Twenty-First Century Stoic -- From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic

Stoic-Shadow-Art-2 This is the first in a series of three essays, written by a Stoic, about what it means to practice an ancient philosophy in the modern world. (Read the second essay.)

I never intended to become a Stoic. Who, after all, were the Stoics? They were those grim, wooden figures of ancient Greece and Rome whose goal it was to stand mutely and take whatever the world could throw at them. Right?

About a decade ago, though, I began a research project on human desire. The goal of the project was to write a book on the subject, but I also had a hidden agenda in conducting my research: I was contemplating becoming a Zen Buddhist and wanted to learn more about it before taking the leap. But the more I learned about Zen, the less it attracted me.

Practicing Zen would require me to suppress my analytical abilities, something I found it quite difficult to do. Another off-putting aspect of Zen was that the moment of enlightenment it dangled before its practitioners was by no means guaranteed. Practice Zen for decades and you might achieve enlightenment -- or you might not. It would be tragic, I thought, to spend the remaining decades of my life pursuing a moment of enlightenment that never came. Zen doubtless works for some people, but for me, the fit wasn't good.

Then something quite unexpected happened. As part of my research, I investigated what ancient philosophers had to say about desire. Among them were the Stoic philosophers -- people like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus -- about whom I knew little. As I read them, I discovered that they were quite unlike I imagined they would be. Indeed, it soon became apparent that everything I "knew" about the Stoics was wrong. They were neither grim nor wooden. If anything, the adjective that I thought described them best was "buoyant" or maybe even "cheerful." And without consciously intending to do so, I found myself experimenting with Stoic strategies for daily living.

Thus, when I found myself in a predicament -- being stuck in traffic, for example -- I followed the advice of Epictetus and asked myself what aspects of the situation I could and couldn't control. I couldn't control what the other cars did, so it was pointless -- was in fact counterproductive -- for me to get angry at them. My energy was much better spent focusing on things I could control, with the most important being how I responded to the situation. In particular, I could employ Stoic strategies to prevent the incident from spoiling my day.

I also started making use of the Stoic technique known as negative visualization: I would periodically contemplate the loss of the things and people that mean the most to me. Thus, when parting from a friend, I might make a mental note that this could conceivably be the last time I would see the friend in question. Friendships do end, after all, and people die suddenly. Doing this sort of thing may seem morbid, but the practice of negative visualization is a powerful antidote to a phenomenon that will otherwise deprive us of much of the happiness we could be enjoying: negative visualization prevents us from taking for granted the world around us and the people in it.

When they hear about negative visualization, people often get the wrong idea. They think the Stoics advocate that we spend our days dwelling on all the bad things that can happen to us. This, of course, would be a recipe for a miserable existence. What the Stoics in fact advocate is not that we dwell on bad things but that we contemplate them, a subtle but important difference. They also recommend that we engage in negative visualization not constantly but only a few times each day and for only a few seconds each time. Our negative visualizations, then, will take the form of fleeting thoughts.

Visualizing in this manner has the effect of resetting the baseline against which we measure our happiness, and it can have a profound and immediate effect on that happiness. As the result of negatively visualizing, we might find ourselves taking delight that we still possess the things that only moments before, we took for granted, including our job, our spouse, our health -- indeed, our very existence.

One of my favorite visualization exercises involves the sky. When I see it, I periodically remind myself that the sky didn't have to be blue. But on most days it is blue, and a gorgeous blue, the hue of which changes subtly from hour to hour. Then I reflect on how wonderful it is that we inhabit a universe that can, on a nearly daily basis, present us with such a spectacle. A simple exercise, to be sure, and some would say a silly one. But if you can learn to appreciate the sky -- something most people take utterly for granted -- there is a good chance that you can learn to appreciate your life as well and thereby enjoy a happier existence than would otherwise be the case.

I mentioned above that the benefits to be derived from practicing Zen are uncertain. Stoicism, by way of contrast, does not dangle before its adherents a moment -- maybe -- of life-transforming enlightenment. Instead, it provides a body of advice for them to follow and a set of strategies for them to employ in everyday life. The strategies in question are easy to use. (Indeed, I suspect that many of the readers of this essay have already, in the last few seconds, successfully attempted negative visualization.) That said, I should add that it takes rather longer to internalize Stoic advice and strategies so that one's response to the events of daily living becomes reflexively Stoical, at which point one can truly claim to be a Stoic.

My experiments with Stoicism were sufficiently encouraging that I abandoned my plans to become a Zen Buddhist and decided instead to follow in the footsteps of Zeno of Citium, the Greek who formulated Stoicism in about 300 B.C. I decided, in other words, to become a walking, talking anachronism: I would attempt to transform myself into a twenty-first century Stoic. My goal in the essays in this series is to describe some aspects of this transformation.

Most people, of course, would think of Zen Buddhism and Stoicism as being polar opposites, philosophically speaking, but that is because people tend to be, as I was, woefully ignorant of what Stoicism is. One of the most surprising things that came out of my research was how much Zen and Stoicism have in common.

They both advocate taking what Buddha referred to as "the middle path." Buddha lived a life of luxury in a palace but was not fulfilled by that life. He abandoned the palace to live a life of extreme asceticism but again did not find fulfillment. It was then that he experienced his moment of enlightenment. The wise person, Buddha concluded, will not shun pleasure; at the same time, he will keep firmly in mind how easy it is to become enslaved by it. He will therefore be guarded in his enjoyment of pleasure.

The Stoics likewise advocated taking the middle path. Zeno of Citium began his philosophical education by practicing Cynicism, the ancient philosophy that advocated an ascetic lifestyle. The ancient Cynics (including Diogenes of Sinope and Zeno's teacher Crates) lived on the street and owned only the clothing that they wore. Zeno abandoned Cynicism in part because he rejected its asceticism. In the Stoic philosophy he formulated, we are told that there is nothing wrong with enjoying life's pleasures, as long as we are careful not to allow ourselves to be enslaved by them and as long as, even while we are enjoying them, we take steps to prepare ourselves ultimately to be deprived of them.

Offer a Stoic a glass of fine champagne, and he probably won't refuse it; as he drinks it, though, he might reflect on the possibility that this will be the last time he drinks champagne, a reflection, by the way, that will dramatically enhance his enjoyment of the moment. Then again, offer a Stoic a glass of water, and he might go through the same thought processes with the same result.

In having "last time" thoughts (which, by the way, are a form of negative visualization), a Stoic is behaving rather like a Buddhist. Both Stoics and Buddhists think it important, if we are to have a good life, that we recognize the transient nature of human existence, and both advise us periodically to contemplate impermanence. This is what Stoics are doing when they reflect on the fact that since we are mortal, there will be a last time for each of the things we do in life. Thus, there will be a last time you drink champagne -- or water, for that matter. There will be a last time you touch the face of another human being. There will even be a last time you utter the word "forever."

Along similar lines, both Zen Buddhists and Stoics think it important for us to strive to stay "in the moment." People tend to spend their days and consequently their lives as well dwelling on things that happened in past moments and worrying about things that will happen in future moments. As a result, there is little time left for them to savor the moment they currently are living. If we are to have a good life, it is important, says Stoic Marcus Aurelius, for us to keep in mind that "man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant."

For one last parallel between Buddhism and Stoicism, consider again the above-described blue-sky exercise. As a Stoic, I had practiced this exercise for years before I became aware of the work of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. It turns out that Buddhists, in their practice of mindfulness, employ a similar exercise: see this video.

On adopting Stoicism, I discovered how much the world has changed since the philosophy was first formulated. Back then, if you told someone you were a practicing Stoic, they would have understood what you meant. In ancient Greece and Rome, it was common for people in the upper classes to adopt a philosophy of life; indeed, parents sent their sons to schools of philosophy (prominent among which were the Stoic, the Epicurean, and the Academic schools) in part to acquire such a philosophy.

Tell modern individuals that you are a practicing Stoic, though, and they are likely to be puzzled. "Is it some kind of religion?" they will ask.

My standard response: "No. Religions generally concern themselves with the afterlife; philosophies of life such as Stoicism concern themselves with daily life. They teach us what things in life are most valuable and how best to attain them."

