Stoicism vs. Buddhism (cont’d): Ancient wisdom for modern-day struggles

By Robert Wright, Dec 06 2019

In the previous issue of NZN, we ran excerpts from a podcast conversation I had with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci about similarities and differences between Stoicism and Buddhism. This week we bring you a part of the conversation that’s a bit more self-helpy than last week’s selection. 

This part of our chat draws on an advice column Massimo was writing at the time (in 2018), in which he answered people’s questions about how to stoically handle problems they face. Looking back at our exchange made me wonder if I should take a shot at offering advice from a Buddhist perspective (as informed by modern psychology, including evolutionary psychology). So let’s try it! If you have any practical questions you’d like me to answer, just write me at nonzero.news@gmail.com

I’ll respond to some of the questions in future issues of the newsletter. And, meanwhile, if you want to watch the entire conversation between me and Massimo, it’s here.

WRIGHT: So the idea is to look at a few questions that people have written, and, after we talk about the kind of Stoic guidance you’ve given them, see if I have anything to add from a Buddhist perspective. And maybe we’ll get a chance to elaborate a little on the differences in meditative practice, because I know there are varieties of meditative practice in both traditions. [...]

Let's take a question that you have answered already. Someone writes in:

I am a filmmaker based in India. Lately I've had a very tough time with my career. I feel like I'm working hard, but I just can't seem to catch a break. I mean, I write my scripts, I follow up with people and nobody responds. It's like I'm just being rejected...

He goes on to talk about how, where many of his peers have succeeded, he has failed. It's a failure narrative. 

You want to talk a little about how you thought about that?


PIGLIUCCI: Yes. So, the first thing that one does under circumstances similar to what this person was writing about is bring up the dichotomy of control. What, in this situation, is under your control and what is not under your control? 

Under your control is the effort, for sure. It sounds to me like the person did make an effort over a long period of time and is trying his best.

What is definitely not under your control is the outcome. And that's not necessarily because you're not good enough. That may be one explanation—regardless of one's own opinion about how good one is, it may very well be that he's just not that good of a filmmaker. But there are also a lot of other variables that enter into it, over which you have no control. There's the state of the industry in general, there is the amount of money that may be flowing through that particular industry in India at this particular time, the competition you have, the kind of topics you choose that may not be particularly popular or not attract funding, that sort of stuff. 

So once you make that very clear, the goal shifts. It becomes a question of not staking your self-worth on the outcome but rather on your effort. Did you really try to do the best you could? Or should you rethink the way you were going about it? That's the first step. 

The second step is... Well, look: at some point, whether you're not succeeding because you're not good enough or because the conditions are simply such that it's very difficult to succeed, you have to make a decision: how long do I want to go about this sort of thing? 

And there, I brought up the example of a friend of mine who is a journalist—another area which is not exactly going through an easy period; it's not easy to find work as a journalist. And I do think she is very good, I've seen her pieces, I know how she writes. But I also know, because I have several friends in that business, how tough it is, and it's only getting tougher with time. So she tried for years. She was reasonably successful as a freelancer. But you can't make a living as a freelancer very easily, you have to be really stellar in order to do that. So at some point, she took a look at the situation and said: I gave it however many years, I barely made it, it's not good enough. Now it's time to move on and do something else. 

That, I said to my Indian friend, is an example of practical wisdom. 

One of the four virtues in Stoicism is “practical wisdom” or what the Greeks called phronesis. It’s the idea that you need to practice the ability to make the best decision that is available to you given the circumstances. Not the best decision period, because there is no such thing, but the best decision all things considered. Given your actual situation, what is the best decision you can make? Nobody can tell you what to do or not to do; they can only remind you that one of the four virtues is that one, and you should try to put it into practice. 

