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


An Introduction
If you want to know what Stoicism was as it was practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans, then you should probably go read Wikipedia or something. I am sure that there have been endless numbers of books written on the history and implications of Stoicism. I’m not in the business of re-inventing the wheel, so I have something different in mind here. First, I want to say what this blog is for. Second, I want to outline my own conception of Stoicism.

What This Blog is About, and What It’s For
What you will find here, that you will not find anywhere else on the internet, is the day-to-day life and reflections of a young Stoic in the 21st century. Yes, I consider myself a Stoic. No, I don’t consider myself a Stoic sage (there haven’t been any Stoic sages). No, I don’t care if you find my self-designation to be anachronistic, arrogant, pretentious, or silly. I call myself a Stoic because I do my absolute damnedest to follow those teachings of the Stoics that I think are correct, which is most of them. I call myself a Stoic because I believe that I have a particular personality and cast of mind that benefits greatly from Stoic philosophy.

My intention is twofold. One, keeping this blog will keep me honest. Hopefully, I will attract readers who can call me on my bullshit when I say something completely ridiculous and/or stupid. More to the point, if I have to put my thoughts on the internet, I will be more careful about the kinds of things I allow myself to think. It’s much harder to retain ridiculous notions when you have to put them out there in front of God and everybody (and, ladies and gentlemen, I am capable of entertaining some very ridiculous notions). Two, while I don’t consider myself at all wise or virtuous or even very Stoical, I want to share my thoughts on Stoicism with the world. More accurately, I want to share Stoicism with the world, because it’s a system of thought that, since my discovery of it, has made me happier than I’ve ever been, and I hope that someone else will benefit from my thoughts as much as I’ve benefited from the thoughts of the Stoics before me.

What Is Stoicism, Anyway?
I make no pretensions to being completely historically accurate in every detail on this point. I don’t want to give an exhaustive definition of Greek or Roman Stoicism. Rather, I want to communicate the general tenor of Stoic philosophy, in a way that shows both its usefulness to me and its relevance to modern life.

Stoicism, as I see it, consists in four things.

  1. Striving for apatheia. Apatheia sometimes translated as “apathy,” and while I don’t speak ancient Greek, I’m familiar enough with Stoicism to know that “equanimity” is a much more accurate term. Apatheia is the state that every Stoic aspires to, a state of perfect equanimity, where no outside influence can bother us. No one can reach perfect equanimity, of course, although some people come close; think of the Buddhist monks who burn themselves alive on camera as a form of protest, without crying out or even flinching! We can’t all have equanimity to that extent, but I use that example to show that more equanimity is humanly possible than perhaps you realize. Anyway, some of the ancient Stoics seem to think of apatheia as a state reserved for the mythical Stoic sage. But I follow Epictetus, who said, “Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself, ‘This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquility, and nothing is to be had for nothing.’” This is important because it stresses that apatheia comes in degrees, which is something that I hold to be true.
  2. Striving for kindness. The Stoics speak often of being kind, gentle, and benevolent. I think of being kind as distinct from being polite or nice. If someone is being a jackass and embarrassing themselves, then the kind thing to do might be to tell them, in no uncertain terms, that they’re being a jackass and that they need to knock it off. That wouldn’t be very nice, but it’s ultimately in their best interest and is thus kind. Of course, niceness might be a kind of default; I think it’s generally a good maxim to be as nice as possible until someone gives you a good reason to behave otherwise.
  3. Striving for wisdom. “Wisdom” is a slippery term, but I define it as a useful and veridical understanding of how things work, especially human beings. A wise person should also be difficult to deceive.
  4. Striving for virtue. This one kind of sums up all the previous points. If you are equanimous, kind, and wise, then ipso facto you’re virtuous.  Indeed, Zeno of Citium (not to be confused with Zeno of Elea), the founder of Stoicism, thought that virtue was the highest good, and that “the good life” consisted in being virtuous. Most of the posts in this blog will concern virtue or one of its three tenets.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I must be a real douchebag if I think I’m equanimous, kind, wise and virtuous. Well, I don’t think I’m any of those things; I may be a Stoic, but I’m not a good Stoic. On that note, I should probably mention that, if I weren’t somewhat fucked up, I probably wouldn’t need Stoicism. I doubt I’ll ever be a Stoic sage, but it’s something I aspire to. I can be more equanimous, kinder, and wiser than I now am, which really isn’t saying much, considering how anxious, mean, and foolish I am right now. It’s only been in the past few months that I’ve really discovered how much I need and desire virtue, and it’s taken all this time for me to begin my quest. This blog will be a documentation of that.