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.

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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’?

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Stoicism in Healthcare: Parallels with the Adaption of Buddhist Mindfulness

This reflective essay, drawing on parallels with the adaptation of Buddhist mindfulness practice into the eight week mindfulness programme, offers one approach for the applications of Stoicism in Healthcare today. Patrick Ussher explores the parallels in this piece.

Please read and share your thoughts.

Stoicism in Healthcare