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


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.