Mindfulness and Mindlessness: Epictetus and Buddhism

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.

19 thoughts on “Mindfulness and Mindlessness: Epictetus and Buddhism”

  1. Thank you Aditya for sharing your thoughts. My question is: is it not that being mindfull of pain and all the thoughts and emotions about this pain, learns one to become aware that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self? Which is the aim of the old buddhist tradition but is this comparable with Stoicism?

  2. Thank you Aditya for your thought-provoking piece on a very interesting topic. However I don’t think the difference between Stoicism and Buddhism is quite as strong as you suggest on this particular topic. Let say why.

    I’m not sure it is right to suggest that Stoicism proposes a head on collision with one’s impressions, although I acknowledge that Epictetus does sometimes use this sort of language. What Epictetus wants us to counter are our own (mistaken) value judgements that we implicitly insert into impressions. A pure impression, accurately reflecting the way things are, we can simply observe, as the Buddhist would. It is only those impressions that, by the time they are presented to the rational mind, have been augmented by our own judgement that we must counter and remain vigilant about.

    Marcus Aurelius is helpful here when he uses the phrase ‘first impressions’ for those not tainted by our own judgements: “Do not say more to yourself than the first impressions report […] abide always by the first impressions and add nothing of your own from within” (Meditations 8.49, discussed in Sellars, The Art of Living, pp. 154-9). A similar account can be found in Epictetus himself, albeit in a fragment from the now lost fifth book of the Discourses preserved by Aulus Gellius (19.1 = Epictetus fr. 9; see also Discourses 2.16.22). These passages in Epictetus also bring out the distinction between i) pure, first impressions and ii) tainted, judgement-laden impressions. The first we can simply observe as a Buddhist would; it is only the second that we must counter.

    So, when Epictetus advises people to counter certain experiences, he is not trying to isolate the mind from the experience but rather root out the implicit judgement in the experience, so that one can apprehend the experience/impression in its pure state.

    The beginning student of Stoicism will need to remain vigilant about all impressions insofar as all of them are likely to be tainted, but the Stoic sage, having overcome such bad habits, will be able to mindlessly observe his pure, first impressions without a fight.

    Of course there may well be other important differences between Stoicism and Buddhism, and I’m not qualified to comment on the Buddhist side of things, but on this point I think the two traditions can be brought closer together.

  3. I suspect that like many human distinctions, these differences are blurred in reality. For example I spent an hour in the dentist’s chair last Thursday, which was basically pain free but not much fun. As I remember it, when it grew uncomfortable I would use some probably amateurish vipassana to reduce my emotional engagement, then use the space that gave me to do some even more home-grown Stoic-style talk-back to help me find a positive view of the situation; repeating as necessary. So my experience was that while the two practices are indeed distinct, they were, in this case at least, complementary rather than exclusive.

  4. “… 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. ”

    It WILL, you say. As if it were inevitable. Do you have any evidence to back up this claim?

    Sounds like Freud: “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”

    But what if you took a Stoic approach, and countered your impressions as they occurred to you. Perhaps then you might have nothing to “suppress” or “bury alive”. Perhaps you might have found a short-cut to tranquillity/eudaimonia?

  5. Thanks for the post. I want to second Philo’s comment. Vipassana is a particular take on Buddhism, one that de-emphasises rational reflection and directed thought, which have a central role in most Buddhist practice. To cite just two of the best known teachings, Right View is the first stage of the eightfold path, and wisdom, as part of the Threefold Way has three levels: hearing, reflecting and realising.

    Even some of the seemingly non-conceptual approaches have a reflective element. I don’t quite agree with your account of the Buddhist practice of responding to pain. The teaching on vedana (one of the skhandas you mention) tells us that experience is always pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Pain doesn’t stop being painful, even for a Buddha – the eloquent account of the Buddha’s last days makes that very clear. The practice is not reacting to pain with craving or aversion i.e. not minding it and reflection is certainly part of how Buddhists do that.

  6. I’ll add my two cents to what’s been said above. I consider myself primarily a (secular) Buddhist, but Stoicism plugs in quite nicely to the sila portion of my practice. It’s true that while Vipassana (as taught by Goenka) doesn’t quite jibe with Stoicism’s use of discursive thought, I think early Buddhism focused on this quite a lot. See for instance the sutta on the removal of distracting thoughts (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wheel021.html). Also, there’s actually quite a bit of directed discursive thought in the early Buddhist texts as indicated by the ‘iti’ particle that’s added to a lot of the phrases the Buddha taught, which indicates that one actually says something to oneself (see this and other posts on the following blog for more info: http://theravadin.wordpress.com/2008/03/28/iti-and-sallakkheti/).

    There are certainly major differences between Buddhism and Stoicism, but I’m not sure that how one manages thoughts is one of them.

