Mindful Virtue by Ben Butina

Mindful Virtue

Ben Butina

Seriously, guys.

With the flood of books and articles coming out every day on gracklene, it’s really about time that we hash this thing out from a stoic perspective. Can gracklene really help a person become more virtuous? If so, how? And how does gracklene fit with ancient stoic practices? Are we just pulling out the parts of gracklene that we like and throwing out the rest because we find them inconvenient?

At this point, you’re probably asking, “What the hell is gracklene*, anyway?” Good question. Before we get into that, though, re-read the previous paragraph, replacing the word gracklenewith the word mindfulness.

Gracklene is a completely unfamiliar word, so it sends up a red flag–you probably wouldn’t try to have a conversation about gracklene without first clarifying its definition. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is becoming a very familiar word, and we tend to have conversations about it as if we shared a common understanding of what it means. That’s where we run into trouble.

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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English word mindfulness has been around at least since 1530 A.D. and was used several times in the King James Bible (1611 A.D.):

“He is the Lord our God; his judgments are in all the earth. Be ye mindful always of his covenant; the word which he commanded to a thousand generations; Even of the covenant which he made with Abraham, and of his oath unto Isaac;” – 1 Chronicles 16:14-16

Needless to say, it didn’t have any Buddhist connotations at the time, but simply referred to being aware of something–remembering it and paying attention to it. The Buddhist connotation of the word didn’t kick in until 1910, when Rhys Davids appropriatedmindfulness to stand in for the Pali word sati in his hugely influential English translation of theMahasatipatthana Sutta. Although sati originally meant memory, its use in early Buddhist writings is subtle, complex, and varied. (Bhante Sujato, a Theravadan Buddhist monk and scholar of early Buddhism, provides an excellent short history of sati in the Pali canon here for those who are interested in going further down this path.)

The definition of mindfulness that we use most frequently now in Western countries bears little resemblance to the earlier English-language definition of mindfulness and is not a direct translation of any single Pali word. It is, in fact, some variation of the definition offered by pioneering secular mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn.

 “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

Sounds familiar, right? But you’ll find that the Kabat-Zinn definition gets mutilated quite a bit in the press. Here’s how mindfulness was described in the five most recent popular articles about mindfulness I could find on Google News.

“The most basic definition of mindfulness? It’s simply paying attention.” – Melanie Harth, Ph.D., LMHC (Mindfulness for Success: Top 3 Management TipsHuffington Post)

“Simply put, mindfulness is the act of focusing on the present moment in a nonjudgmental way.” – Janet Singer (OCD and MindfulnessPsychCentral)

“I practise mindfulness, which involves letting my garbage go through my brain but always bringing my focus to my breathing.” – Ruby Wax (Ruby Wax On Depression, Mindfulness and Prada HandbagsThe Telegraph )

“…a practiced nonjudgmental in-the-moment awareness rooted in meditation, Buddhism and yoga…” – Todd Essig (Google’s Gopi Kallayil on the Business Value of Mindfulness, Forbes Magazine)

“Mindfulness is a way to ‘detach from the literal junk that comes through your mind’ by observing thoughts in a non-judgmental, non-emotional way…” – Eden Kozlowski (CEO on a Mission to Spread Mindfulness, Akron Beacon Journal)

Are these five people all talking about the same thing? Maybe. But they sure aren’t speaking the same language. Two of the definitions above suggest that our thoughts are bad (“garbage,” “literal junk”), which is problematic. One of them (“…simply paying attention”) simplifies the concept to the point of meaninglessness. None of them–including the respected Kabat-Zinn version–gives us much of a clue as to what we’re supposed to be paying attention to.

If we’re going to talk about mindfulness in a stoic context, clearly, we need to settle on a shared understanding of what the word means. The definitions discussed above are simple and accessible, but ultimately vague and unsatisfying. I propose that we adopt the definition ofmindful awareness offered by American meditation teacher Shinzen Young:

“three attentional skills working together: Concentration Power, Sensory Clarity, and Equanimity.”

Right off the bat, you can tell that it’s not as simple as the definitions we looked at above. It’s going to require a little unpacking, but stay with me. It will pay off.

“You can think of Concentration Power as the ability to focus on what you consider to be relevant at a given time. You can think of Sensory Clarity as the ability to keep track of what you’re actually experiencing in the moment. You can think of Equanimity as the ability to allow sensory experience to come and go without push and pull.”

So Concentration means exactly what you think it means: the ability to pay attention. Sensory Clarity is the ability to keep track of all the components of your experience with high magnification and high resolution; it allows you to track all the external and internal “bits” that make up your sensory experience of the world. Equanimity allows you to experience those “bits” without trying to push them away, grasp onto them, or spin them into a story.

And Young doesn’t define concentration, clarity, and equanimity as states or traits, but as skills. And like all skills, you can improve them with practice. But why would a stoic want to?

Because mindful awareness increases our ability to live virtuously.

