Discover more from The Scipionic Circle
The Scipionic Circle 67: How to Follow Your Values, the Core Ideas of Buddhism, and a 5-Step Goal Setting System
"Your first step is to write down the virtues exhibited by someone you respect."
Welcome to another issue of The Scipionic Circle - I hope you find something of value.
Food for Thought
I. How to Follow Your Values
“Your first step is to write down the virtues exhibited by someone you respect. Listing the qualities you most admire in another person, just as Marcus [Aurelius] does in the first book of The Meditations, is a simple and powerful exercise. He explains in a later chapter that he contemplates the virtues of those who lived with him in order to raise his spirits: the energy of one, the modesty of another, the generosity of a third, and so on. Nothing cheers our soul, he says, like the people close to us exhibiting virtue in their lives, and for that very reason we should treasure these examples and keep the memory of them fresh. Writing things down will often make the image more vivid and memorable. Stoics considered this a healthy source of joy. Writing down your ideas about what makes another person admirable, mulling them over, and revising them gives you an opportunity to process them. With practice, you will be able to visualize the character traits you’re describing more easily.
“In addition to the virtues of real people, the Stoics were also known for contemplating the hypothetical character of an ideal Sage, or wise person. There are several passages where Marcus appears to be doing this. These descriptions inevitably seem a bit more abstract and grandiose. For example, he says that the perfect wise man is like a true priest of the gods, at one with the divine element of reason within himself. He is neither corrupted by pleasure nor injured by pain, and he remains untouched by insults. The true Sage is like a fighter in the noblest of fights, dyed deep with justice. With his whole being, he accepts everything that befalls him, as assigned to him by Fate. He seldom concerns himself with what others say or do unless it’s for the common good. He naturally cares for all rational beings, as though they were his brothers and sisters. He is not swayed by the opinions of just anyone, but he gives special heed to the wise who live in agreement with Nature. Marcus is trying here to describe human perfection to himself and to envisage an ideal Sage who completely embodies the Stoic goals of life.
In addition to asking ourselves what qualities the ideal wise person might have, we can ask what qualities we might hope to possess in the distant future. For instance, what sort of person would you hope to be after having trained in Stoicism for ten or twenty years? At one point, Marcus seems to be describing the long-term goals of the Stoic therapy process he went through with Rusticus. He says that in the mind of one who has been chastened and thoroughly purified there is no festering sore beneath the surface, and nothing that would not bear examination or would hide from the light. There is no longer anything servile or phony about someone who has achieved this, he adds, and they are neither dependent on others nor alienated from them. Those are both therapy goals for Stoics and the goals of life.
Writing down the virtues possessed by a hypothetical wise man or woman, or those we aspire to ourselves, is usually a very beneficial exercise. It may also be useful for you to formulate descriptions of two or three specific individuals and compare these to a more general description of an ideal. These could be real acquaintances from your life, historical figures, or even fictional characters. The important thing is to process the information by reflecting on it and revising it where necessary. Allow some time to pass and then come back to review and improve your descriptions. Consider how specific virtues, such as wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation, might be exhibited by role models you’ve chosen. In general, thinking things over and looking at these ideas from different perspectives—however you choose to do it—can be helpful in terms of self-improvement. Having spent some time on writing exercises, you will more easily be able to picture things in your mind’s eye. The best way to do this is to imagine a role model whose strengths you’ve identified coping with a challenging situation. The Stoics asked themselves, ‘What would Socrates or Zeno do?’ Marcus likely asked himself how Rusticus and his other teachers would cope with the difficult situations he faced in life. He undoubtedly asked himself what Antoninus would do. Psychologists call this ‘modeling’ someone’s behavior.” — From How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald J. Robertson.
II. The Core Philosophical Ideas of Buddhism
In terms of the Buddha’s specific philosophical ideas, his core principles are contained in what he termed The Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is that life is fundamentally suffering. No matter who or what they are, all living things are bound and connected by this intrinsic existential quality of suffering, in its broadest sense. The Second Noble Truth argues that this suffering is a consequence of our desires and attachments. The third truth, in a revolutionary way of thinking for its time, goes on to claim that since suffering is a product of attachment and desire, one can personally overcome and end suffering by eliminating or recalibrating one’s desires and attachments. The fourth and final Noble Truth contains the steps Buddha believed were necessary to do so. This collection of steps would be named the Noble Eightfold Path, also often referred to as the Middle Way. These eight steps include right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. These concepts are not so much steps to be achieved or discovered in a linear order, but rather, a wheel of actively circulating behaviors and wisdom that one must constantly turn. In broad summary, it essentially calls for the practice of wisdom, universal compassion, moderation, self-knowledge, and reaching enlightenment, or Nirvana, through non-attachment and the elimination of desire.
