Stoic Zen Stuff

It’s been a long time since I’ve written much longer than an email. The last ten months (and counting) have been a time of extraordinary health problems, with six hospitalizations, three abdominal surgeries, bouts of diverticulitis, pneumonia, and gout, and eighteen weeks away from work either in the hospital (44 days total) or home recovering from surgeries. I lost over fifty pounds, not all the “good” kind of weight loss, and went from feeling big and strong to frail and weak, and at the time of writing I’ve gone ten weeks without being able to tolerate solid food, so almost all of my nutrition comes intravenously. I live in interesting times.

While there’s been a lot of physical trauma, and months of fatigue, and the whole not-being-able-to-eat-solid-food thing, with the exception of a few low moments my mental state has been good. Often I have experienced extended periods of psychological peace, equanimity, and even joy. A nurse not so subtly grilled me about depression (a bad symptom to have if you want to be released from the hospital), and I replied that I don’t get depressed. I learned to deal with general depression and existential angst decades ago when Nietzsche and Camus saved my life, but in the past few years my mental health and my ability to remain calm and focused have improved significantly from the Stoic study and practice I wrote about a few years ago, as well as the Zen study and meditation practice I began around the same time (strictly shikantaza until now, almost all alone). They were preparing me even better for adversity I couldn’t have foreseen, and adversity you can’t foresee pretty much describes life. Handling professional problems with equanimity has become very easy compared to dealing with almost a year of major health problems without anger, depression, or resentment.

Stoicism and Zen (and other varieties of Buddhism) complement each other in many ways (and I’m hardly the only one to notice this), with Stoicism being somewhat like Zen without the zazen, but you could argue the zazen is everything. As the 13th century Zen master Dogen said, “Each moment of zazen is equally the wholeness of practice, equally the wholeness of realization.” Stoic practice is more about rationalizing your way to psychological peace and joy, while Zen moves past the rationalizations and the rationalizer towards mindfulness developed through meditation leading (possibly, eventually) to enlightenment. Both have been helpful, but I’ve gradually focused more on Zen study and meditation as a way developing mindfulness and inching towards whatever enlightenment I’ll ever be able to achieve. Stoicism was a good gateway drug into Zen, because the existing written corpus is so small–and the issues familiar if you’ve read Aristotle–and it requires no physical discipline, but the physical discipline helps train the mind. On a somewhat related note, while Zen is usually considered a religion, I’m more like many Western students of Buddhism and treat it as a philosophy, specifically a form of virtue ethics.

The Dichotomy of Control

Within both there’s a technique that Stoics call the “dichotomy of control,” where you try to learn how to focus your mental effort and well being only on things you can control and let go of the rest. Epictetus begins his Handbook (or Enchiridion) with a well known passage about what you can control and what you can’t: “Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own.”

When you understand what’s within your control or not, then you work on reducing your often negative reactions to things outside your control. “From the start, then, work on saying to each harsh appearance, ‘You are an appearance, and not at all the thing that has the appearance.’ Then examine it and assess it by these yardsticks that you have, and first and foremost by whether it concerns the things that are up to us or the things that are not up to us. And if it is about one of the things that is not up to us, be ready to say, ‘You are nothing in relation to me.’” Over time, it’s possible to get better at identifying and dismissing such “appearances.” Some believe that Stoicism is a fatalistic philosophy, but it’s only after you work to control what you can that you understand what is truly out of your control, and to rage about that is just foolish.

I can say from experience that responding to each “harsh appearance” works, but it took me years to get there. One measure is how I react to traffic, which has always triggered anger in me. One time I screamed myself hoarse shouting at someone who stopped in the entrance lane to I-95. Now I can’t remember the last time I got angry in traffic. If someone cuts me off in traffic, or someone else doesn’t go as fast in the passing lane as I want them to, getting angry or upset about it is ridiculous and irrational. As long as I don’t engage in road rage revenge, my anger harms nobody but me. And with 7 billion people on earth, what’s so special about me that everything should go exactly as I desire at every moment of the day? And why react with anger rather than compassion? Maybe the person who cut me off was unaware of her action, or the person driving slowly in the passing lane was so caught up in his psychological problems that he couldn’t focus. Our anger often attributes evil intent to actions that we’ve done ourselves before without such intent. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that” (X.30). Or maybe, and this seems very likely, almost everyone around us in traffic is mostly mindless of what’s happening around them because their thoughts are trapped elsewhere. Should the proper response be anger, or pity?