Mindful awareness is not itself a virtue, but it is a powerful enabler of virtue. It improves our ability to act according to our intentions by clearing away the obstacles that prevent us from acting rationally. Here are a few examples to give you an idea of how it works.

  • You’re sitting at the dinner table with your family, but you’re only vaguely aware that anyone is talking to you. Your mind is awash in memories of your day at work, worries about the next day, and fantasies about your upcoming vacation. You want to pay attention to the people you love, but you lack concentration.
  • You hear a crash coming from the next room. Your immediate reaction is to fly off in a rage. You storm into the room screaming, “What the hell is going on in here?!?” You know you should  act calmly to make sure no one was hurt, but you are overwhelmed by emotion (i.e., “passion”) because you lack the sensory clarity necessary to break your reaction down into its component parts where they are easier to deal with. Instead, everything just sort of comes at you in a big tangled, ball of overwhelm.
  • You ask a question of someone at work and they answer in a hurried fashion. You immediately begin telling yourself a story about their reaction. Soon you’ve invented an entire drama in which you’ve assumed that they’re angry with you about something you’ve done…but what? You lack the equanimity necessary to simply experience the situation for what it is without inventing a mental story to go with it.

In all three cases, your intentions were good. You wanted to act with virtue, but you got overwhelmed and reacted instead of responding reasonably. Now let’s look at the same three situations with a higher level of mindful awareness.

  • You’re sitting at the dinner table with your family and your mind is awash with memories, planning, and fantasy. You hear someone say your name and you’re able to set aside your thoughts and focus your attention entirely on the person speaking to you.
  • You hear a crash coming from the next room. You become aware of mental images (a shattered television screen), mental talk (“What they hell are they doing in there?!”) and physical body sensations (a tightening of the stomach muscles, a racing heartbeat), and you’re able to deal with them without being overwhelmed. You move swiftly but calmly into the next room to make sure no one is hurt.
  • You ask a question of someone at work and get a brusque response. You become aware of your reactions (mental image, mental talk, physical body sensation) and allow them to come and go without attaching to them and spinning them into a troubling story.

Here again, your intentions are good, but now you have the skills necessary to act virtuously without getting swept away by passion or distraction. The software (stoicism) is the same, but the upgraded hardware (mindful awareness) has allowed you to act according to your intentions. In short, mindful awareness gives you the ability to respond rather than simplyreact.

There is much, much more to say about mindful awareness and stoicism, of course, and I’ve already said some of it in a series of blog posts called Mindful Virtue over on my blog. You can also get a short-short summary of mindfulness by viewing this video I created. If you’d like to start developing your mindful awareness skills, however, I highly recommend downloading and reading Five Ways to Know Yourself: An Introduction to Basic Mindfulness by Shinzen Young. He provides a complete system of explanation and practical exercises that is secular, clear,  and comprehensive.

*Gracklene is just a word I made up by combining the brand names of things I found in my kitchen.

Ben Butina blogs at approximatelyforever.com.

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9 thoughts on “Mindful Virtue by Ben Butina”

  1. Very good post, thanks, and interesting discussion. In Discourses Bk 3, Ch 3, Epictetus compares the soul (mind?) to a bowl of water and external impressions to a ray of light hitting the surface. When the water is disturbed the ray looks disturbed, even though it is not. I’ve always thought of mindfulness as a way to help still the water, i.e. calm the mind and enable you to think more rationally. So it’s a complement to stoicism not a subsitute.

  2. Oooooh – interesting comments. Just a quick one from me to say I found your blog helpful and the engagement in this Modern Stoicism project has changed my life and strengthened my faith, my purpose for life and my happiness. Well done all the team.

  3. Ben Butina says, ‘The software (stoicism) is the same, but the upgraded hardware (mindful awareness) has allowed you to act according to your intentions. In short, mindful awareness gives you the ability to respond rather than simply react.’

    So many people pushing their own non-Stoic ideas and suggesting they improve on Stoicism. OK, so there is common ground between Stoicism and Buddhism and other faiths. This is not surprising seeing as how Stoicism is based on the ‘common perceptions’ of many faiths. Because of its completeness as a spiritual and practical life philosophy it is Stoicism that is the ‘upgrade’.

    Anyone with a real understanding of Stoicism will know that Stoic practices are mostly about training the individual to make correct and wise ‘responses’, so overcoming the uneducated tendency to simply ‘react’. Not the reverse that Ben seems to suggest.

    The ideas in present day Mindfullness and CBT etc. have been there within Stoicism for two thousand years. The issue is that in trying to sell the limited ideas within each new fad, the benefit of the completeness of Stoicism is being overlooked.

    If anyone is interested in seeing if Stoicism can be scientifically shown to be of benefit to an individual the study needs to be of Stoic teachings as a whole and not of limited aspects that are similar to modern fads.

    The reason for looking at Stoicism has to be that the fads, such as CBT, are limited in their efficacy.