The last thing I said to that person was… He mentioned casually in his letter that other aspects of his life are going very well: he's financially secure, he has a good relationship, and things like that. So I seized on that, and I said, look, it seems to me that there may be a danger here—that you're actually too focused on one aspect of your life that is not going well, and you're not sufficiently appreciative of the rest. Not many people can actually say that they are financially secure, emotionally secure, they have a good relationship, and so on and so forth. There is a lot that you do have, and you are at risk of jeopardizing it by continuing in a direction that is not working out for you. Because that causes stress, that causes financial issues. Your partner might at some point say, hey, wait a minute, how long are we going to go with this? So I said, another thing you should probably do is refocus and take a step back and say, “Okay, what about my life in general, not just that aspect?” We are not just a filmmaker or a professor of philosophy or whatever it is. We are human beings. 

Epictetus has this really interesting approach to ethics called “role ethics.” 

The idea is that we all play different roles. The most fundamental role is that of human being, and then there are individual roles: you’re a professional, you’re a partner, you’re a father, you’re a son, you’re a friend, and so on. These other roles will come into conflict at some point in your life. The way to resolve these conflicts, according to Epictetus, is always to go back down to the more fundamental level and say, okay, but what kind of human being am I? What am I doing here? What is the big picture? 

So what I finally advised was to take a close look and see if there are other ways, more creative ways, of staying in the same business, but maybe not as a director, maybe doing something else. 

In fact, he followed up with me. From the moment he wrote the letter to the moment I was able to get to his question, more than a month had passed. He said, “Not only I appreciate all the points you made, but I actually followed your advice before I read it.” He is now trying to stay in the same general business, but from a different perspective, trying to be a little bit more creative and use the obstacle as a way out—or as a way around—and doing something different while still being engaged in what he cares about. 

I gather that one resource you have when you answer these questions is that there was a certain amount of this kind of explicit guidance given as part of Stoic discourse in the ancient world. So you can say: yeah, they talk about this kind of problem and what you should do.

Yes, they did. 

Epictetus does it with his students. You can find a number of examples where, evidently, some student asked him a question or posed a problem to him, and Epictetus really addressed the question directly from Stoic principles. 

Marcus Aurelius does it to himself. Meditations was actually originally entitled “To Myself,” because it was personal diary. He actually talks to himself about certain problems that he's having and how to address them. 

But probably the largest source, by far, is Seneca. Seneca is the Stoic from whom we have the most extant writings. Not only do we have a number of complete essays and books that he wrote about all sorts of topics, but we have this absolutely wonderful resource, which is the letters to Lucilius. Lucilius was a close friend of Seneca, and he wrote four hundred, five hundred letters to Lucilius on all sorts of topics, from the big ones, like how do you deal with your own approaching death, to the trivial ones, like should I go to a party. and how should I behave when I go? So Seneca is a wonderful source. 

I don't think there is quite a counterpart to that in Buddhism. I mean, I shouldn't pretend to be conversant in the entire Buddhist canon—it’s immense, and it varies from tradition to tradition—but the best-known Buddhist discourses, purportedly uttered by the Buddha himself, seem to have more to do with philosophical matters than specific practical matters.

Now, it ultimately is a very practical philosophy. It starts out with the idea of ending suffering. The meditative techniques are very well geared to that... But there’s not as much advice column stuff in the Buddhist canon. 

If you ask the average meditation teacher what to do in a situation like this guy’s situation, I think you would get a lot of the kind of guidance that you've given. But there’s not the same kind of ancient resource that you have to draw on.

That’s interesting. I actually think that, even within Stoicism, there is a fairly sharp difference between the so-called early Stoa and the late Stoa. 

The early Stoa was based in Athens: Zeno of Citium, who started out the whole thing, Cleanthes, who was the first head of the Stoa after Zeno, and then Chrysippus and a couple of others. We don't have a lot of what they wrote, unfortunately. We only have fragments or things that are cited by other later authors, often hostile authors, and sometimes we have a lot of citations from the early Stoics by Cicero, who was not a Stoic but was sympathetic to Stoicism. So we don't know a lot about it.

But from the titles of the books that they wrote—and the titles were preserved by Diogenes Laertes—it sounds like they were more interested in metaphysical and philosophical issues than directly practical things. Again, Stoicism did start out immediately as a practical philosophy. But I think it's fair to say that the early authors were more philosophically minded than practically minded. 