This response is likely to give rise to a new question: "And just what did the Stoics think was valuable?" My response: "Not what most people think is valuable -- namely, fame and fortune. To the contrary, the Stoics (and in particular the Roman Stoics) valued tranquillity, and by tranquillity they had in mind not the kind of numbness that can be attained by downing a third martini, but instead the absence of negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, grief, and fear, from their life. They had nothing against positive emotions, though, including that most positive of emotions, joy. The Stoics were also confident that people who exchange their tranquillity for fame and fortune have made a foolish bargain."

This, by the way, is yet another point of agreement between Zen and Stoicism: both philosophies of life point to tranquillity as the thing in life most worth attaining. But wait a minute, if Zen and Stoicism share the same goal in living, namely, the attainment of tranquillity, won't they count as the same philosophy of life?

No, because although they share this goal, they offer different advice on how to attain it. Thus, a Zen Buddhist might advise those wishing to attain tranquillity to spend hours each day trying to empty their mind of all thought. And when they are not doing this, they should spend time trying to solve koans, those paradoxical questions, the most famous of which is "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

The Stoics, by way of contrast, would recommend neither of these activities. Your time would be much better spent, they would suggest, analyzing what it is in your daily life that disrupts your tranquillity and thinking about what you can do to prevent such disruptions. And to aid you in your thinking, the Stoics would go on to suggest that you take a look at the writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus. There you will find much advice on how to deal with insults, how to overcome grief, how to avoid getting angry, how to take delight in the world you inhabit, and so forth.

At this point, my introduction-to-Stoicism conversation sometimes turns ugly. The conversation can cause the other person to realize that he has never taken time to think about the "grand goal of living;" instead, his attention has been focused on the short-term goals of daily life, such as getting a promotion at work or acquiring an even-wider-screen television. Or, even worse, the conversation can put the person on the defensive. If he routinely spends his days exchanging his tranquillity for a (quite possibly unsuccessful) shot at the acquisition of fame and fortune, he will not take kindly to my "foolish bargain" comment.

In either case, he might resent what he will construe as an attempt by me to impose my values on him, and his resentment might be expressed indirectly, by ridiculing Stoicism. It is, to be sure, easy to avoid this ridicule: if you decide to give Stoicism a try as your philosophy of life, I suggest that you keep your plans to yourself and practice what I call stealth Stoicism. This is what I would have done had I not taken it on myself to become a twenty-first century Stoic teacher.

This, in a nutshell, is what Stoicism is and why I found myself drawn to it. I hope that if I have accomplished anything in this essay, I have persuaded readers that the ancient Stoics were not stoical in the modern sense of the word -- they were not, as the dictionary puts it, "seemingly indifferent to or unaffected by joy, grief, pleasure, or pain." Indeed, the phrase joyful Stoic is not the oxymoron it might seem to be.

©2010, William B. Irvine

In my next "Twenty-first Century Stoic" essay, I will expose readers to one specific piece of Stoic advice on daily living: how best to respond to insults. As we shall see, they advocated that we respond not with counter-insults but with silence -- or, if we must say something, by insulting ourselves even worse than our insulter did. Strange advice, I know, but in my practice of Stoicism I have tried it and found it to be remarkably effective.


  1. In some ways, I’m uncomfortable with the way in which the sorts of ideas you are describing mobilize what we might philosophically call “the negative.” If you read an existentialist like Sartre, you get a very strong sense of this category, and I think something like it is also being used here. However, I am myself doubtful about this category. It seems to me, for example, that contemplating the possibility of the sky not being blue is in some way (and I apologize if this sounds harsh) disingenuous. This blueness is a fact that we are called upon to contemplate for itself, and the philosophical “trick” of negation quite clearly blunts this contemplation. When it comes to more intractable problems (be they philosophical, scientific, political, etc), having the habit of this sort of negation would seem to me to dull our senses and our intuitions, the very ripeness and alive presentness of our creative ability to contend with these problems.

    1. This blueness is a fact that we are called upon to contemplate for itself

      But the sky is not blue every day. Often it’s cloudy; in some unfortunate places, it can be smoggy. I’ve been in places where the air becomes actively hostile (Mexico City in 1989; East Germany in 1990; Gary, Indiana, around 1980). Remembering those places could help me better appreciate a blue sky when I have it—or even a cloudy sky. I’ll have to try it.

  2. Interesting. I find myself often using the negative visualization technique to further cherish moments and people in my life.

    I think visualization has a lot to do with opening our minds up and pondering how amazing our world is, kind of like a child. Looking at things in a new perspective.

    I do this with the moon sometimes, when I can see it during the day or happen to catch it at night. It really reminds me of how small I am compared to the rest of the universe. The thought isn’t scary but more awe-inspiring.

  3. Fascinating to see Greek thought making a comeback. I may have to reacquaint myself with Stoic thought.
    Compared to Epicurianism, the Stoa always struck me as too Calvinist. That may have been a misinterpretation on my part. At least they seem more grounded compared to the deranged mysticism of Pythagoras.

  4. Yeah, if you were looking for results then it’s p’bly best you did not become “a Zen Buddhist.” Zen has — literally — nothing to teach, nothing to learn. (Indeed, that’s one of the reasons the Linji-lu tells us that “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him” ;-)

    Random neurons firing…Mark F. occasionally quotes, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” Wasn’t it a Stoic who answered that remark with, “You can’t even step in the same river once“?

    1. I’m not sure I agree that Zen teaches that there is nothing to learn. On the contrary, it seems to teach that one shouldn’t stop learning after one thinks they have come to some kind of truth. “Kill the Buddha” is one phrase used to convey this notion.

  5. I’m currently reading this book and I have to say it’s a very good book and I’m enjoying it greatly.

    @kbmcg –

    How the author explains negative visualization in the book is that we humans have a very bad habit of assuming we have a future so we tend not to value who and what is around us. When you hear stories from people who have had near death experiences, they all start really thinking about their lives – telling their families they loved them, resolving old disagreement, rethinking their careers. They had a moment that forced them to consider that they didn’t have a future. Most people don’t do that.

    This weekend had gorgeous weather and I thought about going for a bike ride, but I never got around to it and thought to myself that I’ll go next weekend. But what if next weekend is lousy weather? Or, far worse, what if I die before next weekend? I will have spent a one of the few remaining days of my life lounging around on the couch. If I were a proper Stoic, I would have stopped to consider that I may not experience a beautiful weekend like that ever again, and would have gotten off my butt to enjoy it.

    1. but a stoic must also contemplate the joy of lounging on the couch and know that there is a last time for that too.

  6. A timely post for me and I will think carefully about the suggestions here, today. I’m at one of those low points in life where external forces have created a very poor ‘present’ for me to inhabit. Of course this will pass and life will change, but it’s difficult to force oneself to live in that present when the control is gone and even your future is in jeopardy. My retreats into the tolerable present are simple moments in the autumn sunshine, reminding myself that the truly important things are to be found on trails, mountains and in the nearby forest.

    “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” J.P. Sartre.

  7. I think your characterization of the Cynics is a bit off – for one thing, “ascetic” isn’t the word you’re looking for. Diogenes wasn’t shy about frequenting the whorehouse. What I see as the essential idea of Cynicism is that Progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

    Take the story where Diogenes drinks out of the river with his bowl. He sees a child just using his cupped hands, and as a result gets rid of his bowl – what did he need it for? “Man has complicated every simple gift of the gods.”

    I’m pretty sure I’m better off without a smartphone.

    1. If Diogenes went to a brothel, it was to talk some Cynic sense into the prostitutes and their customers. His most important message: do not allow yourself to be enslaved by pleasure. He also went to sporting events for this reason. It is unlikely, I should add, that Diogenes could have afforded the services of a prostitute, even if he had sought them!

  8. Hogwash. Cato — that stalwart grim boni of the Roman Senate — was a Stoic and was anything but “buoyant”! Stoics were politically conservative, petty-minded, and obstructionist in the face of needed reform. On the other hand, practitioners of Zen are often very calm, cheerful, and ever more rational in the common sense of living.

