History

Alone? No. Always the past to keep me company. The creatures on the planet, and the Force. And now you. Annoying though you may be.” – Yoda to Luke Skywalker

 

Our History

In High School my History Teacher said that the whole point of studying history is to “appreciate the past, understand the present and predict the future”. A skeptical class listened on. What’s the point of History some asked. Why would anyone dedicate their lives to studying dead people? I was the one that had always enjoyed learning about history. We are after all a product of past time. Everyone has come from somewhere. The vicissitudes of history with its migrations, wars and technological advances all have a bearing on our lives today. History is being made in this very moment and we are all part of it. The past is our constant, sometimes annoying, companion as we make our own history.

You know you are starting to get old when events that you clearly remember are referred to in the history texts. The first news footage I recall was the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Barely 8 years of age, I asked someone in the room why people were running and why were people fighting to clamber on to a Helicopter. Another scene on the TV showed Helicopters being shoved off an aircraft carrier. It was only a few years later in school that I learned about the Vietnam War. There were children in my class who were refugees from that war. They had fled with their parents. With little more than the shirts on their back they had been become homeless and had had to move to another country far from home. Their story had become a “History” lesson.

 

Rise and Fall

Looking at the world today it would be easy conclude that people do not learn from History. Humans collectively have a short memory. As soon as one calamity ends and we declare that we have learned we set ourselves up to repeat past mistakes. Lessons are never learned and even Historians disagree on what the past has to teach us. One thing is for sure, we seem to be caught in some sort of endless loop where humanity is condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce” – Karl Marx

 

The Roman Empire ultimately failed because it was too big and too powerful. Corruption was rife and a huge inequality existed among the people. The common folk were over taxed and struggled to survive while the elite amassed vast fortunes and consolidated power to benefit the few. As the barbarian tribes pushed in on Rome’s vast border driving it back, many of the citizens welcomed the new order. Eventually the Western Roman Empire imploded leaving only the East ruled from Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire also fell to Ottoman invaders in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople.

The Ottoman Empire in turn fell over 450 years later at the conclusion of the First War. The Empire had been decaying for more than a century due to corruption, negligence and incompetence in an Empire that reached almost to Vienna through the Balkans and Greece to Iran and Egypt to Algeria at its height. Why is this point significant? You can say that I am a product of these tidal changes of history. My heritage is from the central Balkans, the epicenter of the struggle between the Empires. This heritage has shaped much of my own personal history.

“We are not makers of history. We are made by history” – Martin Luther King. Jr.

 

How will our current great society fare in the coming decades? Will civilization decay slowly or will it be a cataclysmic event bought on by war or environmental collapse? Is the future of humanity hopeful? Does the world hold a brighter future, an enlightened age? Empires rise and fall with the tides of time. How will our great modern empires fare? What will be the impact on future generations?

 

Same as always

People centuries ago were pretty much the same as they are now. They had families, property, careers and civic or military duties. Children went to school and played. Women went to markets and shopped and cared for their kids. Men went to work and socialized with their peers. Young people grouped together and couples paired off, got married and began families.

People had essentially the same cares and concerns that we have now. They worried about having enough money to support their family and provide a roof over their heads and food on the table. There were concerns for security, law and order, the economy and health as there is now. We may live in more modern and affluent times but things have not changed that much. Everything that we see in our day to day lives and all the order and structure that makes up our society is a product of the past. People are born and die but much the same things apply.

 

Legacy

Most people can’t trace their family tree back very far. Perhaps four or five generations and then things get very blurry. A direct ancestor that lived 200 years ago is a unknown stranger to us. We would not him if we saw his face on a painting. It’s worth considering for a moment that in generations to come we will also be dead, buried and likely forgotten. All that will remain of our legacy are far off descendants who we will never meet. The question is, will they have learned from our mistakes?

“Appreciate the past, to understand the present and predict the future”

 

I remember my Father quite well even though it would be more than 30 years since we last spoke. The man provided me some important lessons in life however I largely failed to take them to heart. Following a similar path he had taken decades before I ended up, like him, alcoholic. I still wonder to this day how I could have survived the childhood that I did under the care of a reckless and abusive alcoholic only to fall in to the same trap. Someone once said that alcoholism is hereditary but I am skeptical about that. I had a choice, I knew the risks and the consequences but I chose to ignore the warnings and the lessons of the past. I had simply failed to learn from “His story”.

