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.