Over the past few years, mindfulness meditation has grown and grown in popularity. Though connections between Stoicism and mindfulness have been made, mindfulness meditation as a practice has yet to find a consistent home in Stoic practice.
There’s a historical reason for this: the historical Stoic philosophers didn’t advocate for mindfulness meditations. Though they recognized the value of mindfulness, using mindfulness meditation as tool isn’t something any of the key figures spoke of. This, of course, does not mean that it cannot fit within a contemporary Stoic life. Today, we’re lucky to take advantage of cognitive innovations that the historical figures didn’t have access to. Moreover, as we’ll see the main idea behind mindfulness meditation meshes well with Stoic thought.
In this piece, I’ll show what adding mindfulness meditation to the Stoic toolkit could look like. I’ll start by explaining what it is. I’ll then explain how mindfulness meditation serves as a gym for the core Stoic disciplines.
First, what is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is fundamentally about cultivating nonjudgmental awareness. There are two parts then, nonjudgement and awareness. Awareness concerns our ability to perceive what is here, right now. Whether what is here is a thought or a sensation, we can perceive it. Nonjudgement refers to the ability to experience the sensation or thought without making unnecessary value judgements and seeing the world through those value judgements. Noticing and correcting mistaken value judgements is familiar to Stoics. Many thoughts we have are simply distort reality and are false. In the language of cognitive behavioral therapy, they are cognitive distortions.
A more subtle way we wield unnecessary value judgements is by projecting them into world. In the language of acceptance and commitment therapy, we become cognitively “cognitively fused” with the thought. A thought is cognitively fused when the content of the thought and it’s emotion fuse together such that both no longer feel like a mental construct, but instead appear to be an objective fact. Thoughts are fused when we forget that they are thoughts and instead see them as part of the world. A classic example of this is being caught up in passionate anger. When we are passionately angry, at say, another person, we see the world through the logic of the anger. It seems obvious to us that the other person acted unjustly and that they deserve blame — anyone who thinks otherwise is thinking incorrectly. When we are angry, these appear to be objective facts about the world.
Nonjudgemental awareness is about stepping back from such thoughts and seeing them as they are, thoughts that may or may not be true. It is about cultivating the ability to defuse from thoughts and sensations and just be aware of them. Put another way, meditation is just about being aware of whatever is going on and being able to be calm. With meditation we’re able to experience the reality that we are not our thoughts, we are not our sensations.
The connection to Stoicism is clear. Consider Seneca’s well known line on anxiety:
we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
Or Marcus Aurelius:
Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.
Marcus Aurelius is describing the process of cognitive defusion. He notes that at one time he was cognitively fused with anxious thoughts, but realized that the thoughts were not apart of the objective world. They were merely thoughts.
Through mindfulness meditation one can get better at this skill. In this way, mindfulness meditation is as a gym for practicing the core Stoic disciplines.
Ok, so what does the typical mindfulness meditation session look like? Here’s a simple set of instructions:
- Find a quiet place to sit for a few minutes. Consider setting a timer for 5-20 minutes.
- Take a few deep breaths and close your eyes.
- Bring to mind why you are meditating. What is the purpose of meditating now?
- Bring to mind what you expect to happen. What do you think will happen while meditating?
- Bring to mind any potential distractions. Note that they’re there and remind yourself to return to meditating when you get caught up in them.
- Commit to following through. You have a reason for meditating, give it your full attention for the next few moments.
- When you’re ready, bring your attention to the breath. Notice where it feels the strongest.
- Just watch the breath if you can.
- If you get distracted, notice that you became distracted, and return your attention to the breath. Becoming distracted is part of the process.
- Continue watching the breath and returning to it whenever you become distracted.
- When the time is up, take a few deep breaths and open your eyes.
You can try this on your own or with guidance. There are many courses or apps you can use, you can try the app I’ve created, Stoa, a meditation and journal app built around Stoic teachings, though there are other good options as well (I’m a fan of John Yates’ work and Sam Harris’ program). A short five to ten minute meditation may fit nicely within many morning and evening routines.
How does meditation fit within a Stoic thought more broadly?
