Stoic vs. Buddhist Mindfulness
by Mary Braun
The first time I tried Buddhist meditation, I immediately felt my trachea shrink. Only a tiny, insufficient bit of air could move in or out. To learn Buddhist meditation, I had listened to a podcast. It said to notice and accept without judgement whatever happened. So, that is what I did. I noticed and accepted that my attempt to meditate had the effect of breathing powdered cement.
Being the diligent sort, I tried meditating again the next day. Again I got to notice and accept without judgement the sensation of being strangled. And again the third day.
I could not understand what was going on. I knew that I could not be getting into any physiologic trouble within two breaths of sitting down. I knew I should be able to sustain myself in a seated position, breathing comfortably for several hours. Using all my Stoic techniques that I did not yet know were Stoic, I convinced myself that I would sit for ten breaths regardless of how sure I was that I would suffocate. Ten breaths in and out. This was all I could manage for several days. With more practice of living with insufficient oxygen, I could go for twelve breaths, then twenty. Eventually I got to the point where it no longer felt like the Buddha was Darth Vader using the Force to strangle me from a distance
At the time, I was fresh out of medical school. My new situation allowed some scary thoughts to arise, such as, “you probably just killed Mrs. Smith by increasing her insulin.” Buddhist meditation allowed me to gain distance from these thoughts, and the added distance improved my equanimity. Even after the disturbing, rookie doctor thoughts stopped coming around, I found Buddhist meditation helpful for my overall equanimity, so I continued it.
As happens with many Stoics, my Stoic practice developed spontaneously as a response to difficulties in my life. I was orphaned when I was seven, causing the life I had known to evaporate. In order to survive this loss, using my own intuition I developed some potent Stoic techniques for tolerating difficult situations. Unfortunately, I did not develop any techniques for avoiding difficult situations. Thus my personal brand of Stoicism carried me straight from suboptimal foster care right into a bad marriage.
A couple of decades and several life changes later, my boyfriend introduced me to Stoic philosophy. I was shocked to discover how much of my self-developed philosophy of living and coping techniques those ancient Greeks had known about all along. Thus, well into middle age, I started the formal practice of Stoic philosophy. Those ancient Greeks had a trick or two to teach me. My life got even better with their help.
At this point, I rely on my Stoic techniques when things start to go wrong inside my head. Earlier this week, a dying patient was reviewing his life with me. He told me about how much he valued the teamwork he and his wife shared to raise their children. It is a beautiful story and my eyes start to fill with tears. No problem so far. I am not expected to be without feelings, but if my feelings take control of my thinking, I cannot focus enough to be a good doctor.
As I listen to my patient talk about how raising their children deepened his relationship with his wife, I realize the one thing I wanted most out of life was to raise my kids well. I married and had children with a man who always had his way and whose method of childrearing I disagreed with. I could not figure out how to challenge his child rearing ideas or how to divorce him for twenty five years. Now I am too old to have more children, and will never get to have the experience of raising a child with a partner. I didn’t get a father; I only got a mother for seven years. Life couldn’t even deliver me a decent husband. I don’t ask for much. My eyes are dripping tears now and I realize that I am not paying any attention to my patient.
I need to pull myself away from the attraction of self-pity and into the present. Even if I had the skills to turn my feelings off, that would not be helpful; I need them in order to take care of my patient. I remind myself of the Stoic maxim: “It seemed so to you at the time.”
I have a sense that I am shoving my foot in a slamming door. If I can keep the door from closing, I can maintain control of myself, and my equanimity will be only briefly disturbed. It feels as though the force of emotion that wells up must be countered with something forceful. If what I bring to bear on it is not forceful, it will fail. Once the tears start forming, my Buddhist practice has nothing to offer me. Once I have started to lose my equanimity, my emotions flood me if I attempt to use Buddhist techniques. I have found that only Stoic techniques overcome the waves of emotion. Buddhist techniques feel more general and unfocussed.
