve ball, for example. Stoic philosopher Epicetus defines life’s challenges as questions to which we must know how to answer immediately. I love how author Sarah Bakewell describes the Stoic and Epicurean approaches to living appropriately: “Like tennis players practicing volleys and smashes for hours, they used rehearsal to carve grooves of habit, down which their minds would run as naturally as water down a river bed. It is a form of self-hypnotism.” Exactly. Forming new habits of thought patterns is how I was able to stop both being self critical and caring too much what others thought of me. Performing these mental exercises trained me to respond differently to challenges than I had in the past. That is what Marcus Aurelius was doing in his Meditations, a book he never meant to be published. He was just sorting himself out and giving himself pep talks, encouragement to live à propos, a life of courage, dignity, and moral rectitude.

As I think more about religion vs. philosophy, I suppose I see religion as being more divisive and also more personal than philosophy. We all have our different versions of God and ideas about what happens to us after we die. Unfortunately many of us like to fight and kill others over these ideas, and killing people we don’t agree with doesn’t tend to bring us together in love as far as I can see. But Jews, Muslims, Christians, and atheists can all love Aristotle. We can all drink at the watering hole of humanism. After all, how did western European Christians even regain access to Greek philosophy after the Dark Ages? Through the efforts of Averroes, a Muslim philosopher from twelfth-century Spain. So it was nice of Raphael to include him in his fresco. 

And as far as religion being more personal than philosophy, I mean that what you think you know about God doesn’t effect me, but how you live your life does. Not only do I care about cultivating virtue in myself, but I would like for others to do the same. It is immaterial to me what prophets you embrace, or where you think you or I will be going after this life, but I want you to be happy and virtuous, damn it! And that is largely for the selfish reason that I want to live in a happy, peaceful society.