Seneca was one of the richest men in Rome but as a stoic, he knew his wealth and fame were no insurance against the vagaries of fate. When the emperor Nero demanded his suicide, he was already prepared to die. He had imagined his final day many times before as a deliberate philosophic exercise. Surrounded by friends and family, he slit his wrists and died with equanimity in his bath.
Throughout his long life, Seneca strove to inoculate himself against misfortune by keeping the unpredictable firmly in mind. He constantly reminded himself that loss, injury, sickness and death are always close by. The peace and prosperity of today are no guarantee against the dangers of tomorrow. Any disaster that could happen to us in the future could also happen now. Life is short. No one has the time or the opportunity to do all they hope to. Our circumstances are always changing, decisions are often difficult and compromised, disappointments and regrets are inevitable. Despite all this, Seneca believed we could still be happy if we had the right attitude. We can choose to accept the world the way it is, since it is pointless to fight against it, and we can face misfortune without complaining.
The Buddha went a step further than the Stoics. He said that if you can’t control a thing in the way a king controls his country, then you don’t own it. Since you can’t control your body, it is not yours. Because it is subject to sickness and death, it can’t be part of your true nature. He said we should regard everything that doesn’t last forever with the phrase “This is not me. This is not mine. I am not this.”
Of course no one, not even Buddhists, takes as extreme a position as the Buddha did. It is more of a mystical proposition than a practicality. We all feel we own our bodies, our possessions and our opinions, despite our limited control. We feel we have a right to be in certain places, which we regard as ‘our’ town or country, and definitely do not belong in other places. We also feel that we belong within nets of mutual affection and obligation. As the song goes “Take good care of yourself, you belong to me!” Our relatives and friends are ‘ours’ and we are ‘theirs’.
We think of ownership as a positive addition to our lives, but when we look at what it actually entails, the waters become muddy. The Commonwealth Bank no longer owns a share of my flat but the local council insists that I still pay rates for the privilege of being here. Similarly, I own most of the money I earn, but not all. The Tax Office feels it also owns a percentage of what I take in, and it will punish me if I don’t pay up. It even owns a percentage of my time. It takes me nearly a week each year to handle my tax obligations.
All possessions carry responsibilities. Mothers own their babies, but at times it must feel as if their babies own them. Many rich people spend most of their ‘free’ time attending to the consequences of owning far more than they need. At my gym, I often overhear conversations about the difficulties associated with the newest purchases, the renovations to the house, the complications of buying and selling almost anything, the planning of the next overseas holiday. Do those men own their possessions or do their possessions own them?
Possessions give pleasure but often come with hidden costs. Many people are money rich but time poor. They have large discretionary incomes but have little time to enjoy what they spend their money on. The poor, on the other hand, as I know from first-hand experience, are often time rich in comparison.
I also know how they use their time. They don’t waste time shopping for goods they don’t need because they can’t. This gives them more time to socialise and relate to others. When I lived in the country many years ago, conversations would commonly last two or three hours. Nowadays, I schedule an hour or so here and there. It’s not quite the same.
If we read the news or have some knowledge of history, we know that millions of people, all the time, suffer great losses overnight. They lose property or health or family, and often their country, culture and sanity as well. A little voice inside us says “They weren’t expecting it. You’re not expecting it either. But it could happen to you just as it did to them.”
When people suffer great losses, they usually feel they at least own their thoughts and memories. Tyrants can rule countries with an iron fist but people can still be free in their minds. “You can take my body but you can’t take my soul!” says the victim defiantly, and so it seems at first, with the memory of the loss still fresh in their minds. However tyrants, with the immense resources available to them, typically set themselves the task of owning the minds of their subjects as well.
Of course, this is not easy to do. None of us like to change even the slightest of our habits. Our thoughts are our inner sanctum. Our behaviours define who we think we are, and we like to assume that these would remain the same even if we were suddenly dropped into Outer Mongolia or the Middle Ages. Yet as we have seen from the history of communism and fascism, people are more malleable than they think themselves to be. With enough carrot-and-stick persuasion, most people will adopt almost any ideology and behaviour, however alien it once would have seemed.
As a writer, I love to play with ideas but I don’t for a moment believe that any of them are mine. I’m just borrowing and adapting what is common property to my particular purpose. Although this article is unique for what that is worth, I can guarantee that it doesn’t contain a single original thought.
Thousands of people have already expressed these ideas in print more elegantly than I have, and millions have already thought them. I doubt if I have ever had a thought of which I can say “This is definitely my thought alone. No one else has ever had it before.” I know I’m more likely to be reshaping something I’ve heard elsewhere and treating it as mine because I’ve forgotten the source. As Coleridge put it: “Hope grew round me, like the twining vine/and fruits and foliage not my own seemed mine.”
It doesn’t bother me that I’m not an original thinker. All writers and thinkers are part of what has been called ‘The Great Conversation’ which goes back to the Greeks and beyond. As Isaac Newton said, all great thinkers stand on the shoulders of the giants who’ve gone before them.
That is a great idea well expressed. Newton could be proud of that expression, and that it is now attributed to him. In fact, as Google tells me, he borrowed both the idea and the expression from earlier writers. This proves both his point, and mine, and that of the people who went before us. We are just clever, adaptable borrowers.
We do, in a very real sense, own our bodies, our possessions, our time and our thoughts. And yet I often have the strange sense that I don’t quite belong here; that nothing that I own or think will ultimately satisfy me; that this place, these thoughts, this body, this life situation doesn’t quite feel like me or mine. Just like people who constantly redecorate their homes, I know I haven’t quite got it right yet.
I know that this sense of strangeness often leads people into spiritual fantasies of ultimate perfection, but that is not for me. I am far too realistic to think that I will ever find a place where I truly below. I won’t find my way back to God, or find my true home or true self, or discover the secret of perfect happiness. All the evidence points to the world and our minds as being stranger, scarier and more unpredictable than anyone could ever imagine. If this is the way it is, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’m very grateful to have the temporary use of what I’ve now got – my body, my possessions, my time, my access to science and culture, my privacy. None of it is perfect. It’s not guaranteed even for a day, but like Seneca, I won’t grumble about that. All in all, I’ve never been so rich. These are good days to be alive. The world is burning money and eating up the future like there is no tomorrow. It can’t last, but until the crash comes I’ll appreciate it while I can.
© Perth Meditation Centre. 2010