Its an easy and therefore common observation that every warrior is a “Stoic” to one degree or another. This is seldom a supposition that every infantryman in his foxhole has read Seneca and Marcus and Epictetus, but rather an observation that he perseveres under conditions of extreme deprivation and discomfort: cold nights sleeping on the ground, insufficient quantities of food that is poor in quality anyway, and, of course, the ability to bear grievous wounds without (much) complaint.
It is less known, by the common observer and our infantryman in his foxhole alike, that many of these are conditions anticipated by the Stoics and that they developed practices and disciplines to prepare for them. The great flourishing of Stoicism occurred in the days of a very martial Rome, and many of these practices and disciplines are easily applicable to war whether this was the intent of the philosophers or not.
Seneca was a frequent advocate of accepting discomfort by cold exposure and hunger so that these experiences would not be unfamiliar when forced by circumstance instead of freely chosen. Marcus suggested nights spent without a bed.
I’m not certain I would argue that every warrior is a Stoic by nature, or that every Stoic possesses the other virtues the warrior requires. But I do think the Stoics can inform our training and practice as warriors and that much of what we find in common between the warrior castes of different cultures is of a Stoic nature.
The three core disciplines of Stoicism are perception, action, and will. Of these, perception is the basis of all that follows. Your actions and your will are meaningless if you cannot perceive the world with a certain accuracy. For the warrior, every misperception carries a potentially lethal consequence.
On the other side of the world from Glorious Rome and a millennia later, a swordsman named Miyamoto Musashi would establish as the foundation of his teaching the precept “Accept everything exactly as it is” which contains the need to accurately perceive things exactly as they are.
For both the swordsman and the Stoics, the discipline of perception involves seeing things as they are without those observations passing through the various filters and lenses of our culture, the environmental conditions, our mood, and, most importantly, the lens of self-reference. Most events and things must be understood without any idea that they have any reference to the individual observer at all. Heisenberg might disagree on a quantum level, but the nail that flattens your tire was not waiting for you to drive by.
There are many such lenses. In the United States, it isn’t common to find people comfortable with considering dogs and cats (or snakes and rats) as food. For most though, a simple stretch of the imagination can grasp that idea and accept we might use those animals as food. Even then, it takes much greater mental gymnastics to see another human being as an appropriate source of protein.
In Iraq, I was witness to another interesting cultural lens. In 2005, we quickly observed that Iraqi civilians were not intimidated by our black rifles, but they were panicked by the presentation of a handgun. Their cultural had learned from Saddam’s secret police that a rifle was a threat and a handgun was an execution. That the rifle was more powerful and had greater range meant little beyond an intellectual understanding of a show of force. Their perception of a man with a handgun was one of imminent violence and that made all the difference.
There was no truth to this observation, of course. An American soldier with a rifle is no less a threat than one with a handgun, but once we understood this aspect of their cultural perception, we played to it. In the interest of quick and easy communication, we would sacrifice the firepower of the rifle for the threat of the handgun.
Such cultural or social lenses are almost easy to detect in others and impossible to see in ourselves. Try teaching a Orthodox Jewish women’s group a self defense class and mentioning they might want to grab an attacker’s genitals. It is inconceivable to them this might be a counter to an attacker grabbing their genitals.
Effectively pushing past such lenses is mostly an intellectual exercise. You realize there is a filter and you can see the effect it has and then remove that distortion. Of ourselves, for some such lenses, there is a lab portion to the exercise of removing them. As a child, G. Gordon Liddy read about the starving population of a besieged Paris eating rats. He then forced himself to prepare and consume a rat to prove to himself that he would be able to do so if necessary.
The most difficult lens to remove (or at least lessen the effect of) is that lens of self-reference. This lens is not simply an intellectual one and is usually deeply rooted in emotion and the hidden psychology of what neurologists call the Default Mode Network (DMN). Biochemically, the DMN is the interplay between the different parts of the brain active when the brain is not focused on a task. It is what your brain is doing when your brain isn’t doing anything else.
It is one of the processes that maintains the illusion of a self. It is one of the sources of the error that the nail on the side of the road, the clouds raining on your picnic, and the nuclear weapons aimed at you from China have anything to do with you at all.
