Stoic vs. Buddhist Mindfulness by Mary Braun

Stoic vs. Buddhist Mindfulness

by Mary Braun

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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.

International Stoic Week – Call For Events!

International Stoic Week – Call For Events!

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International Stoic Week is an annual week-long set of events – coordinated by the Stoicism Today team, but involving many other people and organizations – aimed at encouraging public engagement with classical Stoic philosophy, by applying Stoic ideas and practices to the challenges of modern living.

This year – number five in its history – International Stoic Week is scheduled to run from Monday, October 17th to Sunday, October 23rd.  Just before it begins, of course, the one-day intensive conference, STOICON – with a whole host of speakers, talks, and workshops  – will occur on Saturday, October 15th.  So, October is indeed a month for all things Stoicism-related!

This year, the team (and in particular Daniel Robertson) has created a beautiful new website specifically devoted to Stoic Week, but we’ll also be publicizing activities, events, and resources here in Stoicism Today.

As the many past participants (more and more every successive year) well know, one of the main activities centering Stoic Week each year is the online course.  During Stoic Week, participants have the opportunity to live like a Stoic by following the seven-day Stoic Week Handbook.  This resource contains reading, audio, video, and group discussions. It includes daily practical exercises, which combine elements of ancient Stoicism and modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

But International Stoic Week also involves on-the-ground face-to-face events.  Last year, they occurred all over the world.  Just to name a few major gatherings – several occured last year in New York and in London.  It wasn’t just in major metropoles, though – Stoic week events, organized by those interested in discussing this classic philosophical approach, took place all over the place, from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania to Milwaukee, Wisconsin – and many, many other locations worldwide.

This year, we’re asking those either interested in scheduling – or already planning – Stoic Week events to send listings of their coming events to us in advance so that we can publicize them here in Stoicism Today.  We’ll do that both ahead of time and during Stoic Week itself.  You can provide us with all the relevant information here, in this Typeform – and we’ll make sure that your event gets into our listings!

Members of the Stoicism Today project are also making themselves available to discuss Stoic philosophy, its modern applications, Stoic week itself, and other related topics of interest in interviews, podcasts, and other appearances.  So, if you’re looking for one of the project members to come speak at your event, reach out to them sooner than later!

Lastly, you can follow both Stoic Week and Stoicism Today on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. You can donate an amount of your own choosing to help support Stoic Week, via our PayPal form.

The Stoic Bookshelf by Sean O’Connor

The Stoic Bookshelf

by Sean O’Connor

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Whether you are discovering Stoicism for the first time, or are a long time student looking to dive deeper into the philosophy, finding the right books can be difficult. The team at PocketStoic (who include as collaborators several Stoicism Today project members) has organized a giveaway to help you build your bookshelf and dive deeper into your practice.  You can enter the giveaway here.

We’ve been asked several times how we choose the books that we’ve included in the giveaway… So we thought it would be easiest to take them one by one and tell you why we think they’re worth reading.  

Let’s start with some recent works engaging with and interpreting Stoicism in a modern setting.

A Guide to the Good Life – William Irvine (Signed)

      • Why it’s essential: Perhaps the best-known introduction to Stoic philosophy, Guide to the Good Life is an immensely readable, jargon-free guide to Stoicism as a practical life philosophy. Covering a wide range of wisdom and techniques, Irvine lays out a modern framework with the goal of attaining tranquility and joy in life. While some traditionalists have criticized the book as re-interpreting certain principles, Irvine himself points out that the Stoicism is anything but static dogma. For those interested in Stoic philosophy, Guide to the Good Life is the place to start. It’s truly a modern classic.

 

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness – Donald Robertson

      • Why it’s essential: Drawing from the wisdom of the ancient Stoic philosophers, Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is one of the most in-depth “how-to” guides for implementing Stoicism into daily life. Utilizing his background as a CBT therapist, Robertson includes a variety of exercises based on modern behavioral research, while never losing sight of the traditional practices and teachings of his Greek and Roman Stoic predecessors.