    1. Don’t blame the Stoics for Cato the Younger. He was also hung-up quite a bit on emulating his late great-grandfather, who by his time (accurately or not) considered a great patriotic curmudgeon. Though definitely would not have tolerated such Hellenistic nonsense. Regardless of how Cicero may have tried to spin it in De Senectute.

  9. “To accuse others for one’s own misfortunes is a sign of want of education. To accuse oneself shows that one’s education has begun. To accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one’s education is complete. ” EPICTETUS

    God must love morons (MORANS); he certainly made enough of ’em!

  10. Sounds like “The Serenity Prayer” to me. Check out the Wikipedia page.

    Probably the most sensible thing you’ll ever get from Christianity.

  11. “I was contemplating becoming a”
    shallow person who has to chose to become something
    to think they matter.

    Stoicism is fine. Zen is fine.
    Just throttle the pomposity. Then you won’t have to
    contemplate becoming anything.

    1. “Just throttle the pomposity.”

      ( What, is that from Gilbert & Sullivan?:)

      Anyway, for Stoics, it’s more like “Just bottle the impetuosity”.

      IMHO, there is much denial in Stoicism.

  12. Why is it that everyone needs to have some kind of epitath to add to their name? Why does it always have to be “I found God”, “I decided Im an atheist now” “I thought I should become a zen buddist”. Seems like such a waste to try to go find an ethical code that fits the best instead of making them up yourself. DIY philosophy if you wish or “how I learned not to take my opinions so seriously and just let go a little”

    1. Yeah, well said, but nothing wrong with studying other philosophies a bit before you try to make up your own, either.

    2. Why reinvent – and mostly reinvent badly – something that has been done before?

      It’s usually more and wasted effort.

  13. I should make a new bumper sticker: “Polyanna was a Stoic.” That should confuse the hell out of drivers behind me.

  14. I just wanted to thank you, William, for this wonderful essay. I’m at a time in my life in which I’m not appreciating things properly, and stoicism as you present it looks like a great way to combat this. I’ll be following the later installments and reading Epictetus et al.

  15. Interesting. I will have to read some about the Stoic philosophy.

    I do feel qualified to make a few observations about your comments on zen.

    I would strongly disagree that the point of zen is to have enlightenment experiences. Shunryu Suzuki, the monk who founded that San Francisco Zen Center said that he had never had an enlightenment experience.

    And he practiced zen for over 40 years.

    To my understanding the central point of zen is to stay aware of what is happening around you rather than paying attention to the near constant flow of your thoughts.

    Sitting zazen does not have as its goal the emptying of thoughts. It just asks us to try and notice these thoughts, set them aside and go back to just observing what is happening now.

    It was very interesting to note that indeed, there seem to be many parallels between zen and stoic goals and philosophy.

    Thank you for pointing them out.

    1. Zen is hardly a monolithic doctrine, particularly when it comes to enlightenment. The classic view seems to be that if you practice Zen long enough, you will experience such a moment. But paradoxically, the harder you work to experience such a moment, the less likely you are to experience it.

      Along these lines, a Zen joke: A Zen student goes to a temple and asks how long it will take him, if he joins the community, to gain enlightenment. “Ten years,” says the Zen master. “Well, how about if I really work and double my effort?” “Twenty years,” comes the reply.

      It is possible to experience enlightenment without practicing Zen at all and possible (as I have said) to practice Zen without experiencing enlightenment. And some Zen masters say that enlightenment comes not in a moment, but gradually. (For more on enlightenment, see chapter 9 of my “On Desire.”)

      In my comments about Zen, by the way, I don’t mean to disparage it. It clearly works for some people, just not for me. What works for a person depends on his personality and circumstances. Also, I think it is quite likely that there are Stoics who have (quite sensibly, given their circumstances) abandoned Zeno for Zen. More power to them!

  16. There was (a book?) and TV series. It may have been ‘The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Daily Life’ by AC Grayling – I can’t remember now – that first interested me in this topic.

    If you can find the show, it’s pretty interesting.

  17. Great article. I think I may be a budding Stoic. I’ll buy the book.

    @stalkingcat – My impression from this post is that a good Stoic who really wanted some time on the couch with a book would feel free to lounge away, while enjoying the luxury of having free time & a lovely warm house to lounge in, with a comfy couch to lounge on and a good book to do it with, none of which we should take for granted.

  18. Basically if you add the phrase “at least I’m not in Iraq”
    to anything, you will feel a little stoic endorphins.

    A friend of mine has lupus, then a brain tumor, then stroked out,
    but at least he’s not in Iraq. Negative visualization ™
    I suppose, or thanksgiving every day.

    Appreciate indoor plumbing.

  19. Good article! One nitpick though – religion DOES concern itself with daily life, as well as afterlife, and every other aspect on existence. Religions are like philosophies, they are lenses with which to see the world, and they can (and usually do) touch every aspect of the adherent’s life.

    1. You are right: religion typically IS concerned with both people’s daily life and their afterlife. Indeed, religion has the power to transform the way a person lives. (Along these lines, think about Thomas Merton or Mother Teresa.) But it is my experience that most people who practice religion are far more interested in its impact on their afterlife than its impact on their daily life. Indeed, the very last thing many religious practitioners want is to be personally transformed by their religion! And this, I will add, is a shame: the one thing religion can indisputably do for them, they don’t want done!

  20. This is really interesting.

    As a person with an anxiety disorder, I can tell you that I constantly am contemplating the fact that any moment could be the last time I see a friend, drink champagne, whatever…but it’s in a totally different, anxious light that is sometimes paralyzing. I wish I could let go of the anxiety part of those visualizations and instead focus on the enjoyment of the moment instead of the possible negative thing that may never happen afterward (which is what anxiety is all about – stories your brain shows and tells you about horrible things that may or may not come to pass). It would be wonderful to be able to let go of all of that.

    1. Agreed. Stoicism is a philosophy which charges us to compartmentalize, judge, and ultimately negate our non-beneficial current state emotional experiences. Zen seems much less psychologically harmful in that, not only does it charge us to acknowledge, accept, and let go attachment to the current emotional state, it does not judge certain emotions as more/less beneficial than others.

  21. Another off-putting aspect of Zen was that the moment of enlightenment it dangled before its practitioners was by no means guaranteed. Practice Zen for decades and you might achieve enlightenment — or you might not.

    I’ve been siting Zazen for well over 25 years, and have been an adherent to the Soto school of Zen, which is, admittedly, a fairly pared down version of Zen Philosophical thinking.

    I don’t know much, but I do know one thing: no matter what, Zen is really not about “Enlightenment”. Trying to reach that goal is really like complaining that one can’t see a specific color of static on a fuzzy TV screen.

    It’s still just noise.

    And while The Stoic tradition rings many of my bells, when it comes to Zen, I’m wondering if the author missed the trees, well, though the trees?

    1. @agates #32:

      Yeah, there are some things in this article that left me scratching my head as well, such as:

      “Practicing Zen would require me to suppress my analytical abilities[.]”

      I don’t know of any dictate in any form of Buddhism that requires you to suppress analytical ability — to the contrary, Siddhartha Gautama himself (the putative historical Buddha) explicitly said that everything he taught was to be sampled, tested, and tried. If it seemed in error, that aspect of the teaching was to be discarded.

      More recently, the current Dalai Lama has said that if any aspect of Buddhism is found to be in opposition of scientifically-established fact, it is Buddhism which will have to change and adapt to reality. Good luck getting a similar proclamation from the Pope.

      Then there’s this:

      “Another off-putting aspect of Zen was that the moment of enlightenment it dangled before its practitioners was by no means guaranteed.”

      This is another misapprehension, in two respects.

      1. If one believes in “rebirth” (I do not), enlightenment is inevitable. All sentient beings, in the Mahayana Buddhist view (Zen is a Mahayana practice) will achieve enlightenment eventually. It may take multiple rebirths, but it’s a sure thing.

      2. Regardless of one’s position on rebirth, TTBOMK all Buddhist schools (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) assert that enlightenment already exists as the ground state of consciousness free of afflictive desires. That is, enlightenment is not to be “achieved” so much as remembered.