Fortunately, it’s not just in traffic that I’m able to achieve some equanimity. My wife noticed during one of my many days in the hospital that when in some pain I might snap at her, and then very quickly catch myself, become mindful of my emotional state, and apologize. I would try, and sometimes succeed, to bring myself back to the moment just as I would bring my attention back to the breath when meditating. What I realized–as in made real for myself–is that my anger makes nothing better, and it affects me and those around me negatively. It just took lots of reminding myself to focus again on my emotional state and rationalizing every time I’d get angry or peevish to realize that, and the meditation practice made it easier to return to the moment. The same technique works whether I’m angry, or in pain, or have blood gushing out of places in my body from which blood should not be gushing. Instead of cultivating the negative emotions that normally accompany such activity, I’ve learned how to distance myself from them and cultivate positive emotions instead, or at least neutral emotions.

Buddhism has a related approach to what’s in our control and “up to us.” Here’s a passage from the Alagaddupama Sutta (the Snake Sutta) that reminds me of Epictetus: “Therefore, monks, abandon what is not yours—your abandoning it will bring you good and happiness for a long time. And what is it that is not yours? Physical form is not yours. Abandon it—your abandoning it will bring you good and happiness for a long time. Feeling is not yours … Conceiving is not yours … Volitional forces are not yours … Consciousness is not yours. Abandon it—your abandoning it will bring you good and happiness for a long time.” The Buddha goes further than Epictetus, who would still consider “volitional forces” and consciousness within our control, but both Stoicism and Buddhism act on the assumption that one can learn to control or abandon “desires and aversions,” our greed, hatred, and delusion.

The Discipline of Judgment

Related to the Dichotomy of Control is the Discipline of Judgment. In the Stoic scheme, the Discipline of Judgment allows one to tell the difference between what is within one’s control or not, or what is just an “appearance” and not the (usually harmful) thing that appearance pretends to be. How we feel about the things not within our control is up to us. From Epictetus’s Handbook again: “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things. For example, death is nothing dreadful (or else it would have appeared dreadful to Socrates), but instead the judgment about death that it is dreadful—that is what is dreadful.” Other people don’t “make” us angry, unless they’re capable of some sort of mind control. The anger is all in our mind. “So when we are thwarted or upset or distressed, let us never blame someone else but rather ourselves, that is, our own judgments. An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly; a partly educated person accuses himself, an educated person accuses neither someone else nor himself.” (Enchiridion ❡5)

For the Stoics, the combination of the Dichotomy of Control and the Discipline of Judgment allow one to attain equanimity, to gradually eliminate the effect of pathological emotions like anger and envy and cultivate healthy emotions like joy, empathy, and gratitude. Buddhists use the terms “unskillful” and “skillful” to describe such emotions. How we see the world depends on what we expect to see, and much of our anger and disappointment with the world is based on our unwarranted expectations that the world should be exactly the way we want it to be at all times, or at the very least fair some of the time. If the world doesn’t satisfy our ego’s constant need to get what we want and avoid what we don’t want, we get frustrated, angry, or disappointed, but the problem is our foolish expectations, not the world. The hard part is training our mind and aligning our foolish expectations with reality. As Ronald Pies wrote in his book on Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism, “if you ask more of the universe than it can give, you will most certainly be unhappy. If you stop doing that, there is at least a good chance your unhappiness will decrease dramatically.”

Similar passages occur in the Dhammapada, for example in the opening chapter on “Dichotomies”: “All experience is preceded by mind, Led by mind, Made by mind. Speak or act with a corrupted mind, And suffering follows As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox…. Speak or act with a peaceful mind, And happiness follows Like a never-departing shadow.” Buddhists also believe that what upsets us is our  judgment about things, which is made by mind, not the things themselves. Epictetus believes the uneducated (or, perhaps better, untrained) person accuses others when doing badly. The Dhammapada contains a similar sentiment: “‘He abused me, attacked me, Defeated me, robbed me!’ For those carrying on like this, Hatred does not end. ‘She abused me, attacked me, Defeated me, robbed me!’ For those not carrying on like this, Hatred ends.” It’s not that things don’t happen to us, but that whether we judge them as good, bad, or indifferent is up to us, or at least up to those with trained minds. With the proper training, so both philosophies agree, we can react more skillfully and less egoistically to all situations, whether we would normally consider them “good” or “bad.”


