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Coffee & Wisdom 02.94: No Way / Yes Way Part 2


Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically Humanist congregation. This is summer Coffee and Wisdom when we are live at 9:00 a.m. Central Time on Tuesdays and Thursdays and other times on our many different platforms. This week and next week, I want to be thinking about what I’m calling Yes way, No way. But that is words and methods and ideas. We’ve talked extensively on Coffee and Wisdom about the connection between words and ideas and how much those two are connected and disconnected, and how we don’t always or actually even understand the connection between those two, and then methods, that is, how we put things into practice. Some of you have probably read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan. It was a New York Times best seller. It’s not an easy book to read, but it is a brilliant book. And the blurb says this: “A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics. It is unpredictable. It carries a massive impact, and after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random and more predictable than it was.” Now, of course, you can go through history and look at example after example of that. Ten years from now, we will all be reading books that will explain how everyone should have seen the CoVID virus coming, but of course we didn’t. Well, things look a lot more predictable after, in that rearview mirror, that 20/20 vision of the past. And that’s one of the things that Taleb wants to talk to us about and explain: highly improbable events. His current book is Skin in the Game, Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Again, looking at that idea that what we really don’t maybe understand as much as we think we do. I mentioned on Tuesday that he practices stoicism and he says, “a Stoic is “a Buddhist with attitude.” Currently, if you want to look online, you can find his work at These are his kind of contemporary current workings that haven’t yet made it into books, but certainly will eventually, I assume, as he works out ideas. And this is from “How to Be Rational About Rationality” by Taleb, who is a mathematical statistician and risk management theoretician. The mathematical statistician part is what makes him seem so amazing to those of us who don’t understand mathematics, that in our daily lives we think things are probably more pattern-oriented than they actually are. He says this: “There is a difference between beliefs that are decorative and a different sort of beliefs, those that map to action. There is …no difference between them in words.” And this is again, what I want to really look at closely. “…no difference between them in words, except that the true difference reveals itself in risk taking, having something at stake, something one could lose in case one is wrong. And the lesson, by rephrasing the principle:” is this: “How much you truly ‘believe’ in something can only be manifested through what you are willing to risk for it.” So this is how he’s going to define the idea of belief. Obviously, we can say we believe in gravity, but we’re not risking a whole lot when we say that. How much you truly believe in something can only be manifested through what you are willing to risk for it, manifested made real in life itself. Well, the Stoics long ago knew that this was an issue for human beings. The current Neostoicism movement is full of things like Stoic exercises. 7 Stoic Exercises You Can Do Today. Twenty Four Stoic Spiritual Exercises, How to Become a Better Human Being, Day After Day. The Daily Stoic, 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance and the Art of Living. And, A Handbook for New Stoics, How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control. And you see the pattern that’s going on here are daily exercises, do this, do these things and therefore, life, your life, will be changed in some way. Reflect for a moment how walking down the street, how much can you tell about what a person really believes? Yeah, you know, this person will be wearing some clothing that indicates, oh, that person must be this or that kind of religion. Look at the grocery store, in the line, and what has this person look and that person look. But what do they really believe? How are they putting these ideas into action in the world? Now, the Stoics knew this long, long ago and they called their philosophy a practical philosophy, that is, that you must do it daily and practice it rather than just believe in something. And they came up with some ideas to help do those exercises. One of them is Amor Fati. That is, love your fate, love what’s happening to you, is what the Stoics were really talking about. Now, you know, it’s not easy to do that. I wanted it to be a sunny day and by golly, it’s raining. I don’t love what’s happening. I don’t love my fate for today. And that expands all the way from those kinds of momentary things we don’t even remember about being dissatisfied with life all the way up to, yeah, getting the phone call from the physician about some kind of a dangerous disease. But the Stoics say that if you practice this idea of loving what’s going on right now, every day, you can prepare for those really bad things. So love what is happening, love your fate. Yeah, that’s hard. But what you can also do is Premeditatio Melorum. You can think about the worst case scenarios. So yes, if you get that call from the physician, the Stoics say, yeah, don’t try to avoid thinking the worst. Go right ahead. As a matter of fact, think the absolute worst. Say this doctor is going to tell me that I’m going to die three months from now. It’s terminal and I am on my way to death. And then the Stoics will say, yeah, three months. Wow. That