Is Marxism Deterministic?

A primary criticism of Marxism (often employed by people with a poor understanding of Marxism, incidentally) is that Marxism, and Marxists, are rigid determinists. The critique goes something like this:

“Marxism is a determinist philosophy. Marx thought that communism was inevitable, and that individual people are just automatons; mere pawns of historical forces. This strips people of their free will and individuality, and reduces them to cogs in a deterministic machine. Marx’s theory of history is basically just a secular version of Divine Providence or Destiny, and therefore should be discarded.”

Needless to say, this is untrue; and the point of this short essay will be to correct this common misconception.

First and foremost, while Marx did believe that history unfolded based on certain historical laws over which individuals have no control, he did not think that this meant human beings were merely plankton swept up in the oceanic wave of history, being tossed to and fro, with no ability to influence what happened to them. Marx argued, as I do, that although history unfolds via a process that human beings can’t dictate, it unfolds via human beings as it’s agents. Therefore, once human beings become conscious of the fact that history unfolds in certain ways, they can then be free to pick what role they want to play in that process. We are the agents of historical change; we are the vehicles through which history unfurls. To be conscious of that fact, and to choose action in the face of it, is to be as free as a human being can be.

Some Marxists, it is true, have been such strict determinists that they effectively gave up on political action; opting instead to either work within the capitalist system, or abandon politics all together, while waiting for the glorious revolution, and the subsequent ushering in of Communism which they viewed as inevitable and imminent. But this is a perversion of Marxism, if not an outright subversion of it. Marx was the person, after all, who famously declared that “philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it”. Marx himself was doggedly engaged in European politics during his life, and his theory and methodology was explicitly a call to action! It was meant to give the working class an understanding of their material and historical condition so that they could weaponize that understanding in pursuit of their own liberation. It’s our job as Marxists to organize, participate in direct action, form resistance movements, fight back against fascists, and do all the other difficult political work that there is to do in order to realize, in so far as we can, the system we want. To sit back and wait for history to play itself out as a convinced determinist is to effectively abandon Marxism altogether.

Other Forms Society Can Take As Capitalism Collapses

Marx was well aware of the fact that when capitalism began to break down, it would not necessarily lead to communism, it could just as well devolve into fascism, devolve into a sort of neo-feudalism, devolve into barbarism, or even result in “the common ruination” of the contending classes altogether.

The most likely of these outcomes, based on what has happened in the recent past, is the rise of fascism. As is commonly said “fascism is what capitalism does when its under threat”; and history proves this again and again. Most notably, Nazi Germany arose out of the Weimar Republic after the Great Depression and the national humiliation of WWI. In contemporary America we have just elected a white nationalist with fascistic dispositions and a segment of his base which is explicitly and unapologetically fascist. This is largely a reaction to the excesses, depravities, and the impotence of neoliberalism (i.e. globalized capitalism). The narratives on offer from the far right are always simplistic, visceral, bigoted, and broadly appealing to people who have been beaten down by the capitalist system but who lack a comprehensive understanding of how they ended up where they are. Capitalism creates problems, then brings out the teeth and claws in the form of fascism as the solution to the very issues that it has created.

It’s essential to understand this point, so I will restate it in a slightly different way: fascism is just a form of capitalism cleverly disguised as not only a totally different system, but also as a solution to the failures of  the system which it still essentially represents. This provides a unique challenge to revolutionary leftists. The right wing narratives are simpler than ours; whereas we try to describe reality as it actually is, the far right appeals to gut prejudices and creates convenient and easy scapegoats to distract people from the failures of the system itself. “It’s not capitalism that is to blame”, they say, “it is that Muslim, or that Mexican, or that Jew. THEY are the problem.” In this way the system protects itself.

Therefore it is by no means an inevitability that communism will arise out of the ashes of capitalism. To the contrary, we could get capitalism recapitulated as fascism, or we could merely descend into chaos and barbarism as institutions fracture and collapse. The left needs to understand this and organize in order to be a force and viable option when that time comes, so that we can push the system in the correct direction and not merely hand it over to the worst elements of our species by virtue of our impotence, disorganized state, and general inability to act. Communism isn’t inevitable, its merely an option among many, and it’s our responsibility to implement it. This requires action.