Then what happened was that Athens fell under the political control of Rome. They made the mistake of aligning themselves with King Mithridates against the Romans, and the Romans beat the crap out of both Athens and Mithridates. So, Athens basically lost its preeminence as both a political power—well, that one had already been lost under Alexander after the Peloponnesian War—and as a cultural capital of the ancient world. That moved to Rome, particularly during the early empire. 

So, most of the Stoics that we know of, and most of the ones that we have a lot of writings from, are Roman Stoics. And the Romans, unlike the Greeks, were well-known for being much more practical. The Greeks were into geometry and mathematics; the Romans were into engineering and, you know, building stuff. I think that shows through. 

That's why Epictetus’s discourses, Seneca’s letters, and so on are actually very practically oriented. They absorb the Stoic philosophy, they agree with the general principles, but a lot of their focus is on practical stuff. Seneca writes, as I said, letters to his friend. He also writes letters of consolation for friends who are grieving after the loss of somebody. Those things are not found in early Stoicism, they are Roman phenomena. 

Let's move on to another another question. Come to think of it, this is an example where there is fairly explicit guidance in the early [Buddhist] texts. 

This is somebody who's angry with their relatives. 

Actually, I'm in that situation. First of all, three of my four siblings voted for Trump. Secondly, we're in the middle of planning a family reunion that has led to a certain amount of email tension, so this is good for me. 

This is, again, somebody in India—what is it about India?—but I think going to college in the West. Predictably, when they return home, they come into a family situation that they describe as what we might call dysfunctional. They say, “I get angry. I get angry at my father, I get angry at my mother. So how do I deal with anger toward relatives?”

And you say...

There, the answer is somewhat different from the previous case. Anger is a big deal for the Stoics, they wrote a lot about it. Seneca wrote an entire book on anger, which is still very modern. He analyzes the phenomenon of anger as well as giving practical advice on how to deal with it. I actually checked, and the website of the American Psychological Association has a section on anger management, and it reads almost verbatim like Seneca. I'm not saying that they took it from Seneca, but it reads very much the same. 

To begin with, Seneca says anger is a negative emotion. It's a destructive emotion and therefore something that you want to control. Now, let me take this opportunity to clear up one very, very common misunderstanding about Stoicism—the idea that Stoicism is about suppressing emotion. It isn't. The way I think about it is more about realigning your emotions, moving the spectrum of your emotions from the negative to the positive. So you're supposed to control and overcome negative, destructive emotions like anger, fear, and hatred. But you’re also supposed to be nurturing positive emotions, such as love, concern, sense of justice, joy, and things like that. 

Seneca says anger is a temporary madness. Even when it is justified, even when there are good reasons you're angry at somebody or something, if you act on your anger, you're probably going to regret it. Because anger takes over reason. You're not thinking straight when you're angry. So you're going to do something that, even though it can be motivated by a righteous reaction, still isn’t going to be the right course of action. 

So what want to do, Seneca says, is to cut your anger as soon as you feel it beginning to boil inside you. If you let it go for a little bit, it becomes uncontrollable. Immediately, as soon as you feel that, disengage. Put some of what modern psychologists would call “cognitive distancing” between yourself and your anger. Practically speaking, what that might mean is simply physically disengaging from the situation: go take a walk around the block. Or, another later Stoic author who was advising an emperor about anger said, “Before you answer or do anything, just run very slowly through the entire Greek alphabet.” It's the equivalent of counting to 10 before you act. 

So there are all these little suggestions about how to do it in the moment. If you're feeling angry, disengage. 

But what I also said to my correspondent is, you actually know what's going to happen way ahead of time. You live in the United States and then you go back home to India, and you know you're going to get angry, and you know exactly what the situation is, you know why you’re getting angry. 

At that point, what you need to do is two things. One we already mentioned: you apply the dichotomy of control. What is it about that situation you can control? Can you control your father's violent outbursts? You probably can’t. There is not much you can do about it. This has been happening for many years. It’s the result of a long history that he has. So there, you need to apply that dichotomy of control. 

