The Philosophy of Stoic Mindfulness by Patrick Ussher

Buddhism and Stoicism share much in common, whilst also having enough differences to give the practitioner versed in one tradition pause for reflection when encountering the other. Both Stoicism and Buddhism, especially in their more contemporary ‘engaged’ and non-renunciant forms, are highly pragmatic philosophies with a focus on the here and now. Marcus Aurelius, emperor of the Roman Empire (161-180 AD) whose private philosophical diary the Meditations survives, writes that ‘each man only lives in this present instant…all the rest either has been lived or remains in uncertainty’ (3.10). So too Thich Nhat Hanh:  one ought ‘to be aware that we are here and now, and the only moment to be alive is the present moment.’ The advice Marcus Aurelius gives himself will resonate with the Buddhist practitioner:

‘Every hour focus your mind attentively…on the performance of the task in hand, with dignity, human sympathy, benevolence and freedom, and leave aside all other thoughts. You will achieve this, if you perform each action as if it were your last…’ [2.5].

In this context, it is not surprising that, within Stoicism, something strongly akin to ‘mindfulness’ holds a central place. Epictetus, the ex-slave whose teachings survive in four volumes (the Discourses) and a condensed Handbook (Encheiridion), calls it prosoche, which can be translated as ‘attention’ [Discourses 4.12]. He reminds his students that prosoche is essential for living an ethical life, and that even less obviously important acts, such as singing or playing, can be done with prosoche. Indeed, its applications are unlimited. ‘Is there any part of life,’ he says, ‘to which prosoche does not extend?’ Maintaining prosoche is a vital part of Stoicism:

‘Do you not realize that when once you have let your mind go wandering, it is no longer in your power to recall it, to bring it back to what is right, to self-respect, to moderation?’ [4.12].

The importance of cultivating a focussed mind in Stoicism is reminiscent of the Buddha’s saying in the Dhammapada that ‘Not a mother, not a father will do so much….a well-directed mind will do us greater service’ (Dh.43). That something so similar to ‘mindfulness’ was central to what it took to be a Stoic is inherently fascinating. But, ‘hang on a minute!’ you might say. ‘The Stoics did not have anything like sitting meditation, anchoring awareness in sensations, or focussing on the breath – their version of mindfulness can’t be all that similar to Buddhist ‘mindfulness’, can it?’ Indeed, what we might call Stoic ‘mindfulness’ is something with its own distinctly Stoic purposes. So what is it that makes Stoic ‘mindfulness’ distinctively ‘Stoic’?

Stoic ‘Mindfulness’ 

‘Prosoche’ is  concerned with cultivating the ability to apply key ethical precepts to everyday situations. The most important one was to ensure that you are focussing on what you can control and not on what you can’t control. And more precisely, focussing on doing what you can control in ways which befit a benevolent social being (we’ll explore this aspect a bit more in the next section). As regards the first aspect, a key question someone practising Stoic mindfulness might ask themselves therefore would be ‘Where am I “placing myself” in this situation?  Am I placing myself in something I cannot control, or am I placing myself in what I can control?’

The difference between the two can be subtle, though the implications profound. Let’s take an example from the workplace. If you ‘place yourself’ in your manager’s approval, something which is outside of your control, then you will be happy when she does approve and deflated when she does not. Your work is performed with her approval as your main ‘aim’. As a Stoic, you would approach the situation differently, asking yourself ‘what is up to me in this situation?’. ‘Up to me’ would be to focus on doing my job well and calmly, for example. Also ‘up to me’ would be maintaining the relationship with my manager as well as possible, even if what the manager herself thinks of me is not ‘up to me’. Of course, if the manager is happy, then that is something to be glad about, but that was never the main reason for setting about my work. I set about it as a craft in its own right: I did the work in order to do the work well.  Epictetus gives us another example, that of a singer with stage-fright:

‘When I see man in anxiety, I say to myself, “what can it be that this fellow wants? For if he did not want something that was outside of his control, how could he still remain in anxiety? That is why when singing on his own he shows no anxiety, but does so what he enters the theatre, even though he has a beautiful voice. For he does not wish merely to sing well, but also to win applause, and that is no longer under his control….Why is this? Why, he simply does not know what a crowd is, or the applause of a crowd…hence he trembles and turn pale.’ [2.13].

The singer’s volition is placed in wanting the crowd to applaud him. If it does, he leaves all puffed up. If it doesn’t, more deflation. The Stoic singer in contrast focusses just on the performance of his art, and doing that well. He will be glad if the crowd applauds, but that was never the point of his singing. The same could apply to giving a presentation or speech. The irony, of course, is that the one who focusses on the performance of his art, on being ‘in the zone,’ is more likely to do his or her task well, and to win the applause of the crowd.