A Word On Social Democracy

One thing that Marx did fail to anticipate is capitalism’s ability to use it’s economic surplus to pacify the working class and the poor.

If fascism is capitalism with it’s fangs out, social democracy is capitalism with a smile.

In times of relative prosperity, capitalism maintains its hierarchy of wealth and power by handing out concessions to the lower classes. Northern Europe is a place where this aspect of capitalism has been fully developed. But it’s important to realize that social democracy is one way the capitalist system, when it is in good health, holds off revolutions and maintains it’s stranglehold. It essentially “buys off the revolution” by pacifying the working class with goods and services as part of the social safety net (healthcare, education, and maybe even a basic income), while ensuring the basic social relations, power inequalities, and authoritarian hierarchies of capitalism stay firmly in place. This strategy, while certainly the best that capitalism has to offer, suffers from the same flaws of capitalism generally, and, as I said above, only takes hold in times of relative prosperity. The moment economic times get rough, social democracy and it’s bedazzled social safety net is the first thing to be sacrificed on the alter of “austerity”. So social democrats should be wary of hitching their wagon to capitalism: it’s failures will be your failures. Additionally, anti-capitalists should be wary of social democrats. For us, social democracy can only be a means to a further end, something to support while working for more radical changes. But it can never be the end itself.

Conclusion

Marxism is not a fundamentally deterministic philosophy. It does not preach a narrow-minded inevitability, and Marxists can only truly be Marxists, in my opinion, if they act on their Marxism. To sit back, endlessly theorizing and waiting for the magical revolution, is to abandon a fundamental aspect of Marxist philosophy: political action. That is not to say that theory has no place in Marxism, of course it does! But theory only becomes relevant when it is backed by concerted, organized political action. Marx and Engels knew that as well as anybody, and it’s worth noting that the Communist Manifesto, which they wrote together, was a call to arms, not armchairs.

 

 

 

Dear Americans, with regards to Cuba:

Did you know that the water in Flint Michigan is *still* poisoned? Did you know that 1 in 5 American children live in poverty? Did you know that America has more of its citizens in prison than any other country on Planet Earth, both in per capita terms and overall? Did you know that many of those prisoners are used as slave labor to make products for large corporations while only getting a few cents an hour? Have you read the 13th amendment? Did you know that this week in North Dakota the American government is initiating violence against peaceful protesters (i.e. its own citizens), injuring hundreds, and costing one woman her arm, just so a corporation can put an oil pipeline into the ground in the name of profits?

If I’ve never heard you be consistently outspoken about all of these things, then I definitely don’t want to hear your ass lecturing the world on Castro’s “human rights violations”. When did Castro have slavery? When did Castro have segregation? When did Cuba drop a nuke on 100,000 women and children? When did Cuba invade two countries, slaughtering over 100,000 civilians? When did Cuba under Castro commit genocide? When did Cuba prioritize profit over people In their healthcare system? When did Cuba lock up millions of people and subject them to slave labor?

How dare anyone who defends American Capitalism talk about human rights and morality. The moment you defend this rotten system, you lose all credibility.

Another thing: I’ve noticed a lot of Americans call Fidel Castro a dictator, as if we don’t live in a dictatorship ourselves. Do you really think that being able to pick between two rich people every four years means you are free? Do you really think that you have any more voice in your government than the average Cuban citizen has in theirs?

Cuba isn’t perfect, no place is. But, pound for pound, its better than America. Can you imagine what Cuba could do if it was as wealthy as the United States? Do you think that if Cuba had the wealth and resources that the US has, that any of its children would go to bed hungry or have to drink poisoned water for 3 years? And do you think Cuba itself would struggle economically if the largest economy *in the world* didn’t impose a brutal decades-long trade embargo on it?

But even with all the obstacles Cuba faces, 90% of Cubans own their own home. There is a 99.99% literacy rate. There is NO homelessness and NO hunger. Every Cuban citizen has access to a world renowned healthcare system.

