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’?
‘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 onlywhen 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.”