 

Use History

We cannot change the past. The Future on the other hand is an open book. What we decide to do this moment has a bearing on future events. So we choose mindfully our actions. This does not guarantee us the future we hope or desire but we can do our best with what we have within our control. We can try to navigate our lives as best as possible on a course that reflects the person we want to be. There is no good reason to repeat the mistakes of the past. Within us we have all the tools to ensure that we learn from our past mistakes and also take heed of the mistakes of others. We can learn from History.

Use Star Wars as an example if it helps. Fiction, like History, also provides a wonderful source of knowledge and wisdom. The rise and fall of the Republic and the Jedi are a metaphor for our own world and serves as a warning. The story of the fall of Anakin and the rise and fall of Darth Vader is a parable which remind us that our own inner demons can lead us to downfall. Giving in to Fear, Anger and Hate only ends in despair and death. Turning our lives over to Love, Hope and Faith leads to life, peace and serenity.

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” – Confucius

 

Today I am recovered and I use my history and the history of others who have also walked the same path to avoid the pitfalls of the past. We need not be condemned to make the same mistakes again. If we have come out of a dark place we can recall what led us there and why and use that to help ourselves and others.

The choice is now. We either learn from the past and choose not to repeat the same mistakes or we continue down the well trodden path ultimately to our ruin. Make your History one worth remembering.

 

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past” – Thomas Jefferson

 

Micro Habits

You must unlearn what you have learned” – Yoda

 

Want Change?

So you want to change. You have reached a point where you have decided this is it. The time has come and you are committed. There is a clear vision of the person you want to be and even a plan on how to get there. It’s a massive undertaking, probably the biggest challenge you have every faced. That’s OK because you are going to take a deep breath and steam right in. Right? Are we ready? Let’s do this. Wait for it, wait for it…

Something happens and we balk. Our best laid plans are scuttled. The best of intentions are not enough. There was right intent and right motivation but the bar was set too high. We couldn’t do it. What happened?

 

A journey of a thousand miles beings with a single step” – Lao Tzu

 

 

Fail to Launch

Some years ago I embarked on a fitness campaign that was meant to go for months. It lasted precisely one day. I had a program written and had received good advise from a fitness expert. Because I was desperate for fast results I set off at break neck speed on a program that was way above my limitations. The next day I was too sore to move. I tried again and the work load was so high I could not complete the routine. The experience was anything but enjoyable. Motivation lost I decided to drop it and I never returned to the gym.

 

I never explain myself, it’s a bad habit” – Han Solo

 

Change is rarely an easy endeavor particularly when old habits must be replaced by new habits. We have to overcome entropy and inertia. It is easier to sit and watch television than it is to go for a run. Buying and eating fast food is easier than taking the time and effort to prepare a wholesome and healthy meal. Even if we decide to get up and go for a run we may set off at sprint committed to five miles and gas out at 200 yards, turn around and go home, defeated and deflated. Our brain resists our best intentions and we quit because we lose confidence.

How many times have you made a new years resolution to learn a language, exercise more, spend less, eat better or quit smoking and after a few days have found yourself back in your default routine? The problem is not intent or motivation it is strategy. If we are trying the same thing over and over again and not getting the desired results, it is time to change tact. Micro Habits may be the solution.

 

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit” – Aristotle

 

One small step

Every marathon begins with a single step. A strict muscle up starts with an assisted pull up. One single push up done often enough will eventually build up to many. A major change in our character or habits starts with small and incremental changes. Each drop of water adds to the bucket of gains over time.

 

Easy does it

 

Micro habits are baby steps. Psychologists call it behavioral momentum. Once you start something and keep chipping away at it over time eventually it becomes a habit. This can apply to both good and bad behaviors. For example, we can form a positive habit of reducing sugar intake over time and reap the benefits of weight loss. Instead of cutting out sugar completely we reduce it slightly and cut back a little every day. Eventually our sugar intake is minimal.

 

Bad Habits

The same principle applies in reverse. We can form bad habits incrementally. At one stage in my drinking career I got in to the habit of having a glass of wine in bed as I watched television. This turned in to two glasses and eventually a bottle. After a while I was passing out after consuming two or three bottle of wine while sat up in bed. I developed hypertension and put on about 20 pounds. The ramp up was gradual over a couple of months. That is how fast habits can become ingrained and reinforced. Eventually the habit becomes an addiction.

As an alcoholic I am painfully aware that I have an addictive personality and form habits very quickly and find breaking “pleasurable” habits difficult. If I were to try controlled drinking the experiment would likely backfire and I would soon find myself in full blown abuse as the habit reestablished itself.

