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Welcome to James' Philosophical Agora - James' Meeting Place On-Line. (Updated June 2017)

James' Philosophical Agora’ is an on-line archive for various pieces of personal writing on mostly fairly serious subjects; yet hopefully with a few amusing or curious items and anecdotes along the way as well. Many pieces were primarily written to share with individual friends, but are made available here for any others who might find the points discussed interesting or helpful, or who are 'treading the same path' and may wish to comment or add to them.

I have a separate blog where I share my enthusiasm for the specific philosophical tradition of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle at: Socrates 4 Today

As well as leaving comments on any of the blog posts, you can also contact me personally if you would like to discuss any particular items further: jamesdelphi2000@gmail.com

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Part B - Your Own Unique Spiritual Path (and tips on how to uncover it... )

Part B - Your Own Unique Spiritual Path (and tips on how to uncover it... )

+ Summary

What practical things can we say about good “ways of living” and ideas to help us find and follow the right spiritual path ? :

Well the first part of the talk was based on the writings of Plato and the ideas of Socrates – but this final section comes from wider reading and other talks and lectures I have attended from people in all walks of life.

i) Firstly, I think that there is a good deal of truth in the notion that all long journeys start with the first step…. If we feel we want to improve our lives or take a slightly or very different path – then we need to make a start on “Knowing our self” and looking for the path.
ii) I mentioned that there were two things written above the entrance to the temple of Apollo in Delphi in ancient times. I told you that one of those things was know thyself. Well the other thing was “Nothing in Excess” – usually known as “All things in moderation”. Personally I do not think that it helps us that much or makes us happy to be destitute or living on the streets. Whilst I have suggested earlier that we should not care too much about expensive clothes and new luxury kitchens – at the same time it’s good to have a roof over our heads and the electricity bill paid. This means that most of us need to work “most of the time” but maybe we should consider a little what we do and how much we do of it We need to keep the Delphi maxim of “Nothing to Excess” in mind.
iii) Remember that our actions usually cause re-actions and that – although we are unique - there is a “inter - connectivity” in the universe. God – The Gods – seem to close doors occasionally – but then open others for us although there may be a break in between where we feel uncomfortable.
iv) 70 % of the things that happen to us are maybe out of our control, but how we re-act to those things – and how we feel about those things is certainly within our control.
v) There is an ancient Greek saying known as the “Wisdom of Athena” – which is about knowing what you can change and knowing what you cannot change (or do) and sticking to the things you can change or do. I know you have all heard this before. I simply remind you again not to overlook this. We should of course not use this as an excuse for inaction or setting our sites too low. We cannot just say: “oh that’s too difficult or impossible” and then just not even try to do something that is a little bit challenging.
vi) Remember that even a very wise and good person has bad days or weeks when everything seems to be going wrong. We should not expect to feel “euphoric happiness” all the time. Everyone gets problems along the way – but the attitude that people have to those problems of course varies from one person to another. More spiritual or positive people tend to see those problems as challenges or tests along the path rather than see themselves as victims “again”. Trying to keep a positive attitude we know is very helpful – and sometimes we actually have to discipline ourselves mentally to look at the more positive aspects of something and not just the negative aspects. I am not suggesting that this is always easy.
vii) Talking of trying to take a more positive attitude to things; sometimes it helps to look at the bigger picture and not get frustrated by the details. For example, two bricklayers are both working outside on a cold and damp day. One looks fed up but the other is getting on with his work positively and looks fairly happy with life. Now one of the men is building another damn wall – the other is building a cathedral. Which one do you think is which? .. And more importantly maybe...which one is you?
viii) So our thoughts have a big effect on how we feel and therefore it is important to take control of our own thoughts. This can become a habit with practice – but in the same way negative thinking can also become a habit. At the end of the day it’s only our “thoughts” which make us feel happy or sad.
ix) As well as good thoughts try to develop “good” actions and attitudes to things. Again these good actions will become habits after a while rather than any bad actions and habits we develop.
x) I once heard someone say that there are three main causes of inner stress and tension. These are:
a) “Perfectionism” – and always trying to do something perfectly or “optimally” in this “do well – time is so precious” modern world. Like the blog or website I hope to put up at Easter (well last Easter actually) – I can get stressed out by trying to do it “perfectly” or I can just put up the site as well as I can and then slowly improve and amend things as I go which is a lot less stress full inside than always trying to get something perfect at once or first time around.
b) Lack of self esteem – is another of these stress creators. The problem is we are often lacking self esteem as a result of comparing ourselves with people who are living the material consumerist life. It takes us time to realise that of course I don’t have a new 4by4 like the guy next door – but there are reasons for that. It takes time and practice maybe for us to deconstruct or de-condition ourselves from the expectations that other people have had for us since a young age. It also often takes time maybe to truly deconstruct and de-condition the expectations we may have had for ourselves. We still want “to do well” – but in our own way – and by our own standards – not by how much money we had in the bank when we died.
c) The 3rd cause of this inner stress or tension is a fear of rejection from those around us or those important to us. Bonding with other individuals and others in small social groups is an important part of life. Whether we want to admit it or not – we care about what our family and close friends think about us. Membership of many social groups has its unwritten rules. When you meet an old group of friends at the pub after a long absence and one of them says: “What are you up to these days – what job are you doing” – he/she is sub-consciously finding out whether you are still a member of the group – whether you can still fit in – and whether you still fulfil the groups unwritten criteria. When all the other Mums drop the kids off in 4by4s you kinda know you are not one of them as you drop the kids off on their bikes.
These three things: perfectionism, lack of self esteem, and fear of rejection can give us extra stresses and tensions as we try to live our unique lives if we are not aware of them.
xi) Remember, only fools and fanatics do not have doubts from time to time. A little indecision from time to time is natural and not a bad thing. Sometimes its good to have doubts – it’s part of us being who we are.
xii) Finally, another piece of wisdom from the ancients about Athena. A man was returning from market in ancient Athens with his grown up son. It had been very wet and on the way the cart got stuck in the muddy road. The man told his son to pray with him to Athena for help to move the cart so that they could go home. Well, Athena heard the men praying and came to them and said: “If you get out of the cart and start pushing I might give you some help to push also…. But if you just sit there together in the cart waiting for me or someone else to do all the work for you and solve all your problems for you then I am not going to help you at all. We must remember that WE have to make the first step and start pushing the cart for our selves if we want some help along the way. 