Essential to the success of the Buddha’s teachings is this final idea of non-attachment or no desire. Admittedly, this concept can sound rather counterintuitive at first, but it starts by recognizing the true nature of the self, which is, in at least one interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings, non-self (or emptiness). Buddha argued that our external world is in perpetual, unattainable flux, and consequently, so too are we. We are but collections of constantly changing interactions between the world and our thoughts, and thus, the idea of a fixed, independent, identifiable self is a delusion. This is essential to understand because it suggests that the self that we are trying to satisfy, escape, or eternalize never even really exists in the first place. Rather, the capital I that we describe is merely a state of emptiness constantly being filled and emptied by the succession of each moment. This concept can perhaps be experienced distinctly when one considers how there is no real central point of sensation and experience when one experiences something like smell, mental vision, memory, or emotion. Of course, they can be pointed to the mind, but where in the mind? After the nose, who or what is smelling? Or, let’s say, if you imagined a purple cat right now and visualized it in your head, where is the purple cat? How is the purple cat? Where are you seeing it from? There is just a blank emptiness filled up by the interacting thoughts and sensations of the moment, all becoming one constantly changing hybrid of self and material world.”— From The Art of Living a Meaningless Existence: Ideas from Philosophy That Change the Way You Think by Robert Pantano.
III. Ray Dalio’s 5-Step Process to Get What You Want Out of Life
“It seems to me that the personal evolutionary process—the looping I described in the last chapter—takes place in five distinct steps. If you can do those five things well, you will almost certainly be successful. Here they are in a nutshell:
1. Have clear goals.
2. Identify and don’t tolerate the problems that stand in the way of your achieving those goals.
3. Accurately diagnose the problems to get at their root causes.
4. Design plans that will get you around them.
5. Do what’s necessary to push these designs through to results. Together, these five steps make up a loop, like the one on the facing page.”
“First you have to pick what you are going after—your goals. Your choice of goals will determine your direction. As you move toward them, you will encounter problems. Some of those problems will bring you up against your own weaknesses. How you react to the pain that causes is up to you. If you want to reach your goals, you must be calm and analytical so that you can accurately diagnose your problems, design a plan that will get you around them, and do what’s necessary to push through to results.
Then you will look at the new results you achieve and go through the process again. To evolve quickly, you will have to do this fast and continuously, setting your goals successively higher. You will need to do all five steps well to be successful and you must do them one at a time and in order. For example, when setting goals, just set goals. Don’t think about how you will achieve them or what you will do if something goes wrong. When you are diagnosing problems, don’t think about how you will solve them—just diagnose them. Blurring the steps leads to suboptimal outcomes because it interferes with uncovering the true problems. The process is iterative: Doing each step thoroughly will provide you with the information you need to move on to the next step and do it well. It is essential that you approach this process in a clearheaded, rational way, looking down on yourself from a higher level and being ruthlessly honest. If your emotions are getting the better of you, step back and take time out until you can reflect clearly. If necessary, seek guidance from calm, thoughtful people.
To help you stay centered and effective, pretend that your life is a martial art or a game, the object of which is to get around a challenge and reach a goal. Once you accept its rules, you’ll get used to the discomfort that comes with the constant frustration. You will never handle everything perfectly: Mistakes are inevitable and it’s important to recognize and accept this fact of life. The good news is that every mistake you make can teach you something, so there’s no end to learning. You’ll soon realize that excuses like ‘that’s not easy’ or ‘it doesn’t seem fair’ or even ‘I can’t do that’ are of no value and that it pays to push through.” — From Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio.
If you’re successful in attaining your goals, your life will look like this:
Gary Keller provides another metaphor for goal setting in his book, The One Thing:
“By thinking through the filter of Goal Setting to the Now, you set a future goal and then methodically drill down to what you should be doing right now. It can be a little like a Russian matryoshka doll in that your ONE Thing ‘right now’ is nested inside your ONE Thing TODAY, which is nested inside your ONE Thing this WEEK, which is nested inside your ONE Thing this MONTH… it’s how a small thing can actually build up to a big one… You’re lining up your dominoes.”
Quotes to Ponder
I. Maya Angelou on the lasting impact of our actions:
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
II. Bruce Lee on cultivating adaptability in the face of obstacles:
"Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it."
Did you enjoy this email? Please consider buying me a coffee to caffeinate my reading sessions.
Thank you for reading,
P.S. Are you on Instagram? Every day I'm sharing my favourite philosophy and literature quotes, akin to the quotes to ponder section in this email.