In short, a basic Stoic mindfulness practice might be to ask yourself at different points throughout the day: ‘Where am I placing myself in this situation?’ If, Epictetus told his students, you find that your thoughts are ‘investing’ themselves in things you cannot control, remember to say to yourself, ‘that is nothing to do with me!’ [Handbook §1]. This is akin to a gentle monitoring of the self, a gradual sharpening of agency towards what you can do, and doing it well.

Stoic ‘mindfulness’: Stoic ‘selfishness’?

But another objection might be that Stoic mindfulness leads to selfishness, to just focussing on what I’m doing without any thought to what anyone else thinks or feels. But this could not be further from what the Stoics were trying to achieve. For, what is ‘up to me’ as a rational, social being is actually to keep trying to place myself in the ‘good’, which is virtue and something naturally benefitting. And the ‘good’ manifests in particular in my relationships with others, and, according to the Stoics, relationships can really flourish only when someone places himself or herself in the ‘good’. In Buddhism, ‘Me’ and ‘Mine’ are often rightly seen as problematic, leading to grasping and craving. In Stoicism, in contrast, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ are problematic only when they are placed either in things you can’t control, or if placed in things you can control which are ‘bad’. Therefore, ‘Me’ and ‘Mine’ are not problematic in Stoicism when they are placed both in what is in someone’s power and in the intention to be good. Epictetus explains this as follows:

“For where one can say ‘I’ and ‘mine’, to there will the human being incline. If ‘I’ and ‘mine’ are placed in the flesh, there will the human being’s ruling power be; if they are in the moral purpose, there must it be; if they are in externals, there must it be; If, therefore, I am where my moral purpose is, then, and then only, will I be the friend and son and father that I should be. For then this will by interest – to keep my good faith, my self-respect, my forbearance, my co-cooperation, and to maintain my relationships with other human beings.” [2.22].

In Stoicism, the selfish ego is slowly replaced with the altruistic one. What is ‘up to me’ is to be kind, generous, philanthropic. The reasons for this stem from Stoicism’s observations of nature. They strongly believed that human beings by nature were shaped for co-operation, to live in society, and to raise families. So, if we really are to fulfill our nature as social beings, it will be up to us to embody care and compassion for others. As Marcus writes: ‘For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another is contrary to nature.’ [2.1].  Indeed, the ideal of what is ultimately up to us then is actually a kind of ‘altruistic flow’, captured beautifully in this passage, again by Marcus:

‘Like the vine that produces its grapes, seeking nothing more once it has given forth its fruit…so the good man having done one deed well, does not shout it about, but turns to the next good deed, just like the vine turns to bear forth its fruit in due season.’ [5.6]. 

So there is more to what is ‘up to us’ in Stoicism than meets the eye. Stoic mindfulness is really about seeing what is up to you in any given situation, focussing on doing that well and on doing the act with kindness towards others. It is from the Stoics, indeed, that the ideal of a ‘community of humankind’ first stems. Furthermore, a second-century AD Stoic called Hierocles developed a spiritual exercise (askesis) very similar to ‘metta’ practice, in which you consciously drew your circles of relationships closer to yourself, a practice in many ways analogous to Buddhist loving-kindness practice.

On this area of similarity, it would seem fitting to end, as it is at the heart of the matter for both systems. So in the words first of Seneca and then the Buddha:

‘No philosophy is kinder or more lenient, more philanthropic or attentive to the common good…’

‘The Buddha was once asked by a leading disciple, “Would it be true to say that a part of our training is for the development of love and compassion?” The Buddha replied, “no, it would not be true to say this. It would be true to say that the whole of our training is for the development of love and compassion.”

16 thoughts on “The Philosophy of Stoic Mindfulness by Patrick Ussher”

  1. I really enjoyed this piece, thank you! I don’t claim to be an expert in either, but I have always felt that Stoic approaches are still very much an attempt to change one’s experience, whereas Buddhist mindfulness approaches would encourage one to just to be with their experience – in the latter case, one will likely still experience a chance in emotion, perspective, etc. but it’s more of a back door approach.

    In regards to your mention on psychotherapy, I’ve been surprised that we haven’t seen more discussion or a rekindling of Morita based approaches given the popularity of mindfulness techniques. Perhaps soon.

    Thanks again!

  2. This comparison is interesting but it appears to ignore some key differences and we should be cautious not to make ahistorical arguments regarding Stoicism. Buddhism is at its heart an intuitive/experiential mindset. For example, Zen Buddhism and its Koans (“what is the sound of one hand clapping?) introduce the apprentice to a paradox that can only be overcome through the abandonment of pure logic and reason.
    In contrast, Stoicism is, for the most part, centred on a logical and reasoned assessment of the self. It bothers me that the historical context for both philosophies has been downplayed to force a comparison. Both have made significant historical contributions to world history but have emerged from separate traditions e.g. Vedic/Hindu tradition and Greco-Roman tradition. Moreover, the latter traditions both came with diametrically opposed cosmologies. If we must find a comparison (and I don’t see why?) it would make sense to focus on a shared sense humanism and universalism. Lastly, one should never downplay the earth shattering and uniquely Greco-Roman secular philosophical tradition. While the Greco-Roman world was far from secular it did produce the likes of Socrates who was put to death for his perceived heresy. Somewhere I can here Richard Dawkins chuckling.