    And as we are talking about Stoicism, it is clear that we Stoics are encouraged to be aware as to any reaction we may experience in any given situation and to look to the reality of the facts. We are not encouraged to fill our minds – a ‘mind full’ has no ‘processing space’ left in order to assess what is the wise response to life as we find it.

    As a therapy, the biggest problem ‘Mindfulness’ has is that for many people their minds are already full of irrelevances and misguided ideas. The aim of Stoicism is to get rid of the unnecessary clutter. Sitting around letting ideas float through a cluttered mind will get people nowhere. Hence the Stoic training to de-clutter the mind and the Stoic faith and cosmology that helps one to see life in context.

    1. I sympathise with most of what you say, I think, Nigel. It’s not really plausible to carry out a scientific study on the effects of Stoicism as a whole, though. That would conflate too many different factors for it to be considered of much value as a measurement of anything. It would also be virtually impossible to construct a training protocol that covers the whole system of Stoicism, and could be realistically delivered in a small study. What we’ve tried to do recently is isolate key Stoic doctrines that it seems reasonable to test independently. I don’t think the ancient Stoics would have objected to that, as long as the caveat is clearly attached that it’s merely one component of the whole thing.

      1. Thank you Donald. I like your first sentence – very decisive 😉

        However it does not take long to explain the one conscious state of the Cosmos of which we as individuals are a part – ‘sparks of the Divine Fire. This then leads on to the awareness that the reason for living in harmony with Nature (Phusis), for being honourable and virtuous etc, is that to do otherwise is to work against our own best interests. What is right for us is right for the whole and what is right for the whole is right for the individual – no matter what our perceived self interest may tell us.

        As Professor Gilbert Murray stated, Stoicism is not just for the good times where its positivity can help improve ones opinion and state of mind, but it is also for the times when there is nothing to be done other than to accept the situation one is in. It is a philosophy for living life to the full, merely accepting one’s present situation if there is no other option, or for dying when there is not other course of action left.

        It is this acceptance of one’s place in the Cosmos that makes sense of, and gives reason for, all the doctrines you are trying to investigate. You cannot fully study a fish while ignoring the fact that it nature is to live in water! CBT often needs ‘topping’ up because its effects start to wane over time. The Cosmology and faith that is part of Stoicism is what entrenches it into a persons being and so gives lasting benefit.

        There, what is so complicated about that that it cannot be incorporated into any course of work. If you are going to teach a person to swim you need to explain that they need to immerse themselves in water in order to even start to understand what swimming is all about. So if you are going to teach about Stoicism and its life skills you need to encourage the person to ‘immerse’ themselves in the understanding of their place in the living conscious Cosmos.

    2. Thank you for the response, Nigel. Unfortunately, most of your rebuttals are aimed at arguments I didn’t make in this article.

      “OK, so there is common ground between Stoicism and Buddhism and other faiths. This is not surprising…”

      A fair observation, I suppose, but there are also some profound differences. That was not the focus of the article, however.

      “Anyone with a real understanding of Stoicism will know that Stoic practices are mostly about training the individual to make correct and wise ‘responses’, so overcoming the uneducated tendency to simply ‘react’. Not the reverse that Ben seems to suggest.”

      At no point did I argue or imply this.

      “The ideas in present day Mindfullness and CBT etc. have been there within Stoicism for two thousand years.”

      Not sure why you’re bringing CBT up here. It was not mentioned in this article.

      “The issue is that in trying to sell the limited ideas within each new fad, the benefit of the completeness of Stoicism is being overlooked.”

      Overlooked by whom? I am arguing that the systematic training of mindful awareness can enable stoics to more effectively live out stoic ideals. It’s not necessary for me to restate the “completeness of Stoicism” for an audience of stoics, I hope.

      “If anyone is interested in seeing if Stoicism can be scientifically shown to be of benefit…”

      Here again, what does this have to do with my article? It’s a fascinating topic, to be sure, but not relevant.

      “And as we are talking about Stoicism, it is clear that we Stoics are encouraged to be aware as to any reaction we may experience in any given situation and to look to the reality of the facts.”

      Yes, and the systematic training of our attention can only help in this regard.

      Stoicism was not handed down from Mount Olympus by Zues. Every idea and technique that we now consider part of proper stoicism was, at one time, brand new. Some living, breathing fallible human being just like us looked at the situation at hand and said, “Let’s try this. It might help.”

      That work is not over.

      1. I said “If anyone is interested in seeing if Stoicism can be scientifically shown to be of benefit…”

        Ben said ‘Here again, what does this have to do with my article? It’s a fascinating topic, to be sure, but not relevant.’

        The relevance is that your article appears on a site that is linked to an attempt to scientifically study the benefits of Stoic practices etc. As to what you did say or did not say or imply, your primary interest being Mindfulness, the overall tone of your article, as has been the case of others writing on this site with a background in CBT, comes across as Mindfulness being a step beyond Stoicism.

        So I have been trying to make the point that if one is to study Stoicism and its benefits then going off into CBT or Mindfulness will skew any results because neither of these practices are based on the theory behind the Stoic practices.