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A Stoic Perspective: Meditating on the Ephemeral

“Mankind is poised midway between the gods and the beasts.” ~ Plotinus

There are moments in life that put things into perspective; like climbing a mountain and looking out over the world, for example, or standing at the precipice of the Grand Canyon at sunset and gazing into the geological history of the earth, or staring up at the stars on a moonless night away from the bright lights of man. Such moments take our breath away.

They reveal the impermanent nature of all things, and how all things are in flux; changing and transforming unpredictably. Most of all, they reveal the ephemeral nature of mortality. How brief our moment in time is.

The Stoics had a particularly effective exercise for putting life into perspective: meditating on the ephemeral; remembering that life is short and the universe is grand, and how right now-this moment-is our chance to soak it all in and to use it as a tool to become better people.

Remember how small you are

“For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” ~ Carl Sagan

It is said that if the solar system were the size of a CD, the Milky Way Galaxy would be the size of the earth. Let that sink in. Wow! And the Milky Way is only one of billions of other galaxies in the universe. That’s some dwarfing knowledge. It’s almost crippling, the enormity of it all. It seems impossibly enormous, but that is only because we are so impossibly small compared to the universe.

Meditating on our smallness may seem counterproductive at first, but it has a way of putting life into perspective like nothing else, say death. When we allow ourselves to attempt to drink in the grandeur of it all, we tend to discover a kind of sacred resonance at the bottom of the cup. Some call it God. Some call it the Great Mystery. But meditating on our smallness has a way of counterintuitively connecting us to the interconnectedness of all things.

Feeling the gargantuan weight of Infinity on our shoulders crushes us into accepting that we are a part of this Infinity. It helps us to let go of our smallness so that we can better grasp the importance of the moment. To be fully present and aware of our uniqueness contrasted with ubiquity. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson said, “We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.”

Remember: Life is fleeting

“We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.” ~ Carl Sagan

Life is short. We all know this to be true, but few of us really feel it. Similar to how our smallness contrasted with the vastness of the universe puts things into perspective, our mortality contrasted with infinity makes each moment that much more precious. We will never be here again. That second just went by! One step closer to the inevitable squeeze of our mortal coil.

We have from this moment until the day we die to live the life we want to live. A life we can fall in love with. A life we can grow in, toward the direction of our dreams. And right now- this moment- is the only chance we may have to leverage such a life. For there may not be another chance. As Plotinus said, “Knowledge, if it does not determine action, is dead to us.”

Remembering that life is fleeting is really letting it sink in that ephemerality is reality. The sooner we can accept that fact, the sooner we can get busy living the life of our dreams, or at least attempting to. Whether we succeed or not is secondary. Which brings up another central teaching of stoicism: how unpredictable the world can be.

Again, our inability to predict the world is secondary. Action is primary. Being proactive is exemplary. And there is perhaps no other philosophy that is more proactive than stoicism. The Stoic exercise of meditating on the fleetingness of life puts into profound perspective the necessity to become more proactive in the moment.

Happiness is secondary; the pursuit of happiness is primary

“You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the one’s you’re holding.” ~ Cheryl Strayed

Similarly, we don’t have a right to happiness, but we do have an obligation to pursue the hell out of the happiness we want. Taking into consideration the precept that life is fleeting, ephemeral, and unpredictable, it stands to reason that happiness is not a given.

Indeed, happiness is secondary, it is derivative, and it may be just as fleeting and elusive as life itself. So since we cannot control if life brings us happiness or not, we ought to focus on what we can control, which is being proactive about pursuing the life we want to live, and a life we can fall in love with. Which may or may not bring happiness, but at least we tried our sincere best.

At the end of the day, meditating on the ephemeral nature of reality brings into perspective the need to be proactive regarding the course our lives take. We may be small in the grand scheme of things, but we can be proactive about allowing the grandeur of it all to move us into higher states of awareness.

Our lives may be fleeting compared to the greater Infinity, but we can be proactive with the precious time we have and leverage a life we can love. Happiness may forever elude us, but the pursuit of happiness is the thing, so perhaps we can at least find a modicum of happiness in that. And even if our lives end up sad and tragic, there is always an underlying humor to lean on while we laugh at the absurdity of it all. As Shakespeare said, “A tragedy is a comedy misunderstood.”

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The Universe Is in Us

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  • Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.

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