There are no billboards or commercials or advertisements. And there is a beautiful, diverse array of cultural and artistic expression.

There is plenty of corruption in the government, and the Castro government is more authoritarian than I would prefer (although given the geopolitical context they must operate in, and the fact that the U.S. has never stopped trying to instigate sabotage and overthrow their government, perhaps this is defensible). There are plenty of leftists organizing in Cuba trying to create a better, less repressive form of political organization. But capitalism is not the answer. They don’t want homeless people and hungry people and fast food restaurants on every corner. They don’t want the wealth inequality, exploitation, and environmental nihilism that comes with capitalism. They want a socialist economy with a freer political system.

I hope they get it. But the positives of Cuban society are not given nearly enough credit in the US, because far too many people passively absorb bourgeois propaganda instead of putting in the work of studying other countries and reaching their own conclusions.

I, for one, applaud the achievements of Cuban socialism, and I hope that the Cuban people can continue to build on those achievements going forward.

Rest in Peace, Fidel.

 

Trump Is Not Our President

Fact: Only 25.5% of Americans voted for Trump. 25.6% voted for Hillary, about 2% voted third party, and over 46% didn’t even vote at all.

When we say “Trump is not our president”, we are not just making a statement about our values, we are making a statement about statistical and mathematical reality. The majority of Americans did NOT vote for Trump. His opponent (although horrible in her own unique ways) got more votes than him, and nearly half of Americans were so disgusted or uninterested in the election that they didn’t even want to vote for either candidate.

25% of any society taking over all three branches of the government is not democracy nor is it a representative republic. It is not a “victory for the majority”. Its an electoral coup…

So no, Trump is not my president. No, I will not “unite behind him”. I do not respect or recognize the legitimacy of the United States government, and nobody in that government represents me or my views. I am coerced into accepting this government only via the fact that the State has a monopoly on force and can put me in a cage if I try to act on my non-recognition of the legitimacy of them and their laws. Period.

The Importance of Protest in the Face of a Trump Adminstration

“What’s the point of protesting? The election is over, dude, this is pointless. Ugh.”

Answer: NYC, Chicago, Seattle, Oakland, Berkeley, L.A., Denver, and even lil ol’ Omaha erupted as tens of thousands of people in major cities all across the country took to the streets today…

What does it accomplish? It sets a tone. It shows political grievance. Protests are, and always have been, an important and legitimate way to do that. Women got the vote largely by marching and protesting and not shutting up. Black folks got civil rights by marching and protesting and not shutting up. Workers got the minimum wage and weekends and safe working conditions largely from taking to the streets and marching and protesting and not shutting up. Grassroots movements have been an essential part of every single shred of progress that this country, or any other, has ever achieved.

The intent is not to overturn the election; that’s impossible. It’s to show force and to let the new Administration know that millions of us are not okay with the right-wing take over of our government, and when/if they try to do anything that crosses a line, we will shut shit down. We will be a constant source of political agitation.

Try to build a wall and send out deportation squads to split up families?
We will march on Trump Tower.
Try to take away women’s reproductive rights?
We will march on the Capitol.
Try to revive the Keystone XL pipeline, or push through DAPL, and threaten our water sources?
We will march on the White House.

This is politics. This is democracy. This is one side showing the other side that we won’t take it lying down; that they can’t just do whatever they want with no backlash. We will be a thorn in the fucking side of the Trump administration every damn step of the way. And if you don’t like that, If that just fucking rubs you the wrong way, then just do what you’ve always done: make cynical comments on Facebook, vote every few years, and be overly-flattered with yourself. It’s no sweat off our backs. You are irrelevant, and we got work to do.

