Ancient Wisdom + Modern Science

* A writing assignment from the MFA program at the National University.


According to Buddhist philosophy, our lives are unsatisfactory because of our constant cravings. Our attachment to the happinesses that are fleeting is the cause of our unhappiness. Clutching to the past and expections of the future distract us from living in the present moment. If we can live in the moment and be mindful of the things we have in each passing moment; we can find contentment. Ancient wisdom and modern science rarely agree. This topic, however, is unanimous.


In Buddha’s Four Noble Truths; the first Noble Truth identifies the truth that there is suffering. The Second identifies the suffering. This makes it possible to reach the Third Noble Truth; seeing that there is an end to suffering. The Fourth Noble Truth sets us on the path to end our personal suffering. The ancient Stoics agree; Seneca once said; “we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” He was sentenced to exile, a terrible punishment he somehow enjoyed. The Buddha left a life of wealth when he chose exile, Seneca was forced into it. Their views on exile were similar.


I’m reminded of a quote from Lao Tzu “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” Seneca was at peace in exile because he didn't long for life out of exile. Modern science tends to agree with these old haggard men of the past. Modern psychology changed in the 1970s, due to the groundbreaking research from A.T Beck on Cognitive Therapy and Emotional Disorders. Beck hypothesized, “anxiety was conceptualized as being focused on future harms and depression on loss and hopelessness about the resolution of problems, future-oriented thinking has been considered a central feature of anxiety and depression” (Miloyan). Being depressed about the past or anxious about the future takes us out of the moment we are presently in.


According to Oxford Academic's Future Oriented Thought Patterns Associated With Anxiety and Depression, “anxiety and mood disorders are among the most prevalent mental health conditions in older adults... Episodic foresight enables us to prudently prepare for threats, opportunities, and eventualities and to plan and control important aspects of the future. However, a price paid for this powerful capacity is that it may lead to excessive rumination about potential future events that cause anxiety and depression” (Miloyan). In The Future is Here, it is suggested that “the tendency to construct negative future scenarios in anxiety and depression may largely be based on retrieval biases that are attributable to affective state” (Miloyan, Pachana, Suddendorf). In other words, the biases we tall ourselves in the depressive retellings of our own past effects the vision we have of ourselves. Depressive thinking is a cause of the anxieties in our future. Past failures convince us of future failures. The negative self talk creates negative self worth.


This suggests executable paths to recovery, the first would be to live in the moment and not think about past or future events. Easier said than done. Another, possibly easier approach, would be to tell ourselves positive stories about ourselves. Giving ourselves permission to reaffirm ourselves, experience gratitude and savor the good in our daily lives. Epictetus, a Greek Stoic born into slaver who lived alone and struggled with physical disabilities, has two major works of philosophy; Discourses and the Enchiridion. They both have his view of what is/is not in our power:


That alone is in our power, which is our own work; and in this class are our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions. On the contrary, what is not in our power, are our bodies, possessions, glory, and power. Any delusion on this point leads to the greatest errors, misfortunes, and troubles, and to the slavery of the soul (Heinrich 204).


We have no power over external things, and the good that ought to be the object of our earnest pursuit, is to be found only within ourselves (Heinrich 206).


According to research from Robert Emmons, gratitude has a number of lasting positive effects. People who keep gratitude journals show a reduction in the effects and duration of depressive episodes as well as a greater resistance to stress. A cultivation of gratitude has also shown people to see the world as more just, their outlooks become less self centeredness.” In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Leon Seltzer says; “self absorption [is] the root of all psychological evils” (Seltzer). Self absorption is defined as being “preoccupied with oneself or one’s own affairs,” it seems to cause more psychological harm than good. This makes sense when you look at any self centered person, most notable a megalomaniacal world leader from the red, white and blue. The self centered seem miserable, no matter how famous, wealthy or successful they are.


Writing for New York Magazine, Melissa Dahl observed; “nerves have a way of making you fold into yourself, obsessing over each awkward thing you’ve said or done in front of someone you’re trying to impress. You’re chatting away, but you’re also very much focused on you, trying to figure out the impression you’re leaving. Meanwhile, you’ve missed the last five minutes of the conversation, which makes it highly likely that the impression you’re leaving is that you’re kind of a jerk” (Dahl). Psychology Today quoted Canadian researchers whose 2012 study examined “whether anxiety drives people to self-focus, or whether such a focus actually leads to anxiety” (Seltzer). These experimenters found significant evidence to confirm the latter hypothesis.


Also in 2012, a banner year for mental health studies, University of Kentucky found, “study participants who ranked higher on gratitude scales were less likely to retaliate against others, even when given negative feedback. They experienced more sensitivity and empathy toward other people and a decreased desire to seek revenge" (Seltzer). Eckhart Tolle often talks about what he calls a “pain-body;” a recurring emotional pain that lives inside each of us. "Accumulated from past traumatic experiences and sticks around because these painful experiences were not fully faced and accepted the moment they arose” (Pranger). In other words, we need to learn to let things be as they are. The Japanese have Billiken, the god of things being as they're supposed to be. They rub the belly of his statues for luck in letting things be as they are. The Japanese have lots of fun shrines, there's one balding men visit in hopes he'll bless than with air. The visit didn't help me or my hairline. I digress, Billiken is always depicted as happy, with a big cheerful smile. So is the god with all the hair.


Modern scientists, psychological researchers and ancient sages have been trying to help us worry less by living more in the present for thousands of years. They agree that opinions of life events hurt us more than said life events. The science and the philosophy overlap, recent studies prove it again and again; worrying about hair loss hurts more than hair loss.

References


Dahl, Melissa. “You're Kind of Self-Centered When You're Nervous.” The Cut, The Cut, 6 May 2015, https://www.thecut.com/2015/05/youre-kind-of-self-centered-when-youre-nervous.html.


Emmons, Robert. University of California, “Why Gratitude Is Good.” Greater Good, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good.

Miloyan, Beyon. “Future-Oriented Thought Patterns Associated With Anxiety and Depression in Later Life: The Intriguing Prospects of Prospection.”Oxford Academic, https://academic.oup.com/gerontologist/article/57/4/619/2631918.


Miloyan Beyon, Pachana Nancy A. & Thomas Suddendorf (2014) The future is here: A review of foresight systems in anxiety and depression, Cognition and Emotion, 28:5, 795-810, DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2013.863179

Seltzer, Leon. “Self-Absorption: The Root of All (Psychological) Evil?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201608/self-absorption-the-root-all-psychological-evil.


Heinrich Ritter, Alexander James William Morrison, (1846), The History of Ancient Philosophy, Volume 4, p. 204


Heinrich Ritter, Alexander James William Morrison, (1846), The History of Ancient Philosophy, Volume 4, p. 206


Pranger, Austin. “Eckhart Tolle on Dealing with Anxiety.” Ideapod, 19 Feb. 2022, https://ideapod.com/eckhart-tolle-reveals-best-strategy-deal-anxiety-depression/.