      As Mr. Irvine points out, there appear to be a lot of parallels between Stoicism and Buddhism, particularly as practiced in the west. I don’t know where he got his introduction to Buddhism from, but I’d suggest it was a less than ideal initiation.

      There are skeptical Buddhists, by the way. I’ve established an ecumenical sangha in the little town I live in in NW Arizona, and online there’s The Secular Buddhist, which gives weekly podcasts about Buddhism from the perspective of atheism:

      I’d suggest visiting that website for a reality-based introduction to Buddhist thought and its core practice, meditation, for anyone who’s interested in learning more about it but doesn’t want the religious trappings or mummery often associated with the philosophy.

  22. Just decide to be enlightened. That’s what I did. No muss, no fuss, and everything feels so much better afterwards.

  23. Surprisingly, I came across another article about Stoics just a couple days ago. If I were superstitious, I might believe this meant something. Interesting philosophy, stoicism.

  24. I was just reading Bertrand Russell’s consideration of the Stoics in his History of Western Philosophy. Seems he held a fairly different position on the matter.

    You don’t mention the idea that virtue is truly the sole good in life for individual men. Isn’t that a central idea which would merit inclusion, even in a summary?

    1. You are right, the Stoics do pursue virtue, but realize two things. The first is that the Stoics thought virtue and tranquility were linked: become virtuous, and you will experience tranquility; experience tranquility, and it will be easier for you to become virtuous. The second is that my Stoicism is modeled after Roman rather than Greek Stoicism. The Romans have much more to say about tranquility than virtue.

  25. interesting. so stoicism is like the “cognitive therapy” of philosophy. no dwelling on the past or what might have been, but dealing with life today the way that it is.

    1. I have heard from many people who, after reading my book, came to the realization that they were already practicing Stoicism. I call these people “congenital Stoics.” They figured Stoicism out all on their own, or maybe were born with the “Stoic gene.”

  26. BTW, the sky does have to be blue, look up the physics
    and the spectral response of the eye.

    If you’re a Feynmannite, this will make you happier when
    you see a blue sky. If you’re an ICP Jugalo, probably not.

    Why “blue” looks *that way* remains a mystery. However, I can’t
    communicate *that way* I just assume you experience the same, by
    virtue of your looking like me.

    How do magnets work? First the chinese have to sell you rare earths..

  27. Love this. I have been practicing this philosophy in a truly patched together intuitive way for many years since I was a teenager without knowing it was an actual philosophy. My best friend’s parents were German immigrants and I spent many afternoons with her grandmothers hearing the stories of life before, during and after wartime. I sat with these lovely women and heard their tales of happy, normal childhood and young adulthood and then the change in circumstances– the terror of air strikes, the loss of loved ones, teens digging ditches for corpses, no food, turning tricks to feed your children, the same children disowning you for turning tricks. From my comfortable perch in a small New England town this was a wake up call– at any moment everything I assume about my life could change dramatically for the worse. How tragically sad if I hadn’t enjoyed the best days of my life?

  28. @Nat – I think my problem with this weekend was that I never stopped to deliberate exactly what I wanted to do with this perfect weekend I might never experience again. If I had, and decided that lying on the couch was the best thing to do (because I may not have a couch, a book, or my eyesight next weekend), then that would have been fine. But I didn’t, so I was instead left with that niggling feeling Sunday night of not getting around to doing what I really wanted to do and having that vague sense of disappointment of “wasting” time. If I had been a Stoic, then I wouldn’t have had that disappointment, and I would have been tranquil.

  29. Sobering to realize that Stoicism developed in a time in which people’s civic activities were in decline, in which the public created by the Greek polis was fractured by the imperatives of empire and conquest, and in which so many, lacking proper political and social engagement, turned inward to cultivate their own private gardens. I’m not sure we really want a revival of that, faced as we are with similar political pressures and incentives to tune out.

    1. The Epicureans were the ones withdrawn from public life, as soon were the ascetic Christians of those times, in their monasteries: the Stoics were the more virtuous, conservative, public-spirited and dutiful ones, much more likely to be found in the military camps, than in the private and secluded gardens of pleasure.

      1. Read Peter Green’s From Alexander to Actium (which, perhaps tellingly, doesn’t appear in Irvine’s bibliography): both the Stoics and Epicureans were responding to the political disenfranchisement of the Hellenistic empires from which they sprung. While it’s true the Stoics were publicly active, they also practiced a kind of accommodation with life-as-it-was that corresponds to the more radical Epicurean drop-out-ism: a dropping-out emotionally, a cultivation of dispassionate skepticism, a kind of political pessimism, noninvolvement, etc. (Green notes that many Stoics were the wealthy and powerful, as Stoicism tended to flatter power and the status quo.) Neither way seems to me an interesting or sustainable model for political and moral engagement in the twenty-first century.

        I already knew the etymology of stoa, but thanks anyway: remember that a group’s PR isn’t always an accurate depiction of what said group represented, believed, or did. (Cf. today’s Tea Party, which is neither about taxes nor about democracy.) My previous post will stand.

        1. A fine book: but Actium is well before the 2nd-4th C AD Roman stoic philosophy which I am discussing – the time of the Marcus Aurelius, not of Antony.

          1. Good point, as Green looks at the origins of the movement, and not at the later, Roman incarnation. I still think you find similar opt-out attitudes in the latter, though: lemme check my Aurelius and get back to you.

  30. William B. Irvine wrote: “My energy was much better spent focusing on things I could control, with the most important being how I responded to the situation.”

    The idea that we have some thing within us, some thing that belongs to us, some thing we can somehow control, call it free will, call it right reason, call it ruling principle, call it a seed o the divine logos — call it whatever, is simply untrue. This myth is in fact one of the foundational dogmas of especially the Roman school of philosophers: an article of their faith. Remove this false idea and the whole of the so-called Roman stoic philosophy comes tumbling down like a house of cards. Thus Roman stoicism is merely a preamble, as it were, en route to the establishment of Christianity.

  31. Very interesting, Mr. Irvine, and well written.

    Will you address the stoical concept of “duty”, as per Marcus Aurelius?

    It is thy duty then in the midst of such things to show good humour and not a proud air; to understand however that every man is worth just so much as the things are worth about which he busies himself.

    I find that to be the biggest difference between Zen and Stoicism, as I understand these things.

    1. I’m not sure about Zen views on duty, but the Stoics were duty-bound individuals: they believed that they had a duty to serve humanity. They also knew, though, that their fellow humans could be a profound source of irritation. Consequently, the Stoics spent time developing techniques to prevent other people from irritating them. (This, by the way, is the topic of essay #2 of this series: how to deal with insults.) More generally, they developed strategies for convincing themselves that they wanted to do the things they should do, and they thereby took the sting out of “doing one’s duty.”

      1. Hmmm, I was thinking that the Zen attitude towards duty would probably be that the concept is unnecessary, and as likely to be an impediment to right action as not. Zen has meant different things to different people in different times and places, though. The Zen monk Takuan Soho speaks of the duty of the Samurai class as something immutable and inarguable – mostly, I think, because he was describing what he saw, not because he thought that there was anything necessarily desirable about a fixed set of socially approved behavioral requirements.

        In Zen, “There is nothing you have to do, there is nowhere that you have to be; yet, fire burns and rain falls, and it is useful to know about these things.”

        In Stoicism, “It is one’s duty to be guided by one’s Ruling Principle in all things, and not to be turned aside from what is known to be the greatest good by the mere pleasures and pains of the body, or threat of death, all of which will come whether we will it or nay“.

        Or at least, that’s how I’ve been interpreting it! I am fond of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and read it quite frequently, but I’m certainly not any sort of authority on Stoicism.

  32. Thanks for this piece. I have a friend who, like the author, turned to stoicism in favor of Buddhism, and she seems much the better for it. But to each her own, of course.

    I also enjoy contemplating the sky and its ever-changing hue, and also the moon. Last Fall I was rewarded with a view of the International Space Station at mid-day–a rare treat indeed! Not that I contemplate the cosmos in the hope of being directly rewarded, but still… there it was.