 

“Whenever you are angry, be assured that it is not only a present evil, but that you have increased a habit.” – Epictetus

One Day

Getting sober in the beginning was a “one day at a time” endeavor for me. Alcoholics Anonymous asks a new comer if they can go one day without a drink. Not forever, just a single day. Most alcoholics can go one day without a drink. That’s all that is asked, just one day and let tomorrow take care of itself.

The next day we ask the same question and “God Willing” we get through another day. These baby steps get us through the early days. Eventually the days without a drink pile up. At this point we can start to plan ahead and turn our short term gains in to a long term program of recovery. Micro Habits become life long habits.

“One Day at Time”

 

Future Shock

Micro habits can be used to counter every day habits. For example many people will automatically reach for the smart phones if they are idle for more than a few seconds. The trigger to reach for the phone is that moment when our attention is not drawn to something or we are not deep in thought or reverie. Who rolls out of bed in the morning and instinctively checks their messenger and social media feed? I do!

Rather than mindlessly follow those mental urges we can stop ourselves and apply self awareness. Having a moment to do nothing but breathe and take in the moment we find ourselves in is a far better use of time than peering at our Face Book feed* (see foot note). Instead of defaulting to social media as the primary form of interaction with other human beings we should seek to connect with those around us in some meaningful and tangible way.

 

“You leave old habits behind by starting out with the thought, ‘I release the need for this in my life” – Wayne Dyer

Rewire

Micro Habits can also be used to address anger, depression, anxiety and resentment. We can identify triggers that cause us to react in ways we would rather not. If bad drivers cause us to rage at the wheel or rude people raise our ire and resentment we can work towards accepting that they exist and only we can choose how we react to them. Instead of acting out negative emotions we can form habits that convert challenges in to opportunities to practice principle. We can turn patience and equanimity into a habit. Instead of getting angry and snapping at someone, try smiling and offering some kind words. It might be hard at first but eventually it will get easier and there is real pleasure in disarming an unpleasant person with a sincere compliment.

 

“It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them” – Benjamin Franklin

Micro Habits may not be the cure to addiction or serious psychological issues but when we are focused on a positive habit we crowd out a bunch of negative one’s. We can get drunk while in recovery but doing so with a head full of program is a miserable proposition. Small, incremental and constant changes in our habits re-wire the brain. Through repetition our responses change and over time so does our character.

 

Tiny Habits

So you want to change. You have tried everything to achieve your goals but have so far stumbled and failed. Micro Habits can help because anyone can take a baby step. All it takes is that single step out of the door, one push up or one pull up attempt. Anyone can try meditating for a minute. If we were honest about wanting to learn a language we would be able to find 5 minutes a day to spend on a language app. If we are committed to reading more and browsing less we can read a page and day and work up to two. With practice you will soon be sitting in meditation for 30 minutes or more and spending more time on your exercise, language studies and reading or whatever else we want to do but keep failing to launch.

 

  1. Incorporate your activities in to current daily routine. For example, meditation can be done anywhere. If you take the train or bus to work, start doing mental body scanning and focusing on your breath. You don’t need a “meditation room’, soft music and incense to meditate. It can be done anywhere. I practice calisthenics and never have a problem finding time or floor space to do some push ups or sit ups. A bench or chair can be used for dips. A branch or sign post can serve as a bull up bar. I have Memrise on my smart phone and can complete a language lesson on the fly anywhere there is a signal. All of my readings are on a Kindle which is rarely out of reach.
  2. Don’t stop it swap it; I have a habit of drinking a coffee every night before bed and eating some chocolate. A few months ago I switched to 85% dark chocolate and organic coffee. Another option might be to have green tea and a carrot stick instead but let’s not get ahead of ourselves! The point is you can reduce or substitute. Read a book instead of click bait. Snack on a banana instead of a bag of chips.
  3. Be SMART; goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. Decide to run a marathon? That’s a specific goal. Is it achievable? That depends. A training goal should have measurable outcomes such as incremental increase in distance ran every week in the months prior to the event. Be realistic, if you have never done long distance running there is little chance you will be ready in two weeks let alone six months. Timely; set yourself a time-frame to completion with plenty of room. Micro habits require time to show results.
  4. Journal your progress; I keep a training journal of my progress in calisthenics. A year ago my routines were basic and very modest compared to now. As I flick through the pages I can see the incremental improvements over time. Big gains take time and you may not notice them straight away because they are the new normal but they are very real. Many people do video or photos to journal their weight loss or fitness journey. Many recovering alcoholics blog their journey and the changes in their lives over time are astounding.
  5. Daily practices; daily practices such as exercise, meditation and reading can be scheduled in to our day. A morning routine of gratitude and planning, mindfulness and an evening review of the day followed by quite contemplation or meditation need not take hours. Set priorities. Which is more important watching reality TV or investing in your spiritual, mental, physical and emotional growth?
  6. Celebrate small wins; so we manage to complete our daily goal. Well done! Parents applaud in delight as their child takes her first small steps. Baby also celebrates, a little afraid but clearly proud and happy with her milestone accomplishment. We should also celebrate our small daily milestones and congratulate ourselves no matter how trivial it seems. One push up or pull up when you struggle with one is a million times better than not even trying. With small victories comes greater confidence in your ability. That’s the Jedi Spirit.

