In part 1 of this series, I looked at the current body of research into the effects of mindfulness based meditation.
Contrary to what you might have been led to believe by the many glowing press reports, there’s actually very little quality evidence to confirm any benefits, and also some pretty serious potential adverse effects!
Based on these findings, the question is, will I be continuing my daily meditation practice?
Surely, all these experts can’t be wrong?
Meditation is practiced and recommended by many famous and successful people. Surely they can’t all be wrong?
Well, yes, they probably could. In fact, more often than not, celebrity endorsement is a warning sign for pseudoscience Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop being prime examples!
But it’s not just flaky Hollywood celebs proselytising about meditation, lots of seriously successful, productive, high performing business types swear by meditation. A significant majority of the high achievers interviewed in Tools of Titans for example, cite regular meditation practice as an essential part of their daily routine.
Again, however, media moguls, business tycoons and silicon valley super achievers are not immune from confirmation bias and self-deception. Just as many high level athletes swear by training routines, therapies and supplements which have no basis in reality, it could be that the high flyers would have flown equally close to the sun had they swapped the meditation for a box set of blue planet.
Could they also have been “duped” into believing that meditation “works”?
Well, I suppose that all depends upon what you mean by works.
Investing in the Future
It was part homage, as the blog was inspirational in my relatively early days within the world of health, fitness and wellbeing, but also part criticism/comment.
This concept of “Pay Now, Live Later” is pretty much integral to the diet/fitness/health/longevity industries.
We are told to invest in our health now, in order to reap the benefits later in life.
These investments could be:
Paying for a gym membership, higher prices for organic veg, supplements, the latest fitness tracking software and hardware, etc.
Arguably our most precious resource. We spend more time in the kitchen cooking, and in the gym working out, time reading books and blogs keeping up with the latest research/fads, all with the hope of getting this time back later in the form of an extended healthspan.
There are also more intangible costs. Perhaps we forgo bacon and ice-cream, force ourselves to drink kale and wheatgrass smoothies, go to Pilates instead of the Pub.
Invest now, and reap an increased life-span/health-span, reduced risk of disease, better physical and mental health, etc.
Sounds perfectly reasonable, and in many respects it is.
Just as with finance, however, not all investments in health and well-being are created equal, and should probably come with the same kind of warnings that results are not guaranteed, and losses can be incurred!
There are some pretty sure and steady investments such as eating lots of vegetables, and staying active. These are like index funds. Not very sexy, but very likely to pay reasonable dividends in the future.
There are also plenty of Ponzi schemes out there, total pseudoscience with a hefty price tag; expensive, time-consuming, unpleasant, or sometimes all three…
Where things get more complex, is with promising new ideas – diets, supplements, therapies, training routines – that sound like they have amazing potential, but are too new, or insufficiently studied, for anyone to know for sure whether they’ll really work. These are like IPOs of the fitness world.
It’s easy to kick yourself for not having put all your savings into Facebook, Uber and/or Bitcoin when they first came on to the market. But you could just have easily dumped all your assets into Beepi or Quixey and lost everything. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.
Meditation, though it has been around for thousands of years, for me falls into the IPO category, because we still don’t have hard data on its long-term effects. There are indicators that it could be a worthwhile investment of time and effort, but with no concrete guarantees, could those minutes and hours spent meditating be put to better use elsewhere?
Invest in the Present
While it may be true that the long-term effects and benefits of meditation on health and wellbeing have not yet been validated by rigorous scientific study, and that this information would certainly be very useful to have, this does not mean that we have to discount the subjective experiences of its practitioners.
Take for example the two statements relating to taking an ice bath:
- Regular ice baths can increase your lifespan and bolster your immune system
- Taking an ice bath is an invigorating and exhilarating experience that I enjoy
The first claim needs to be backed up by high quality scientific data. If it’s not, take it with a pinch of salt, and don’t let it influence your behaviour.
The second claim however is subjective, and there’s no real reason to doubt its validity. Perhaps you’ll feel the same, perhaps you won’t. No amount of scientific testing will answer that question for you, the only way to know for sure is to try it yourself.
Perhaps a more analogous comparison than ice baths, would be that of LSD.
