Stoicism and Buddhism are both a few thousand years old and I write about them a fair amount because both have core elements that have been validated by modern science.
And something I find even more interesting is that they also have a lot in common with each other. Originating on different continents, they’re like the “brother from another mother” or “sister from another mister” of psychology.
When I see systems that have persisted for millenia, are backed by research, and have a lot in common, well, me gets reaaaaal curious about insights that should probably not be ignored. Let’s call’em “Stoboo”, shall we?
Life isn’t the problem. Your interpretations are
Your flight is late and you have to sit around the airport, bored. And that makes you angry. Or …
Your flight is late and you get to sit down and rest for a minute instead of shuffling onto a crowded plane. And that makes you happy.
Guess what? Flight being late isn’t the issue. What made you angry or happy was your interpretation of what that neutral event means.
Both Stoicism and Buddhism feel that the world is what it is. We get all riled up because of how we interpret those events. And, if we choose, we can change those interpretations and change our feelings.
“He was sent to prison. But the observation ‘he has suffered evil,’ is an addition coming from you.” — Epictetus, Discourses, 3.8.5b– 6a
And Buddha said:
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.
Science backs them to the hilt. This concept is the crux of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (which originated with Stoicism) and mindfulness (which originated in Buddhism.) And they’re two of the most validated and utilized therapeutic techniques out there.
So how do we put this idea to use? Next time you get angry or frustrated, don’t focus on your circumstances. Ask yourself what belief about the circumstances you are clinging to. And think about how that might be incorrect or not useful.
How many times has a bad thing turned out to be a good thing once you had more information or saw the eventual result? Exactly.
Problem is, you make these interpretations really fast. So they can be hard to correct. Don’t worry. The Stoboo boys thought about that a long time ago…
Kids instantly shriek with joy when something “good” happens and two seconds later they’re shrieking with grief when something “bad” happens. And they can go back and forth all day long. (When adults do this they probably need medication and you should definitely stop dating them.)
What do the people we hold up as icons do? Well, James Bond doesn’t hop up and down when he beats Blofeld and he doesn’t cry for his mom when henchmen shoot at him. He’s not emotionless — he’s in control of his emotions. Plain and simple: he’s less reactive to his external circumstances. The events around him do not dictate his behavior. He decides how he will respond.
When you’re reactive, you give up free will. Environment says this; you behave like that. You’re impulsive and impulsive rarely has a positive connotation; it’s pretty much synonymous with bad decisions.
Neither Stoicism or Buddhism are fans of impulsive emotional reactions (and your parole officer won’t be either if you give in to them).
So when something happens and triggers a strong emotional response, Stoboo says step back. Take a deep breath and let your thinky-brain decide if throwing your laptop against the wall is the best way to cope with slow internet speeds.
From The Daily Stoic:
“First off, don’t let the force of the impression carry you away. Say to it, ‘hold up a bit and let me see who you are and where you are from— let me put you to the test’ . . .” — Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18.24
From Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening:
As we’re about to act, or when thoughts or emotions are predominant, do we remember to investigate and reflect on our motivation? Do we ask ourselves, “Is this act or mind state skillful or unskillful? Is this something to cultivate or abandon? Where is this motivation leading? Do I want to go there?”
Science agrees. The term “cognitive fusion” is used to describe when we’re overwhelmed — possessed, even — by our feelings and can’t see the bigger picture. We make better decisions when we see thoughts and feelings as just that: thoughts and feelings. They are not “you” and you don’t have to act on them.
So what should we do? Well, Bruce Banner, when you feel those strong emotions well up, followed by a desire to do something extreme — pause. The stronger the emotions and the more urgent the desire to act, the more skeptical you should be and the more you want to hit the brakes.
At first, just give yourself a count of five. You want to extend your ability to feel the feelings without acting on them, fighting them or denying them. They will dissipate. It never seems like they will in the moment (and that’s why feelings are so powerful) but they will dissipate.
Ever been really angry but then something makes you laugh and the anger just seems to vanish? We don’t need something external to snap us out of negative emotional states. With practice, you can get better at doing it on your own.
But sometimes so many problems pile on us that constantly stepping back isn’t an option. What perspective shift do we need to make for all the things in life outside of our control so that we don’t end up in a near-constant state of paralysis?
The Stoics were control freaks…. but not in the way we usually use that term. They were very serious about control, yes, but serious meaning that 99% of the time you don’t have any. And you better get used to it.
You can’t even control your body some of the time. (Tell that headache to “just stop” and let me know well how that works.) All you can truly control is your deliberate thoughts. And if you refuse to accept this you’re gonna spend a lot of time shaking your fist at the world.
From The Daily Stoic:
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” —Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4– 5
And Buddhism is big on “not clinging.” When you cling to your desires and expectations — even after life crosses its arms and says, “Nope” — you suffer. We must accept that life is not always going to give us what we want. When we give up trying to control things we can’t, we feel better.
From A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy about something if it cannot be remedied?