 

“Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking and running by running…therefore if you want to do something make a habit of it, if you don’t want to do that, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead” – Epictetus

Easy Does It

You will not find a perfect Jedi any more than you will find a perfect practitioner of any philosophy. I am definitely not an exemplary role model for either. My program of recovery also has many areas needing improvement as does my character. Micro Habits gives us the tool to make small but significant steps in the areas that we want to improve. By starting simple and easy we give ourselves a chance to get traction and gain momentum. Progress, not perfection is the goal.

In order to create habits they have to be routine, they should be triggered and there should be tangible reward for our efforts. To break a habit we must remove one of those three elements and preferably all three. Every morning I get up and drink a large glass of water. There is a trigger, routine and reward. In the past I would stop in a bar on the way home from work and have a few beers.  I stopped that habit once the cycle of addiction was broken.

Micro Habits may be Baby Steps but they still move us from where we are to where we want to go.

 

All I’m saying is don’t let having the Force in your arsenal lull you into a false sense of security. Don’t get into the habit of taking more credits from your bank account than you put in.“- Bail Organa

 “Jedi don’t have bank accounts.” – Obi-wan Kenobi

Foot Note: Facebookalitis

*Face Book addiction otherwise known as Facebookalitis is on the way to becoming described as an actual psychological disorder. Social Media is addictive as the reward centers in our brain are fired sending off dopamine every time we get a notification or like.

The more we use the platform the more addictive it becomes. The perception of social acceptance through likes and comments the reward. Our social media profile and personality can becomes someone we are not in real life. A type of multiple personality disorder evolves.

Our brains are re-wired through chronic internet usage. Short term memory and attention spans are diminished and the prefrontal cortex is altered. Emotional responses can change. Human emotions such as empathy, compassion and the ability to control aggression and anger can be reduced in people who are chronic users of Face Book.

Change

Change is never easy. For some of us it is traumatic and frightening. Most people are creatures of habit and want life to be static. The person that we are today was not constructed over night but over a life time. We get used to who we think we are and what we have. Our thoughts, words and actions are usually the product of established patterns. Many of us don’t realize it but we are actually predictable. People correctly anticipate our reactions once they get to know us. Yet at the same time we act as if we are dynamic and mysterious or spontaneous in some special way. Usually the opposite is true. We don’t like surprises and we don’t want to change unless we absolutely have to.

 

The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates

Despite our reticence to change the world changes around us. Sometimes it changes faster than we can keep up. The older I get the less familiar the world seems to be and the more set in my ways I become. Yet there is no denying it, the world constantly changes and we must change with it. Old ideas and beliefs must be questioned and possibly put aside and replaced with new ones.

The 12 Steps is a program of change. Sometimes it is like ripping a band-aid off an old wound. We don’t want to do it but we know we must and with courage and fortitude we do. It hurts but the pain and the immediate relief felt when it’s done is worth it. With every change we make in or lives we evolve. With small and incremental changes made over time the people around is start to notice a difference and then after some self reflection we notice it too. We have grown and become a better person. No change worth having was ever easy. Remember that.

 

What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” – Plutarch

Drop the Rock

In the program they say we have to “drop the rock”. At first we are left wondering what this means. We inventory our faults and flaws and reveal to ourselves, to another and our Higher Power the full extent of the mess we have created. By bringing up what we would rather leave buried we come face to face with who we are and what we have done. Our true reflection stares back at us in the mirror. Illusions are dispelled; the fog has lifted from our eyes.