Just as with meditation, there are a growing number of advocates claiming that psychedelics could be a potentially effective treatment for a range of conditions, from depression and anxiety to addiction and PTSD.
Again, just as with meditation however, the “science” is still in its infancy. Small, short-term studies, with methodological flaws and obvious problems when it comes to blinding.
It’s too early to say whether LSD or psychobilin could or should be used in the treatment of patients with a clinical diagnosis.
This doesn’t mean however, that psychedelics “don’t work”.
Not convinced? Drop a couple of tabs of acid and come back to me in 12 hours…
The reason I think that there are so many passionate advocates for meditation, including numerous highly intelligent and educated skeptics, is that although we might not yet know the long-term clinical effects, as with LSD, you can experience significant and powerful changes to your perception and subjective experience in the here and now.
Let’s go back to the exercise analogy again. Exercise (or perhaps regular activity or training) gives various different returns on your investment of time and effort, and different stages:
If you’re lucky and don’t get mown down by a car or vaporised in the imminent robot uprising it should hopefully pay out in the long-term in the form of an increased healthspan – more years on the planet with a healthy, functional, independent mind and body.
In the mid-long term, it will pay out in the form of fuller life. With a healthy body you can do more – climb mountains, kayak rivers, cycle across countries and continents, play sports, the possibilities are endless.
In the short to mid-term, you can achieve goals such as changing your body composition, completing a marathon, learning to backflip, or whatever gets you motivated.
Even before reaching any of these goals, however, switching from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one can bring about radical changes in your wellbeing in a matter of weeks or even days. People feel invigorated, less stressed, happier and more confident, long before reaching their first specified goals.
So what’s all this got to with meditation you ask? Get back to the topic!
There are indications that meditation could pay out dividends in stages over your lifetime, in a very similar way to which regular exercise does.
Just as long-term exercises have fitter, stronger and more agile bodies, long-term meditators have fitter, stronger and more agile minds. As covered in part 1, unfortunately it’s too early to say for sure that this effect is causative, or an artifact of survivorship bias.
Luckily, however, we don’t have to hinge all our hopes on possible benefits in the distant future, as just as with exercise and activity, you can start reaping benefits from meditation and mindfulness straight away!
Before I get into the how and why, however, a quick warning:
This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease…
The above is a compulsory message found on the labels of products classed as supplements.
Perhaps it could just as well be applied to meditation?
The majority of the meditation techniques that have become popular today in the West, originally come from the Buddhism.
They were not intended as standalone tools, to be used as curative therapies in individuals with pathologies, as they are often packaged and sold today.
To use the exercise analogy again, regular physical activity is strongly advised for normal healthy individuals, and can help bolster and prolong one’s healthspan. It can’t however cure diseases such as cancer or tuberculosis.
Meditation was intended to be used in conjunction with the study and practice of Buddhist philosophy to alleviate the “suffering” or “dissatisfaction” that is an all too common feature of the human condition.
I’ll come back to Buddhist philosophy in more detail later, but in short, meditation was used as a tool of introspection, intended to help the practitioner to have a clearer perception of reality.
There are many people, myself included, who have found meditation and interesting and useful experience and practice in the short-term, and who don’t perceive the required investment of time and effort dedicated to its practice to reap these benefits, and potentially even more later down the road, as excessive.
It’s important to recall from part 1 however, that we also don’t know for sure the risks of potential adverse effects that could be suffered from its practice.
If you’re suffering from major clinical depression, severe anxiety, PTSD or any other such condition, it’s crucial that you work closely with a medical profession, and approach any kind of contemplative practice with a great deal of caution.
Exercise is great for most people, but if you have angina, high blood pressure, or severe asthma, for example, too much intensity could prove disastrous! Perhaps meditation could be the same?
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Before we go any further, it’s probably about time to try to define what is meant by mindfulness meditation.
It was noted in the research reviews, that the practice of meditation was not clearly defined, and that there were numerous different techniques, with different focuses.
While it’s certainly true that there are many different types of meditation technique, I think the “lack of definition”, is possibly more to do with the authors’ lack of expertise and understanding of the field.