For both Stoicism and Zen a goal is awareness or mindfulness of our feelings and perceptions at all times, although the routes to such awareness differ. Stoic prosochē and Buddhist sati aren’t quite the same thing, but close. For both, we’re trapped in delusions our mind creates. To be aware of the moment and notice how we’re reacting to it without judging that reaction is mindfulness, but then we can mentally stand back and judge that reaction. Is it appropriate? Is it a skillful reaction? Is it good for us? Is it good for other people? And if not, we can alter that judgment. The important thing is the ability to distance our consciousness from our initial nonconscious reactions to events and learn to control them. Awareness is what allows us to use the Discipline of Judgment to exercise the Dichotomy of Control.

A modern Zen master, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, puts it this way in Opening the Hand of Thought: “What is this way of awareness? Let us first consider what it means to be unaware, or oblivious to what is going on around us. All human beings are deluded by our brains and become absent-minded because of our discriminating minds…. We also get caught up in desire, anger, and group stupidity. These are more difficult to deal with, because they are fabrications conjured up in our heads. We create various illusions in our minds and then jump in, becoming immersed in them.” For Zen practitioners, the path to awareness is sitting meditation. Uchiyama continues: “How can we awaken from these illusions? The only way is to open the hand of thought, because our thoughts themselves are the source of illusion. When we let go of our thoughts and become vividly aware, all the illusions that create desire, anger, and group stupidity vanish immediately. This is the way of awareness. We must neither fall asleep nor get carried away by our thoughts. The essential point in zazen is to be vividly aware, opening the hand of thought.”

Stoics also have forms of meditation, but the practice is about rationalizing without less physical and different mental discipline than zazen. One recommendation is to meditate on your activities during the day and ask whether you responded to people or events in a good or beneficial way. Another practice is premeditatio malorum, or premeditation of evils, where you imagine the bad things that could happen in a situation so you’re prepared for them in advance. If you’re going to drive somewhere, you’re going to experience traffic, bad drivers, etc. Be prepared for it and react calmly, because any other reaction is foolish. I’ve been practicing what I call postmeditatio malorum; when dealing with some new health problem I think, “at least it’s not as bad as that time [something disgusting I won’t detail] happened!” There are suggested physical disciplines, such as exposing yourself to discomfort involuntarily to build up resistance (e.g., going lightly jacketed on a cold day), fasting occasionally, sleeping on the ground instead of a bed sometimes, but they take up a smaller space within Stoicism than zazen does in Zen, where the practice is daily.

Gratitude and Impermanence

In addition to equanimity and joy, cultivating gratitude has been immensely helpful. In the midst of illness, especially a prolonged and sometimes painful one, it’s easy to focus on the pain or the unfairness of it all. I seem to have a high tolerance for pain, but still there have been moments when the pain in my gut drove all other thoughts from my mind. However, by learning to mentally distance myself somewhat from the pain, it becomes much easier to bear. From a cosmic perspective, my pain and indeed my very existence are irrelevant, but even from my perspective properly cultivated, it’s difficult to get depressed about pain and illness when I have a loving family, great friends, a good job, a pleasant if modest house, adequate health insurance, etc. A cynic might say, of course you’re fine with all that good stuff going on! But plenty of people with far more material benefits than I are anxious or depressed. No matter how much luck you have–and I eventually understood how very lucky I’ve been in my life–without understanding that luck and being grateful for it you can still be miserable.

A incentive towards gratitude is realizing the impermanence of, well, everything, a lesson of both Stoicism and Buddhism. The egoistic desire that the world be just as we want it at all times is accompanied by the belief that good things at least are or should be permanent. But everything dies. As the Buddha would put it, that which is capable of arising is capable of passing away. Some people might find this a harsh lesson to learn, much like the lesson of their cosmic insignificance, rather than a simple fact of existence. Instead, we can use the knowledge of impermanence to increase our gratitude. Epictetus counsels us, when we’re leaving our house for example, to kiss our children goodbye and to remember that this might be the last time you ever see them. How many people grieve the loss of a loved one by thinking, “if only I’d told them how much I loved them” or “shown how much I appreciated them” or some such. They didn’t learn the lesson of impermanence, which is that the time to tell them you love them or show your appreciation for them is always now.

When my daughter was young, I formed a mindful habit. I spend a lot of time with a computer at home, reading, writing, grading, etc., and if it’s not a computer it’s a book. However, whenever my daughter would come into the room to see me, I would put away the computer (or smartphone or book) and attend to her. I might not win a “world’s greatest dad” competition, but now that she’s grown and off to college, I can rest content with the knowledge that I didn’t abandon possible time with her to “just finish this one thing” that ultimately wouldn’t matter anyway. Some people might actually prefer to spend time staring at an electronic device than spend time with their children, but I’m not one of them. If you truly understand the truth of impermanence, you can at least make that choice mindfully, and be grateful for the time you have, either with your smartphone or your child (or friends, or parents, or whatever).