Knowing who we are gives us the opportunity to change. There can be no rectification of a problem if we don’t know what it is. In our case self honesty is the key to the change process. We can try to lie to other people but we find it is hard, lying to ourselves on the other hand becomes almost impossible when we know who we are. Once we have a “hit list” of changes that are needed to be made to support our recovery and demonstrate our new found principles we must find the courage and the strength to “drop the rock” that is holding us back.

 

Sometimes letting go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on” – Eckhart Tolle

To “drop the rock” means to “Let Go” of our old habits, negative patterns of thoughts and self defeating attitudes. This means that if there is something about ourselves that we want to change, we simply stop doing it. Whatever the flaw we simply drop it from our lives. This can seem hard at times. For example if we are in the habit of getting angry every time we don’t get our way, it may take some time before we go some time without acting out that anger. I had the habit of quickly jumping to conclusions about people and always expecting the worst. My pessimism was holding me back from growing in recovery. By being able to identify the habit and resolving to stop it, I have become more mindful about my “instincts” and less likely to make up my mind before I have all the facts.  The trick is to simply decide to make the change and “act as if”. We can  “fake it till we make it”; often this is enough to eventually get there.

 

Reflect

We never reflect how pleasant it is to ask for nothing.” – Seneca

 

Self reflection is an important part of this process and the evening review helps us in assessing our conduct during the day. We can visualize out interactions with people and our thought patterns and behaviors. Did we allow emotions to cloud our judgement or influence our decisions and actions? How did we handle difficult situations? Did stress make us do or say things we regretted? Was the source of much of our frustration other people? Did they do or say things that upset us? Why? What was our part in all of this?

Every day is an opportunity to learn new lessons and the evening review is that time when we can convert those lessons in to experience and wisdom. If something did not work today and we made an idiot of ourselves or messed things up, that’s OK. The trick is to realize where we went wrong and figure out what to do about it. Where we identify change is required we consider where and how to make the necessary adjustments and resolve to try again.

We should always remember that life does not happen to us. Generally most things that we perceive as “bad” are in fact “indifferences”. We simply judge them as “bad” because they are least preferred. Knowing that it is our impression and not the thing, we could just as easily be indifferent about whatever vexes us. The important thing to consider is what resides within our control and what is outside out our control. There are also those things which are partially in our control to act upon and influence to some degree.

 

Change yourself

The change that we affect in our lives is predominately in the area that we have control. This includes our behaviors and conduct, our thoughts and reactions to emotions. The attitude that we bring to any situation and our own resolve. We are responsible for these things as they are within our control. This is where we can make our changes.

 

Change your thoughts, transform your life

Strangely enough we tend to invest more energy in trying to exert our control where it is limited. We lose our minds when people, places and things do not change and conform to our expectations. Consider that the President of the United States appears to wield an incredible amount of control and power. The reality is he is dependent on others.

Like the rest of us, the President does not always get his way and planned policies never see the light of day because they get voted down or his supporters drop support. For someone who is used to being in control of others all of the time and being able to effect rapid and sweeping changes with the snap of his fingers, being POTUS must be a very limiting and very frustrating job.

 

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius

Slave not Master

The Sith were dedicated in forcing change not only on others but on natural and metaphysical laws. Forcing others to conform rather than adapting and changing to their environment was the Sith approach. The Jedi on the other hand had a code which they followed as a guiding principle and otherwise sought to change their selves first. They used logic and reasoning through negotiation and consensus to change others and influence an outcome.

The Jedi focused on what they were able to achieve rather than trying to force a solution that was inconsistent with their principles. Anakin Skywalker on the other hand felt that it was his duty to make the changes he believed were needed even if he had to use force. When others failed to conform to his plans he would grow resentful and resort to any means necessary.

 

“Always remember, your focus determines your reality” – Yoda

 

The Sith took advantage of Anakin’s desire to change the laws of nature. Darth Sidious realized that they could control Anakin by giving him the illusion of control. By becoming Darth Vader, Anakin became nothing but a servant. Worse he was demented and existed in an illusion of power believing that the fate of the Galaxy resided within his hands while doing little more than a pawn in his Master’s bidding.

Being alcoholic is like being a slave. We believe we have mastery over our own lives and control over others. We elevate ourselves to “big shots”. When reality bites and it always does we find don’t even have control over ourselves. We barely function as human beings. Alcohol is our Master. At this point we must first change ourselves before we can get control of our own lives back.

