The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Deeper Training

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at The Art of Manliness. The full post may be read here.

“It is circumstances (difficulties) which show what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. For what purpose? you may say. Why that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat. In my opinion no man has had a more profitable difficulty than you have had, if you choose to make use of it as an athlete would deal with a young antagonist.” —Epictetus

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” —Corinthians 9:24-26

The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus and the apostle Paul — though their worldviews differed — both used the metaphor of athletic contests to explain the way a man was to struggle against weakness, erroneous beliefs, and all lower impulses, in order to win the prize of higher virtue.

They weren’t unique in deploying this analogy. Many early sages and saints also likened man’s attempt to conquer himself to physical exercise and the games of the sporting arena. They called their readers to become Stoic athletes, Christian athletes — spiritual athletes.

These philosophers and prophets understood that it was important not only to train the body, but also to train the soul.

The Greek word for training used by both Epictetus and St. Paul — áskēsis — was orginally associated with the physical training of athletes and soldiers, but later came to be used to describe any rigorous, discplined program of training, including the spiritual struggle for virtue.

This paradigm, in which practicing virtue is exercise; confronting personal weakness is contest, has not entirely disappeared from modern culture, but has become fainter and somewhat lost to us. It is partly for this reason that virtue and the spiritual life have come to be seen as “soft” and effeminate pursuits, despite the fact that the Latin word from which virtue derives — vir — actually means “manliness.”

Today, drawing on both the Christian and Stoic traditions (although adherence to either is not required to find usefulness in the underlying principles) we issue a wholehearted call to revive the idea of training the soul, and embrace it for the very meaningful, very “muscular” contest it is.

How Training the Soul Is Like Training the Body


“let the man who is rich in a worldly sense adopt in his own case the same considerations as apply to athletes. For the athlete who has given up the hope of being able to conquer, and to obtain the garlands, does not even give in his name for the contest; while the one who has conceived this hope in his mind, but does not submit to the fitting labors and diet and exercises, continues ungarlanded, and fails to gain what he hoped for.
In the same way let not a man who is clothed in this earthly covering withdraw his name altogether from the Savior’s contests, if at least he is faithful, and perceives the greatness of God’s kindness to man; and again, if he refuses exercise and contest, let him not hope to share in the garlands of incorruption without the dust and sweat of the arena; but let him at once submit himself to the word as trainer, and to Christ as judge of the contests; let his food and his apportioned drink be the new covenant of the Lord, let his exercises be the commandments, let his gracefulness and adornment be good dispositions, love, faith, hope, knowledge of truth, gentleness, goodness of heart, dignity; so that, when the last trumpet sounds for the race and the departure hence, passing out of this life as out of a race-course, he may stand with a good conscience before the president, acknowledged to be worthy of the heavenly home, into which he passes up with garlands and proclamations of angelic heralds.” —Clement of Alexandria

Philosophers and theologians have debated and expounded on the nature of the soul for thousands of years, and we can’t hope to provide a definitive definition of it here. But for the purposes of this article, let’s call the soul that part of a man’s make-up that desires higher order aims over lower order impulses. It’s the thing that seeks that which is life-giving, rather than life-deadening. It’s your moral compass, your attraction to doing noble deeds and choosing the right. It’s the capacity to reach beyond the self in order to serve others.

Your soul is your spiritual center, and, traditionally, your eternal essence. However, a belief in the immortality of the soul isn’t necessary for a belief in the possibility of actively training it; even if one sees it simply as the part of the psyche that’s more human and advanced, and less primitive and reptilian, the protocols for exercising it still very much apply.

No matter how exactly you view the soul, it lends itself to being seen as having a spiritual “physique” just as real and readily shapeable as your tangible one. The spirit, like the body, has muscles that must be regularly exercised in order to maintain good health, perform optimally in everyday tasks, and come out the victor in the occasional high-stakes contest. In both cases, you are given these physiques in a raw, impressionable form; you can either let them be molded by external forces, or intentionally sculpt them into the shape you desire.

Let us delve deeper into the parallels that exist between training the body and training the soul:

Physical and Spiritual Strength Atrophy Without Use


All matter — physical and spiritual alike — tends towards the path of least resistance. Without intentional effort to move and exercise our fleshy bodies, we become encased in layers of fat, get winded from light activity, and cannot pick up heavy objects. Muscles get tight; joints get creaky. Should an emergency befall us, we’re unable to flee or fight the danger. If forced to compete in a race or game, we would face embarrassing failure.