    When stuck in traffic, as I was for twenty minutes just before reading this essay, I like to look for crows. I almost always find one. I find their (apparent) omni-presence comforting–like the sky, in a way.

    As for the assertion, by another commenter, that the sky MUST be blue… I’ll be sure to tell my Martian friends. Oddly, they insist that the sky must be pink.

    1. “Look for crows… There are almost always crows.” Thank you for this wonderful piece of advice. I will use it in the future!

  33. I vote for keeping ‘weiran’ @ #44 in this thread. I know it’s spam, but I’m finding the Engrish to be soothing. A nice Stoic mantra, if you will…”Autumn a new season, summer fade…let us meet cool autumn…” So poetic!

  34. A good explanation of what Stoic practice is. There does come a point, though, when I get positively panicky when thinking about losing certain things. Would the Stoic then plan a strategy to eliminate such panic at its source?

    ©2010, Robert.

  35. To quote (the Zen Master and founder of Soto Zen) Dogen, “Training is enlightenment.”

    Chasing some carrot-on-a-stick ‘enlightenment’ is not Zen.

    Props to the author for studying Stoicism, I highly rate it and was amazed at the similarities with Buddhism when I read a wee bit about it. Minus-props for dismissing Zen due to a poor understanding it, though!

  36. I’ve read the book, and I enjoyed and found interesting everything relating to philosophy, but this post reminds me of something I found problematic- namely, his characterization of religion (and also his history. But that’s another matter).

    Though it is stated in a far more mild manner in this article than the book, the assertion that religions are simply concerned with buying their way into the afterlife and just endorse a form of enlightened hedonism for life itself is something you’d expect to see in a undergraduate essay- it’s sophomoric at best, the kind of overly simplistic and unsupportable claim you get from someone in one field who cannot be bothered to engage with another that they view as lesser.

    It’s also hard to escape that a lot of hellenistic philosophy- including that of the stoics- was synthesized into Christian theology in late Antiquity. As a result, there is a shared history of thought. They are not as unconnected as it may be convenient to assume.

    Plus, classical religion did not seem overly concerned with bribing one’s way into the afterlife. In fact, it was more of a civic function, in some ways, a duty that kept the world turning but that there was no point getting worked up about. Its place in the world was not to answer questions about the meaning of life or provide the key to living a good one. (Of course, I’m far more familiar with Roman religion than Greek, but I think the same must also apply.) Those questions were primarily in the sphere of philosophy (even when it did not quite go by that name). Yet since late antiquity, it seems to me that religion did step into that role…to be practiced by pretty much the same people: Not the ordinary folks, but the scholars and the thinkers. In regards to Ancient Rome, you might call them the ‘literary elite’, and while the rise of literacy in the modern world has made them stand out less, I’d argue they still exist. Primarily in academia.

  37. As Yamada Koun Roshi used to say, “The purpose of zen practice is the perfection of character.” Fundamentally there is no distinction between enlightened thought and realized thought. “Ordinary mind is Buddha.”

  38. I found the statement “I also started making use of the Stoic technique known as negative visualization: I would periodically contemplate the loss of the things and people that mean the most to me. ” reminded me all too much of those cheerful educational films where some industry tried to drive home how important it was: “Did you ever stop to think about what a world without zinc would be like?”

  39. My own “Zen” experiences are nothing like what you describe. The satori moments that come sometimes are not very interesting. They are not enlightenment, and probably have more to do with sex, frustration and pot than any nirvana you might be contemplating.

    The funniest “satori moment” I ever had was finding a dirty, folded up $20 bill under my foot, back in my needy student days.

    There were always two kinds of “Zen” here in the West. The phony drug-induced San Francisco Zen of Holden Caulfield and Alan Watts and Allen Ginserg, and the peculiar Japanese Soto Zen that came over later. There’s a dojo a few blocks from where I live here in Cedar Rapids. The nun in charge is American, but trained in Japan.

    “A special transmission beyond words”… Zen was a reformation, in its time. I don’t believe the stories at all. I believe the aura.

    Cynic, n. Where you wash the baby the stoic brings.

  40. Apparently I’m a long time stoic.

    Thanks for putting a name to it.

    One exception, the blue sky exercise in negative.

    I don’t do it that way. I appreciate pretty much anything life throws at me. A dark and stormy sky is a seemingly chaotic event but the patterns are astonishing. Even the so called dull dreary gray days have their uses and positive aspects. Exceptions to this are few and far between.

    I’ve always told people I exist under the self imposed delusion that the world was put here for my amusement. I am amused.

    1. The Roman Stoics seem to have been remarkably active in the politics of their time–active enough that they tended to get banished and/or executed. Indeed, of the four leading Roman Stoics (Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius), only Marcus avoided banishment, but then again, he was emperor!

      Stoicism is not about dropping out of society/politics. It is instead a strategy for retaining one’s tranquility while remaining involved in them!

  41. I heard an interview with you a few years ago on NPR and I found myself staring dumbfounded at the car radio. I was amazed that another person shared an outlook that I thought was mine alone. (in other words, as an athiest, my quests for ‘truth’ have been lonely ones.) I have always joked that I am an optimistic pessimist and believe that experiencing the cold, deadly clutch of winter is imperative to enjoy the warm, kiss of spring. But my views are not shared by many, and I have learned to keep quiet. After hearing you speak, I was encouraged and intrigued by your practices and I bought your book. I now use many of your techniques and can attest that it is a very uplifting and inspiring way to approach each day. Thank you so much for all your hard work and for generously sharing your views. You have deeply influenced my philosophies.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. As I like to tell my wife, “My goal in writing is to change people’s lives . . . possibly for the better.”

  42. I always thought a lot of that was just common sense. I guess I know what I can call myself now. whee.

  43. By far, Stoicism was the best thing I discovered in my philosophy classes in college. I even used that ‘stuck in traffic’ example in a paper I wrote on the subject. It also helped to learn about stoic thought only months after my mother passed away and just as I was struggling with the idea that their was no god or afterlife. That it was focused so much on daily life (the only life we KNOW we have) made the idea of an afterlife irrelevant. And whether my mother had passed on to and afterlife was also irrelevant because she lived such a beautiful life and those memories could never be taken away from me.

    Even though Seneca was something of a hypocrite (lived a life of luxury even as he owned many slaves), the stoic lifestyle and philosophy was one of the most profound discoveries I made in college.

  44. I’ve been using Stoic reasoning for years. I wasn’t even aware it was Stoic reasoning when I started. But as someone that suffers from depression, seeing things in the negative comes naturally to me. I think I prefer Buddhism more however. :)

  45. What a treat, to find that someone else is out there stumping for the Stoics. I read Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus a few years ago, myself, and found Aurelius, particularly, to be very powerful stuff.

    I also began reading up on Zen (like you, seeing compelling similarities and fascinating differences), and I have to say, I think you’ve given them rather short shrift. I suggest “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” by Shunryu Suzuki — it punctures the obsession with Enlightenment, and does so quickly, in the first few chapters, so you can get past it to the good stuff. (And Suzuki is from the Soto school, so he doesn’t emphasize koans)

    I continue to be interested in both, and to take pieces from both when they make sense to me. For example, in addition to your stoic negative visualization, you could always try contemplating Buddhism’s five remembrances:

  46. For those interested in the writings of Marcus Aurelius, I recommend “The Essential Marcus Aurelius” edited by Jacob Needleman and John Piazza.

    There’s also the (now-finished) AudioStoa podcast at which examines the writings of the philosopher Epictetus.

  47. Add me to the chorus saying, “huh, I was a Stoic and didn’t know it.”

    The first time I heard this use of the term “middle path” was about 2 hours before I read this article. I was reading a work of fiction and the main character had a brief encounter with someone preaching the middle path. It struck a chord with me, which was only reinforced by seeing this article. I love it when the universe yells at me like this.

  48. I know a lot of this seems obvious to some people, but for many it’s really not, and they often spend a lot of money on drugs, therapy, shopping, and other diversions as a result. The price of a book is cheap by comparison, and if these ideas can modify a few brains to be happier, it’s great value for the money.

