Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

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

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William B. Irvine has written an interesting book on his decision to become a Stoic: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Boing Boing has a two-part essay by him, which I imagine is an extract from the book. The first part begins:

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 [and in my browser, you have to scroll down quite a bit – LG].)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 . . .

Continue reading.

Also see The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 February 2017 at 7:50 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

Tagged with ,

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