Stoic exercises, and other therapeutic exercises generally, can be divided into the cognitive and non-cognitive. A cognitive exercise involves thinking verbally and conceptually. For example, the Stoic practice of praemeditatio malorum is a contemplative meditation. In this practice, one may imagine ways that one’s day could go wrong and devise plans to ensure that one is psychologically and practically prepared. Another cognitive Stoic practices involves simulating a role model or sage. One can imagine how the role model would act in our place or what advice the role model would give us. Both of these contemplative exercises involve explicit and verbal thought.
Another kind of exercise is non-conceptual, non-verbal. This kind of exercise can be useful for reprogramming our automatic reactions to the world. Mindfulness in meditation falls in this bucket. In mindfulness meditation, one cultivates nonjudgemental awareness. The ability to focus on one’s thoughts or sensations in a tranquil way. In this practice, the focus is not on an activity like planning or conversation, but instead is on simply watching one’s mind.
Both of these kinds of exercises are valuable. Consider Victor Frankl’s well known line:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Both of these exercises can take advantage of that space. Whether it’s an explicit reminder to live in accord with one’s values or mindfully moving your attention to what matters.
Let’s make the connection between the Stoic disciplines more explicit. Following Pierre Hadot, I think of the three disciplines of Stoicism as desire, judgment, and action. The discipline of desire concerns relegating your desire to what is under your control. The discipline of judgement concerns seeing the world accurately without making unnecessary value judgements. Finally, the discipline of action concerns acting virtuously.
One can think of mindfulness meditation as a gym for practicing each of these disciplines in a non-cognitive way. Here’s an example for each discipline.
Consider the discipline of desire. This discipline concerns mastering desire and aversion. Through meditation, we can better realize how many of our initial impressions are not under our control. And we can notice how our initial impressions trigger aversions or desires — and then reprogram these triggers. For example, as we focus on the breath, we will inevitably find our attention wandering. No matter how hard one tries to focus on the breath, eventually your attention will wander! That this will happen is out of our control. Although it may be natural to respond with disappointment or frustration upon noticing that we’ve become distracted, we can instead deliberately return our attention to the breath. In this way we can practice not being averse to our what is out of our control (distraction) and taking advantage of what is under our control (moving our attention to the breath). Instead of spiraling into further disappointment or frustration, we can simply notice that we became distracted and return to the breath.
This is a familiar pattern in our life. We react to an event negatively and let that event serve as a trigger to further negative thoughts and interactions. For example, we may respond to something a friend or partner said with frustration and we may respond in kind. We all know how these interactions go. Instead of doing this, we can note the frustration (which occurred automatically) and freely return our attention to the task at hand.
The discipline of judgement is all about seeing the world accurately. We add so many stories to the world, many of which are inaccurate or cause us suffering. For example, consider pain. While meditating, one will often experience pain. Meditation doesn’t cause pain, but the fact is that sitting straight for 10 or so minutes can become uncomfortable. When this happens it often feels like the pain will last forever. Consider the words of Epicurus (as quoted by Marcus Aurelius):
Pain is never unbearable or unending, so you can remember these limits and not add to them in your imagination.
The thought that the pain will last forever is an illusion. It’s cognitive fusion at it’s worse. The experience of pain sometimes seems to be what the world is all about. But this simply isn’t accurate. When we meditate we can notice that there is pain and practice distancing ourselves from it. Simply viewing the pain as it is, a temporary experience, nothing more.
Finally, consider the discipline of action. Some meditation traditions implicitly overlook this step. Because it is important to act with purpose, it’s important to meditate with purpose.
That’s why it’s so important to set a purpose before meditating, as one does above. And it’s important to commit to following through, even when it becomes uncomfortable. Meditation is often a joyous thing, but one can also experience mental and physical discomforts while meditating. When you persevere when this happens, you’re reinforcing your identity of being a reflective person who acts with purpose and who follows through. This crucial ingredient for the Stoic virtues.
There are many other explicit connections one can make between a meditation practice and the Stoic disciplines, but to my mind the above are some of the most important.
I’m not arguing that mindfulness meditation should be adopted by every Stoic. No practice is suitable for all people. But I would advocate that many experiment with it. It’s an excellent practice that has benefited millions of people. And, importantly, it’s an excellent way to practice the core Stoic disciplines. It’s useful for seeing the world clearly, calmly, and acting with purpose.