“It is impossible that happiness and yearning for what is not present can ever be united.”
This pithy proverb on desire and suffering does not come from the Pali Canon or the words of a Kadampa master of the Himalayan plateau. It is a quote from Epictetus (50–135 CE), a Roman Stoic. Stoicism was a movement started by philosophers who would meet to teach and debate at the stoa poikile, a painted portico with pillars from which the school’s name derived, in the agora of Athens (a large public meeting place which was the center of cultural life). They studied logic and physics, but their primary concern was ethics. The goal was excellence, or virtue (arete) which they saw as synonymous with happiness (eudaimonia). Stoic disciplines aimed at removing delusion and disciplining our emotional life.
In the last few decades, Epictetus and his Stoic brethren have been having a renaissance, including a recent flurry of bestselling books like William B. Irvine’s A Guide to The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Ryan Holiday, a publicist and marketing consultant who has recently turned his attention to “life hacks,” has written a series of recent bestsellers on Stoic philosophy, including The Obstacle Is The Way and Ego Is The Enemy, as well as The Daily Stoic (365 Meditations). Holiday has launched an online community of people working through Stoic exercises and learning together, and has even written about Stoicism and Buddhism.
And, reminiscent of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MSBR), there’s Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT). Donald Robertson, an academic and therapist, has been hard at work showing the links between Stoic mind-training and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, including the fact that Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, the first form of CBT, was inspired by the Stoics. Robertson also helped launch Stoic Week, an international week of Stoic conferences and gatherings which now boasts 7,000 annual participants, and he has begun offering a four-week online course in SMRT once a year. “Online communities have been key to the rebirth of Stoicism,” Robertson told Tricycle. “Some even call it “‘cyberstoicism.’”
The growing popularity of Stoic mind training seems connected to its non-dogmatic, reason-based set of tools for cultivating emotional resilience, overcoming suffering, and cultivating a life of service to others. Like Buddhism, modern Stoicism is grounded in the insights of ancient teachers who believed that overcoming self-caused suffering should be at the center of philosophical inquiry.
The first Stoic was Zeno of Citium (334-262 BCE), himself a student of a radical homeless philosopher named Crates of Thebes. Many following teachers produced a huge literature, most of which was lost. Later Stoics whose writings have survived include the philosopher and playwright Seneca (4-65 CE) and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), author of the perennially popular Meditations, a notebook of reflections he wrote for himself that was published after his death.
The core of Stoic practice was summed up by Epictetus as the recognition that “some things are up to us, and others are not.” What is up to us (or at least can be so increasingly, with practice) are our own opinions, and the desires and aversions we assent to. What is not up to us is everything else—things like the behavior of other people, our health, our lifespan (or that of others), our reputation, or our wealth. We should cultivate equanimity towards these “externals,” advised the Stoics.
Epictetus provides a simple summary of why: if we direct our desire to anything we can not hope to control, we are doomed to feel “thwarted, miserable, and upset.” Epictetus argued that we should only desire that which we have a solid hope of attaining—the growth of our own wisdom and character. As he put it, “If you refuse to enter contests that you are capable of losing, you will never lose a contest.” There is a marked resonance here with the Buddhist teaching on the “eight worldly winds,” which is shared by many Buddhist lineages. As the Buddha put it, “Gain and loss, status and disgrace, blame and praise, pleasure, and pain: these conditions among human beings are ephemeral, impermanent, subject to change. Knowing this, the wise person, mindful, ponders these changing conditions. Desirable things don’t charm the mind, and undesirable ones bring no resistance (The Failings Of The World Sutta, AN 8.6).” As in Buddhist meditation, many Stoic contemplations center around visualizing the impermanence and uncontrollability of all things.
Like Buddhism, Stoicism is often caricatured and misunderstood in the West. Stoicism and Buddhism have both been misconstrued as individualistic or quietist because of their focus on tranquility and self-discipline. Contrary to this caricature, Stoicism emphasized human dignity and civic responsibility. It was Stoicism that first popularized the concept of “cosmopolitanism,” that all of the world (cosmos) is my community (polis). Marcus Aurelius once wrote to himself, “When you think you’ve been injured, apply this rule: If the community isn’t injured by it, neither am I.”
Stoicism also has an unwarranted reputation for cultivating a life of repressed emotions and unfeeling grimness. The Stoic goal known as apatheia does not mean thoughtless indifference, but rather “freedom from afflictive emotions (pathos),” chief of which are distress and fear. Apatheia is to result in a healthy emotional life, known as eupatheia (good emotion). According to scholar John Sellars’ book Stoicism, there were three good Stoic emotions: joy (which includes pleasure in one’s own good state of being, mirth, and cheerfulness); caution (which includes modesty and reverence); and wishing (which includes benevolence, friendliness, and rationally judging certain things preferable to others). Once all attachment to what is beyond our control is surrendered, we are free to live both joyful and useful lives.
A Buddhist might object that nothing is under our control. Isn’t everything not-self? The Buddha asserted, however, that there is a faculty of choice that human beings possess and can be cultivated. What would the proper focus of our choices be? To follow the path. The development of the path in Buddhism equates to “what is up to us” in Stoicism, and we can plausibly imagine the Buddha agreeing that one should not desire anything other than the path. Though the Buddha famously opposed tanha (craving) he named chanda (desire, or aspiration, here directed at the path of practice) as a factor of the path itself. While desire for the impermanent and uncontrollable is a source of suffering, for the Buddha desire for the path is kosher. This makes him sound very close to Epictetus indeed.
One difference may stand out here, though: for Stoics, the goal of happiness comes from joy in the development of the path itself, while for classical Buddhism the path leads to a transcendent happiness—nirvana, or buddhahood—that practice reveals. The Buddha was clear, in his famous simile of the raft, that one who has attained the goal has no more need of the path.
That is not the only difference, of course. While some Stoic mind training disciplines are similar to Buddhist ones, Buddhists possess a rich tapestry of mind training tools that are not found in Stoicism (and the reverse may also be true).
But once we recognize the similarities between Stoic and Buddhist concerns and approaches the door to dialogue is open. “I think that Buddhists and Stoics can learn techniques and insights from each other,” Stoic teacher Donald Robertson told Tricycle. “Many people who have studied Buddhist meditation become interested in Stoicism, and they often try to integrate aspects of the two approaches.”
As the Roman Stoic Seneca wrote, explaining why he quoted Epicurus, the founder of a rival philosophical school, “I make a practice of going over to the other camp, as a spy, not a deserter!” To that end, let me leave you with a gift from Marcus Aurelius which offers both comfort and a spur to practice in our troubled times: “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”