 

Do or do not, there is no try” – Yoda

 

Rule of Fives

Five approaches to making changes in your life:

    1. Break it down: A major overhaul is done in small and incremental steps. Change takes time. By making small changes successfully you increase your confidence and minor failures and disappointments are less likely to unhinge you.
    2. Weigh it up: Some desired changes produce beneficial outcomes. Others are less beneficial. Decide whether the change you want is worth it the consequences. In the Army I one day decided to stop being the “reserved grey man” and changed my behaviour to “big mouthed trouble maker” in order to be assertive, not a smart move. Not all change is wise.
    3. Keep it Positive: Carries on from the last point. Being polite and courteous instead of arrogant and rude would be a positive change in almost every circumstance.
    4. Keep it Simple: Try not to complicate things or make it hard. Be very clear about the changes you want to make it your life. You may decide you need to a change of scenery and decide to move to the mountains to achieve a calm and passive mind. In reality you can achieve this almost anywhere.
    5. Practice and Protect: If you don’t use it you lose it. If we want to be more mindful we need to practice mindfulness. It is a skill that becomes a habit with time and practice. If we never apply the change that we seek we will never own it. Saying, I want to be more self aware and calm is fine but you have to start being it.

Take Stock

One of the burdens of being Alcoholic and being prone to depression is sometimes being over critical of one’s self. While it is important to recognize our character flaws and correct them sometimes we can also be over hard on our selves. Being sober we now expect excellence from our selves all of the time. Where as before we demanded standards and qualities of others that we were not prepared to display . We need to learn to be easy on ourselves and take it slow. Persistence and consistency is the key in our journey of self improvement. As Epictetus suggested, we endure and renounce. Along the way we need to remember to pause and reflect on how far we have come on the journey. We should at intervals look back at the distance traveled and take stock of our lives.

When I made one year sobriety I paused to reflect on a year without alcohol. I was still new at recovery and the foundation I had built was unsteady. My emotions were still raw and I was still quick to anger and prone to panic. I had completed many of the steps and was almost zealous in my pursuit of spiritual knowledge. By the third year I had calmed down and become more settled but still lacked a great deal of emotional maturity. Along the way I had discovered the Jedi Path and it helped me approach recovery as a spiritual, mental, emotional and physical pursuit. This allowed me to grow as a complete human being rather than just focusing on one or two elements.

Recently I achieved five years sobriety. Despite the many congratulations I received from people in the recovery community I see no reason to celebrate. It is however a milestone and an opportunity to pause for reflection. Along the way I have learned not to think of life in terms of a projected future. Those “where do you see yourself in five years” questions asked at professional development interviews always throw me. My goal is only to be sober today and “God willing” sober tomorrow (do not say this at an interview). I take nothing for granted and remember that everything I have today may be gone tomorrow. For this I remember to be grateful for what I have. I do not waste time living for the sake of trying to get to a desired outcome. Life is not about amassing material wealth that soon gathers dust. If we wait for life to provide our definition of happiness before we are content then we are sure to be disappointed or at the very least contented only for a brief time. In my case I will probably be well over 70 before I retire!

I took the Stoic Week questionnaire and my “Life Satisfaction” score was relatively low. Perhaps I was being a little too “stoic” in my answers*. The truth is that despite the low score I am in a far better place than I was five years ago. We need not be unhappy about being unhappy. People believe that to have a life worth living we must be happy all the time and to be otherwise is to be a candidate for anti-depressants. Life of course is far more complex than that and emotions are a part of being human and to be embraced. We cannot control our emotions nor can we control much of what life throws at us but we can decide how to respond to both as they arise. Despite the moments of self doubt and the fear of uncertainty and the sense that life is accelerating to an end point there is always another day to get things right. Life is to be lived and lived “one day at a time”.

 

Lists

In the 12 Steps we write an inventory twice; once for all the faults and flaws in our character and another list of all the people we have harmed along the way. The lists prime us for action; we determine to give up our faults and become better people and we resolve to make amends to those we have listed as far as it causes no harm to them or others. We get out of ourselves and we get to work. Steps, 4-9 are the hardest and also the most rewarding.

So how do we take Stock of our lives? The Stoics were not big on writing out inventories and lists however both can help.

