Archive for April, 2009

Seneca on Adversity and Fortune

Seneca, the Roman philosopher and statesman, had a lot to say about adversity and how to deal with the strange twists of Fate. This wasn’t just philosophical musings either, because Seneca’s life was full of extreme highs and lows of fortune. He experienced times of debilitating loss as well as periods of great power and wealth. As a young lawyer he was exiled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius because of his skill at oratory- Claudius was envious of his eloquence. He sent him to Corsica, then a barren, barely populated island, for 8 years. Just before he was taken away, his young son died and while in exile his wife also died. Seneca’s life was at its lowest ebb.

When Claudius married Agrippina, she convinced the Emperor to bring Seneca back to Rome to become tutor to her son Nero. She eventually made him a Consul, a powerful political position. When Nero finally became Emperor, Seneca found himself at the centre of Roman power and he parlayed that into the amassing of great wealth, becoming one of the richest men in the Empire.

This life of extreme ups and downs gave Seneca plenty of material for his writings. He was always wary of Fortuna, the God who was behind the changes of fate. He believed you always had to look at the dark side of possible events (the bottom line). This was his reality principle:

Never give in to adversity

Don’t dare trust prosperity.

The blow you’ve anticipated

Will do the least harm.


None of us can make promises about what is to come. Even what we hold slips through our fingers; and accident cuts short the very hour we have in our grasp. Fear keeps pace with hope, like a prisoner and his escort

He claimed to have welcomed poverty when he was in exile:

Those of us who are on good terms with poverty can count ourselves rich.

The person who is truly impoverished is not the one who has little but the one who yearns after more.

Of course as a rich man he was accused of being a hypocrite for writing lines like this:

Society is unanimous on the subject of Greed- it wallows in it. People look up to money, they pray for it for themselves. They offer it up as if it were the noblest profession they could possibly have.

But Seneca the philosopher also talked about the value and importance of the soul:

Riches are not where we pile them up. It is the soul, not the safe, that we need to fill.

Seneca’s life, with its rollercoaster highs and lows, its grandeur jutted next to fears and anxieties feels very modern to me, even though he lived 2000 years ago. He is an example of how we can fall abruptly from high position and status but also can rise again from the ashes. There is hope in this. Things continually change. Nothing stays static.

But in the end, Nero forced Seneca to commit suicide, because he knew too much about Nero’s transgressions. However Seneca went down in history as having a ‘good’ philosophical death.

(Quotations from The Spiritual Teachings of Seneca by Mark Forstater and Victoria Radin)

April 17, 2009 at 3:28 pm 3 comments

The importance of belly breathing – Part 1.

Post the Second. –

There is an emphasis in the guided meditation to getting the breath down as deep as possible into the belly. This is because one third of all people breathe only into their chest and consequently their breathing is shallow, and the amount of oxygen taken into the body is reduced. It also means that when we are under stress, and the breath is affected, even held, it becomes even shorter and shallower, which can easily lead to hyperventilation.

The body can utilise much more oxygen than most people inhale, and more oxygen is better for the body’s functioning, since the oxygen molecules make their way into every cell of the body. There they are integral to the creation of energy.

Even I , who was an athlete when young, and have been doing meditation and yoga for 20 years, found that my breath was restricted at the diaphragm once I started doing some concentrated belly breathing. Since the diaphragm is the second most important muscle in the body after the heart, it’s wise to try to make it as healthy and free-flowing as possible.

I am currently researching a book on health, well-being and longevity and one of the objects of the book is to be very practical, by giving exercises on DVD that people can follow. I wanted to have a series of yoga asanas that readers could do in order to discover where their body was stiff or in pain so that the work could be targeted at those places. I asked my wife, a yoga teacher, to help me devise these exercises, but she said that it’s better to start with breathing, since that is primary, and the asanas an be looked at later.

This led me to consider my own practise. Although I have been doing yoga, tai chi and meditation for many years I have never actually concentrated on belly breathing and testing my own breath patterns. I knew that I breathed into the belly, but I was also aware that for many years I felt a restriction or obstruction around the middle of my body just where the diaphragm is. I had worked on trying to loosen this tension, but had I actually eliminated it?

My wife had started learning Transformational Breathing, a training co-devised by Judith Kravitz in the US. She had Judith’s book Breathe Deep Laugh Loudly  and an audio CD, so I decided to read the book and do the exercises, without a teacher (having a teacher would have been preferable). Transformational Breathing exercises ask you to breath into the belly through the mouth and not the nose, and I found that after a short time doing the exercise my head felt light-headed. According to the book, this may have been due to the balance in my body between oxygen and nitrogen. When you breathe through the mouth and try to fill the belly with breath, you are deliberately taking into the body a great deal more oxygen than you normally would. This changes the balance between the nitrogen and oxygen in the body and could be the reason for my light-headedness.

I also realised that although the exercise called for 100 continuous breaths like this on a daily basis, that I got too light-headed to do that many. Clearly more work was needed on my belly breating.

To be continued

April 15, 2009 at 10:22 am 2 comments

The Age Of Anxiety – a Mini Vacation For The Mind

Seneca, the Roman statesman and Philosopher, said that you can go on holiday to get away from everything, but the one thing you can’t get away from is your self.

It’s even worse when you have serious financial problems, because then not only can’t you afford a holiday, but your problems relentlessly crowd around you, giving you no room to breathe or manoeuvre. Financial worries, with creditors literally breathing down our necks, give us no respite from the pressure of owing money and feeling helpless about being unable to repay. We feel lost by not having a way to deal with our situation. Fear and anxiety take over.

The guided meditation I have created – called The Age of Anxiety- is designed to be a kind of mini-vacation for the mind. For 30 odd minutes you can transport yourself out of constant worry and take a break that truly refreshes: a short therapeutic holiday for the self.

But this isn’t just a form of oblivion. That’s what people use sex and drink and drugs for: to temporarily take the self away from its current state of mind and forget the thoughts and feelings that obsess us. But once these short-term fixes wear off, we are in a worse state than before- more unstable and weaker – and even less capable of dealing with the harsh reality we face. This is not the solution.

In my experience the only thing to do with financial problems is not to seek oblivion so we can forget them, or to hide the credit card statements in the drawer so we can deny the problems exist, but to face them head on and deal with them, as painful as that might seem. It’s not easy but I’m afraid it’s the only solution.

You have to have the courage to look directly at the situation you are in, and to admit to yourself what the worst possible outcome might be. To accept that outcome, even if it means losing your house, or down-shifting your life-style to poverty levels, is the only way you can deal adequately with your problems. If you can do that, you might find that the worst outcome can be avoided, and that the situation can be resolved in a better and unexpected way. But you can only do this by accepting that the worst possible outcome may be the one that you have to live with. From this position of Ground Zero you can build.

This meditation has been designed to help you deal with your problems. It won’t make them go away, but it can give you a fresh perspective on your life that can help you to deal more effectively with your fears and problems. For 30 minutes or so, it can take you out of yourself, get you away from the constant harassment of your fear and insecurity, and give you a breathing space to find new strength to deal with your problems. The meditation offers some affirmations that can increase your innate capacity to deal with adversity. Finally, it offers a new vision of how you can relate to the universe at large, which can broaden your perspective of who you are and how you currently operate in the world.

I hope you give it a try, and I look forward to hearing how you get on

April 13, 2009 at 9:20 am Leave a comment

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