Mindfulness Meditation is one subset of the wider category of Meditation, which comes from the Vipassana tradition of Buddhism, which roughly translates as insight meditation.
Mindfulness – Carefully focusing the attention on a chosen subject in your present moment sensory experience, in a non judgemental manner
One can do anything mindfully.
Eating mindfully for example, would be sitting down to eat, without distractions, and concentrating fully on every mouthful, trying to zoom in on every flavour and texture without making value judgements, holding expectations, or thinking about what you’re going to be eating for dessert before you’ve finished the starter.
Running mindfully would involve focusing on being totally in the moment while out on the trails. Highly aware of your stride pattern, how you’re holding your posture, how your feet are striking the floor, what your arms are doing, how you are breathing, how your muscles feel, the terrain underfoot, the scenery around you. Not worrying about how fast you are going, whether you’ll achieve a new PB, what’s happening at work tomorrow, or anything else that isn’t in the present moment sensory experience.
Mindfulness Meditation typically involves sitting or lying down comfortably, and attempting to focus on the sensations of the body in a non-judgementalmanner.
The most common way to begin is by attempting to focus on the breath. Observing the sensations in the nose and or belly as you inhale and exhale. The attention can be focused anywhere however – sensations in the body, on the skin, sounds, sights, the contents of your consciousness i.e. thoughts, feeling and emotions.
What Mindfulness Meditation is NOT
Anecdotally, it appears that many people miss the point when it comes to meditation. This is not surprising as it is quite counter-intuitive, and not at all easy to do.
Perhaps the two most common errors are:
- Sitting with your eyes closed (lost) deep in thought
- Sitting with your eyes closed trying not to think
No wonder it’s easy to get confused! You’re not supposed to be sat down thinking about things, but you’re not supposed to try to not think about things either, because it’s basically impossible! So how’s that supposed to work?
Thoughts Think Themselves
You sit down, make yourself comfortable, close your eyes, and begin to focus on your breath.
Next thing you know, you realise you’ve been thinking about that project due in at work tomorrow for the last 5 minutes, how did that happen!
“OK, back to the breath. Hmm, wonder what to have for lunch today? Did I remember to buy tomatoes. Did I have plans this evening? Hang on, I’m supposed to be meditating damn it!”
If you’ve tried meditation, that type of scenario probably sounds vaguely familiar.
It’s hardly the kind of transcendental epiphany where the boundaries of the self spontaneously dissolve and you are unified with the universe in a psychedelic swirl of bliss, as you may have read about on the internet.
But I personally think that this more mundane experience can be very useful, particularly when put into the context of Buddhist and/or Stoic Philosophy.
Philosophy, Contemplation and Meditation
To me, mindfulness meditation is only really useful in the context of a philosophical underpinning.
Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. It’s possible, that just by meditating alone without instruction, you may at some point spontaneously arrive to the same philosophical conclusions as the Buddha. But why not make life easier by having a roadmap before you start, and therefore know what to look out for during your journeys of introspection.
For this reason, I’m about to go into a big discussion about Buddhist and Stoic philosophy – please bear with me, it will circle back to the topic of meditation!
I got interested in Buddhist philosophy long before I started meditating. Well, some elements.
Needless to say, it is a secular form of Buddhism that interests me. I don’t believe in literal reincarnation, nor many other of the fantastical mystical aspects. The core teachings of the Buddha himself (or at least attributed to him), appear to make a lot of sense, both in terms of evolutionary psychology and in terms of practical application.
As of late, I’ve been reading more and more on the topic of Stoicism. I first stumbled across Stoicism thanks to the free pdf put out by Tim Ferris: The Tao of Seneca. Personally, I really like the writings of Epictetus. They are so clear, concise and to the point.
Stoicism has many parallels with Buddhism, which I shall get into shortly, but has less of the religious trappings and mysticism that typically come with Buddhism. There’s no need to clarify, for example, that you’re a secular Stoic. (Though of course there are plenty of references to “The Gods” in the writings of the ancient Stoics, one has to bear in mind they were writing thousands of years ago).
Indeed, I’d be much more inclined to refer someone to Stoic texts or quotes simply because they come with much less baggage, preconceptions and necessary qualifiers than Buddhism typically does.
