Aditya Nain, who teaches philosophy in Pune, India, argues for a central difference between how the Buddhist and how the Stoic approaches thoughts. The former, in vipassana meditation, observes them and lets them be, whilst the latter aims more to ‘counter’ impressions (or thoughts) as they arise….
Do you practise Buddhist meditation, or other forms of mindfulness? What do you think of the problem Aditya highlights below?
Mindfulness and Mindlessness:
Epictetus and Buddhism
I’d like to share what might be called a difficulty I face in my attempts to cultivate Stoic dispositions, or to live everyday life according to the guidelines offered by Epictetus. Epictetus and Buddhism share a lot in common and since I have some experience with Buddhist meditation and have been familiar with Buddhism longer that I have with Epictetus, I tend to compare them, often without realising it. As these comparisons continued to crop us every now and then, I realised some fundamental differences in practice. These dIfferences are as glaring as the similarities. Today, I am going to focus on one of these differences.
Buddhist vipassana, translated these days as mindfulness, is more accurately, ‘mindlessness’. Stoic practice, on the other hand, is truly mindful, and therefore can be characterised as mindfulness. For a practitioner, this is an enormous difference that strikes at the heart of Buddhist or Stoic practice and results in practical difficulties. In fact the difference is so glaring as to seem irreconcilable. The difference is as follows. Epictetus asks one always to keep one’s mind ready to counter any impressions that may arise or one may be presented with. ‘To counter’ here is key, since it involves a head on collision of the mind with the impression. In Buddhist practice on the other hand, impressions (if we can use the same concept at all) are never ‘countered’. The aim is not to counter one thought (‘I have been robbed’) with another (‘Material possessions are externals and therefore none of my concern’). It is simply to observe the phenomena and ride the wave of sensation until it subsides.
This difference between the two is extremely important because for a vipassana practitioner, to counter one impression with another, is an act of suppression and will lead to the emergence of the impression at another point and possibly in another form. My key concern in practicing Stoicism is just this. Both schools accept a real difference between a phenomena, its subjective experience and judgments arising as a result of it. They part ways when it comes to dealing with, for instance, pain. Epictetus asks you to keep handy a reflection that would immediately counter the experience as pain. For instance that ‘pain belongs to the body and the body is an external’. On the other hand, buddhist vipassana (mindfulness) asks you not to form a judgment at all, because that would merely add another layer to the problem. The aim is to realise the difference between the experience and the experience aspain. The answer would be to observe the experience as pain with complete awareness in order to transcend the pain aspect of the experience.
The Buddhist technique, in a sense, asks you to observe the entire experience of pain. As a result, you are directed towards immersing yourself in the experience. The Stoic technique, in actually emphasising mindfulness, isolates the mind (i.e. judgments / will) from the experience. The mind thus stands as something separate from the entire experience. The Buddhist technique (after realising the difference between experience and experienceaspain), aims to divorce the painaspect, while yet keeping the unity of the experience as a whole. The stoic technique, realises the same distinction, but aims to cash in on it and draw the mind out further from the experience, as a tool that stands apart from the experience itself, which is only material or external.
The result of this aspect of both techniques can be seen in the dichotomies that the stoics work with, i.e. mind and body, internal and external. The Buddhists on the other hand, in the effort to keep the unity of the experience, do not make these distinctions and do not look at the individual as a mind body complex at all. The mind body complex gives way to the five skandhas, each of which is integral to the completion of the entire picture of the individual. Materiality is thus not entirely separate from mentality, body does not exclude mind. The internal versus external division is thus not useful within the buddhist technique.
I do not see a theoretical resolution to what I’ve tried to describe above. The resolution, if possible, will have to emerge out of practice. It may just turn out that the capabilities achieved through rigorous practice of each are the same. In that case, the theoretical frameworks could remain as they are. However, this will have to be grappled with in practice. Could one practice both techniques independently and benefit from them? Absolutely. Would the practice of both at the same time be beneficial as well? I’m not yet very sure of the answer.
More about the author:
Mr. Aditya Nain has completed his MA in Philosophy from the University of Pune and holds a Diploma in Finance from the University of London (International Programmes). While being an Assistant Professor at SSLA, he is also pursuing his PhD studies at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IITB) under the program for “College Teachers”, in the area of Philosophy of Money.
Aditya is the faculty head of the SSLA International Cell and the SSLA Admissions team, as well as coordinator of Website and Online Activities.
You can read his blog here.