Stoicism and Meditation

I don’t like the idea of “original Stoicism.” The term seems to turn Stoicism into a museum piece. If Stoicism is not a living philosophy, and new Stoic thought is not being produced, then Stoicism has been relegated to the dustbins of history, a museum-piece of a lifestyle. Therefore, to call yourself a Stoic, you need not follow all of the tenets of ancient Stoicism, just most of them. More to the point, you need not restrict your philosophical influences to Stoicism. I want to argue here that a good Stoic ought to be at least friendly to Buddhist influenced meditation, even if (s)he doesn’t practice it. Then, I want to talk about how my own meditation practice has interacted with my Stoicism.

This is where meditation comes in. There are many varieties of meditation, obviously, and some are more Stoical than others, but there’s no reason you can’t use multiple kinds of meditation. I do like the Stoical psychological exercises, like the one I mentioned in my last post. But there’s another psychological exercise that fits very well with Stoic attitudes. I’m talking about Buddhist-influenced mindfulness meditation. Now, a post by Elen Buzaré back in February recommended a kind of “Stoic and Buddhist meditation” that really seems to just be Buddhist meditation, with some Stoical language thrown in for good measure. Buzaré was criticized, or at least, questioned, by another Stoic for introducing Buddhist meditation in this way. My opinion on the matter is fairly simple. While I think it would be a stretch to say that Buddhist meditation had an ancient Greek or Roman analogue (I’ve seen no evidence for this), I also think it would be obnoxious to say that anyone who adds Buddhist-influenced meditation to their psychological arsenal is no longer a Stoic (not that the last post linked to made this claim, but I want to make it clear that I am not making this claim). Now, it’s necessary to distinguish between two types of criticism here. Some things are non-Stoic in origin while still being very Stoical in spirit, and some things are downright contrary to what Stoicism tries to achieve. I think that Buddhist-influenced meditation falls into the former category. Such meditation cultivates an awareness of our own cognitive and emotional states, along with a sense of detachment, and that is precisely what Stoicism aims to achieve. If one removes Buddhist doctrine from the picture, and merely takes the practice of Buddhist-style meditation into one’s life, then one can still be entirely consistent in calling oneself a Stoic.

All that being said, I wanted to discuss how my meditation practice has interfaced with my Stoicism. I have found that I pay much more attention to my emotions. Now, I am naturally very out of touch with my emotions, as I am somewhat immature for my age in that department. Where most people have direct, unmediated touch with their emotions, I have to manipulate mine as if with remotely-controlled mechanical arms. Like most people, I am sometimes privately guilty over how I feel; losing at a board game and then feeling a twinge of resentment toward the winner, however slight, tends to make one feel immature and competitive, so one may seek to suppress that emotion. With meditation, however, I have to notice these things. This is where Stoicism comes in.

Meditation gives me a spotlight that I can use to seek out what I’m feeling and identify it, and Stoicism gives me the tools to conquer my less desirable emotions with reason. I can ask myself: “Does it make sense to feel that? Did you expect that this would never happen? What were you expecting?” and so on and so forth, like a good Stoic. Meditation just gives me an edge in applying the Stoical advice.

While I can respect someone who says that Buddhist-influenced meditation simply doesn’t work for them, I still urge anyone who hasn’t tried it to give it a whirl. You may find that it doesn’t work for you. Or you may, like me, be very, very impressed with the results.

Stoicism and Meditation