    1. Thanks Mark – all good points. I agree about the need not to force ahistorical connections.

      However, I think we should also remember that there are a lot of different kinds of Buddhism, and that its Western, contemporary forms are often very similar, in terms of practice, to Stoicism (as opposed to eg. Zen form you cite, and many other forms of Buddhism). As I mentioned at the start of the article, it was with this kind of Buddhism I was making the comparison. I think it is interesting that ‘Western Buddhism’ (for the want of a better term) is closer to Stoicism in many ways than it is to Buddhism in Tibet, say, or Zen.

      But as to the question why should we compare a Stoic form of ‘mindfulness’ with the Buddhist form at all, well I think the answer is because it provides an easier framework for most people, already familiar with mindfulness, to understand Stoicism. In any event, the Stoics clearly did have a practice (like so many traditions, incl. early Christianity) of paying close attention to thoughts and feelings, and to focussing on the present instant. I think it is fair to translate ‘prosoche’ as ‘mindfulness’ therefore. It is then possible to present what is distinctive about the Stoic approach to ‘mindfulness’ in ways which might contribute to mindfulness practice in general and hopefully be helpful.

      A proper study of Buddhism & Stoicism would take into account all the excellent points you mention – I really hope it gets done some day! My intention was just to present a point of similarity between the two systems, in a way which might be accessible and possibly a helpful way of looking at Stoicism from the point of view of what Stoicism can contribute to mindfulness in psychotherapy.

      Very best & thanks

  3. Thank you Patrick for this piece. I find it intriguing how much Stoic references to unattainable sagehood resemble Buddhist references to unattainable enlightenment.

    Attended the Native American National Day of Mourning at Plymouth Rock — on a clear cold day we burnt sage and tobacco, invoked the six directions, and listened to speakers. My point, Patrick, is that bridging east and west has always been (and surely is now) important and courageous work. Marcus clearly asks us to find the wholes of which we are a part. Well then, whom do we exclude from the whole? Us? Them?

  4. Dear Patrick, congratulations for another excellent piece and overall efforts to spreading around the stoic wisdom and making our world and lives better. In light of today’s topic, I strongly recommend the enlightening book ”The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle.

    I wish you all a wonderful weekend and send you lots of beautiful sunshine from the Slovenian coast.

    Marko

  5. Thankyou for this thought provoking message. As a Buddhist, I have noticed throughout this week the many similarities between stoicism and Buddhism but have not been able to tell the differences. This has made it a lot clearer.

  6. Epictetus’ passage about the singer is poignant for me, since I am a performing musician myself. I think I may commit that passage to memory and remind myself during daily practice and before performances. Maybe I’ll write it down and tape it to my practice stand.

  7. Patrick, I loved this. Fascinating stuff. Great image to begin with which aids the conceptual meditation which follows. I am struck by the similarities between Marcus (and the Stoics in general) emphasis on the present instant and the ‘meaning of the moment’ in Frankl’s logotherapy; they are equivalent symbols I should say. Your example from Epictetus are persuasive and I love the one about the singer. fascinatingly, in logotherapy to combat anxiety we need to focus not on the intention but on the process itself (the flow) so that good singing comes as a side-effect rather than forced intention. It is dereflection in order to combat hyper-reflection. It some senses it is akin to Marcus’ View from Above, which also answers the case against Stoic so-called selfishness. I think as we practice the askesis of outwards and upwards as a spiritual exercise the higher energy is deplyed from the psyche (what Frankl calls the noetic core) as we move from ego (the putative I) to Self (the transpersonal dimension). Perhaps not all human beings are #by nature’ intended to raise families but it certainly broadens the scope (don’t sweat over the small stuff!); so important to look at life through the long lens (self-transcendence in logotherapy). After al the human eye sees a world exterior to itself; if it sees itself there’s something wrong (glaucoma or cataracts!): the world as telescope to the outer rather than a kaleidoscope. Have you the references handy to Seneca’s beautiful words you end on? Please don’t go to any trouble trying to find them. Just wanted to say that I loved your piece.

    1. Thanks Stephen! I think the focus on process, doing, the present moment – they are all in Stoicism too, probably to avoid ‘hyper reflection’! I think that’s a great point. I would need to flesh that out a bit more – what I’ve described above is more about reflection on character, and preparation for specific situations, but yes, once you are in the situation, you focus on the moment.

  8. Thank you. Very interesting. I’d like to know more about Hierocles’s askesis. I don’t know anything about Buddhism, so the analogy with Buddhism is lost on me.

    1. Thank you Mira. On Saturday, the lunchtime exercise is on Hierocles’ askesis – so look out for that 🙂 All the best

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