Many of today’s Stoics have added Eastern meditation practices to the traditional spiritual exercises of the Stoa. Some choose pared-down mindfulness meditations of the kind popularised by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Others engage with explicitly Buddhist practices designed to give experiential insight into the doctrines of ‘non-self’ and emptiness. Presumably, Stoics take up meditation to enhance their ability to act thoughtfully and in accordance with their value system. It’s not my purpose here to tease out the differences between Buddhist-tinged mindfulness and Stoic prosochē; that article has already been written.1 My aim is to introduce a lesser-known contemplative tradition which I believe to be more suitable to Stoic practice, namely the jingzuo or ‘quiet sitting’ meditation of Neo-Confucianism, the dominant school of thought in China from the 13th to the 19th century.
Why make such a claim for quiet sitting? Hardly because it is free of doctrinal baggage. Indeed, the practice was controversial from the time of its introduction into the Confucian, or, more accurately Ruist, world. For many Ruist scholars, silent meditation carried more than a faint whiff of their rivals, the Buddhists and Daoists. To traditionalists, the only possible fruits of such a practice were docility and self-absorption. How can one attend to one’s civic and familiar duties, so central to Ruism, while spending hours sat in cross-legged silence? It can’t have been easy for adherents of quiet sitting to respond. After all, silent meditation was undeniably an innovation. Worse, elements of the actual practice were borrowed wholesale from rivals of Ruism.
Devotees of quiet sitting made their case as follows: far from being a prescription for quietist introspection, their form of meditation was inextricably linked to action in the world. Sitting in silence had the effect of calming and stilling the mind, allowing it to return to its original pristine form. The Ruists, like the old Stoics, believed our nature to be essentially good. Spending time in silence was a way to recover that original nature, the principal aim of Ruist practice. When time came to return to the busy world of impressions, judgements and reactions, practitioners could act as centred and ethical beings. The great Ruist Master Zhu Xi (1126–1271) wrote: ‘Tranquillity nourishes the root of activity, and activity is to put tranquillity into action.’2
Here a Buddhist might well cry foul. Buddhist meditation too, when properly understood, serves to ground devotees in ‘right mindedness’ so they can better observe the ethical strictures of the Eightfold Path. In response, Ruists might take their argument a step further – not only was quiet sitting wedded to action in the world, but the meditative style itself was inherently more active. The difference lay in the crucial role of discursive thought. According to Zhu Xi, investigation and enquiry were integral to quiet sitting and at best peripheral to other traditions which seek to stop the wheel of thought from spinning. In Zhu Xi’s version of Ruism, no one would be required ‘to sit like a blockhead, with the ear hearing nothing, the eye seeing nothing, and the mind thinking of nothing.’3
Again, a Buddhist might protest, and with some justification. There is a strong conceptual element in many kinds of Buddhist meditation. These include the well-known Mettā Bhāvanā or Loving-Kindness meditation in which practitioners call to mind a series of people of their acquaintance and wish well to each one in turn. In truth, not even mindfulness meditation aims to ‘stop all thought’ but rather to calmly observe thoughts as they arise and pass. The aim is not to stop thinking but rather not to become entangled in any particular memory, projection or opinion.
Buddhism, in its many forms, is a formidable intellectual and spiritual tradition. I have no desire to reduce its meditation practices to caricature, much less to label its devotees as ‘blockheads.’ Nevertheless, Stoics will recognise the fundamental difference between the conceptual, language-based meditations of the Stoa (Daily Reflection, The Premeditation of Evils etc.) and the more experiential practices of Buddhism. Buddhist practitioners have themselves observed that the term ‘meditation’ is not a good description of what they do. The English word comes to us via the Latin meditare, which means to reflect or to contemplate. By contrast, the Pali/Sanskrit term bhāvanā means to cultivate or produce. The distinction is important: one tradition leaning towards focussed consideration of a subject, the other towards the development of desirable mental states. While it is true that mindfulness meditation places no absolute prohibition on thinking, practitioners are urged to return their attention to the meditation object (the breath, a mantra etc.) as soon as their mind becomes fixed upon a particular thought or idea. Indeed, freedom from intruding thoughts is held up as a sign of progress in one’s meditation practice.
