In Pursuit of Wisdom #1: Should We Share It?

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Hi. It’s been a while, Medium.

What matters is I’m back, with a series that I plan to keep going indefinitely.

Welcome to…

IN PURSUIT OF WISDOM (TM)

Every other Sunday, I will be posting a new installment of In Pursuit of Wisdom (the next one is April 4), in which I will discuss what I’ve been reading in terms of philosophy, spirituality, psychology, or anything else remotely intellectually or emotionally stimulating and interesting that I’ve been into, and I will reveal how I’ve used that material to grow my own wisdom and take practical steps towards living a more meaningful life.

I would like to emphasize the practical here. I read these texts not as a matter of interest, but as a matter of taking actual physical advantage of the resources that we have in this world to live better, to overcome suffering, and to love more deeply.

What gives me the right to preach the meaning of life and how we should conduct ourselves in it? Seneca…help me out with this one:

I am acting on behalf of later generations. I am writing down a few things that may be of use to them; I am committing to writing some helpful recommendations, which might be compared to the formulae of successful medications, the effectiveness of which I have experienced in the case of my own sores, which may not have been completely cured but have at least ceased to spread.

“The effectiveness of which I have experienced in the case of my own sores…”

I’ve lived a happy, privileged life. Food always in my belly, a roof always over my head. But despite this, from a young age, my mind has been riddled with pangs of anxiety. Worrying about what others think of me. Feeling awkward about what the correct course of action would be in love or friendship. Even being afraid to speak to new people or my mind. Wanting things to be perfect. I couldn’t stop overthinking just about everything! The world is confusing enough when left alone to be as it is. To look at the world and to have the gall to say, “Why me?”, amounts to nothing but insanity.

Never did I shout “Why me?” louder than after a breakup a couple of years ago. I thought it was her fault. I thought it was her misguidedness, and her unwillingness to see what we had that was the reason for my unhappiness. She did it.

And if you want to know why all this running away cannot help you, the answer is simply this: you are running away in your own company. You have to lay aside the load on your spirit. Until you do that, nowhere will satisfy you (Seneca 76).

You can only be bitter and angry for so long before you start to dissolve into your own poison. So I resolved to pull myself out of the acid bath over the course of the following months. It started simply with venting to friends at a frequency that sometimes resulted in their annoyance. But it wasn’t for about five or six months that I finally picked up a copy of A New Earth by modern spiritual guru, Eckhart Tolle. Through its enlightened discussions of the illusion of ego, why the self is never actually separate from the other, and how to realize that much of the human notions of status, “better than or worse than,” and differences amongst races and religions are mere impositions upon a neutral life that lays beneath…my brain got a little quieter.

The undercurrent of constant anxiety and thought that colored all my five senses suddenly broke, just from reading the words of someone who had gone through it themselves and had found the way out. Mr. Tolle himself claims that he had spent much of his life deeply depressed before the age of 29, when suddenly:

I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And in this a question arose without an answer: who is the ‘I’ that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void! I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved. The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or “beingness,” just observing and watching.

This “beingness,” a sense that I could just let go and just be, and that everything would be alright, poked through into my consciousness for the first time in late 2019 following just reading Mr. Tolle’s work. Of course, I was and still am far from “enlightenment,” whatever that actually means, but I saw the potential. What could more simple reading of these “life masters” do for me?

Ever since, I have carefully consumed spiritual, philosophical, and psychological texts from around the world, which in addition to Mr. Tolle includes work from Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, Thich Nhat Hanh, Brene Brown, Don Miguel Ruiz, Albert Camus, and others.

I can honestly write today that never before in my life have I been more confident, calm, loving, and at peace.

When I came across the earlier passage from Seneca, I knew I had to start this series. Even if just to document my progress and to serve as a record of the development of my thoughts on these matters, this series will be enough. However, if even one word of what I say can cause a paradigm shift in someone’s life towards love and happiness, or just inspire someone to begin their own journey towards wisdom through the sharing of my own, I will know that all the words that I type today and the days from now will be worth it.

Before I read Seneca, and through reading Buddhist texts, I believed that any “proselytizing” was a symptom of ego, of believing that the way you live and be in your life should take primacy over other ways. It reeked of self-importance that I wanted to avoid. To change the world, change yourself. I thought: be an example through acts of love and goodwill. This is still true, and something to be aware of.

This series is not proselytizing. It is a record, a monument to what is possible when you turn inward. What is possible when you make the choice to grow your awareness. That deserves to be written down, in my view. If you choose to join me through reading this record, great. If not, great. There are as many legitimate ways of living and being in the world as there are people in it. But, if you have suffered as I have suffered as a result of my own thoughts, my own mind, my own anxieties, then perhaps I can show you that there are other, more peaceful legitimate ways of living and being in the world.

Future installments will be written as if to a friend or a family member. A casual discussion as can be had about the meanings of life, and how best to live it. We must constantly question, and through questioning, become aware of the habits that lead us to misery, to dysfunction, to hate. Awareness through study is a gateway to happiness, order, and love. It is a constant practice. It is a striving to be better, but without expectations of so-called perfection.

Shall I tell you what philosophy holds out to humanity? Counsel (Seneca 98).

Seneca, for those who don’t know, was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, essayist and playwright. Then and now, he is considered to be among the wisest men who have ever lived, and he has been consistently studied by countless people for over two-thousand years. Despite his accolades and fame as a sound thinker, to me, what makes Seneca particularly remarkable was his stark imperfections. According to the introduction of my Penguin edition of Letters from a Stoic, despite avidly denouncing tyranny, he was tutor to a tyrannical emperor of Rome. He railed against extravagance while also hosting lavish banquets, in addition to becoming extremely wealthy over the course of his political career when Stoicism purports to be a philosophy of simple living.

Despite these failings of character, ironically, it is also stated that it is precisely these facts of Seneca’s life in addition to his more informal style of writing that made Stoicism more accessible and more “human.” In my view, true philosophy does not ask perfection, but awareness. That is enough. I promise vulnerability and candidness when it comes to my own philosophical stumbles. It’s why I’m here.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

I will leave you with this:

Our ancestors had a custom, observed right down as far as my own lifetime, of adding to the opening words of a letter ‘I trust this finds you as it leaves me, in good health.’ We have good reason to say: ‘I trust this finds you in pursuit of wisdom.’ For this is precisely what is meant by good health (Seneca 60).

Let’s get closer to good health, together. See you in two weeks.

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Arizona born and raised, New York educated (Vassar 2020). Join me every other Sunday “in pursuit of wisdom,” where we put philosophy into practice.

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Avery Vaughn

Avery Vaughn

Arizona born and raised, New York educated (Vassar 2020). Join me every other Sunday “in pursuit of wisdom,” where we put philosophy into practice.

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