Six Ways of Approaching and Interpreting Marxism

Marxism, like many philosophical traditions, is a huge series of concepts and ideas with plenty of complexity and nuance. Too often discussions of Marxism are befuddled and unproductive because people are using the term in different ways than their conversational partner, and so they end up talking past one another. What I want to do here is propose six basic ways of approaching and studying Marxism in an effort to bring some of these complexities and nuances to light, and thereby, hopefully, increase clarity and understanding with regards to discussions of Marx and Marxism. I am motivated to do this because I think Marx, more than ever, offers an essential and important way of orienting oneself to current social, political, and economic events in the pursuit of understanding them fully. However, for a plethora of reasons, there continues to be a stigma attached to Marx and Marxism, and a large reason for this is because so much confusion exists as to what exactly it is; I hope this short essay will clear some of that confusion up.

Here are six general ways of understanding Marxism (in no particular order):

1) As a historical, empirical subject of study: If you were asked, for example, to do a paper on Marx in a college class, you would likely approach him in this  way; as a subject of third-person research or of a biography, in which the historical facts of his life and writings are explicated in as objective a way as possible.

2) As a doctrine: as a core set of ideas. This is done by extracting what one considers to be the central points of Marxism, and molding them into a coherent doctrine that can be subscribed to or refuted. This involves abstracting away from any changes in his thought over time in order to put forward a cohesive net of basic ideas. It is a rational reconstruction of Marx’s thought based on what one believes to be the most important, or most central, aspect of his thought. 

3) As a conceptual revolution: One could view Marx, fundamentally, as starting a *tradition* of thought; as re-conceptualizing capitalism and history, and thereby spawning a philosophical and political tradition. Much like Darwin and Freud re-conceptualized biology and the mind, starting long traditions which expanded on, edited, corrected, and carried forward those basic ideas.

4) As a branching-off: You could study the thought of *the people who called themselves Marxists* throughout history (Lenin, Adorno, Althusser, Gramsci, Debord, Kautsky, Luxemburg, etc.). So Marxism just becomes a loosely connected net of different strains of thought as represented by different thinkers after Marx. In this interpretation, Marxism becomes identical to the thought of historical figures who called themselves Marxist.

5) As a historical application: You could study Marxism merely by studying the ways in which his ideas were put into practice, focusing more on how they operated in the real world (Soviet Union, Cuba, China, etc.) instead of on the ideas themselves or the methodology he proposed. In this interpretation, Marxism most often becomes synonymous with Leninism and Stalinism. Many of Marxism’s opponents take up this interpretation as the ONLY valid interpretation for obvious reasons.

6) As a methodology: as an interpretive lens through which one can make sense of historical and political events and through which one can analyze the economic paradigm. It can be seen as a continuing project of consistently applying the methodology that Marx put forward. Under this view, it matters less what the exact ideas of Marx himself were, and instead focuses on the WAY in which Marx proposed we analyze the world.

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I study Marxism largely via #3 and #6. And insofar as I call myself a Marxist, I mean that I view him as a conceptual revolutionary who put forward an interpretive lens and a methodology (namely historical and dialectical materialism, theory of alienation, the critique of political economy, etc.) that I find particularly useful in analyzing current social, political, historical, and economic events. It is not a dogma or a doctrine to which I blindly adhere, rather its a general approach I take, fully backed up and informed by my own critical thinking, ethical values, and political / historical context. Beyond that basic orientation to Marxism, I also find #4 extremely important. Marx was just a human being, and as such he was wrong about a lot, and many thinkers that came after him took his thought in new and exciting directions, and expanded on his philosophy in such a way that it was improved and updated, and continues to be improved and updated. I place myself in that long tradition of people who studied Marx and his philosophical heirs, and who continue to update Marxism and apply it in new and unique contexts (as Marx himself would have wanted).

But NONE of these ways of interpreting Marxism are completely wrong. All of them are valid ways of studying Marxism, its just a matter of realizing that all these approaches exist and are valid in their own ways, and then being conscious about how you are using the terms involved at any given moment.

Lots of confusion stems from people talking past one another by using different approaches without being clear, in their own minds as well as explicitly, about which one they are using. I’ll often get into arguments with people interpreting Marxism STRICTLY as #5, when I am using it in the ways outlined by #3 and #6. Such discussions are bound to fail because we are literally talking about different things without realizing it, and no constructive dialogue can blossom out of that fundamental miscommunication.