sure is a long time and much longer than most people get, knowing that they will indeed be dying and that they can prepare in this absolutely sure way. So think about the worst. And guess what? Usually the worst doesn’t actually happen. So Premeditatio Melorum, think about the absolute worst, and you’ll be prepared for, oh, you’ll say, oh, well, that wasn’t so bad after all. By golly. The other one is kind of like that. Momento Mori, remember death. I’ve shared several quotes, especially from Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic. Thinking about death helps us to clarify what we’re doing. What if this is going to be the last day of your life? What would you do? Well, the clarification of what we would do if we were dying today or tomorrow will help us clarify the values in our life. What are you going to do? You’re going to contact family. You’re going to contact friends. You’re going to do this and that. Remember your death at all times so the death can be with you. This goes through certainly Christian tradition, with monks meditating with skulls and sleeping in their coffins. But it also goes into existential philosophy. Martin Heidegger says you can’t be in the life itself and grasping your life unless you have accepted the fact that it’s just not going to last all that long. Memento Mori. Another word is Sympathiea. Yes, that’s the root word for the term sympathy. It probably means more in a line of compassion than it does in sympathy. If we really think about how the English language has dealt with this Latin term. This is a medallion that Stoics carry sometimes. We are made for each other, is the idea. And the words around there is “The fruit of this life is good character and acts for the common good.” Again, I’ve shared a lot of quotes from Marcus Aurelius who said that we are made for each other. We are we are animals that have developed in tribal situations. So we need to stick within some kind of a compassionate relation with our nation itself, our group itself, but also all people in the world. And Hic et Nunc. Yeah, this person decided to have that become a tattoo. And that is the symbol for Stoicism, by the way, and it means here and now in Latin, Here and Now. Let’s live right now in the moment. Again, that leads up to, yes, we have premeditated on the worst that could happen. Yes, we have accepted our fate. Yes, we remember death. And all of those together can add up to Hic et Nunc, living right now in the moment. Again, Talab was correct in the idea that Stoics are Buddhists with attitude. We know if we have studied Stoicism, this is Buddhism. This is exactly what the Buddhists always say, that this moment, that’s why you meditate, you want to get into this moment, because that is where your power and decision making is. And also another Stoic exercise is to think about the ideas of virtue, virtue ethics, so you can even get it on a face mask, Wisdom and Courage and Justice and Temperance. These are the four virtues that the Stoics attempted to practice in their daily lives, live in wisdom and in courage, practice justice and practice temperance. That is not too much of anything or not enough of anything, kind of walk that, what in Greece was called the Golden Mean. And these are the stoic exercises that they thought you needed to put into practice today, right now, in order to live a good life. I have mentioned before Pierre Hadot, who was a French philosopher and a scholar in Greco Roman philosophy, who really sums up how these practices worked in the ancient world. One was “Controlling your inner discourse.” The Buddhists call that the monkey mind, work in your meditative practice on how those words are forming your thoughts and your life and what you’re about to do next. “Doing only that which is a benefit for the human community.” Again, Stoic practice is always about being in community and being a good person within the social constructs that you live in, and then “Accepting the events brought to us by the course of the Nature of the All.” Amor Fati. We must look at how nature itself operates in the universe. And then we say, this is where I fit into that idea. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was developed by a Stoic, Neostoic philosopher, it’s directly out of stoic practice, and it’s really been shown to be one of the better psychological methods for changing habits. You can find this all over the Internet. Just look up cognitive behavioral therapy. You’re going to find worksheets. You’re going to find about how your thoughts equal your feelings, your behavior and how you can practice this in the real world. You’re going to talk about everything like anger issues. Well, there is a CBT worksheet for working through your anger issues, actually deciding on principles and putting those beliefs into action by actual practice. And that’s what CBT is all about. And it really comes out of a Stoic idea of practice. Thanks a lot for listening today. Our monthly theme at First Unitarian Society for June is Play. And this week I will be talking about what I’m calling the rules of the game on Sunday morning at 10:30 a.m. Central Time. The rules of the game, that is, what are the rules, the unstated social rules that if we are in a group we know are the rules, but then outsiders don’t know the rules and that’s how they suddenly feel outside. And just to call that it to attention a little bit. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back next week on Tuesday morning with more of my Yes way, No way, that is, how we imagine, we (use) images, how we work in words and then how we put those into practice from a philosophical, religious and spiritual viewpoint. Thanks a lot for listening and I’ll see you on Sunday.

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