Dr. Strange’s Keyhole: Opening The Doors Of Perception

Freedom IS a constant struggle not against the external but against the INTERNAL. I can’t recall the correct attribution, since I ran across the quote in some link-rabbit hole surf day. Even so, the idea resonates with me, especially as one just beginning to practice Stoic philosophy.

After all, one of the big keys of Stoicism I’ve found so far is the idea that it is impossible to free ourselves from our circumstances. However, we CAN free ourselves from the influence of those circumstances.

We do this by freeing ourselves internally. By disallowing ourselves to get sucked into just how terrible others might believe our circumstances are. See, more than we like to admit, life cuffs us upside the head, body slams us into a wall, and laughs in our face. Or in my case kicks you in the teeth as your down, and keeps laughing anyway.

Does it ever stop?

No, not completely.

Reminds me of a movie. Mild Dr. Strange spoilers ahead.

Dr. Stephen Strange, best and brightest surgeon of his age. Until all hell broke loose, and his life got upended. Guess what? He allowed himself to crumble into an obsession.

He needed a cure.

Out of money, out of options, he wandered into a foreign country seeking a cure.

Enter the Ancient One.

In their meeting, he’s shown in a quite powerful way just how limiting his beliefs have been in his search for healing. If you want to see how, go watch the movie.

That scene illustrates just how much BELIEF can show us. Such belief takes many forms. Polytheism, monotheism, Christianity, paganism, Islam, Judaism, non-religious philosophies such as Stoicism or Buddhism. I don’t have the space to list them all.

Beliefs vary as much as the individuals who hold them.

In the scene I’m referring to, the Ancient One explains that Strange is like a man looking through a keyhole, trying to understand what’s on the other side. I’d argue that makes him just like the rest of us. We’ve all got our version of…

Dr. Strange’s Keyhole

Back in the day, 1800s or so, when skeleton keys were all the rage, you could see through a keyhole. You may not see much though. Perhaps a blur of color here or there. A hint of shape. The whisper of reality beyond the door.

Once you open the door, you can actually see what’s going on.
Despite our external circumstances, our inner physical and mental realities are a lot like that glimpse through the keyhole. We think we know what we’re looking at. We’re certain we understand what’s happening!

I don’t know about you, but I keep learning enough to show me that I don’t. Not really. Reality and my perception of reality often disagree. Vehemently.

It’s like the old tale of the three blind men and the elephant. One claimed the elephant was like a tree. Another spoke of how like a serpent it was. The third man spoke of its hairy hide. They all had pieces, the leg, the trunk, and the end of the tail. All were right…and not.

So I can stare at that door all I want, but until I turn the key and open it…Well, I won’t have a clue.

Opening The Door

First, it helps to understand all your mental doors are made the same stuff. Perceptions. Opening the door means challenging that perception.

That’s the scary part.

The master key to these doors is curiosity. Curiosity about yourself and the world you live and move in.
Trouble comes when the key rusts, because we decide the answer we have is already enough. To polish the key, we choose to learn more, even when it hurts. Or the door itself is rusted shut.

My question to you: are you willing to polish that key? Open those doors? Accept what’s behind them?

I promise, your pride may take a beating, but it’s worth it. Last time my key turned up rusted, I believed that doctors would know what to do to help my pain levels and daily chronic migraines.

No luck. Instead, I’ve done my own research, and spent the last several months, with more ahead, testing a variety of other methods to gain relief. Some work, some were discarded.

All have been lessons.

I don’t know just how many doors exist in my mind. I do a little every day to keep the master key polished. I want to see more than just the piece of the room behind the keyhole.

What about you? What perception door have you been staring down, afraid to open? Tell me about it in the comments.

And go on. Turn that key. Set yourself free.

Stoicism: What The Stoics Knew About Realistic Thinking And Gratitude

Fascinating what we find when we dig into the history of a concept.  Stoicism isn’t even an idea I found particularly interesting or appealing until two days ago, when Tim Ferris shared a blog post from Aeon about the concept.  Aeon’s post Indifference Is A Power discusses why stoicism is “one of the best mind hacks ever devised.”  Which is ridiculous according to the current understanding of the philosophy.  Ask most Americans, and they’ll tell you that if someone can endure without complaining, well that person is stoic.  Many of us have even forgotten this is, in fact, a school of philosophy dating back to Ancient Greece.  I certainly didn’t know that.

Really I didn’t even know being stoic was anything more than white-knuckling through a problem.  And if you’ve ever stared longingly at that last piece of cake at the birthday party when you weren’t the one throwing the party, you know just how tough white-knuckling is.  In fact, most of the time, it doesn’t work.

It's okay. It wasn't my cake. Don't be upset. DON'T BE UPSET!
It’s okay. It wasn’t my cake. Don’t be upset. DON’T BE UPSET!

No, it wasn’t, but Jessi the Birthday Girl didn’t get that last piece either.  Chris got it, the dirty rat, and that was their third piece!

So What Is Stoicism, Anyway?