But more importantly, since you know this is going to happen, there is another technique that is used a lot and is sometimes referred to as premeditatio malorum, which is Latin for “imagining bad shit happening to you.” The idea is you know that this is going to happen, so you meditate on it, reflect on it ahead of time, visualize it—you're familiar with the situation because it’s happened several times—you get comfortable with the situation before it happens. Seneca says, “A prepared mind is the best way to react to problems.” If the problem hits you in the moment, and you don't know where it's coming from and you have no idea how to respond, then you're probably not going to respond well.

Epictetus does something really nice. There's a bit in the Enchiridion, the manual, where he says: every time you go out, think about what may happen. 

So let's say that I want to go to the thermal baths. Well, you know that, if you go to the baths, there is a good chance that somebody's going to splash you, somebody's going to yell, somebody's going to push you, that sort of stuff. What do you do in order not to ruin your experience? 

You say to yourself that you have two goals in mind. One is to have a good time at the baths. The other one is to keep in harmony with nature, which in Stoic parlance basically means keeping in harmony with yourself and keeping a certain degree of control over your reactions. If you fail at the first one—if somebody is ruining your experience—you're not going to fail at the second one. The first one is outside of your control but the second one is within your control. 

So you should prepare ahead of time, mentally. If necessary, go over the situation over and over and repeat to yourself how you're going to act on it and how you’re going to handle that situation. And the situation will get better. I mean, I do that all the time, and it does actually get better. 

The third and last thing I said in response to that letter was this.

At some point, the person went into the family history and mentioned briefly that his father is, possibly, somewhat violent—I didn't get the impression he was physically violent, it's like outbursts of anger—because in turn he was brought up in a family where his father, the guy’s grandfather, behaved in a similar way. 

So I say, okay. One of the Stoic principles is that of charity about other people. Epictetus often says: don't judge other people, because you may not know enough about their circumstances to arrive at a judgment. 

Try to redescribe what they do in neutral terms. So, for instance, don't say that somebody drinks too much. Say he drinks a lot by comparison to the average. Try to redescribe it in as neutral a sense as possible so that you're not going to judge that person from a moral perspective, because you might not know enough. 

So in the case of his father, don't say, “He gets angry for no reason.” Say, “His behavior becomes altered.” There are probably reasons why it does that. They might not be good reasons, and this is not good behavior. But try to be charitable, because being charitable is often a good way to defuse the situation instead of confronting and getting upset yourself. Then it gets into an escalation, a shouting match or something like that. Look at your own father with the kind of compassion you should, really, lookat every human being. 

There’s a certain amount there in common with Buddhism. 

Certainly, the recognition that anger is not a great thing. The Buddha said, “Anger is the poisoned root with the honeyed tip,” which evinces a recognition that, although anger is in one sense unpleasant, there's something that's attracting you to it. 

In general, it’s not always clear if the Buddha said the things attributed to him, as generally happens with these figures from back then who didn't write stuff down right at that moment. 

Bastards. I mean, they should have.

Right, what was he thinking? 

But there did develop in Buddhism a really elaborate psychology. A lot of it is compiled in something called the Abhidhamma, which came several centuries after the Buddha. The meditative discipline led to a lot of careful introspection—just observing the mind at work—and this led to a lot of insights into things like the dual edged nature of anger; more broadly, how subtly our affect influences cognition. 

I think that’s one of the real strengths of Buddhism. Not that everything in the Abhidamma would make sense to a modern psychologist, by any means, but I do think that at the core of Buddhist practice and philosophy is a very subtle appreciation—it’s not always explicit—of how subtly affect and cognition can be intertwined. Which is now a finding of modern science, but I think was very much anticipated by Buddhism. 

That’s a little bit of a detour.