And science is on board with this. You don’t hear too many therapists recommending denial as a coping skill. Emotional acceptance of difficult life issues is one of the primary goals of psychotherapy.
So how do we get started? Acceptance doesn’t mean passivity. It just means not being in denial that we cannot 100% control the majority of outcomes in life.
Accept there will be challenges. When your opponent gets the advantage in a game you don’t waste time shouting, “That should not have happened!” They do their thing and you respond, doing the best you can to improve your situation.
While most people are probably in agreement that the above all makes good sense, there is a totally legitimate objection I acknowledge: doing these things consistently sounds really really hard.
Like “now I know why Buddhist monks live in a monastery far away from all the grief I deal with daily” level-of-hard. Yes, changing interpretations, stepping back and accepting difficulties every day seems like the mental equivalent of running a marathon.
But people can run marathons. And they do. But they don’t do it without preparation …
The mind requires training
They really shouldn’t let people drive a brain around without a license. It’s the most complex thing in the universe and we have no idea how to use it. On an emotional level it’s like giving a nuke to a five-year old.
You know you should go to the gym for your body but for the brain we just have school, and all that does is give you information, not true mental discipline and emotional development.
You wouldn’t read a martial arts book and think you were ready for the UFC. Learning is one thing, training is another. And Stoboo says the brain must be trained or you void the warranty.
From The Daily Stoic:
“In this way you must understand how laughable it is to say, ‘Tell me what to do!’ What advice could I possibly give? No, a far better request is, ‘Train my mind to adapt to any circumstance.’ …In this way, if circumstances take you off script… you won’t be desperate for a new prompting.” —Epictetus, Discourses, 2.2.20b– 1; 24b– 25a
And Buddha said:
The mind, hard to control, flighty, alighting where it wishes, one does well to tame. The well-trained mind brings happiness.
And science has been rushing to play catch up by adopting these practices that have been around for millennia. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the single most proven psychological modality in practice today. And many proven treatments have been developed from Buddhist mindfulness.
So what should we do? Might as well stick to the classics. You can learn to meditate here. And you can learn a number of Stoic exercises here. Get your brain to go jogging daily before you take on the mental marathon of life.
So far we’ve taken a pretty cerebral approach to all this. But isn’t so much of life about feelings? Nothing more than feelings, Barbra…?
Feeling is the only way through
We hear echoes of this all the time in expressions like “face your fears” or “don’t bottle up your emotions.” And we need those reminders because feelings can hurt. A lot.
Somebody you care deeply about tosses your heart in a wood chipper and the last thing you want to do is spend time dwelling in a torture chamber of your negative emotions. You want to avoid them, suppress them, or switch them off altogether.
But you can’t. You’re human. (Sorry.) Those feelings may bubble up as anxiety disorders or PTSD but they won’t just go away. So we need to listen to… the Stoics?
Huh? Aren’t those the Spock guys who have no emotions — hence the adjective “stoic”?
Wrong. Here’s bestselling author Ryan Holiday:
The Stoics are stereotyped as suppressing their emotions, but their philosophy was actually intended to teach us to face, process, and deal with emotions immediately instead of running from them. Tempting as it is to deceive yourself or hide from a powerful emotion like grief— by telling yourself and other people that you’re fine— awareness and understanding are better. Distraction might be pleasant in the short term— by going to gladiatorial games, as a Roman might have done, for example. Focusing is better in the long term. That means facing it now. Process and parse what you are feeling. Remove your expectations, your entitlements, your sense of having been wronged. Find the positive in the situation, but also sit with your pain and accept it, remembering that it is a part of life. That’s how one conquers grief.
And engagement with your experience, emotions and all, without judging it, is the heart of Buddhist mindfulness.
From The Craving Mind:
(Mindfulness is) “The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” As Stephen Batchelor recently wrote, this definition points toward a “human capability” of “learning how to stabilize attention and dwell in a lucid space of non-reactive awareness.”
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy conquers phobias with “exposure therapy” — slowly and incrementally facing your fears. It originated with Stoicism’s “premeditatio malorum” which is basically exposure therapy without the exposure.
And that’s a technique we can easily use. You imagine the worst possible scenario, feeling it as realistically as possible, and, with time, find that its power over you shrinks and shrinks. When we step back from our feelings, make room for them on the couch next to us, and accept them, they start to go from being terrifying monsters to smartphone notifications we can choose to check or let go.
Still with me? Or is your mind off wandering around? That question is absolutely vital to your happiness as a Stoboo padawan …
Focus on the present
Designating time to plan for the future is essential, as is reflecting on and learning from the past. But walking around obsessed with yesterday leads to regret and a constant focus on the future breeds anxiety.
We are happiest and most effective when our minds cease to be time travelers and stay focused on the here and now.
From The Daily Stoic:
“Don’t let your reflection on the whole sweep of life crush you. Don’t fill your mind with all the bad things that might still happen. Stay focused on the present situation and ask yourself why it’s so unbearable and can’t be survived.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.36
… in our lives, how often are we living in anticipation of what comes next, as if that will finally bring us to some sort of completion or fulfillment?
People spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy… “Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”
So what should we do? Catch yourself in the act. This is your new game to play. Check in with yourself. “Is my attention focused on the here and now? Or is my mind wandering to the past or future?”
Mindfulness is meditation writ large. In meditation, you focus on your breath, your attention wanders, and you return your attention to the breath. Over and over. And in living a mindful life, you’re focused on the present, your mind wanders, and you return it to the present. Over and over.
And eventually this will happen without effort. And you’ll be happier.
Okay, all of this is very internal. What attitude should we, as newly ordained Monks of the Stoboo Order, take toward those around us?
People are ridiculous. Love them anyway
If you’re accepting what comes, altering your interpretations, training your mind … other people might start to seem like a pack of insane monkeys, acting impulsively on every whim and complaining endlessly. So should you just regard them as poo-flinging lesser primates?
No. You’re not perfect. They’re not perfect. Be patient. Be compassionate. Don’t judge. Help.
From The Daily Stoic:
“When you first rise in the morning tell yourself: I will encounter busybodies, ingrates, egomaniacs, liars, the jealous and cranks. They are all stricken with these afflictions because they don’t know the difference between good and evil. Because I have understood the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil, I know that these wrong-doers are still akin to me . . . and that none can do me harm, or implicate me in ugliness— nor can I be angry at my relatives or hate them. For we are made for cooperation.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.1
And Buddhism once again gives Stoicism a high-five.
From Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening:
The more we understand our own minds, the more we understand everyone else. We increasingly feel the commonality of our human condition, of what creates suffering and how we can be free. Our practice also benefits others through the transformation of how we are in the world. If we’re more accepting, more peaceful, less judgmental, less selfish, then the whole world is that much more loving and peaceful, that much less judgmental and selfish. Our mind-body is a vibrating, resonating energy system. Of necessity, how we are affects everyone around us. On a boat in the middle of a great storm, one wise, calm person can bring everyone to safety. The world is like that boat, tossed by the storms of greed and hatred and fear. Can we be one of those people who help to keep it safe?
As for science, this one is a slam dunk. Outside of your genetics, relationships are #1 when it comes to happiness-makers.
My empirical study of well-being among 1,600 Harvard undergraduates found a similar result—social support was a far greater predictor of happiness than any other factor, more than GPA, family income, SAT scores, age, gender, or race.
So how do we boost our empathy and compassion and improve our relationships? Stoboo to the rescue …
The great Stoic Hierocles said to treat everyone as family and you will come to see them as such. And, similarly, what attitude does the Dalai Lama take when dealing with others?
“Trying to treat whoever he meets as an old friend.”
Okay, we’ve covered a few thousand years worth of material. Let’s round it all up and learn one extra ritual the two titans of philosophy agree on that can make you — and others — very happy…
Here’s how Stoboo can make you happy:
- Life isn’t the problem. Your interpretations are: You might think:“This post is long. It sucks that I have to read all this.” Or: “This post is long. So much to look forward to!” Post is the same. Your interpretation created those feelings.
- Step back: “Be more impulsive” isn’t advice you hear a lot.
- Accept: Nor do you hear “you should live in denial.”
- The mind requires training: Yes, that means work. We know being impulsive and denying reality aren’t good but we do them anyway. Bad habits are hard to break. Meditate on that. Literally.
- Feeling is the only way through: You’ll never eliminate your personal basket of neuroses — but you don’t have to act on them either. Make room for them on the couch, feel them, and they will dissipate.
- Focus on the present: Regret might be back there. Anxiety might be up ahead. But what is really bothering you right now? So spend more time in the now.
- People are ridiculous. Love them anyway: The only people who are perfect and always make sense are people you don’t know very well. We all take our turn as the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. Treat people as old friends and often they will become just that.
So what’s the final step on The Great Way of the Stoboo? Gratitude.
Gratitude toward others and gratitude for this life with all its ups and downs. Because the ups and downs are your interpretations, remember? So accept it all, love it all, be grateful for it all.
From The Daily Stoic:
“It is easy to praise providence for anything that may happen if you have two qualities: a complete view of what has actually happened in each instance and a sense of gratitude. Without gratitude what is the point of seeing, and without seeing what is the object of gratitude?” —Epictetus, Discourses, 1.6.1– 2
The Buddha called gratitude one of the most beautiful and rare qualities in the world.
You might choose to read all the research papers on the epic happiness-promoting effects of gratitude and you might choose not to, but for god’s sake don’t drop them on your foot. They are legion.
So let us begin our journey on The Enlightened Stoboo Path. What’s the best way to get started?
Show some gratitude. Send this post to someone who has done you right and thank them. You’ll feel good, they’ll feel good.
You’re not changing religions. You’re not joining a cult. You’re just taking some science-backed advice that has worked for thousands of years.
No togas or saffron robes necessary.
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