Meditation: Buddhist vs Stoic style?

meditation_sunThis recent article by Elen Buzaré over at Stoicism Today purports to be about Stoic meditation, but I honestly don’t recognize it as having much to do with Stoicism. It seems very much Buddhist instead. Thoughts?

“Ancient Hellenistic philosophers had introduced a very interesting theory about nature inner levels (scala naturae in latin) and divided the universe into four levels: hexis (stones), phusis (flowers, plants trees), psuchê (animals) and finally nous (a characteristic belonging only to human beings). However, human beings, the most complex creation of nature, are composed of all these four levels.

As individuals immerged day after days in contemporary buzzing industrial societies, we have often lost contact with the nature’s natural elements, which go together to form our microcosm. This may lead to all sorts of discomforts, emotional disturbances and sicknesses. The individual feels unwelcome, estranged from the world. That is why this askesis, according to the ancients, has as its first task, entering into contemplation and praise the entire universe.”

8 thoughts on “Meditation: Buddhist vs Stoic style?

  1. In its focus on the breath and on elements of immediate experience it recalls Buddhist meditation methods outlined in detail in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 10), the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 22), and the Ānāpānasati Sutta (MN 118). But reference to the ‘sphairos’ at the end does not recall Buddhist concepts, so far as I know. At least none from the Nikāyas. I’m not sure about the concept of ‘daimon’; it may be similar to the notion of ‘saṅkhāra’ or mental volitions.


  2. I always thought Stoicism differed from Buddhism in one prominent way: The emphasis on reason as opposed to ‘quieting of the mind’. A Stoic meditation is more of a contemplative/reflective practice IMO.


  3. I think that’s right, despite a number of similarities, there are crucial differences between Stoic and Buddhist meditation, which is why I find the first one to be much more congenial to my way of thinking and being than the latter.


  4. While (given the little I know about their meditative practices) I would assume that it’s right to say Stoic meditation is more contemplative and reflective than Buddhist, in general claiming that Buddhist meditation is after quieting rather than contemplation is simply incorrect.

    Firstly in Buddhism there are several different meditative practices. “Samādhi” or “concentration” is the one that is used to quiet and focus the mind. In particular, it is used to reduce internal chatter so that one can attend more objectively to the features of experience. However samādhi is only one meditative practice. In the Eightfold Path it is joined by “sammā sati” or “right mindfulness” which is, at least in part, contemplative and reflective. I cannot in a short paragraph outline this in much detail, but suffice to say that the point of mindfulness is to become more immediately aware of the changeable and problematic nature of reality in all its detail. The three suttas I mentioned above provide different practical strategies for doing this, in many different meditative practices all of which fall under the rubric “mindfulness”. For example, they include the contemplation of the parts of the body, contemplation of the elements that make up physical reality, and contemplation of the decay of the body after death.

    Further, one of the “factors of awakening” key to this meditative process is “dhamma vicaya” or “investigation of states”: this is explicitly contemplative or reflective. One contemplates or reflects upon wholesome and unwholesome intention, correct and incorrect, and the changeable, unsatisfactory, and selfless features of reality, in one’s meditative experience. One also makes awareness of “dhamma vicaya” part of one’s contemplation within the practice of mindfulness itself.

    There are other meditative practices such as the Brahmavihāras of loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity that may be seen as either forms of concentration or forms of contemplation and reflection, depending upon how one practices.


  5. Sounds interesting, someone should come up with a taxonomy of Buddhist meditative practice for easy access. Do you know of anything like that?


  6. Good question, I don’t, apart from the Wiki page, which is OK, and of course includes copious links.

    One thing the Wiki appears to leave out is that “right effort” (sammā vāyāma) is also considered part of meditative practice (it is included in the meditation triad of the Eightfold Path): this is the ongoing effort to cultivate the wholesome or skillful in oneself, and to prevent the unwholesome or unskillful.

    Meditation is a key part of Buddhist practice, and as such has gotten an enormous amount of attention and elaboration over its 2500 years. So I would suspect that any quick taxonomy would be insufficient. In my posts I have focused exclusively on the Pāli material, both because I believe it to be the most down-to-earth (occasional supernatural excrescences aside), and because doing otherwise would complicate things needlessly.

    Interestingly, there isn’t really a word for “meditation” in Pāli or Sanskrit. There are just various practices going under the rubric “bhāvanā”, which means something like “cultivation”. One can do these forms of “cultivation” either while sitting still, or one can do them in daily life. The reason for preferring the former is that it lends itself to better calm and focus, however that is not required. Mindfulness in one’s daily routine is explicitly mentioned as a form of meditation in these suttas.


  7. I think it’s quite stoic but mixed in with various Buddhist methods. Some of the text appears to draw heavily on a meditation described in Marcus Aurelius 12.3 (which includes the sphairos/sphere image; the sphere is also mentioned in 8.41 and 11.12). 12.3 involves the mind turning inwards, detaching itself from externals (including the past and future), and thereby attaining freedom (recalling Epictetus’ unhindered governing principle). The image of the mind as a glass of water is also from Epictetues (3.3).


  8. I’ve found that Vipisanna and various other ‘mindfulness’ meditation exercises have aided my Stoic practice and made me increasingly sceptical of Buddhism and Buddhist boosters like Sam Harris who like to speak of the ‘myth of the self’.

    These practices that I use are techniques that are not reliant on Buddhist metaphysics or even more advanced details of Buddhist psychological theory, so it’s hard to argue that they are ‘not stoic’.

    By using these practices I have – at least with regard to my subjective experience – have developed a far more firm identification of what is ‘the God within’ or ‘directing mind’ as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations often calls it, or the Daemon, and what is the passions, impressions, and impulses that assail it. This obviously helps me deal with these sensations.

    They helped me to better control my attention and responses to impulses by building the skill of identifying impulses and passions from a more 3rd person perspective. I found that simple journaling and other more active contemplative exercises were great at helping me to define ‘the right way to think’, great post-hoc ‘lessons learned’, and did provide perspective but left me with less skill and ability to curtail the forces that led to the original mistake. It is one thing to ‘realize’ intellectually that we should live in the present, it is another to establish the habits of mind and mental disciplines to actually do that. I know I shouldn’t eat so much tasty fried food and I can ruminate on it all day, but I still need to have the techniques and alternatives available to act on that wisdom. For instance, learning to cook. ‘Buddhist’ derived meditation practice, for me, is learning how to cook rather than eat take out. Stoicism is the practice of learning what to eat and what not to eat.

    So, I am of the view that a number of meditative practices and techniques would have almost certainly have been practices by Stoics in the contemporary era if the philosophies practiced history hadnt been interrupted, and we don’t even know that they didn’t. Sometimes, when I read Marcus Aurelius or Seneca they describe perspectives and perseptions that seems so close to my meditation practice I have trouble believing that they didn’t.

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