There is a clear commonality [between Stoicism and Buddhism here]. You use the term “cognitive distancing.” I haven't heard that in a Buddhist context, but there is something that is functionally equivalent. It isn't physically removing yourself from the situation or anything like that, but one of the things that’s been central to especially the modern use of mindfulness meditation is a focus on feelings like anger (and all kinds of other feelings) that is, in a certain sense, objective. It's a kind of objective awareness. 

It's hard to describe. I'm not a great meditator, but I've been on a number of meditation retreats of one week or two weeks, and in that expanse, even if you're not a habitually great meditator, you can get into some interesting places. And I should say, you can do some of this in a daily practice, especially if you've been on a meditation retreat. When you get to this point of objectively viewing your feelings, it's a kind of an interesting paradox.

On the one hand, you could call it a kind of distance, because it's definitely an objective view. You can almost literally see [your feelings] and seeing them in this objective way drains them of their emotional grip on you. You can view your own anxiety much as you would view a piece of modern art in a museum. It's that objective. 

But on the other hand, the term “distance” is misleading because the way you obtained that objectivity is by getting very close to your emotions, and that's especially true with unpleasant emotions where normally the instinct is to get away from them. Fear, anxiety. It’s getting into a calm enough state of mind to accept their presence and get very close to them and not run away from the unpleasant emotions that gives you some cognitive distance from them. 

And one more thing. 

You said: you know, you're going into this situation, so be prepared. And yet, precisely because anger is, as Seneca described it, temporary madness, we've all been in the situation where we go, “I'm not going to let her push my buttons this time”—and then you walk in the room, and you're screaming. 

I think part of the idea of intensive meditative practice is like: Look, it would be great if you didn't have to spend an hour a day meditating. But the way emotions are, the grip they have on us, is if you want to go through your day with an appreciably enhanced ability to see this stuff coming and head it off at the pass and not be drawn into it, it's going to take practice. And there's no alternative.

You're right. That is why often, in my columns, I insist on the difference between understanding something cognitively and internalizing something. Stoicism is probably less than 10% theory and 90% practice, meaning that you have to repeat over and over. 

And the Stoics themselves did appreciate that. They had these pithy phrases that they kept handy to repeat to themselves over and over, almost almost like mantras, in every situation where they would apply. They would often go to the authors and reread passages or write down their own thoughts over and over. 

One of the things that Marcus Aurelius is often—bizarrely—criticized for is that the Meditations are repetitive. But people don't understand, or they forget, that this was not meant for publication. This was his diary, so the reason it's repetitive is because he runs into the same problem over and over and he catches himself: okay, you did it again, now try harder. 

One thing that I wanted to bring up about anger in particular, but also emotions in general, in Stoicism is this: the idea of giving or withdrawing assent from emotions. 

So let's let's take anger. If you start physically pushing me physically—all of a sudden, out of the blue—my immediate reaction is anger. The Stoics say there’s nothing you can do about this reaction. This is a natural thing. It's like a reflex. If you come too close to me, I kind of withdraw, right? I can't stop it. That is not under your control. 

But the kind of anger we're talking about in the case of the person who wrote to me, you know about it weeks ahead or months ahead. So this is not an immediate reaction. That is cognitive assent. That is, you actually have agreed with yourself that it's a good idea to be angry about these things and you should let yourself do that. 

Epictetus says, every time you have what they call an “impression,” this first reaction that you have about things, talk to it. Look at it from a distance and say, “You are an impression. Let me take a look. Are you really what you seem to be, or are you something else? Should I give you assent, take you on board, or should I exercise my decision to reject assent?” 

In that sense, I think this is very coherent with recent research in neuroscience. There's this book that came out in the last year (that I now, of course, forget both the title and the author) that makes this distinction between the way in which neuroscientists and psychologists think about an emotion like anger. 

When neuroscientists do research on anger, usually they refer to the immediate reaction, the instinctive one. The amygdala suddenly starts producing hormones, and you feel a certain way. But psychologists tend to focus on the cognitive aspect of that kind of emotion, on the idea that you, in a sense, implicitly agree that this is a good way to feel, that this is a good way to react. Therefore you keep doing it even though you might actually stop yourself from doing it. So that's the same distinction, I think, that Epictetus was making between the impression over which you can't do anything and the assent to that impression, which you can control.