So, whether you are sympathetic to Marxism or are firmly opposed to it, I hope you keep these distinctions in mind going forward, and do your best to articulate them explicitly when engaging in dialogue about Marx and Marxism. It’s not only an intellectual obligation, its also a moral one, because in these times of rapid change, ubiquitous corruption, and constant upheaval, understanding Marx, and what he had to offer, is more important than ever.

The Embrace Of Sadness And The Deepening Of The Self

At the core of my being is a profound sadness. I would say that my predominant life-emotion is sadness; melancholy representing it in its most beautiful and poetic form, and clinical depression (from which I suffer intermittently) representing it in its most explicitly bleak form.

I’m not sad person in the sense that I’m outwardly and obviously sad all the time, but it’s always just below the surface; bubbling. My eyes well up with tears on a near daily basis, and have my entire adult life. Anything can provoke it, from a random lyric in a song, to a news story, to mere moments of silence. I view life as fundamentally tragic. And it is.

Our lives are fleeting, fragile, largely meaningless, and marked by violent injustice and personal loss. In our personal lives, we are forced to watch as everyone we love grows old, gets sick, and eventually dies. The older we get, the more funerals we attend. Life is a waiting room where, one by one, we watch everyone we care about march into their graves while we wait for our turn; a macabre conveyer belt of death. Zooming out and looking at civilization as a whole, we realize that we live in a society which elevates the shallowest aspects of our nature to the level of what we blindly call “culture”: from endless, vacuous consumerism, to soul-crushing and time-stealing wage labor, to the obsessive and ubiquitous focus on hyper-individualism, selfishness, and competition, which destroys any semblance of community and leaves us feeling isolated, alienated, and perpetually dissatisfied. Add to that the constant barrage of natural disasters, mass shootings, war, and disease, and life, both personally and generally, is often overwhelming in its wretchedness.

To open your eyes to the world is to open them up to abysses of despair and mountains of triviality.

For sensitive, intellectual people our world is a monstrosity, punctuated only far too rarely by brief moments of elation and happiness. Moments which fade quickly, and serve only to remind of us of their oppressive infrequency.

My personal transition from adolescence to adulthood was defined by a long period of clinical depression. The naiveté and sense of joy that had marked my childhood crumbled into dust when I first had to get a shitty job and I realized that this was what the rest of my life, and all of our lives, consisted of: going to work, coming home, paying bills, and going back to work. That revelation was so disorienting and dark that I fell into the worst depression of my life, and stayed there until I had to be hospitalized for it. I was admitted into a psych-ward for a week, while a team of psychiatrists and doctors tried to figure out how to treat me. There solution of medication worked long enough for me to get out of the hospital, but soon failed miserably. The sadness I had, while partially neuro-chemical, was fundamentally existential, and there is no treatment for that. When the disease is life itself, what pill could I swallow to make it better? The answer was then as it is now: none.

I do not want to sound hyperbolically bleak. All things considered, I am a very blessed man. I have a nice apartment, two wonderful, healthy kids who I love more than I could put into words, a fiancé, and a great set of family and friends who love me deeply. I am not in desperate poverty. I do not have any serious health problems. And my job, while utterly meaningless and morally unfulfilling, grants me a surplus of downtime in which I can read and write (and get paid for it!).

I do not walk around life with my head down in a state of indefinite emotional despair. In fact, most of my adult life has been a project of learning how to live in the midst of this tragedy. Without recoiling into medication or therapy, I’ve been able to cobble together some basic strategies for living with my head above water, appreciating the small things in life, and keeping my sanity. In my personal life, I’m extremely lighthearted and often humorous. No one who interacts with me on a daily basis would use the term “sad” to describe me. But that is not because I hide it from people, its because, all things considered, I am fairly well-adjusted and have been able to put together an assortment of mechanisms by which I can live. Humor, parenthood, and a handful of hobbies are primary ways that I cope with life.

But the sadness is always there. The darkness is always there.

But accepting this, and even embracing it, has allowed me room to exist. In fact, I would argue that there is beauty, and the promise of growth, in the embrace of one’s own sadness. Sadness, when not violently catapulted into clinical depression, is actually a very gentle, often sublime emotion. When we stop resisting it, or trying to escape it, we can allow it to operate within us and therefore to deepen us.  Sadness, once embraced, can function like a rain that, over time, erodes away the hardness of our internal lives and carves out room for empathy, gentleness, and even love. It can soften us, and through that softening, it can make us better, more connected, more authentic human beings. When we come face to face with the tragedy of our own life, we can see the tragedy in everyone’s life. Our sadness is the sadness of being human, and by extending that realization outward, we foster compassion and love for other human beings. And that, perhaps, is the foundation on which a better world can be built…

Pessimism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism: Ancient Philosophies For The Modern Soul

As a life-long student of philosophy, I often turn to the subject in times of uncertainty or despair. Often the subject of philosophy, thanks to academia, gets a bad reputation for being pedantic, obscure, overly abstract, and even elitist. However, this bad reputation is totally unfair. Philosophy, perhaps more than any other subject, has the ability to teach us the most about life and how to live it. In particular, the converging (and often heavily over-lapping) philosophies of Stoicism, Buddhism, Epicureanism, and Pessimism, when combined, offer a unique and rather simple set of strategies for living a good life.

I will not go into the fine details of each philosophy here, I merely want to highlight some basic tactics that these philosophies offer us with regards to how a human being should live their life in order to squeeze the most happiness (or at least the most contentedness) out of it.

Lower Your Expectations

Coming mostly out of the Pessimist tradition, this idea is as simple as it is effective. Too often in life, especially in our modern American culture which inculcates in us from an early age that we are special and “can be anything we want to be”, our expectations grow out of proportion with our reality.  We are often raised to expect a morally-uplifting and meaningful career, a happily-ever-after romantic life, a comfortable income, etc. However, all too often, these things fail to pan out as we would have hoped, and the disparity between our expectations and our realities can cause us serious despair and even self-loathing (as if its *our* fault that these expectations haven’t come to fruition).

However, by being conscious of these overly-optimistic expectations, and bringing them down to more reasonable levels, we reduce the inevitable disappointment that results when we realize that life is a lot harder and shittier than we were brought up to expect. This does not mean that we stop trying, or that we give up. To the contrary, we should still try our hardest to find a career we enjoy, a partner we want to grow old with, and enough financial resources to provide for ourselves and our families. But by lowering our expectations as low as we can, we can be happily surprised when things go well, while never being overwhelmed with disappointment when things go badly. The truth is, most of us won’t have jobs we love, our relationships with our loved ones will often be strained and difficult, we will likely have plenty of money troubles, and, ultimately, everyone we care about will suffer greatly and then die, one by one, until its our turn. But this reality need not make us tremble with sadness, rather by appropriately and maturely orienting ourselves with it, we steel our minds against these inevitabilities and therefore can maintain some semblance of mental and emotional balance when they occur; as they almost certainly will.

Control Your Emotions

Our emotions come and go like weather pattners. We can be happy and optimistic in the morning, tired and deflated in the afternoon, and riddled with anxiety in the evening. The external world cares not at all for our internal emotional states, and is constantly infringing on our ability to maintain emotional balance. To grab and hold onto any sense of inner tranquility in today’s world is a Sisyphean task, indeed.

The ancient Stoics took this problem on, and concluded that by gaining control over your emotions, you can diminish the chaotic negativity that can result from having your emotions blow to and fro without an anchor. A primary method that they employed were thought experiments. By constantly thinking about worst case scenarios, the logic went, one could build up their powers of emotional control and not be as flustered when things went wrong. Holding, for example, the thought of death in your mind constantly tends to strengthen you against feelings of fear and anxiety. Reflecting often on the fact that the people you love are going to die tends to strengthen you against feelings of sadness and despair. Reflecting often on the ultimate meaningless and pettiness of human squabbles tends to strengthen you against feelings of anger and hatred.

Beyond that, though, I would argue that by OBSERVING your emotions as they arise, and detaching yourself from them in order to study them, has an even bigger effect on your ability to control them. When anger arises, for instance, simply letting it play itself out and observing how it makes you feel tends to dissipate the feeling rather quickly. Instead of justifying your anger to yourself with white-hot inner dialogue, and thereby elongating that emotion’s lifespan, try taking a deep breath and feeling what anger feels like, especially in your stomach. Anger sits in your stomach like a hot ball of iron, and it has a distinct feel to it. By detaching from the emotion in order to watch it dispassionately, you rob it of its momentum. When a strong emotion arises, you immediately have two options: 1) succumb to it, fall into it, and talk to yourself in you own head about it or 2) stand back from it, observe it with full attention, and watch it as it runs its course and fizzles out. With time, employing the latter tactic over and over again gives you steadily increasing control over your emotions, and allows you to live a slightly happier, more balanced, internal emotional life.

Take Pleasure In The Small Things

The Epicureans believed that much of our unhappiness comes from hoping for the big things in life, while ignoring all the little things. We are so obsessed with achievement, money, fame, and status that we neglect the small things in life that make life worth living. We may never obtain the “big” things in life, but we can and do engage with a plethora of wonderful little pleasures on a daily basis, and by orienting our attention to those small pleasures, we create a happier life from the bottom up.

The way coffee warms your chest and stomach on a cold winter morning, or the way your child slips their little hand into yours on a walk, or the way wine and cheese mix together on your pallet, or the way the spring sun feels on your exposed skin; these are the little wonders of life. In the rat-race that is our modern lives, these things often get passed over with little to no appreciation as we dash from our jobs to school to home and back to our jobs again. We are constantly bombarded by stimulation (visual, audio, etc.) as well as by cultural ideas of achievement and social status. Those things lash out at our attention ceaselessly. But by becoming aware of that, disengaging from it as much as possible, and taking time to consciously appreciate the little things in life, we can build up a mentality and a focus that is far more cohesive with our own happiness than our default orientation towards big dreams and future hopes could ever be.

Focus On The Present Moment

The idea that our minds (and by extension our emotions and expectations) are perpetually being pulled away from us, and tossed around chaotically, was something that the Buddha himself was very cognizant of. In Buddhist traditions, the default state of our constantly chattering, chaotic mind is known as “monkey mind”; swinging from emotion to emotion, from thought to thought, from external stimulus to external stimulus. By constantly talking to ourselves in our own heads all day long, we disconnect from the present moment in favor of reflecting on past events or anticipating future ones. This produces in us a sense that life is passing us by, as well as a nagging sense of never being fully satisfied. We satisfy one urge only to quickly discover that a new desire has arisen in its place. This pattern of “desire, satiation, desire, satiation, desire” plays out indefinitely in our minds, and is not at all conducive with lasting peace and tranquility.

To combat this tendency of the human mind, Buddhism stresses the concept of mindfulness: of consciously bringing your attention into the present moment as often as possible. By fully and deeply focusing on our breath, or on what we are doing at any given moment, we slowly train our brain to slow down and to engage with the present moment, which, if you think about it, is all we really have. When the past occurred, it occurred in the present. When the future comes, it come to us in the form of the present. All we have is the moment in which we exist. That is all we will ever have. By training our minds to focus on the present moment, often through mindfulness meditation, we come to appreciate that fact intimately. This ability to live in the present moment decreases feelings of regret and anxiety, since those emotions are about what HAS happened or what MIGHT happen. It also allows us to take in life *as it happens* with a sense of equanimity and patience and inner balance. Happiness is a natural outgrowth of this mind-state. After all, happiness is not something that needs to be hunted down and obtained, rather its like the blossoming of a flower when the proper conditions (sunlight, moisture, oxygen) are present. Orienting your mind to the present moment is how you cultivate the proper conditions in which happiness can blossom.

Conclusion

By understanding and integrating the lessons taught by these four schools of philosophy (Pessimism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism), we can create space in our lives and in our minds for true contentedness. There is, to be sure, significant irony in the fact that, in our 21st century world, it is the philosophies of the ancients that continue to prove to be the most relevant with regards to how we should live.