I must make it clear, of course, that I would neither call myself a Stoic, nor a Buddhist. I believe there are very useful ideas in both philosophies, but it is always important to avoid dogmatism. Just because the philosophies have useful concepts, doesn’t mean that every idea espoused within should be adhered to religiously.
Where Philosophical Worlds Collide
I am by no means an expert in either Buddhism nor Stoicism. Far from it! I’ve read a few books, nothing more. This is my very rough guide to my interpretations of the two schools of thought. I’m sure I’m doing neither justice. Apologies to any actual Buddhist/Stoic scholars who might be reading.
The following are the key areas where I view that Buddhist and Stoic philosophies overlap, and which I find to be the most useful ideas:
Both philosophies teach that the source of our suffering/dissatisfaction/unhappiness/stress (depending upon how you want to translate or interpret the original texts) come from our distorted view of reality.
That is to say that it is the stories we tell ourselves about things and events which cause distress, not the external stimuli themselves.
Humans are different from any other creature on this planet (as far as we are aware) in that we are able to imagine different possible realities. This in turn helps us to make decisions which will hopefully lead to better lives for ourselves and future generations down the line, and is no doubt a large part of the reason that we have become the most successful species on the planet.
This ability can also, however, be a double-edged sword, as it gives us the ability to be able to imagine that things could be better than they are now! We tell ourselves “If only I’d done this, if only I’d gone there, if only that hadn’t happened – things would be so much better”. The truth is though, we can never really know what will happen, or what would have happened in the future, or if we’d truly be any happier now under different circumstances.
To illustrate this, there is a Zen parable that I love, called Good Luck, Bad Luck:
There is a farmer who lives in a small mountain village in rural China, who has just one horse, and an only son.
One day, his horse escapes, and runs away into the forest. When the other villagers hear of this, they come to offer their condolences to the farmer, saying “Oh, what bad luck!”. The farmer smiles gently, and simply replies, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”.
The following day, the horse returns to the farm, and along with it two more beautiful wild stallions. Upon hearing this, the villages come to congratulate the farmer, saying “Wow, what good luck you have had!”. The farmer again replies calmly “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”.
The next morning, while breaking in one of the wild stallions, the farmer’s only son is badly thrown from the horse, and his right leg is shattered. The doctor says it’s likely the son will have a severe limp for the rest of his life. “Oh, what bad luck!” say the villagers when they learn of the accident. Yet again, however, the farmer replies with equanimity “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”.
Later that week, an envoy from the Chinese army comes to the village. They are conscripting young men for a far away war, many of whom won’t ever be coming back. Because of the severe injury to the son’s leg, the army do not take him into their ranks, and he is the only young man from the village to escape the draft. “Oh what good luck!” say the villagers.
The farmer: “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”.
The point of the story, is that it is not events themselves that cause us stress and anger, but our perceptions of them.
Perhaps your flight to a beach paradise gets cancelled. It’d be easy to work yourself into a rage and/or depression, as you’d been looking forward to that holiday for ages. But that rage and depression aren’t going to change the situation. Plus, for all you know, perhaps the flight might have crashed, or you could have drowned in the sea, or maybe you’ll bump into the love of your life in the local green grocers this week as a consequence of staying at home.
Both Buddhism and Stoicism recognise that the world is random and chaotic, and for the most part totally out of our control.
Hoping or wishing that things were different, that the future will unfold in a certain way, or that past events had happened differently is not only futile, but is actually the main cause of suffering, particularly as our interpretation of events is likely delusional anyway!
Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well – Epictetus
The solution is to simply accept things as they are. You missed your flight? C’est la vie. Life goes on. There’s nothing you can do about it, getting worked up won’t help, and as we’ve already established, missing that flight might just have been the best thing that ever happened to you for all you know, so just accept it and get on with doing something useful!
With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed – Eptictetus
Nothing lasts forever. At some level, we all know this, but all too often we don’t act that way.
We are distraught when we lose or break something that we are attached to. When things are going badly, or we are in pain, we act like it’s the end of the world as we know it. We are shocked by the deaths of others, and live in fear of our own.