That has a real counterpart in mindfulness meditation. The idea is you examine these things as they come by and decide which ones you want to get on board with. 

I want to say one more thing that's kind of relevant to the first example we had of the filmmaker who, by his account, was a failure. I think one thing both Stoicism and Buddhism have in common is the idea of recognizing that narratives are just narratives. 

Like some things in the way Buddhism is taught in Western venues these days, it may not be all that explicit in the ancient texts, but it is a logical consequence of the foundations of Buddhist thought. I doubt the Buddha ever said “that's just a narrative,” but it definitely is really near the heart of Buddhism to understand that many of the things that are making you suffer are just mental constructs. Like the way this guy is framing his recent career. As you say, if you can't make a living, then you should be doing something else. At the same time, to some extent, you seem to be letting other people define failure. If you're making a living and doing work that intrinsically brings you happiness, you don't have to buy into the larger narrative. 

This kind of gets back to basic mindfulness practice of examining the emotional impact of things. It reminds me of something that a meditation teacher said to me once on a retreat. He said, cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been connected to both Stoicism and to Buddhism, consists of talking people out of their narratives, like saying, is it really rational to fear this, or do you really have to look at it that way? He said: that's fine, but if you want to go really deep, you get beneath the level of narratives altogether. You don't spend any time buying in or talking yourself out. 

I should say, This is one of these teachers who has done so much meditation, he's in the general realm where you could argue about whether he's enlightened. So this is somebody who's gone much further than then I've gone. But I do believe that if you wanted to go that far and undermine the idea of narrative, it does begin with sitting and examining the emotional impact associated with a narrative. 

[The filmmaker] could do that. He could sit down and think, “I failed, I failed,” until finally he gets enough distance to look at what that feels like to him, the impact that's having on his emotional system. I think that is one way to approach his issue, to just get away from the narrative long enough to, if nothing else, examine it objectively. And then maybe, as this meditation teacher suggested, get into a whole new zone with respect to narratives.  

I want to end on getting your reaction to this emphasis on the fact that so much of what makes us suffer is a mental construct. 

Absolutely. That's another big area of similarity or overlap between Buddhism and Stoicism. 

Epictetus is very explicit about this. He says, it's not the things out there that upset you; it is your judgment about those things. Those things are things that just happen. The universe is this way. You find a job, you don't find a job. You find a partner, you lose a partner. Things happen. The universe works like that, cause and effect everywhere. 

Now, what upsets you cannot possibly be a fact. The way he presents this and tries to convince these students of this is he says, look, let’s say something bad happens to somebody else—even serious stuff, like your spouse dies or something like that—well, our first reaction is to obviously commiserate with the person, feel human empathy. But then we also say, “These things happen. You need to accept it, and eventually you recover and move on.” But then it happens to you, Epictetus says, and it's all, “Poor me, poor me. It's the end of the world!” Wait a minute, weren’t you saying just a minute ago, when it happened to somebody else, that it is part of the way the world works and that you should really try to look at it differently? 

So his conclusion is, try to look at your own things with the same level of detachment and distance from which you look at other people when those things happen to them. Because it’s not the things in themselves that upset you, it's your judgment of them. And you are in charge of your judgment, at least to an extent. You can change it, you can reframe things. You can think about your life differently. And a lot of modern critics, of which surprisingly there is a good number, say, “Oh, but that's just a mind trick.” Sure. But you know what, we navigate our world because of our minds.

Moreover, your ordinary perception is a mind trick. That’s the whole point. It's all a mind trick.

Now, in Buddhism the aspiration is to get to a point where there are no mind tricks. And that's a territory we could talk about at some point, now is not the time. But the point is that I think what Stoicism and Buddhism have in common is, don't act like your mind isn’t already playing tricks on you...? 

That's exactly true. Try to choose the trick that’s most beneficial to you as opposed to just accepting the one that comes by default because perhaps people's judgment imposed that on you. 

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