 

Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness – Epictetus and Sharon Lebell

      • Why it’s essential: While not a modern work per say, Sharon Lebell’s interpretation of Epictetus’ Handbook is a great read for those looking for a quick and effective dose of Stoic wisdom. Written in modern, colloquial language, each page of The Art of Living employs a single directive, followed by (sometimes liberal) interpretations of Epictetus’ timeless advice on living well. Lebell has crafted a great update for those looking for an uplifting read to keep on the bedside table.

 

A New Stoicism – Lawrence C. Becker

      • Why it’s essential: Though Becker’s treatise on Stoic ethics is admittedly more dense than the above titles, his defense of traditional Stoic ethics as a structure for living well in the modern world makes for a fascinating read. Written through the lens of modern science and psychology, A New Stoicism may not be a casual introduction, but it’s nonetheless great for those looking to enhance their understand of Stoic ethics and logic.

 

The Obstacle Is the Way – Ryan Holiday (Signed)

      • Why it’s essential: Found on the bookshelves of everyone from entrepreneurs to professional athletes, Ryan Holiday’s bestselling The Obstacle is the Way presents Stoic philosophy as a no-nonsense set of tactics for dealing with adversity and increasing mental toughness. Holiday illustrates these techniques through a variety of historical examples, recounting stories of figures who embodied Stoic ideals to triumph over personal and professional challenges. A more energetic introduction than Guide to the Good Life, those looking to build a powerful arsenal of Stoic techniques will find Obstacle the perfect playbook.


Ego Is the Enemy
– Ryan Holiday (Signed)

  • Why it’s essential: Although the word Stoic only appears a few times in this book, the philosophy of Stoicism is everywhere. Ryan does an amazing job of telling stories of how ego can impede decision making and blind you.

 

No Stoic bookshelf would be complete without these classic works of Late Stoicism:

Meditations – Marcus Aurelius

  • Why it’s essential: Marcus Aurelius never intended the Meditations to be published. Through his self-discourse we get to see inside the mind of one of the most powerful men in the world, and learn more about his struggles to lead a good life.

 

Discourses – Epictetus

  • Why it’s essential: The Discourses are compilations of the teachings of Epictetus. He taught that happiness is an attainable state of mind instead of an occurrence. Stoicism is a philosophy of choice, and Epictetus highlights every occurrence where we have the ability to choose our reactions.


Enchiridion
– Epictetus

      • Why it’s essential: Epictetus believed that “no man is free who is not master of himself.” In the Enchiridion he dives into the practical precepts that are useful to apply to your everyday life.

 

Letters from a Stoic – Seneca

  • Why it’s essential: Seneca’s reasoning derived mainly from the Stoic principles. In his Letters he dives into the practical applications of his principles in spite of challenging circumstances. He conquers topics from the wisdom of the self-possessed person immune to overmastering emotions and life’s setbacks.

 

Essays – Seneca

    • Why it’s essential: In these Essays Seneca dives deeper into many of the topics that he covers in Letters from a Stoic. These essays will provide you with a systematic look into the philosophy of Stoicism. They have been referred to as the Stoic ‘Bible.’

 

Last but not least:

Stoicism Today: Selected Writings (Volumes 1 and 2) – Patrick Ussher

      • Why it’s essential: One of the most unique and enlightening reads on modern Stoic practice, Stoicism Today is a collection of essays from people across the world who have incorporated Stoic philosophy into their lives. The variety of viewpoints makes the collection instantly relatable, and many of the writings show Stoicism’s power in helping people find joy, tranquility, and in overcoming even the most difficult situations in life.

We believe these books are crucial to helping you dive deep into Stoicism. Many are books that we find ourselves returning to over the course of many years. You can enter the giveaway here → http://pocketstoic.online/giveaways/stoic-bookshelf

 

Sean O’Connor has dedicated his career to helping people level up in life. He’s an edtech product manager and marketer who writes about philosophy every week with Stoic Sundays.  He is also a member of the PocketStoic team.