  49. In ancient Greece and Rome, it was common for people in the upper classes to adopt a philosophy of life

    I’m struck that so few people nowadays (of any class) adopt a philosophy at all. So many of my actions are conditioned responses to events or stimuli, unconnected to any larger framework for negotiating life. Simply contemplating the relationship of daily re/actions to an overall pattern of behavior and meaning might be beneficial, even if it doesn’t land at Stoicism.

    1. “I’m struck that so few people nowadays (of any class) adopt a philosophy at all.”

      They’re capitalists.

      Thanks for the essay. Interesting stuff. I’ll be reading the next 2.

  50. very interesting… i too had a very incorrect understanding of Stoic … have you compared Stoicism to Taoism at all?

  51. I also am having a “so that’s what I am” sort of moment with stoicism. In 2007 I was struck by a car that ran a red light and suffered serious injuries all over my body including moderate brain injuries. On the way to the hospital my ambulance was struck in a second accident when somebody failed to yield it’s siren, t-boning it. I was lucky to avoid death twice within 30 minutes!

    The absurdity of the entire thing proved comforting after the fact. Maybe it was part morphine but reading the newspaper article, unable to move, was very emotional but always ended with laughter. I’d look down at my foot which had swelled to nearly twice it’s size and just keep laughing. I didn’t realise it at the time but I guess I was experiencing quite a philosophical breakthrough. I even fessed up to my mom that I snuck booze from the liqueur cabinet, hahaha. Ever since I find myself much less bothered by things out of my control. Often to the amazement of people around me, these days I’m quite cool headed about even the most major inconveniences. I’m the service industries’ favorite customer. I really am just glad to be alive.

    I’ve always had trouble approaching philosophy or religion with any sort of label. They always start out great but then one rule pops up and I discover I can’t be in love my synth collection or something and I move on. I’ll try stoicism on, but will probably just take away a few lessons and continue the No Name approach.

    Either way, thanks for this article and I look forward to future installments. I’ll pick up your book if I can find it when I’m out tomorrow. I’m currently just roaming Europe, enjoying the fact that I can walk again. Also the little things like English breakfast and brown sauce. I also enjoyed bumping into Cory Doctorow in London, but that’s no little thing at all!

    Who knows, maybe your book is my chance to fulfill every North American 20something’s dream and find myself in Europe, hahaha.

    1. Surviving a catastrophe is one way to regain your appreciation of life. The problem is that you can’t count on experiencing a catastrophe, much less surviving one. So, the Stoics came up with a Plan B: engage in negative visualization. Almost as effective, and you can do it ten times a day and be no worse for the wear.

      1. Also related is the “funeral effect”. With a large extended family, funerals reoccur. After each, it is easy to remember that some things truly matter, but most don’t. For a time. But the effect fades. A month or three later, one is back to forgetting to distinguish what is important. Until the next funeral.

        Negative visualization sounds like not waiting for the funeral, and not letting the insight die away each time.

        [RETRY 2]

  52. Funny story, my (god fearing) wife called me “stoic” one day. I didn’t know exactly what the word meant, but in context I understood what was implied. Unfortunately, she was using it to label me for my reactions to the seemingly trending deaths in both of our families. She was breaking down at any given time of the day and was utterly consumed by the events. Looking back, I probably did seem like a stone cold person. Not because I was insensitive, but because I accepted what was happening.

    I looked up the word stoic.

    What I found is that its how i’ve always lived my life, only I never knew there was a word for it.

    I never needed to be told what it was, I never needed to be trained on how to do it. I evidently figured it out for myself and developed it into my own personality, which is pretty awesome I think! :)

  53. Young Grasshopper. The Zen Master is not afraid of death. Once you master that, everything else is nothing. I suggest you read Zen in the Art of Archery. Nirvana can come to any who are unafraid to be so bold as to proclaim it. Years to master? Perhaps. Time is but a perception.

  54. Thanks for the nice article, so far. I have been a practicing Stoic since my high school days, almost 20 years now. I remember using negative visualization since grade school, but I was always attracted to the idea that life could be happier if one did not react with unthought, emotional response.
    Needless to say, I was not the most popular person in school. I did have many interesting discussions about emotional vs. intellectual responses — better, though, than the typical christian fare I had to deal with living in the Bible Belt!
    I, too, have studied buddhism, but have always been turned off by the asceticism needed to be a full ‘follower’ — and this tends to be true of all the various buddhist sects. I have had difficulty with the idea that my mind needs to be ‘suppressed’ to achieve ‘enlightenment’.
    I think the world would be a better place if more people followed the personal responsibility requirements of the Stoic concepts. I may not be able to control what happens, but I can control my response to it.

  55. one might also notice stoicism’s parallels with AA, which has 2 tenets (among many others): that resentments lead to enslavement and unhappiness, and that serenity in the midst of life is an essential tool for living.

  56. I cannot proclaim to be an expert in any forms of Buddhism, but in what little I’ve learned about zen specifically is that it is a philosophy that makes no promises or threats. If you’re practicing zazen to attempt to experience enlightenment then you have already failed.

  57. Wow, thousands of words about the skillful management of one’s own subjectivity, and barely a thought about connection or sympathy with anyone else.

    Call me crazy, but I’ve had pretty good luck with the sage advice of Walter Alexander Willis: “The way to be happy is to make other people happy.” What’s being advocated here sounds like, in the words of my friend Elise Matthesen, “Stoicism reinterpreted by somebody who is OCD about emotion the same way some people are OCD about germs.”

    No crack, no light gets in.

  58. Ancient Sanskrit texts mention a form of stoicism called Vairagya, which is a kind of dispassion or detachment from the material world, and a resolve to not let worldly attachments come in the way of one’s ethical principles. Many Hindus practice this even today. In an ironic way, this also gives them the freedom to enjoy each day as it is presented to them, a sort of carpe diem. It also leads to the impression that Hindus are fatalistic, but their attitude is not much different from The Serenity Prayer. The phrase used to express this concept is ‘tatahastu’ which translates to “so be it” or “Let it be” :)

  59. a stoic looks in the window of a shop and thinks “what a lot of things i don’t need.”

    this is why its always hard to buy stoics birthday presents.

  60. i had come to these same philosophical conclusions myself after a few years of soul-searching/existential-drama :)

    it’s cool to find that there is an actual philosophical movement that matches my own values and what i consider to be logical/rational conclusions about how to be happy and make others happy. i will have to read up on it further. looking forward to your follow-up articles.

    since my little philosophical/existential breakdown, i feel i am a much better and happier person living what seems to be a ‘stoic’ lifestyle.

  61. Great essay Mr. Irvine.
    I recently read Aurelius’s ‘Meditations’. At the same time, I was learning about Zen. I was also struck by all the similarities. I want to learn more about Zen, but I’m discouraged by all the enumerations (4 truths, 8 fold path, 3 causes of this, 5 of that, etc. etc.)

    So I’ve tabled that for now; I’m currently reading Seneca.

    BTW, I compiled my favorite selections from Meditations here:

    I hope some of you can enjoy it.

  62. Actually, WBIrvine, it was Antisthenes went to brothels, not Diogenes — although the latter lived in Corinth (a place renowned for luxury) part of each year; and it is very unlikely that he ever tried to reform prostitutes since, like that other well-known Cynic, Jesus of Nazareth, he wasn’t given to moralising unto others but rather accepted them as they were.

    1. It was the person I replied to who made the claim about Diogenes going to brothels. I was simply arguing that if he did appear at one, it is unlikely, for various reasons, that he would have availed himself of the services the prostitutes provided. More likely, he wanted to harangue whomever he found there. And I hate to play the scholar, but what is your source regarding Antisthenes?

  63. One question that occurs to me, and I’m not so bright so maybe it’s obvious, is how Stoicism as “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die” (or “appreciate this grape, and this piece of cake, and this bottle of wine”) ultimately takes one to an end other than that experienced by James Dean.

  64. William, William, William. I don’t know where to begin. I have noticed a trend in people that many tend to follow:

    They get a taste of Insight and think they can do something like have an objective, refined opinion about something like Zen.