Drawing from the previous insights, we must learn to accept that life is characterised by impermanence and change, and that our fears of death and loss are delusional.
A friend of mine once recounted me his response to his young son when he told him he was afraid of dying. Very roughly paraphrased, he told his son that he wasn’t afraid of dying, as he’d already died many times. Can the people you were at 10 years old, 15, 25, 35 and so on, really be considered the same person? Every cell will have been renewed countless times, ideas, opinions and behaviours changed, all that remains are vague, unreliable memories. The 10 year old, 15, 25 and 35 no longer exist, so why worry about the passing of any future incarnations?
That story has always stuck with me as being a great way to look at things. I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting him next to Buddha, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius…
Impermanent are all component things,
They arise and cease, that is their nature:
They come into being and pass away,
Release from them is bliss supreme.
– Buddhist Saying
Mettā – typically translated as “Loving Kindness” is central to the philosophy of Buddhism, and was essential in the development of wholesome karma, which was believed necessary for “better rebirths”.
Let none deceive another nor despise any person whatever in any place;
in anger or ill-will let them not wish any suffering to each other.
Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life,
even so, let him cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings.
Let his thoughts of boundless loving-kindness pervade the whole world:
above, below and across, without obstruction, without any hatred, without any enmity.
This they say is divine abiding here.
He will surely not come again to any womb (rebirth in the sense-desire realm).
— Metta Sutta, Khp 8-9, Translated by Peter Harvey
The Stoics don’t have the same kind of rep for loving kindness as do Buddhists. One could argue that they practiced “tolerance” rather than empathy.
Regardless, however, the concepts of acceptance, non-judgement, and delusion apply just as much to other people, as they do to things and events.
When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from a supposition of its being his duty. Now, it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, “It seemed so to him.” – Epictetus
It’s very easy to get angry with other people because their words or actions feel like a personal attack. It is a delusion, however, to believe that we can ever know why a person acted as they did. Science is showing more and more that we don’t even know why we act the way we do ourselves, let alone other people! If we learn to appreciate that people and their behaviour are a product of their genes and their environment, over neither of which they have any control, it can help us to accept their actions with equanimity.
In Buddhism, we have “The Noble Eightfold Path” –
According to the Buddha, reaching Nirvana is not possible without a committment to living the most ethical and altruistic life you can.
The Stoics also viewed living a virtuous life as essential in order to achieve a state of Eudaimonia (a state of well-being, flourishing, or thriving). As one can’t control external events, or the actions of others, one should focus all your attention on living the most moral and just life that one can.
Though I may have my differences with the Buddhists and the Stoics in some areas, I cannot fault their insistence on the value of trying to live a virtuous life.
I particularly like the fact that within Stoicism, virtue is a virtue in and of itself. That is to say, they do not recommend one should be virtuous to break the cycle of samsara, or to avoid going to hell, but simply as it’s the right thing to do.
Both philosophies place great emphasis on living in the moment. Focusing the attention on the here and now, rather than spending your days dwelling on the past or fretting about the future.
“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.” – Quote attributed to the Buddha
The above quote is from Lao Tzu, founder of the philosophy of Taoism which developed around the same time as Buddhism and Stoicism, but in China, which also shares many other traits in common with the two.
On the one hand it can be viewed as surprising that such similar philosophies arose around the same time across what were at the time vast distances.
On the other hand, one also has to consider that it’s likely an effect of survivorship bias – no doubt many different philosophers came up with these same concepts long before Buddha or Zeno but their teachings were lost to the obscurity of history. We hear of Buddhism, Stoicism, along with other contemporaries such as Taoism, Christianity and Islam because they developed at a time when dissemination of ideas became more wide-spread via the silk road and the rise of empires.
One also has to bear in mind that there were many different competing philosophies at the time, particularly in Greece. It would be more surprising had none of the Greek philosophies shared anything in common with the Eastern ones, particularly as for the large part, the above ideas are all pretty much common sense.
Central to Buddhism is the concept of “non-self”.