In the same way, ignoring one’s soul leads to the accumulation of spiritual flab. Our moral muscles atrophy, and we give in to sin and weakness more easily. We cannot put off temporary pleasures to achieve lasting goals. In wrestling with temptation or a heavy moral issue, we fatigue easily, and make a choice of convenience rather than principle. Or, we choose not to engage in the wrestle at all, defaulting to whatever direction our fluctuating feelings take us, or referring to a rote rule or bureaucratic expediency that may not be the best solution to the particular problem at hand. We lose our moral agility — our capacity to exercise practical wisdom and do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.

Of course, the converse of the above is just as true regarding both our physical and spiritual physiques. Muscles that get used, get stronger. Get more agile. And allow you to do more and be more . . .

Physical and Spiritual Strength Widens Your Freedom and Field of Action


A flabby, atrophied physical physique circumscribes your choices. This is true as a practical matter: You can’t play with your kids because you’re too tired; you can’t climb a mountain with your friends because you’re too weak; you can’t lift a certain weight, even if you wanted to.

A flabby, atrophied spiritual physique limits your ability to autonomously make choices at all. If you want to be faithful to your girlfriend, but hook up with an old flame, your lust is in control, not you. If you want to lose weight, but can’t stop overeating, you’re taking your marching orders from your belly, rather than your higher aims. If you want to be loving to your children, but keep losing your temper, your anger is calling the shots, not your soul. If your moods and reactions are determined by external events, then you’re being acted upon, rather than acting. You are not a free moral agent.

In training the soul, you strengthen your self-control: you gain the ability to harness your energies towards deliberately chosen ends, to choose long-term ideals over short-term impulses, to decide how you will act, regardless of the circumstances. You become master, rather than slave. As a consequence, your options increase; your potential field of action widens.

Or as former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink succinctly puts it: “Discipline equals freedom.”

Physical and Spiritual Strength Require Weight and Opposition in Order to Grow 


“Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.” —Thomas Merton
“Good fortune comes to common men and even to those of inferior talent; but only a great man is able to triumph over disasters and terrors afflicting mortal life. It is true that to be always happy and to pass through life without any mental distress is to lack knowledge of one half of human nature. You are a great man: but on what do I base this if Fortune denies you the opportunity to demonstrate your worth? You have entered the lists at the Olympic Games, but you are the only competitor: you win the crown, but the victory is not yours; I congratulate you, but not as a brave man, rather as one who has gained the office of consul or praetor: it is your personal standing that has been enhanced. I can make the same point also to a good man, if no more difficult circumstance has given him the chance to show his mental strength: ‘You are unfortunate in my judgement, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you are capable of, not even you yourself.’ For a man needs to be put to the test if he is to gain self-knowledge; only by trying does he learn what his capacities are.” —Seneca

Physical training is essentially the act of intentionally breaking down the body with stress in order that it can be rebuilt stronger and better than before. Without this stress, no improvement can take place.

In weightlifting, the stressor is the weight to be lifted. A lifter essentially pits himself against gravity as he tries to move a barbell off the floor, or raise himself up when it’s sitting on his shoulders. Gravity is the opponent to be overcome; the lifter must struggle to resist its force — hence the name, “resistance training.”

Just as the body needs to confront an opposing force in order to grow, so does the soul. In this case, the antagonists are internal: our sins and weaknesses. It’s Soul vs. Lust. Soul vs. Selfishness. Soul vs. Self-Pity. Soul vs. Envy. It’s a contest between the best parts of ourselves and the worst.

Our souls also grapple with external combatants in the form of events and circumstances beyond our control — hardships and difficulties we are forced to face. The mere existence of these obstacles does not necessarily strengthen the soul or incur automatic benefits, however. Rather, the attitude we take towards hardships matters, and determines their effect.

In his Discourses, Epictetus responds to a hypothetical student who wants to know if he is making progress in following the Stoic way. The philosopher says that if he were talking to an athlete who had the same question, he would ask the athlete to show him his shoulders. If the athlete instead responded by showing the weights he had been lifting, Epictetus says he would reply that he didn’t ask to see the athlete’s weights, but his shoulders. What’s important is not that a man has access to gym equipment, but that he is using it properly, and the proof of this is in the embodied pudding — in the size and strength of his muscles.

In the same way, if you want to know if the soul is improving, you cannot look to the mere presence of difficulties in your life, but how you are facing them, using them. You can know if you’re making progress by the ways you can flex your spiritual muscles, “how you exercise pursuit and avoidance, desire and aversion, how you design and purpose and prepare yourself, whether conformably to nature or not.”

What emerges from the struggle against inner and outer demons, from the stress of pushing back against our flaws and frailties, is the development of character. The more we resist the gravitational force of our appetites, the stronger and more iron-clad our character becomes.


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