 

  1. What are you grateful for? List the top five things in your life that matter to you.
  2. What are your strengths? List five virtues and qualities that you have in abundance.
  3. What are your areas for improvement? This can be anything including communication skills, honesty, diet, self discipline.
  4. List your achievements; categorize them in to the last year, five years and ten years. This will reveal what you have achieved.
  5. List your personal goals; set rough targets and be realistic, if you want to learn French in the next 2 years, write it down. If you want to train for and run a Marathon in six months, right it down. You consider yourself an angry person and want to change. Now that you have goals consider how you plan achieve them.
  6. Ask yourself: Am I living the life that I want? List the reasons for and against the statement. Some aspects of your life may be exactly where you want it to be while other areas may be holding you back. For example you may be excelling in your career but are frustrated by your personal life. Explore the reasons for this. Consider yours answers to questions 1 to 5 when considering this.

 

Daily reflection is an ancient Stoic practice. These are practices that can be incorporated in to your daily routine:

 

  1. Every day on waking up pause to welcome the day. Acknowledge the sanctity of the day as it is a gift. Most people are already in their heads as soon as their eyes open. They imagine all the things that might go wrong and stumble from one day to the next on some mindless trajectory in to the future. One day blends in to the next.
  2. Pause to reflect on your state of mind. Are you grumpy? Up beat or just desperate for a coffee? I find that how I start the day usually sets the tone for the rest of it. If I stumble out of bed with a negative attitude, it sticks with me all day.
  3. Appreciate three things, this is gratitude. It might be the blue sky and sun shining through the windows, the smile of your partner offering you coffee or a hug from your child. Breathe in that moment.
  4. Plan your day and consider how you will respond to it. Marcus Aurelius would remind himself that he would have to contend with the arrogant, the disagreeable and the obtuse through the day and would set himself not to react adversely but to accept them as fellow humans. If you are expecting a tough day, get your game face on and your head in order.
  5. Fortify your mind. Every day I step outside my door with a theme that I take from the 12 Step slogans. They include “Easy does it”, “Live and Let Live”. “Let Go and Let God”, “Think, Think, Think”, “One day a Time”, “Keep it Simple”, “Progress not Perfection” and “First things First”. I might also use a quote from Star Wars like “Do or do not, there is no try” or “Calm, at Peace, Passive”. During the day I return to these slogans and quotes.
  6. Apply mindfulness through the day. At intervals pause to ask “what am I thinking” and “what am I feeling”. Negative trains of thought and emotions will be exposed and you will have the opportunity to reset.
  7. In the evening pause to reflect on the day. Consider what went well and what didn’t. Meditate on it and contemplate how you might respond better in the future. Resist the urge to beat yourself up. There is always tomorrow.

 

* Never confuse “stoic” with “Stoic”.

The Cave

Five Years

Today marks five years of sobriety in my life. I look back at that time and I ask myself have I come far? Am I a better person? Is it worth it? If I am honest with myself I can respond with some conviction “yes” to all of these questions. When I look at the person am I now compared to whom I was five years ago the change is remarkable. This process of change has not been dramatic but gradual. Change has not come over night but has been achieved through incremental progress, “one day at a time”.

Has it been hard? It has been the hardest thing I have ever done. Becoming sober and trying to achieve a measure of emotional sobriety has been a roller coaster ride. The good news is that anything that we strive for, anything worth doing is rarely a walk in the park. Sobriety is no different. Most days we are getting by fine but we keep up the pressure and test ourselves. By never resting on our laurels and by applying principles in all areas of life and by being true to our values we prepare ourselves for those tough times when we need to dig deep. Philosophy helps us to get there.

 

“There is no success without hardship” – Sophocles

 

Life is a Wrestle

The Stoics understood the purpose of philosophy. They committed to applying their philosophy every waking hour. It was not a tool they used when they needed to draw inspiration or use a handy “get out of jail free card”.

 

“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in so far as it stands ready against the accidental and the unforeseen, and is not apt to fall.” – Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius compared life to a wrestling match. A wrestler is able to move gracefully and with purpose. The Wrestler is aware of his surroundings and can move through time and space with ease like a dancer. At the same time a Wrestler can anticipate an attack and if taken off guard can quickly recover from an assault, break a hold and turn the table in his favor. Using strength, flexibility, agility, momentum, technique, courage and intelligence the Wrestler prevails over his opponent.

Unless we take our philosophy for life and apply it, practice it and make progress constantly we will not benefit. We should learn from mistakes and strive to improve so that we do not become complacent and untrained. We are less likely to handle the adversities of life, be it an opponent in the ring, a sudden crisis, a tragic event or even a petty inconvenience that raises our ire if we are ill prepared.

Being sober has been five years of “train hard to fight easy”. I have had to wrestle mostly with my own failings. I have worked the 12 Steps and applied my principles and values in order to recover.   Working the Steps and being Jedi has enabled me to manage my anger, fear, anxiety, resentment and self pity.