Ruist quiet sitting is where bhāvanā and meditare intersect. In its current iteration, as described by the Ruist Association of America, it has two stages. In the first, one calms the mind just as in mindfulness meditation, perhaps by focussing on the breath, sounds or some other meditation object. There are no rules about posture, breathing styles, if the eyes should be closed or open, how long the session should last or in what setting it should take place. All that is required is silence.4 Once satisfied that an appropriate level of stillness has been achieved, the second stage can begin. Calmly, one begins to contemplate a subject which suggests itself or that one may have chosen before the session. The Association’s own instructions place no restrictions on the range of objects suitable for contemplation: ‘It could be an image, a phrase, or some practical problem or question from your life.’5
Clearly, elements of Ruist doctrine are passed over in this modern take on jingzuo. A great deal could be said, for example, on the precise meaning and value of concepts such as ‘silence’ and ‘reverence’ in Ruist teaching. Nevertheless, its advocates will maintain that this stripped-down practice remains true to the dynamic spirit of quiet sitting through the ages. Certainly, it has the advantage of flexibility. Rather than being a discrete, once or twice daily event, one can sit quietly many times over the course of one day – perhaps as a preparation before undertaking a task or addressing a problem. This would seem to be what Zhu Xi had in mind when he wrote: ‘Whenever you have to attend to your daily affairs, or undertake any matter, always spend some time in meditation and everything will be all right.’6
The idea of taking a moment to consecrate oneself to a task, or to anticipate just what it might involve, will be familiar to Stoics. One thinks of Marcus Aurelius cajoling himself to give himself up to his work: ‘Concentrate every minute like a Roman— like a man— on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions.’7 Most likely he would approve of pausing to consider the job in hand, to ‘reset’ rather than rush headlong from one task to another.
A Stoic might use quiet sitting in any number of ways. Ruist masters prescribed it as a study aid, instructing their pupils to sit in stillness for a time before engaging with classic texts. The aim was to chase away mundane distractions, so the students could read with a greater focus. It’s a widespread spiritual practice, adaptable to the study of texts in all religious or philosophical traditions – or indeed challenging texts of any kind. Or else one might begin the morning with a period of calm silence before moving on to the more traditional Stoic meditations, such as anticipating difficulties that might arise over the course of the day and pondering how best to deal with them. There are many possibilities, but what most appeals to me is the idea of quiet sitting as a buffer between the rush of daily life and turning to reflection and contemplation.
Some may be reluctant to set aside the paraphernalia and customs of Buddhist-influenced meditation. Won’t something valuable be lost if we say, ‘Forget about posture, cushions, breathing styles and all of that. Just sit in a quiet place for a while.’ I can only speak for myself and say that I don’t miss any of the varying, and sometimes contradictory, instructions suggested to me at meditation retreats and courses over the years. It’s been a relief to stop over-elaborating, asking myself things like, ‘Should I count each breath as it comes? What about dropping the count at some point? When would be best to do that?’ Neither do I try to ‘label’ thoughts, as is often prescribed to non-expert meditators with the aim of enhancing their mindfulness. Now, the extent of my ‘mental noting’ is to say, ‘I think, therefore I’m Stoic.’
After all, there are many kinds of meditation. If all are to be considered beneficial, despite their many differences, might it be the case that much of the benefit derives from what they have in common: stealing some precious moments of peace and quiet before returning more calmly to the world?
- See Massimo Pigliucci: ‘Prosochē or not prosochē: On Stoic Mindfulness’. https://medium.com/swlh/prosoch%C4%93-or-not-prosoch%C4%93-on-stoic-mindfulness-70e9837fe54f
- A Source Book of Chinese Philosophy. P. 607. Wing-Tsit Chan, Princeton University Press, 1963.
- Quoted in An Introduction to Confucianism. P. 220. Xinzhong Yao, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- It should be said that other contemporary Ruists have produced meditation guidelines which are more prescriptive than those of the American Ruist Association.
- Quiet Sitting: A Beginner’s Guide to Ruist Meditation. Ben Butina. Free to download on https://ruistassociation.org.
- In Further Reflections on Things at Hand: A Reader. P. 101. Zhu Xi [Chu Hsi]. Translation by Allen Wittenborn. University of America Press, 1991.
- In Meditations: 2.5.
Antain Mac Lochlainn writes mostly in the Irish language. His latest book is a survey of the Hellenistic schools, reviewed here in English in Books Ireland magazine: https://