    Who do you think you are to feel you have been able to fully digest, absorb, objectively compare and dispose of Zen in comparison to Stoicism as a practice? This is absurd!

    To start, your assumptions about Zen are quick, ignorant, and outlandish.

    Spend hours a day trying to empty the mind of all thought?????? And the rest solving koans? The most popular of which is the one hand clapping example???? YOUVE GOT TO BE KIDDING. I sense this condescending, snide tone to your childish view.

    Zazen is NOT ANYTHING CLOSE to “trying to empty the mind of all thought”, nor is Zen about supressing analytical abilities, and the rest of the time is NOT solving those wacky silly koans, and the one hand clapping “koan” is a question from Confucious!

    Sure, Zen and Stoicism, just like Zen, Christianity and Islam, and all Philosophy, and all Psychology, and all Sociology, and all Biology, Chemistry, Physics/Astronomy, overlap. It is all UNIVERSE, REFLECTING ITSELF.

    You spent a few weeks, a couple months, READING (which Zen takes lightly) random excerpts and things about Buddhism and had a few epiphanies from your subjective perception about how Stoicism trumps, but to even think one can do something like compare Zen and dispose of Zen is EXTREMELY cocky, not to mention ignorant. Your quick formulations of what you think ZEN IS are WAAAAAAAYYYYY off, extremely western, surface-valued, fear-based, and again, ignorant.

    I hightly recommend meditating and seeing what is that meditation even is in the first place. It is done, just like Yoga, for its own sake. Action and purpose fused as one ie, Enlightenment itself.

    ENLIGHTENMENT is not something “dangled in front of you” like some light at the end of the tunnel, that you aren’t sure you’ll ever get.
    We ARE enlightened ALREADY, this is what Buddha meant when he said we ALL ARE of Buddha Nature, we just forget and cling and suffer ourselves.

    Your subjective perceptions about every aspect of Zen are absurd and naive.

    Please, before preaching on BoingBoing again (You are one of millions who has read Stoic writings),

    read Steve Hagen’s “Buddhism is not What You Think”, and listen to everything you can by Alan Watts, and contemplate the four noble truths, and read the Yoga Sutra, and try not to fall into the trap of the bliss of how it feels good to think you’ve got a refined attitude and opinion towards something.

    1. Mostly what I’ve learned from this thread is that Zen Buddhism is not a cure for crankiness.

      I had a declarative Buddhist (ie – uses the words ‘my sangha’ in every other sentence) come to one of my eclectic meditation classes. He was fuming and twitching around like a bug on a pin because I wasn’t ‘teaching it right’.

      1. Well, there’s 84,000 different aspects of true teaching, I’m told. You must have been very good for his bhudda-nature, giving him so much room for self-improvement!

    2. *uckabees, I strongly believe you could benefit by spending a lot more time in zazen, and focusing on the nature of dukkha.

      It would appear that you haven’t yet made the connection between attachment and suffering, nor have you come to grips with Buddha’s declaration that the Dharma is like a boat that gets you across a river — once you’ve crossed the river, you may abandon the boat.

      Now back to the cushion! Don’t make me get my staff!

  65. Gosh, sorry to disappoint! And yet, it is perhaps understandable that I would be confused by what, exactly, Zen is. It is, after all, a doctrine that is famous for its ineffability: “He who knows cannot say; he who says does not know.” And to be honest, this is one of the things that I found intellectually disturbing about Zen.

    In Stoicism, by way of contrast, what you see is what you get. There are no deep mysteries that will someday (maybe) become clear to you if only you persist in your practice. Start practicing Stoicism today and you will know by, like, next Sunday whether it is working for you. (But will take much longer for you to “internalize.”)

    But bottom line: I am delighted that Zen is providing the thing you seek.

  66. Bah. Talmud tangentialism all the way, baby. (As a Happy Traditionalist, I do see this very honest and well-written piece as one part of an ongoing and large-scale “return to tomorrow” — selectively mining or reappraising some of the traditions we so eagerly cast off during the Age of Logical Positivism. Perhaps so the path of Zen itself, though I don’t speak as a practitioner; not all traditions are broken. Well done, sir.)

  67. What’s with the Copyright? is there anything about BoingBoing’s use of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license that you or your publishers dislike?

  68. Zen and Stoicism are alternative means of avoiding “presuffering”, each works for some people and not for others.

  69. I think the world is too big and the mind, body and universe
    too complex daily to conform to one philosophy, doctrine or frame of thought. its to oneself what works for him, and that changes,
    day by day. Someone can be a ‘zen buddhist’ in the morning, a ‘hedonist’ in the afternoon, and a ‘stoic’ at night. We’re 3d! :)

  70. um….zen buddhism required suppression of analytical facilities? not hardly (i’ve been a buddhist for over 25 years, tho not specifically zen). in fact, keen intelligence is a prime requisite for making headway in buddhism. also, the reason enlightment isn’t guaranteed is because someone can sit on their cushion all day, but if they lack actual understanding of what they’re trying to do, progress is slow. just for general info: in zen and all buddhism, the root practice is simply sitting and watching your mind. mind never stops, it goes from hopes to fears to lists to memories, and so on. in simply watching it daily, noting what passes thru with awareness (“ah, now i’m running a fantasy of getting my bosse’s job, now i’m worrying about my dress at the dry cleaners’), you begin to see mind and awareness as it is. you also begin to grow more aware and mindful in daily life. as your mind does what it does, and you note it carefully then let it go — by which i mean, you try not to cling to the happy stuff and supress the unhappy stuff — your “enlightment” grows naturally. it’s no trick or secret, nor complicated in and of itself, but also there’s extensive and very insightful, subtle writings in buddhism over centuries that compare only with the best philosophers in all cultures. stoics are much like buddhists, in fact, so its not surprising you were drawn to both. but i think you missed what buddhism actually is.

    1. Zen Buddhism does seem considerably more anti-analytical than the non-Zen variety. I agree with you entirely that you can learn a lot from watching yourself think–and watching what little control you have over your thoughts! You can also learn a lot, as you participate in life, from being a spectator of your own participation. Why did you respond as you did to the day’s events? In particular, what were your motives for responding? (It is often easier, I have found, to fathom the motives of other people than to fathom my own motives.)

  71. it is sad that my first comment under my registered name did not pass the screening process. It was constructive criticism of somebody who tihnks they have fully digested something they havnt and undeservedly feels the ability to objectively condescendingly pass judgement on a practice. I have officially lost faith in the illuminati-inspired roots of BoingBoing.

    I cry.

  72. Well, it seems that I have arrived late to this party; but I do want to add a point or two. First, re: the difference between a philosophy of life and a religion:

    I would argue that the main difference between a philosophy of life and a religion is that a philosophy of life is chiefly concerned with the relationship between ψυχή (psyche: the individual self) and κόσμος (cosmos: the world we live in), whereas religion is chiefly concerned with the relationship between κόσμος (cosmos) and θεός (theos: the divine — i.e. that which transcends the world we live in) and/or between ψυχή (psyche) and θεός (theos). Many, though not all, religions come pre-packaged with their own associated philosophies of life; and many, though not all, philosophies of life have religious undertones or implications; but it’s certainly possible to have a philosophy of life without a religion, or vice versa.

    Stoicism is a philosophy of life, not a religion; but it does have religious undertones/implications. Stoicism has been embraced by adherents of various religions, including Greco-Roman paganism, of course; but also Judaism and Christianity. It has even been argued that the Apostle Paul was heavily influenced by Stoic teaching, because the advice he gives in his New Testament epistles to his Christian readers about how to live their lives — particularly about how to deal with suffering — sounds a lot like the advice that Stoic teachers of his day gave to their disciples.

    @jdparadise: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die” is not Stoicism. You’re thinking of hedonism. Stoicism is not in the least bit hedonistic. Although Stoicism teaches you to appreciate the pleasures of life while they last, it does not encourage you to pursue those pleasures. If food comes your way, then eat and enjoy (but not to excess). If drink comes your way, then drink and enjoy (but not to excess). If the opportunity for merriment comes your way, then be merry and enjoy (but not to excess). But if no food, drink, or opportunity for merriment comes your way, then so be it — life does not owe you these things. Don’t waste your life pursuing the pleasures of the flesh; because true happiness does not come from pleasure. But, on the other hand, don’t force yourself to abstain from the pleasures of the flesh, either — they aren’t inherently bad; and they do add some spice to life. Accept whatever comes your way, whether plenty or privation. Enjoy what you can. Endure what you must. That is the Stoic way.