Summary:

Finding a path to live our lives by – whether that path be spiritual or practical or perhaps preferably a combination of the two is not always easy to find – especially since modern media, education and society as a whole seems deliberately set up to obscure or ridicule any path that is not the mainstream path being prescribed to us. This prescribed path is the unsustainable path; the unfulfilling path of consumerism, economic growth, infinite aspirations, and instant gratification of those aspirations.

There may be several good and decent paths out there to choose from – or you may need to create your own unique path. Either way, I believe that to find an alternative path takes time; and it takes effort. We will fall down from time to time in our search – but we will pick ourselves up again as we go. There is probably no “quick fix” or instant long lasting remedy for finding the path for many of us – and maybe we should be cautious of people or organisations who offer various “one size fits all” answers to our search and passage along the path; or instant enlightenment for 3 dollars a hit......

May I remind you about what I said at the start of my talk this evening about the need to find or know ourselves first before we can really hope to make a real start on any kind of spiritual of practical path for our lives. The new students at Plato’ academy still had this emphasised to them more than 800 years after the academy first began.

In the latter part of the talk I have made a few practical points (or more likely just reminders to many of you) where we can start to get a fix on our lives and start to make some small and not so small improvements along the way.

Perhaps finding the right path is a little more complex than some individuals or organisations try to make out – albeit that most parts of the jig-saw like pieces are fairly straightforward to slowly put in place one piece at a time. None of the practical points I have made this evening is that complicated – no special techniques or skills are required. However, it does seem likely that some time and some effort will be required – and indeed finding the right path may be an ongoing learning process – with adjustments along the way - depending what stage of our own unique life’s we find ourselves at. [Like that new website I want to do – maybe it’s just better to make a start and amend, adjust, and improve it as I go. If I try to make it perfect to start with - I either won’t ever start for real – or am setting myself up for self disappointment or feelings of failure.] We must remember what the proverb about the man with his donkey and cart stuck in the mud tells us: ‘It is we ourselves who must make the first step – must get out of that cart and start to push first – before we can expect any help from other people or any divine “providence”.

Remember that confused and anxious tourist I mentioned trying to find his way with his map. Well he was a real person and I actually saw him standing on a street corner in downtown Athens as people and cars whizzed by in different directions. He turned this big map this way and that still looking confused … and as I reminded a friend of mine who was sitting with me in the nearby coffee shop watching the tourist: “That guy needs to know first where he is….” 

Our spiritual and practical day to day life paths are entwined and it is essential before we can make a wise start in any direction to: “Know Ourselves”. Only then – when we know where we are and what we like and do not like etc – can we make realistic decisions on where we would like to be in 5, 10, 20 or maybe 500 years time. But in order to “know” ourselves – Socrates says that we first have to know what we actually are – that is – what the “self” actually is. Are we just material and corporal bodies on which to hang expensive clothes – or are we really souls just making temporary use of these corporal bodies. How we answer this question will make (or should make) a fundamental difference to how we live our lives.
Only when we know two essential items: “Where we are” (part of knowing ourselves) and where we would like to be…. can we start to decide on and start to follow a good and logical path in between that is right for us as a unique individual. There may be several good paths to choose from - or we may need to create our own unique path to give ourselves the best chance; perhaps the only chance, of getting where we want to be. It will not always be easy – and it will take time. So stick at it and good luck to you on your own unique spititual paths...


Acknowledgements:
1) Thanks to Tim Addey of the Prometheus Trust for many ideas gained from his talks on “Know Thyself” and all things Socratic and Platonic.
2) Thanks to Sabine Leitner of the New Acropolis organisation in London for the practical philosophy ideas gained listening to her talk:‘The Art of Living’.

Useful Links:
The Prometheus Trust – An Educational Charitable Organisation encouraging “philosophy” in the Platonic Tradition. The trust has also made an impressive number of works of Greek philosophers available in English including ‘First Alcibiades’ (Translated by Thomas Taylor)
http://www.prometheustrust.co.uk/index.html

New Acropolis Organisation – An International Organisation promoting “Practical Philosophy” with some 20,000 members in 60 countries; and some 500,000 people taking part in their diverse cultural and philosophical activities each year:
http://acropolis.org/en/nueva_acropolis_en_el_mundo.php

The Full text of ‘First Alcibiades’ can be found online at:
http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/greek/plato/alcibiades1.html
(Translated by Benjamin Jowett – page references above refer to Thomas Taylor’s Translation)

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