As we experience the self-referential lens, it is the habit of most people to take such things personally. That nail was waiting for our tire, the stranger who bumps into us on a crowded street intends to assault us.
The “natural response” to negative events (the self referential lens recognizes positive events and takes them personally, too) is anger and hostility. If we allow our perception to focus through the self-referential lens, we might strike out violently against the distraught father rushing to his sick daughter’s bedside when he bumps into us in his hurry. Congratulations, you’re now the asshole.
The Stoics advise again and again that we must defeat this lens and stop taking things personally. Marcus even goes so far as to suggest we not take things personally even when they are intended personally. Their chief advise in this pursuit is an intellectual recognition that we are seldom in possession of a complete grasp of any situation. Marcus advises that we accept we will meet everyday with the rude and the ignorant and to be prepared to treat them with equanimity.
They might be assholes. We should understand we do not know what forces shaped them into being rude and ignorant and whether that condition is permanent. Our own quest for virtue demands, he suggests, that we are good and fair even to those who cannot be good and fair to us.
This, of course, fits in perfectly with Musashi’s advice to accept things as they are and to never act on a partial feeling.
That Marcus acknowledges we might be set upon by ignorant men who, possibly even well-meaning in some “greater picture” sense, intend us harm personally brings us to the observations of Victor Frankl.
Frankl was a survivor of the Shoah and famously reflected that his survival was largely due to his ability to select a positive attitude even under difficult circumstances. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
The Stoics also taught this was possible and it is difficult to argue with a survivor of the holocaust. Survival is its own justification in many ways.
But the assertion that we can (or should) choose our attitude is too often echoed by people often suggesting that we somehow adopt a Pollyannish attitude and smile in the face of smoke stacks scattering the ashes of our sons and our mothers. Would any of us really respect that mother who finds her child dead of an overdose and isn’t overwhelmed by her feelings of guilt and heartbreak? Wouldn’t her ability to genuinely see the bright side and smile with sincere happiness betray a lack of humanity and not the virtue of a saint (or even a reasonable human being)?
The ability to set aside the self-referential lens isn’t about choosing a different self-deception and a different distortion of reality in favor of an optimism that denies reality “as it is.” The point of understanding and accepting reality as it is isn’t to develop an ability to twist our psyche into a know so we can smile at Auschwitz. The point is to push aside the convictions even that these nightmares are about US.
While the Nazis certainly meant the Shoah to be taken personally, it doesn’t take much understanding to realize we are talking about a group of very broken men.
We have to realize that and let our hearts break for the young artist who fails and fails and finds himself betrayed at the front and blind from poison gas when he learns the country he loves and sacrifices for has perished.
But that doesn’t mean we hesitate to put down a mad dog that foams at the mouth as he preaches a salvation that only comes with another people’s genocide.
At no point do we take it personally.
At no point do we seek a silver lining that somehow excuses us from action, either. We don’t choose a lens of rose or yellow. We accept things exactly as they are.
We choose an attitude devoid of anger, devoid of hate, and that strikes down those who would do evil out of their mis-understanding and ignorance, and we do so without hesitation and without remorse.
I am not willing to outlive my honor or finding a different attitude when damaged men murder my daughters…even though I know not to take it personally.
These are the ideas passed to us by the Stoic philosophers and warrior-philosophers of other cultures such as Musashi and Xenophon. This, of course, is where I talk about meditation.
As modern warriors, we have the writings of the ancients at our disposal and the research done by modern neuroscientists. Their research in many ways gives us insight to what the ancients taught and the tools they passed to us by helping us understand biology’s impact on psychology.
This research has shown that the DMN, that part of the brain key to the mind’s self-referential lens, is greatly reduced in experienced meditators. As we sit quietly or walk in silence and learn to control the mind, the DMN naturally becomes more and more quiet itself.
This helps the self-referential lens to sleep.
Decreasing the influence of the self-referential lens through meditation will also serve to make it easier to deal with other lenses by decreasing the ego involvement in confronting ideas dear to us that might be false or simply useless.
Accurate perception is necessary to all virtue. This perception isn’t just a learned a skill but also an ability that requires training the mind to “see” and to accept that which is seen.