What my Buddhist meditation practice does offer me is a decrease in my overall reactivity. When I am meditating regularly, I am less apt to be bothered by the unavoidable emotional events of life. This pattern has repeated itself a dozen or more times. I fall away from my meditation practice. I become more easily riled. I recognize this and resume meditating. Things improve until I fall away from my meditation practice again.
I asked people on the Facebook Stoicism Group about their experiences, and learned this is typical. The only consensus was that Stoic mindfulness practices are useful for the immediately present threat to equanimity, and Buddhist mindfulness practices help strengthen equanimity overall.
It is not surprising to me that Buddhist meditation works well for us on a daily basis because it has been honed over thousands of years by hundreds of thousands of people. What is surprising to me is that it does not always work well for me and my Facebook friends. It surprises me that our Buddhist practice fails us in the pinch.
Why does Buddhism not include techniques like “Amor Fati” or negative visualization? Are these incompatible with the Buddhist philosophy? I do not know enough about Buddhism to answer that.
It seems to me that if there were a significant fraction of people whose needs were not being met by Buddhism, and that there were non-Buddhist techniques that met their needs, then Buddhism would have figured out how to respond to them. Either these techniques would have been incorporated into Buddhism or variant forms of Buddhism would have developed that were compatible with these techniques. I think it is more likely that the Buddhist techniques worked well enough for most people in the society in which Buddhism developed.
When I receive a disturbing impression and begin to formulate my response to it, Buddhism would say that I need to distance myself from that nascent thought and to examine it scientifically as I would someone else’s emotion. So far, this is very similar to the Stoic teachings on disturbing impressions as I understand them. Buddhism recommends that I next lean into the unpleasant emotion, to really examine it, get to know it and to realize that it will pass soon. This technique results in me wallowing in my emotion as I wait for it to pass. I become so attracted to it that I will grasp it firmly and become unable to function. Perhaps if I practiced this technique for decades, it would work, but the dying patient in front of me does not have decades while I grapple with my inner demons.
Stoicism offers me techniques that I can use right in the moment. Instead of leaning in, I counter the emotion with a maxim that I have prepared and have at the ready for whenever disturbing emotions arise. The part of my mind that is not wrapped up in my personal tragedy can recite Stoic maxims forcefully to counter the attraction of “I didn’t get and I want.” Stoicism gets between my mind and the idea it is about to grip onto and stays my grasp before it happens. For me, for the most disturbing impressions, this is what works.
There is an idea in neurology of over-learning. Things which one repeats thousands of times during one’s lifetime such as the ABC’s or the response to “how are you today?” are over-learned. When a person is demented and has lost the ability to think in any meaningful fashion, they can often still recite the ABC’s or other over-learned phrases. It seems to me that when I am caught by my deep feelings of deprivation and grief that I am like a demented person and can only say over-learned things. The little bit of my brain that is not sucked into the black hole of “I lack” can barely squeak out “It seemed so to you at the time.” If it can however, it breaks the spell and the attractiveness of the disturbing impression is diminished.
Another common observation is that Western culture has more emphasis on independence and individuality. It seems likely that this emphasis develops minds that are more likely to work with individually oriented techniques. Stoicism emphasizing my personal inner citadel rather than Buddhism emphasizing dissolution of myself feels more comfortable to me. When I am most in pain, standing steadfast against an ocean crashing against the seawall of my personal virtue makes me feel less pain whereas the paradoxical teachings of Buddhism simply frustrate me.
I find that Buddhist techniques on an ongoing basis combined with Stoic ones on an as needed basis work best for me to maximize my equanimity. I do not have a good explanation for why. I am more at peace, at rest and am flourishing more than ever before in my life.
This reminds me of another Stoic technique that I practice. It has a Buddhist analog: I am grateful.
Mary Braun, MD is a board certified hospice and palliative care physician. In her work she helps people make decisions about their medical treatment, helping them elucidate their values, preferences, and goals given the constraints of their medical situation and their limited time to live. Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism as a child. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She finds Stoicism essential, not only for her personal life, but also to avoid having patients, their loved ones, and herself becoming overwhelmed by the difficulties of taking care of the sickest and most fragile patients in the medical system.