In Buddhism, the term anattā (Pali) or anātman (Sanskrit) refers to the doctrine of “non-self”, that there is no unchanging, permanent self, soul or essence in living beings. It is one of the seven beneficial perceptions in Buddhism, and along with Dukkha (suffering) and Anicca (impermanence), it is one of three Right Understandings about the three marks of existence. – Wikipedia
The Stoics on the other hand, believed that our capacity for reason and virtue was due to the fact that humans had a soul, which was a fragment of the divine, bestowed on us by the Gods.
Why is this difference important?
Personally, I find the concept of non-self fascinating, and there’s a growing amount of evidence coming from the field of neuroscience which appears to back up the concept.
For practical purposes, however, I think the key difference is where to draw the line in terms of what falls under our control, and what is out of it.
The Stoics were very confident that our thoughts and actions were 100% under our control, as long as we kept ourselves in check.
Buddhism however, and increasingly modern neuroscience, call into question just how much control we actually have over our thoughts and actions.
We tend to talk in terms of “I did this”, “I want to go here”, “I think that…” but Buddhism asks us to question who or what exactly is this “I”, where is it located, and what exactly does it do.
Meditation is an essential part of Buddhism.
Despite “Meditations” being the title of perhaps the most famous Stoic text ever written, meditation was not practiced or recommended by the Stoics, at least not in the form of the meaning of the word as it is used in Buddhism.
The Stoics philosophised, contemplated, journaled, argued, and “meditated” on certain ideas and topics (i.e. thought hard and long about them), but they did not appear to actively practice or recommend mindfulness meditation.
Essentially, the Stoics argued that we could arrive to the “truth”, that is dispel the many delusions and false beliefs about the nature of reality that we have acquired, through reason and rationality.
The Buddhists on the other hand, argued that in order to fully understand the true nature of reality, one had to experience it first hand, and that this was achieved via mindfulness meditation.
Meditation = Observing and Practising Philosophical Concepts
So if this is supposed to be an article about meditation, why have I been going on about Buddhism vs Stoicism for the past 10 minutes?
Because I believe that the real potential benefits for well-being, personal development, dealing with stress, anxiety, depression and so on, come from philosophy.
By this I mean to say that most, if not all, of the benefits attributed to meditation can be achieved through contemplation and rationalisation, as did the Stoics. No mindfulness meditation required.
That said, within the right philosophical framework, that’s not to say that meditation can’t or shouldn’t be a useful tool within the philosopher’s tool box.
- Attachment and Loss
Meditation can be a useful tool to observe first hand the aforementioned philosophical concepts.
With time, practice and patience, you will begin to recognise that thoughts and feelings arise spontaneously within the field of consciousness, that is to say that they are not generated by your consciousness. Eventually, perhaps, one can begin to not only understand conceptually, but to feel intuitively, that “The Self” as a fixed, coherent, unchanging phenomenon is in fact an illusion.
You will also more than likely notice that you may have less control over what goes on inside your head than you might have previously believed. When thoughts pop up unsolicited, it’s surprisingly hard to keep your attention focused where you wanted, and avoid getting pulled down the rabbit whole that your unconscious wants to drag you.
Finally, it’s a good opportunity to check in to see what’s going on under the hood. What mood are you in? What’s on your mind? Are there certain thoughts which keep bubbling to the surface?
Meditation is a useful time to begin to try to put certain habits into practice while in a controlled environment.
>Detachment – Practice dissociating from your thoughts and feelings, particularly negative ones. If sensations of anger or depression, or negative thoughts arise within your consciousness, one can learn to simply observe them in a disinterested manner, then watch them slip away and disappear again without leading you to behave in irrational ways.
>Acceptance – Whether it is negative thoughts and feelings within, or “unpleasant” stimuli from the outside world – perhaps a loud noise such as power tool, a hard floor, hot and humid air, one can practise accepting the situation with equanimity, knowing that the situation will soon pass.
>Non-Judgement – Linked strongly with the above, part of successfully accepting things for the way they are ideally involves suspending judgement. Many of the things we deem as “unpleasant” we do so as we’ve “learned” to view them this way. Strangely, often when you accept the inevitability of a stimulus, and suspend judgement or preconceived beliefs, it actually ceases to be unpleasant, and can even become a positive experience. The noise of a power tool, for example, can become a fascinating, hypnotic symphony once you stop trying to resist it, and instead simply focus on listening intently without judgement.