  7. Yes, a very interesting focus and series of observations. As always in this area, questions are more interesting than answers. A question arising is whether Stoicism is closer to Buddhism than we are inclined to expect. The Zen santa I belong to begins meditation with the chant:
    The many beings are numberless, I vow to save them
    Greed hatred and ignorance rise endlessly, I vow to abandon them.
    This abandonment might not be so far from a gesture of countering – or vice versa – countering might be a step towards abandonment, a way of offering sequential progress towards abandonment.
    And then, what we are calling Stoicism is a package of insights and arguments from a range of thinkers across several generations. I’m concerned about a tendency to turn Stoicism too quickly into a methodology, even though it may have developed as a range of methods in the time of its genesis. Countering is I guess a method – but when it becomes a methodology, it risks being reduced to a glib technique. If countering works to open things up, throw thoughts into question, it might be working in ways analogous to the Zen koan.

  8. You have two methods to deal with the same problem, or you could just ignore the pain until it goes away or becomes a real problem. Same difference. But do they speak of the same pain? The Stoics may appeal to the more analytical, while mediation to the physical. If one mediates enough, we often come up with a solution anyway. But what do I know?

  9. I agree with Bart above. There are suttas that talk about handling and making distinctions among thoughts. Some even suggest you would note the wholesomeness of thoughts in the context of the meditation sitting itself.

    I really like the authors points, however, at the end. There are sort of practical similarities but on a theoretical level the philosophies are irreconciliable. Besides agreeing with the authors’ thoughts here, I would suggest that vipassana practice, to me, seems to be an excellent method for developing the dispassion that stoicism advocates. It does not seem that stoicism, by itself, had such a strongly effective mental practice.

    But as for practicing both philosophies at the same time, I am uncertain. I think that while there is a sort of pragmatic synergy between many of the techniques, a serious aspirant really has to adopt the beliefs and model themselves on a specific teacher. You have to pick stoicism or buddhism really, and pick which philosophy is only playing a supporting role. I strongly believe this is true even if the two philosophies would generally develop your mind in the same direction.

  10. This was a really helpful synopsis and answered some of my questions. For me Stoic Mindfulness fits well with my Christianity and enriches and enhances my practice. But I too have always been interested in Buddhist Meditation and your post resonated with me. Thank you.

  11. I agree with your analysis. Years ago when I lived in India for a year I learned a form of meditation similar to the one you describe as Buddhist. I find the deepening awareness/stillness (just watching the thoughts/impressions/feelings/whatever without actively engaging with them) to be the most beneficial for me.

  12. I have been struggle with these questions also. This blog posting is a useful exploration of these issues between Buddhism and Stoicism. Thanks for thinking this through, and realizing there are still unanswered questions to be worked on.

  13. Dear Aditya,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As an academic studying Stoicism who practices Buddhist meditation, I’ve often thought of the similarities and differences between the two, and I think your essay points towards the key distinction between the two on a practical level. Interestingly, this distinction is mirrored in the divergent approaches of modern psychotherapy, with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) recommending ‘talk back’ to impressions and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) favoring a ‘letting go’ approach.

    I’m not a scholar of Buddhism, but I think the Dvedhavitakka Sutta (MN 19) offers a way of combining the ‘talking back’ and the ‘letting go’ approach by suggesting that we divide our thoughts into wholesome and unwholesome ones, and then let the unwholesome ones go, realizing their pernicious consequences. Here’s an excerpt from Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation:

    The Blessed One said, “Monks, before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened Bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’ So I made thinking imbued with sensuality, thinking imbued with ill will, & thinking imbued with harmfulness one sort, and thinking imbued with renunciation, thinking imbued with non-ill will, & thinking imbued with harmlessness another sort.

    And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with sensuality arose in me. I discerned that ‘Thinking imbued with sensuality has arisen in me; and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding.’

    As I noticed that it leads to my own affliction, it subsided. As I noticed that it leads to the affliction of others… to the affliction of both… it obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding, it subsided. Whenever thinking imbued with ill will had arisen, I simply abandoned it, dispelled it, wiped it out of existence.

    (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.019.than.html)

    1. The mind is the ruler of the soul. It should remain unstirred by agitations of the flesh – gentle and violent ones alike. Not mingling with them, but fencing itself off and keeping those feelings in their place. When they make their way into your thoughts, through the sympathetic link between the mind and body, don’t try to resist the temptation. The sensation is natural. But don’t let the mind start in with judgments calling it “good” or “bad.”
      …….Marcus……
      Your point is interesting but I think the differences between how Buddhism and Stoicism view emotions are arbitrary.

      1. Well said Ian (and Marcus).

        As for the original article’s claim: “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,” I would respond – not if you are truly mindful, in the manner of Marcus, keeping the mind as the ruler of the soul and refusing to judge impressions as right or wrong.

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