I have always been attracted to the Buddhism. Although I don’t necessarily believe that we are part of a cycle of rebirth, I do believe that attachment leads to suffering, and I believe that the Noble Eightfold Path (chose carefully your words, your actions, your livelihood, etc) is a pretty good and worthwhile approach to living.
But I have never been comfortable with the Buddhist ideal that involves detachment from the world; that the most dedicated adherent (the monastic) doesn’t marry, raise children, or participate in civic or commercial life; that what we seek is liberation or nirvana – literally “blown out”, as in a candle – from our attachments.
I have also long been attracted to Stoicism, after reading The Art of Living by Sharon Lebell in college. I think Stoicism gets a bad rap. Probably because the word stoic – enduring pain and hardship without showing one’s feelings or complaining – looks at a Stoicism from the outside and assumes that people who practice it are long-suffering. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Lebell’s small book taught me that there are things under my control (my thoughts and actions), and things not under my control (the thoughts and actions of others, my health, my reputation), and that I have the power to alter my perspective on things not under my control. If I practise this, I will experience less pain and hardship – not supress them.
I never realize what a significant impact that book had on my life until I recently picked up A Guide to the Good Life, by William B. Irvine. Dr Irvine presents a brief history of Stoicism and explains the various Stoic psychological practices – and I identified with almost all of them.
For example, Negative Visualization is the practice of regularly stopping and reflecting upon the potential loss of things you value; imagining that you have lost your job, or your health, or your child. Not worrying about these things, but imagining that these could happen in ways beyond your control, and that ultimately you would be okay.
I do this regularly. Not usually about large things like the loss of a child – but about many things in small ways. I regularly imagine not being able to afford a car, and having to bike or take public transit. It would be a hinderance – I’d have less time with my kids before they have to go to bed, for instance – but we’d survive. Or I imagine losing my ability to type – I wouldn’t be able to program, but I’d probably still find some way to be of value to my employer (maybe as a full-time tech interviewer, or a technology trainer). This practise helped me recently when I broke my middle finger quite badly by jamming it. I looked at my crooked finger and imagined the worst – amputation – and realized I could be ok with it. Lots of people used to lose fingers in accidents. I’d be ok with 90% of my fingers, and this is not under my control. This allowed me to view any outcome as ok, and approach the whole thing lightly. It turned out I needed surgery, two pins, months of unpleasant therapy to get my working finger back. But it didn’t take an ounce of joy away from my life.
The other practices he mentions are:
- Don’t concern yourself with things that are out of your control.
- Don’t reflect on the past and ask ‘what if’.
- Practise self-denial. (I’m not particularly experienced with this one)
- Reflect upon the way you are living and behaving.
Dr Irvine also covers Stoic advice on how to handle various life situations such as social relations, insults, grief, fame, luxury, illness and death. I particularly liked that he attempted to bring Stoicism into a modern context and how he shared examples from his own life and practice.
I was particularly delighted that Dr Irvine connected stoicism with Buddhism. I have always thought there were important parallels. Buddhism and Stoicism both focus on the impermanence of everything, and the reality of the present moment. They both draw attention to the internal causes of our discomfort (our attachments) and both work to insert a gap between a stimulus (such as an illness or insult) and our response. Both are extremely empowering and should lead to more tranquility.
At various points in my life I have thought that I am a failing, inadequate Buddhist. Now I realize I am probably more of a failing, inadequate Stoic.