Choose Your Own Existential Story
I think Buddhism and Stoicism both have a lot to offer the individual looking to maximise their well-being, and the well-being of others around them.
As always, however, one must approach them with a degree of skepticism.
If you were to say, “Right, I just want an off the shelf all encompassing philosophical doctrine by which to lead my life”, then either is probably not a bad option, but personally I’d recommend reading as many different views as possible. There are many great thinkers that have come to totally different conclusions, which should not be discounted.
Even without looking to other philosophical view points, there are a multitude of different translations and interpretations of Buddhism and Stoicism themselves, and various contradictions within each of these.
While I’d say it’s hard to argue against Buddhism and Stoicism’s claims that life is short, our destiny is largely out of our control, everything is impermanent and subject to change, and many of our beliefs about ourselves, others and the world around us are delusions, where this is plenty of room for debate, is how best to deal with these realisations.
Should you simply roll over and accept any situation life throws at you? Should you view all external events, objects, people with disinterested equanimity? Should you avoid attachment with anyone or anything? Do we really have control (only) over our own thoughts and actions? Should you shave your head, take a vow of silence and go live alone, abstinent and vegan in a hermitage in the mountain somewhere?
While I do love the Zen parable of “Good Luck, Bad Luck, Who Knows?” that I quoted earlier, and do often find it very useful to reflect on when something unexpected happens to disrupt one’s best-laid plans, it is in my opinion both a bit far-fetched, and indeed unwise, to view all occurrences as neutral, or indifferent.
It is better to be healthy than to be sick. It is not good to be physically or mentally abused or taken advantage of by someone else. Though the accumulation of wealth is certainly over-rated, living in abject poverty is undoubtedly not good either.
Perhaps rather than suspending all judgement, a more prudent approach is to re-evaluate current beliefs.
The pursuit of wealth, material goods, and status, all of which have become highly prized within our society, can certainly become a source of suffering, and it’s probably wise to view them as indifferents.
Good health, strong friendships, a loving partner, interesting, fun and exciting experiences – these are all things however that can truly enrich your life and well-being, and are in my opinion worth pursuing.
Illness, injury, isolation, loss of freedom – these are all undesirable, and best avoided if at all possible.
Though it’s true that ultimately, all these things are out of our control, it doesn’t mean we should just give up on them. Which leads nicely to:
If your partner is being abusive to you, should you accept it with equanimity? What if you’re in a job which you hate, working long hours for little pay with a boss who treats you like dirt? The neighbours are playing Despacito on repeat, full blast, at 3am?
Personally, a better mantra for me than blanket acceptance would be “Change it, Leave it, or Accept it”, which I most recently came across in the interview with Naval Ravikant in Tools of Titans, but which I think I first came across via Ekhart Tolle.
Though nothing is ever 100% under our control, we do often have considerable power to change our environment and circumstances, often, more than we might have believed.
You can try to reason with your partner, your boss, your neighbour, explain to them that their behaviour is hurting you, and ask them to change. Quite possibly their actions weren’t intentionally malicious and they will change their behaviour.
Alternatively there may be the option to leave the situation – break up with your partner, quit your job, move to a new flat.
Accepting a situation is a last resort then, when you’ve exhausted all other options? Resigning yourself to the inevitable? Or perhaps it should be the first option? Accept everything you can as an indifferent, only putting in the effort to leave or change the situation if you fail to accept it with equanimity…?
I have some favourite cups. They are moomin mugs. Not only are they very nice mugs, but I have developed a rather sentimental attachment to them, as they remind me of my wife. We have one each, and I make us cappuccino in them for breakfast in bed, with a heart dusted in chocolate on top of hers.
Following Epictetus’s advice quoted earlier regarding loss, and everything being on loan, I have performed his exercise I quoted above of looking at the cups, reminding myself that one day they are going probably going to get smashed, that this is normal, that they are just cups, and this is just the way things are.
I am pretty confident, that when this day comes, I can greet the breaking of the mugs with relative equanimity. May their little moomin souls RIP.