    BTW, the famous expression, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” actually comes from the Hebrew Bible: It’s a conflation of two passages; one from Ecclesiastes and the other from Isaiah:

    “A man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and be merry.” (Ecclesiastes 8: 15)

    “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die.” (Isaiah 22: 13)

    1. “Drink, for tomorrow we may die” may be found in the Hebrew Bible, but I doubt that that is where the phrase originally “came from”.

      Some phrases (amongst other things) which may be found in the Bible(s) may pre-date the Bible(s), in my view.

      1. Good point. But, as far as I know, the Hebrew Bible is the oldest extant written source to contain that phrase; and it entered the popular vernacular in the modern Western world via the Bible. I seriously doubt that it would be a common proverb today if it weren’t for the Bible.

        1. Drinking parties were common enough in ancient Greece, centuries before the New Testament: and intemperance was the hallmark of the Northern barbarians, long ages before they had ever seen (much less paid attention to) their first priest.

          The Western world has roots other than just those one may find in the Bible.

          1. True. But I was speaking only of the origins of this specific proverb, not the origin of the sentiment behind it. Given the fact that the wording of this proverb in English is so close to the wording used in the King James Bible, I have to assume a connection. One of the basic principles of philology is that identical wording is indicative of a common source. (Professors also rely on this principle to detect plagiarism.) After all, the sentiment expressed in this proverb could have been expressed in a number of different ways (e.g. “Life is short, so have fun, get drunk, and feast to your heart’s content,” or “Drink up, eat up, and party hard, because there may be no tomorrow”). So, the fact that the proverb uses the same wording as the King James Bible is a pretty strong indication that this was its source. Even if you examine other English translations of the Bible, you find different wordings: “eat, drink, and enjoy life” (NLT); “eat and drink and be glad” (NIV); “eat and drink and be joyful” (ESV); “to eat and to drink, and to rejoice” (YLT). It seems pretty clear to me that the wording used in this specific English language proverb is lifted from the King James Bible; though, as you correctly point out, the sentiment expressed in this proverb probably predates the Bible and would certainly have been embraced by Greco-Roman hedonists, and would have passed into Western culture via their influence (though almost certainly with a different wording).

    2. Hmmm, late to the party perhaps but you come bearing gifts!

      I like your religion/philosophy dichotomy. It doesn’t apply to all faiths and philosophies (since some purposely equate kosmos and theos) but it certainly describes most of them.

      1. Thanks for the kind words. And you are correct to note that, in cases of truly pantheistic religions/philosophies, which hold that κόσμος = θεός (i.e. that cosmos and theos are one and the same thing), the distinction between a religion and a philosophy of life would break down.

  73. Having read only Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life and being thoroughly impressed by it(“You live like mortals in all that you fear, and immortals in all that you desire”), I’d be interested in what this book has to say.

    I would like to add to comment #22 regarding your observations about zen buddhism, however, in that it is less goal orientated that you might have led the reader to believe. Enlightenment and perhaps even satori while cited as a goal in some zen teachings, isn’t so much a carrot dangled in front of the practitioner, as it is something that is to be treated the same way as feelings of euphoria that arises during meditation or zazen: it is to be ignored. The point is to continue the practise meditation until it becomes part of your life, or as you said regarding the lesson by the Stoics, internalized. If the path towards mindfulness enspoused by the Stoics in through conditioning and experience, zazen is no less different, except for the method that builds on what is intuitively there.

  74. Peace, order, good government, and the liberty of the citizen, are inseparably and indissolubly bound to each other: these rise and fall together.

    Our philosophic, or constitutional, political discussions (IMHO) seem often to be only concerned as to which of those desiderata ought to be given the greater emphasis in the course of our more mundane political deliberations.

  75. The fact that you are searching for happiness via imagining negativity implies that you are feeling insufficient.

    There is something more primary… imagining negativity to induce the release of endorphins is like medicine for pain, or treating the symptoms.

    Where is the feeling of insignificance coming from?

  76. I don’t know if anyone will read this far down in the comments, but just wanted to mention this.
    Maybe it is a form of stoicism….but I have always read (and enjoyed??) books about people whose lives are much “worse” than mine. “The Gulag Archipeligo” comes to mind. Also try Mark Twains ” A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court”, and the journals of Lewis and Clark. Anything about the Donner Party.
    My wife and I talk about our ” at leasts”. At least we are not 2300 miles apart, like we were for 8 months once. I like the idea of saying “At least we are not in Iraq” as someone commented…..

  77. ” Or, even worse, the conversation can put the person on the defensive. If he routinely spends his days exchanging his tranquillity for a (quite possibly unsuccessful) shot at the acquisition of fame and fortune, he will not take kindly to my “foolish bargain” comment.

    In either case, he might resent what he will construe as an attempt by me to impose my values on him, and his resentment might be expressed indirectly, by ridiculing Stoicism.”


    Or probably many other life philosophies. Sad, really.

  78. “the Stoics (and in particular the Roman Stoics) valued tranquillity, and by tranquillity they had in mind not the kind of numbness that can be attained by downing a third martini, but instead the absence of negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, grief, and fear, from their life.”

    As if it was that simple. Negative emotions are a sign of something positive. Anxiety and fear indicate that you have something that you would not like to lose – not necessarily an LCD tv, but also a good life. As for grief, I think it is absolutely normal to mourn the beloved dead. Grief shows that you acknoledge the loss of something important and valuable – even if you could do nothing to prevent the loss. Getting rid of the negative emotions would entail losing the positive ones as well.

  79. The Zen conception of enlightenment has nothing to do with achieving a higher state of being, a different plane of existence, and end to pain. Pain and negative emotions simply are. You can’t ever stop that. You just want to liberate yourself from turning them into suffering. That you can learn to control.

    Nirvana is Samsara, i.e., what we typically call Enlightenment is no different than/not separate from the world of suffering and delusion we live in. That’s the only world there is… that’s reality. Enlightenment is about learning to recognize one’s thoughts as thoughts, recognizing that they are not objective reality, recognizing that the nature of all we encounter and are is impermanent, recognizing the nondual nature of reality (way beyond my ability to explain well) and using that training to see things ‘as they are’. Seeing things as they are is being ‘enlightened’. No one can do it 24/7, including the Buddha, and that’s okay. Sitting zazen is the very act of being enlightened. There is no active achieving of being here, now, no way to ‘achieve’ being as reality is. You’re never not in reality. You yourself are never not real, even when delusions.

    So you concentrate on being in the eternal moment (that’s all there is) and every moment you are in the moment you are enlightened. It’s just uncovering that natural state through the work of, in this case, Zen training. It’s certainly not the only path, although I’d argue that all paths to that (including Stoicism utilize the same basic concepts and disciplines to varying degrees.

    Zen is anything but anti-analytical. Yes, it’s about ‘doing,’ but it’s also all about looking into yourself… knowing thyself in the Socratic sense. Sure, a major part of that work involves touching that state of being fully at rest, even beneath thought. But plenty of work does not. My teacher is a former physician and psychiatrist who routinely integrates concepts from cosmological physics into his Dharma talks. His teacher was a chemist. Both scholars, both integrating their minds and aptitudes into their training because anything else would be ‘not practicing’. Use everything that is you–use everything in reality period–to practice enlightenment (it’s a practice, not a thing). That’s Zen.

    Hell, you even used misconceptions about Zen to find yourself a path that seems to be working for you. How Zen. ;)

    Thanks for the awesome article. As a Greek-American fan of classical antiquity, thought, philosophy and humanism in general, I am loving this resurrection of such an important and eternally relevant school of thinking. Philosophy that practically helps one live life meaningfully and minimizes suffering. Can’t beat that with a stick. Unless it’s a sh*t stick.

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