I’ll be the first to admit, this post is a form of catharsis.  Life hasn’t been particularly gentle to me in the past year or three, as those who follow this blog well know, and I’ve been searching for a way to cope through bouts of Major Depressive Disorder – you know, the version of depression that causes the ending of one’s own life to look like the only option.  In fact, yesterday and this morning, I had a very personal experience that, in the past, may have triggered a severe episode.

So I’m going to try a new approach this time.  That new approach involves a heavy dose of Stoicism, because what it ISN’T is white-knuckling through until the problem goes away.  It isn’t simply enduring a problem until it’s not a problem.

In Aeon author Larry Wallace’s words, Stoicism offers “lasting transcendence and imperturbable tranquility.”

For someone with both Social Anxiety and Major Depression, that sounds pretty darn good!  Except I’ve heard such promises before, from things like yoga, Eastern spiritual practices like Buddhism and Taoism, and other esoteric cultures.  Don’t get me wrong, those work for some people.  Ever the skeptic, I kept reading.  And found that Stoicism, at its core, involves a kind of gratitude so lasting, so durable that it was the source of the tranquility that allowed such seeming indifference towards the turbulence of life.  In fact, if you take a glance at Urban Dictionary, it describes the Stoic thus (objectionable content redacted 😉 ):


Someone who does not give a *** about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter. They are the most real people alive.

Group of kids are sitting on a porch. Stoic walks by.

Kid – “Hey man, yur a [REDACTED] an you [REDACTED]!”

Stoic – “Good for you.”

Keeps going.

IF ONLY!  How many times have I seen a stranger’s comment on the internet, or a political post, or some other manner of tomfoolery or skulduggery, and felt the need to become a web Avenger, slaying idiocy with the stroke of the Post button!  How many times has that foolishness sunk into my being and percolated there in the deep recesses that fester and later become episodes of depression?

Do I think this will be a cure?  Not at all.  It’s simply a piece of the puzzle.  It is, however, a philosophy I have, in some ways, already put into practice.

The Power of Gratitude

Most of us were taught as kids that Please and Thank You go a long way.  Yet I don’t know how many of us were ever taught that gratitude is a lifestyle.  It’s even in the definition, “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”  I also had another thought.  In its own way, it’s a form of sacrifice.  And it brings power.  Not the obvious kind of power that rules worlds, but the quiet, simple power that shapes them through individual lives and choices.

Why are you looking at me like that?  I see your eyebrow.  Put it down and hear me out a second.

I’ve seen my mother go through two divorces.  I’ve seen my family fall apart.  When I was a teenager, I decided I’d do everything in my power to keep that from happening to any relationship I wound up in.  One significant pattern I noticed was a lack of genuine gratitude, and so I promised myself that in my future romantic relationships, I would ensure that my partner knew what I was grateful for in them, and knew it often.  I don’t just do things to show my husband I love him and appreciate him.  I tell him, quite specifically, the qualities in him that I am grateful for.  And I do so frequently.

However, until just now, I hadn’t decided to attempt to expand this practice to my friends, my family, or life in a general sense, though somewhere in my pile of notebooks, I have one that is simply a list of things I’m grateful for.

So how, you may be asking, is gratitude a sacrifice?  It is, in my eyes, a cultural thing.  You see, we aren’t really encouraged to see what we have and recognize it as good or great.  We are encouraged – always – to strive for more, better.  Yet how can we know where we’re going, if we’re not truly aware of what we are?  Gratitude is the sacrificing of falsely positive thinking.  Of “if only I had, did, was, then I could have, do, be.”  Gratitude is the choice to look at what IS, and look at it AS IT IS, not as it could be or as it “should” be, or as you would like it to be.

The Value of Realistic Thinking

I wanted to find the image, but I can’t off hand.  I’ve seen a quote floating around about trees, and the concept is this.  Often, we go out into nature and we see trees or plants or rock formations, and we simply accept what they are.  We have no need to change them, because they simply are.  Yet often we do not apply the same thinking to people, others or ourselves.

In doing so, we begin to create expectations, often without having the full story, and when those expectations aren’t met, we find ourselves trying to change the person in question.

Now, the original quote is dealing with the idea of judgement, however I see this applying to Stoic thinking as well.  After all, is it truly realistic to expect anyone to live up to any expectations but their own?  Especially if we often fall short of our own expectations?  Not really.  Much more realistic to do what Marcus Aurelius is said to have done every morning.  He was a follower of Stoic thought.

Every morning, he’d tell himself, “I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people.”

He’s not wrong.  Plenty of people exist like that in the world.  Yes, plenty of kind, loving caring people exist as well, but if we only tell ourselves we’ll encounter the latter, the former have the power to ruin our whole day.  Prepare for the former, and be infinitely grateful for the latter.

I’m only beginning to study the concepts of Stoicism, and I’ll keep you updated on how it turns out.  I’m hoping it helps, and it seems like it might.  If you’ve made it this far, leave your thoughts in the comments.  I’d love to hear your ideas about the Aeon article, Stoicism, and what you knew about it before this post.