Seneca, born Lucius Annaeus Seneca, was a prominent Stoic in the Roman Imperial Period (27 BC to AD 476). He is one of the most influential figures in this philosophical movement that emphasizes the power of transformation through knowledge.
In AD 54, when Nero became Roman Emperor, Seneca became his close advisor. Less than a decade later, Seneca would be implicated in a failed assassination attempt against Nero (though there is much evidence to suggest Seneca was innocent of the charges). As benefits a senior Roman figure, Seneca was then “invited” to engage in the Ancient Roman suicide protocol, which included both ingesting poison and bleeding out.
By all accounts, Seneca attended to his death in the same way he attended to his life: with tranquility and equanimity. “To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden,” he wrote shortly before his suicide.
He calmly stepped into a tub of warm water (to increase blood flow). A slave handed him a vial of foul-smelling poison, which he swallowed without grimacing. Then he accepted the sharp blade handed to him by a centurion and serenely slashed the veins of his arms, wrists, and ankles. Even in the face of death, Seneca practiced his simple and calm philosophy of stoicism. After all, the word stoic means one who endures patiently.
Can you imagine going so calmly toward oblivion? It’s mind-boggling. Today I lost my mind because my dog wouldn’t stop barking.
Equanimity. I’m searching for it all the time.
The word equanimity comes from the Latin aequanimitas, from aequus, meaning equal or even, and animusm, meaning mind and spirit. Perhaps think of equanimity as yoga for your brain.
Equilibrium of mind feels steady while the world spins in chaos. With equanimity, situations have only characteristics, not demands.
In its most basic form, equanimity can be practiced in any situation when we are mindful of a thought without being attracted to or repulsed by it. We notice its presence without an intentional attitude of either loving or hating it, we observe it without running towards or away from it. We aren’t carried away by negative emotions, and we aren’t carried away by positive ones. There’s no judgment, and we know that everything is temporary, both the good and the bad. It is about meeting life, no matter what arises, with a tranquil, open, and responsive heart.
Easier said than done, am I right? I remember screaming at my dog just to shut up already and feeling sheepish. Guess that’s why we call it a meditation practice.
Seneca taught that studying philosophy isn’t done separately from the rest of life but in accordance with it. It’s easier to find evenness of mind on my meditation cushion than it is when my dog is barking his head off.
Seneca reminds me of the 1963 burning monk. At a busy intersection in Saigon, monk Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death, in a protest against the corrupt Vietnamese government. Photographer Malcolm Browne was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting and the World Press Photo of the Year for capturing the moment. Duc is shown, in the photographic series, calmly sitting down in the street. Two other monks approach and douse him with gasoline and then set him afire. Hundreds of onlookers look on, mesmerized, as Duc sits with complete calm, never flinching, moaning, or crying.
Quang Duc’s last words before his self-immolation were documented in a letter he wrote hours before the protest:
“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally.”
Maybe I’m like a photography negative in that I’m not fully developed yet. While I’m skeptical that I shall ever achieve that level of selfless equanimity, I will at least commit to sitting down every morning and trying.
Maybe I’ll try not to yell at my dog today. I guess we all gotta start somewhere.