 

The Cave

In many ways the last five years has been a solo journey.  I have had to face many challenges and confront many fears and a great deal of doubt and pain alone. My family has been there and there is also a fellowship to learn from but ultimately any one who passes through their personal Dagobah Cave must do so alone. When Luke Skywalker confronted his dark side in the Dagobah Cave he did so by himself. Yoda knew what Luke would face there; he too had faced his own personal Demons and conquered them.  Yoda also knew that Luke had to face the cave alone.

 

“What will I find in there”? – Luke Skywalker

“Only what you take with you” – Yoda

 

The Dagobah Cave scene was a symbol of the human need for self exploration and self knowledge. We all want to know what resides within ourselves every flaw and fault as well as every virtue. When I embarked on my journey or recovery I did not know myself. I thought I did but it was an illusion. The person I saw when I looked in the mirror was not the person that other people saw. What I believed others saw in me was not a reality either. I lived in self illusion and dishonesty.

Only by having the courage to confront myself and reveal all of my faults and flaws to another and to my Higher Power was a clear picture presented. I was appalled by what I saw but I also knew I did not have to be that person any longer.With self-knowledge  I could change but I had to want to and be prepared to do the work.

 

The essence of knowledge is self-knowledge” – Plato

Catharsis

In order to change sometimes we have to be prepared to undergo a personal catharsis first. For me it was hitting rock bottom and then finding a way out as I surrendered to a Higher Power. It was not the first time I had experienced a transformative experience. The death of my Mother when I was seven was traumatic and confusing. The years I spent in orphanages, juvenile foster care and living with an abusive alcoholic taught me about survival and the value of human dignity and justice. Service in the military and years as a homeless itinerant after discharge taught me about the wider world and showed me the best and worst in others and in myself. Alcoholism too was an important school of life.

 

“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny” – CS Lewis

 

All of these experiences were personal Dagobah Caves; trials on the journey of life. All of them carried poignant and powerful impacts on my life that shaped my character and my destiny. Those experiences carried important life lessons which have made me who I am today.

 

“Self knowledge puts us on our knees, and it is very necessary for love. For knowledge of God gives love, and knowledge of self gives humility” – Mother Theresa

 

 

The School of Life

If my alma mater is the school of hard knocks, then the last five years of sobriety has been the most powerful graduate school I could have ever hoped for. The prize has been emotional, mental, physical and spiritual growth. Recovery teaches us a great deal about ourselves and others. We are taken beyond the limits of what we thought was humanly possible. Much of the time we are swimming against the tide.

There are  years or decades of reinforced behaviors, ideals, bias and sacred cows to overcome before we can progress. The requirement is a complete overhaul of who we thought we were. We have to stop looking outside ourselves for faults and excuses but look inwardly at how we have made our lives. For many this can be confronting and frightening. Some of us fight it and resist but we know that we must enter that dark cave and put trust in our Higher Power. We must enter alone and face the truth, only then can we emerge victorious.

“When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you suffer a lot. When you realize that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn both peace and joy.” – Dalai Lama

 

Life Contract

Tomorrow I will wake up to another sober day. God willing there will be many more. I like to believe that I will see this life through without sliding back in to alcoholism. The future is uncertain and far better people than me have relapsed so I don’t take my life for granted. Even the most promising Jedi can turn to the dark side and become Sith. If I can continue the upward march towards a higher vantage point that never ends till the final breath I will be contented. There is still much work to do; there is no five year contract on sobriety or personal betterment. It is a life contract with my Higher Power.

We should never be complacent. I will not rest because of a milestone. It is only another day. Aurelius believed that his Legionnaires should train as hard in peace as they did in war. So should we. As Jedi we are compelled to train and to improve ourselves, it is our personal duty. While we drop our guard our opponents are watching and waiting for an opportunity. Our addiction is outside doing push-ups while we get comfortable in our complacency.

If we work at it a little at a time, day by day, consistently without repose we see the change that we seek not just in ourselves but in others too. Improvement happens incrementally. We work and do what we have to do, rather than what we want to do.

A philosophy for life is for life and to live well is to do so without struggle and without rush. We only live one day at a time and deal with one obstacle at a time, with each step we climb higher. Consistency and commitment is everything. Faith keeps us there. Remember it took Yoda nearly 900 years to reach enlightenment. Enjoy the ride and also take the time to smell the roses, you worked for them.