I’m also pretty happy to extend this practice, as recommended by Epictetus, to ever bigger “items”. No doubt my bike will get stolen one day, c’est la vie. My favourite jeans will rip, things will break, get lost – who knows, one day the house might even burn down. I’m totally down with the fact that these are all just things, and that I’ll be able to meet their departure from my life with a sigh, but it’s not going to cause sorrow and torment. They were all only on loan anyway.
But Epictetus doesn’t just recommend working up to bigger and more treasured objects – he advises moving on up first to animals; dogs, cats, horses, and then to people, including your wife and children. The continuation of the quote from above:
…If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies – Epictetus
Yikes! Now perhaps I’m just a very bad philosopher, who’d be kicked right off the porch for my un-sage like attitude, but attempting to condition myself to the point where my wife’s death (or child if I had one, or anyone else close to me) with such equanimity that I wasn’t even disturbed, just seems plain wrong.
Both Buddhism and Stoicism advise practicing non-attachment, in order to avoid the later suffering that will be caused by the inevitable loss of said object.
One has to question, however, at what cost does this escape from suffering come?
Though I’d rather avoid a painful injury if possible, the joy and satisfaction I get from playing such sports outweighs the potential (inevitable) suffering.
My feeling is that it is not so dissimilar with emotional pain – Love, in my opinion, is something worth pursuing. The love of a partner, between family members, loving friendships. Is it really possible to truly experience love – to love someone, and be loved by them, without developing a deep attachment to them?
Of course, that’s not to say that if and when the worst does happen, and you do lose someone very dear to you, that Stoic and Buddhist philosophy can’t help ease the blow. Epictetus was pretty extreme in his views, Marcus and Seneca have much more moderate approaches, acknowledging that a certain amount of grief is a normal healthy reaction to the loss of a loved one, and it is only excessive, debilitating sorrow which should be viewed as a problem.
Seneca in particular wrote many letters giving people advice on how to deal with their grief after the loss of a loved one.
There are also parallels to this in Buddhism – notably the parable of the second arrow. The first arrow can be interpreted as the instinctive response to a painful (physically or emotionally) event. One shouldn’t expect, or even desire, to become a totally unfeeling rock. The second arrow however, is our reaction to the first. It is unrealistic expectations, delusions, irrational beliefs etc, which can amplify the pain of the “first arrow” to much greater levels than it needs to be.
Well that turned into a pretty epic post! What started out as a post into the scientific evidence for meditation, turned into a philosophical journey into the meaning of life…
If you made it this far, thank-you for staying with me. I hope you’ve found it in some way interesting or useful.
At the start of this article, I posed the question “Will I be continuing my daily meditation practice?” so I guess it’s about time I gave an answer.
For the time being, I am going to say: Yes, I am. Though perhaps I’d be more inclined to say I’ll be continuing to dedicate time daily to contemplative practice, of which meditation will form a part.
I don’t think that meditation as a stand alone tool, divorced from a philosophical underpinning, is likely to be particularly useful.
It’s one tool in the toolbox. For it to be effective, you need the rest of the tools, the materials to work with, a good plan to follow, and the motivation to follow it.
How important a tool it is, I really can’t say. Is it essential or is it simply a nice addition if you can afford it?
Even if we do decide, to use the analogy I used in part I of this post, that meditation is like exercise for the mind, we still really have no idea which specific methods are the most effective, what is the minimum effective dose in terms of duration or frequency, or if more is always better or if returns drop off after a certain volume.
Perhaps meditation can have profound effects, but 10 minutes per day is not enough, so you may as well have not bothered? Or you’ve dedicated an hour per day, but not gained any additional benefits over 20 minutes and therefore wasted several hours per week? Maybe one intense 10 day retreat is enough to give powerful insights into the nature of reality that you can carry with you for the rest of your life, after which you never need to practice again?
Maybe it’s a bit oxymoronic to conclude with lots of unanswered questions, but I’m afraid this is one post where I’m really stuck for answers.
What I can recommend however, if you’re interested in reading more on Buddhism and Stoicism, including some skeptical criticism and practical advice, is checking out the book More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age by Antonia Macaro:
Also, while we’re at it, one of my all time favourites and my first real introduction to the concepts of not-self: The Book, by Alan Watts: