This is a revised version of an earlier post in which I described an adventure in the Catskills undertaken in part as an experiment in “askeisis,” the ancient Greek concept of physical and spiritual training. The revised version was published Saturday in Stoicism Today, a blog sponsored by University of Exeter on the topic of ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy applied to modern living.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises Arjuna to “strive to still the mind,” which reminds me of a point made by 2nd century Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius:
It is in your power, whenever you choose, to retire into yourself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
One day, while waiting for the subway, I decided to give it a try. Instead of fretting at the wait, I put away my phone and stood still. Anxiety faded, and the surroundings came into focus, as I slowly let out my breath.
A visual image had helped me make the transition: I imagined moving a gear shift into neutral. Then I wondered, could I shift into neutral while running?
Saturday evening after dinner I drove out to the Catskills to make another attempt on the “Nine,” a 19-mile circuit that crosses nine mountain peaks, with the special distinction that five of the peaks are accessed off trail, that is by bushwhacking through the forest. I’d run the Nine twice before during the day and once at night and also bagged eight of the nine during the winter. But this time I’d be going without shoes, part of a quixotic quest to climb all 35 of the Catskills’ highest peaks barefoot.
Madness perhaps, but not without method. Ancient Greek philosophers advocated the practice of “askeisis,” which means “rigorous training.” Especially favored were practices that entailed endurance, resistance to the elements, or going without food and water. Askeisis is the root of the modern word “asceticism,” and while the Greek concept was not associated with a lifestyle of self-denial, it was thought that rigorous training would lead to both athletic and spiritual development. The ultimate goal was to achieve the states of “ataraxia” (tranquility, serenity, freedom from worry) and “apatheia” (equanimity, composure, freedom from unruly passions).
As a runner, I’m often looking for a chance to add some askeisis into my adventures, recognizing that my spiritual development needs all the help it can get. On this trip I’d carry no food or water, and with the weather forecast calling for a low of 36 F, sleeping outside in the cold sounded like another fun option (John Muir used to go for days in the Sierras during chilly fall weather, without bringing blanket or coat). After further thought, I grabbed a light sleeping bag and tossed it in the pack.
In his prime, John Burroughs (1837-1921) was one of the most popular writers in America, with a huge following of readers and relationships with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and railroad tycoon E. F. Harriman. His passion was the birds, forests, rivers, and mountains of his native Catskills, and his writings reveal a scientist’s powers of observation and a nature-lover’s emotional connection to the land. In 1919, at age 82 he appeared in a short film, shown leading a trio of young children around his Catskill farm. He points out butterfly, chipmunk, grasshopper, and then the following words appear on the screen:
I am an old man now and have come to the summit of my years. But in my heart is the joy of youth for I have learned that the essentials of life are near at hand and happiness is his who but opens his eyes to the beauty which lies before him.
Today, these words are remembered by a dedicated group of Burroughs enthusiasts. But despite his enormous popularity, his hasn’t become a household name like other American naturalists such as Henry David Thoreau or John Muir. I wondered, why?
A recent post on New York Magazine’s website gushed about ultra-marathoners who run in a state of “flow,” a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experience of people who are focused, productive, and happy. According to the author, even casual runners recognize flow as “getting in the zone, cranking out your best stuff, and just being awesomely lost in a creative process.” Endorphin-induced feelings of accomplishment, focus, and strength produce in the runner a “near-spiritual feeling of Zen and nirvana,” the author asserts. The premise seems simple: run, experience flow, and you’ll become happier and more productive.
But if you read Csikszentmihalyi’s work, you’ll find it’s not that easy.
Genuinely happy individuals are few and far between.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Sweet, cold, with a spicy dash of salt, strong enough to make your head spin, margaritas made from the special family recipe were a refreshing summer treat, and one glass was never enough…until I learned to look through the matrix and separate delusion from reality.
This Thanksgiving, if you’re spending time with family and friends, that’s fine, but if you consider yourself an “Epicurean,” that is, someone who places a high value on fine food and drink, unfortunately, I can’t find any philosophical justification for your preferences.
As a fan of the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome, I thought it was only fair to give the other side a fair hearing, and so I set out recently to learn something about Epicurean philosophy, thinking it would be a study in contrast. After all, the dictionary defines Stoicism as endurance of pain without complaint, while Epicurean signifies devotion to sensual pleasures, especially fine food and drink. But I discovered, to my surprise, that this is not the real story.
In a recent post, I compared a weekend spent hiking in the Catskills to Henry David Thoreau’s two-year sojourn at Walden Pond, as both were experiments in natural living and self-sufficiency.
But then my daughter Emeline brought to my attention a recent article entitled “Pond Scum.” The author, Kathryn Schulz, questions why we still admire the literature of a man who was mean-spirited and a fake. She summarizes her opinion in no uncertain terms:
I leaped out of bed before dawn and by first light was on the highway racing toward the Catskills. The goal was to summit seventeen peaks within 24 hours. This would be a test to determine whether I was ready to challenge an ultra-distance mountain-bagging record in this rugged region of the Hudson Valley. If things went well, I’d be back in a few weeks for a multi-day adventure, this time to officially break the record and set a new one.
What’s interesting about the Catskills is that many of the peaks have no trails. To reach a pathless summit, the runner “bushwhacks” through the woods. This entails following the lay of the land, staying oriented with map, compass, and GPS, and surmounting the obstacles tossed up by the constant flux of nature.
I was eager not only to challenge records, but also to experience the wilderness. I had been reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the well-regarded 2nd century Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher. Live in harmony with universal nature, he had argued almost two thousand years ago, and you can achieve serenity and tranquility, no matter what obstacles you encounter. And what better strategy for achieving harmony with nature, than to run through mountains and plunge into trackless forest?