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What Is Important in Life? Day 1 – Episode 17


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Seven Days with Seneca What is most important in human life? That is a perennial question that almost all of us ask ourselves, in one form or another, at some point in our lives. Unfortunately, many of us neglect to confront that question until late in life or when unforeseen circumstances force the question upon us. There, amid the faintly glowing embers of a long life approaching its end, or within the smoking and smoldering embers of a cataclysmic life event, we are more likely to listen to our inner sage as it admonishes us to consider what is really important in life before it is too late. Seneca, the wealthy and once powerful Roman senator repeatedly asked what is important in the preface to Book 3 of his Natural Questions. He was looking back on his life from old age when he wrote this work. From that perspective, he admits his motive for asking, “What is most important in life?” He wrote, Old age is at my back and accuses me of having used up my years in fruitless pursuits. (Natural Questions III, praef. 2) Many of us, maybe most, feel the weight of that same accusation at some point. We ask ourselves, what am I doing with my life? The question may be prompted by external events like divorce, a disabling accident, the death of a loved one, a brush with death, a terminal medical diagnosis, the birth of a child, etc. Likewise, the question may arise during meditation or a quiet moment of self-reflection. Many occasions might prompt the question. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that few of us ask it often enough or reflect on it deeply enough to effect lasting change in our life. Fortunately, as Seneca points out, it is never too late to begin anew. No matter what stage of life we are in, we can “press on all the more” and give “hard work” the opportunity to “repair the losses of a misspent life” (Natural Questions III, praef. 2). How? By giving our mind—our rational faculty—time to itself for “contemplation of itself.” Here, Seneca echoes Epictetus’ confidence in our rational faculty’s self-judging and self-healing capabilities (Discourses 1.1). Nonetheless, we must create the time and space for our mind to work on itself. According to Seneca, if we create the time in our busy lives to allow our rational faculty to work on itself, it can “recover by using its present life with care.” While it is helpful to create a time and place for regular meditation or thoughtful reflection, it far more important to the recovery process that we practice constant attention (prosoche) throughout the day. This practice of attention focuses our rational faculty on our present judgments, present desires, and present actions; this is the real inner work of a practicing Stoic. Once we are paying attention, we can deploy the three Stoic disciplines to help us “transition from remorse to honorable action.” (Natural Questions III, praef. 2-3). Seneca asks, “What is most important in life?” seven times and provides seven thought-provoking insights in Natural Questions, Book 3, praef. 10-16. This episode is the first of a week-long meditation program that draws from Seneca’s responses to that question to challenge and inspire practicing Stoics. Each daily meditation is short enough to be listened to or read quickly during a morning meditation and will give you something to consider throughout the day. The goal of this week-long meditation is twofold. First, I trust that Seneca’s responses to the question “What is important in life?” will provide some insight into this question. Second, my wish is that Seneca’s responses will provoke some deep soul-searching and motivate us to ask and answer this potentially life-changing question more frequently. The Inner Work of Stoicism What is most important in human life? Not filling the seas with fleets, nor setting up standards on the shore of the Red Sea, nor, when the earth runs out of sources of harm, wandering the ocean to seek the unknown; rather it is seeing everything with one’s mind...

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