A Path of Some Kind

Mindfulness is popular now, especially the variety some call McMindfulness, where the goal isn’t really to develop mindfulness, but to use mindfulness to accomplish some other goal, often one that someone else sets for you. In Untangling Self: a Buddhist investigation of Who We Really Are, Andrew Olendzki considers the misuses of such popularity:

There is considerable enthusiasm for mindfulness these days, as long as it does not threaten to make us wise. Corporate tycoons would like to bring mindfulness into their world to help give them a competitive edge, as long as they do not have to spend too much of their valuable time meditating, and only if they can be reassured they will not lose their killer instincts and get all mushy and compassionate. And they are interested in training their workers in mindfulness, as long as it makes them more diligent and accepting of their duty, and does not raise troublesome ethical questions or throw them into a midlife crisis that leads them to drop out to do something more meaningful with their lives.

If mindfulness is about making you a better worker, or more efficient, or some such, it’s popular in workplaces. “Do yoga, work harder,” as an article on the co-optation of relaxation put it. ACRL has published a book on mindfulness for librarians that lists many practical professional benefits as librarians become more mindful of themselves and the people around them. It’s worth reading. I’ve also seen practical benefits, and a lot of this post is about how my Stoic Zen approach to mindfulness has enabled me to come through an unpleasant ordeal in good spirits. I’m not knocking the practical benefits. And, fortunately, I already thought my work was meaningful, so I don’t need to drop out and do something else.

However, the more I study and practice, the more convinced I am that mindfulness, and the meditation that helps develop mindfulness, are relatively empty without some sort of path, whether that path is adhering to the traditional Stoic virtues–prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude–or to the Buddhist Eightfold Path–Right Understanding, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Concentration, and Meditation–or to both, or to some other ethical path. Attempting mindfulness just to make us more professionally effective or personally happy misses the point, which is to make us wise. There’s a paradox, where not pursuing practical benefits somehow brings more practical benefits, because the desire for practical benefits is just another ultimately unfulfillable craving from which we should detach ourselves. The craving for practical benefits is a trap. Thus, I’ve been trying to get past the egoistic obstacle that sees only immediate benefits in order to tread some kind of path to eudaimonia.

If I no longer get angry and scream at drivers who cut me off in traffic, or I don’t get depressed or despondent while dealing with months of debilitating health, the result isn’t just that I’m happier–in both the eudaimonic and hedonic senses–but that I’m less foolish because I’m more free from delusions and irrational expectations about what the world owes me. Expecting pleasant traffic or great health and being disappointed when I don’t enjoy them says nothing about traffic or health, but a lot about my illusions.  In both Stoicism and Zen, a significant goal is to see the world without illusion, to free ourselves from the conditioning of ego or culture that blinds us to reality. Stoics call this living according to nature, Zen Buddhists call it enlightenment. Until we reach Stoic sagehood or Zen enlightenment, we’re all suffering from a form of mental illness according to these perspectives. Even if the perfection of sagehood or enlightenment is never reached, we can still try, and those on the path are progressors or bodhisattvas depending on the wisdom tradition.

I wouldn’t call myself a progressor or a bodhisattva just as I wouldn’t call myself a Stoic or a Zen Buddhist, since I’ve come to think of labels for whatever path I’m traveling to be like the finger pointing at the moon. Despite a growing interest in Zen, I’m not yet interested in committing to a sangha or publicly taking the precepts. I consider myself someone seeking wisdom wherever he can find it, and who wants to live more peacefully and joyfully in the world, and this is just the most practical wisdom I’ve found so far, alongside the yes-saying, life-affirming, self-overcoming Nietzschean existentialism I cultivated in my youth. I’ve been trying to tread a path and incidentally am happier for it, even as I feel the burn. And if it somehow makes me a better librarian, that’s just a lagniappe.

Recommended Books on Stoicism, Zen, Buddhism, and Meditation

Aitken, Taking the Path of Zen

Becker, A New Stoicism

Epictetus, Discourses and Handbook

Goldstein, Mindfulness: a Practical Guide to Awakening

Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

Maezumi and Glassman, On Zen Practice: Body, Breath, and Mind

Nhat Hahn, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

Nhat Hahn, The Miracle of Mindfulness

Radcliff and Radcliff, Understanding Zen

Sellars, The Art of Living: the Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy

Seneca, Letters on Ethics (aka, Moral Letters)

Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice

Yates, The Mind Illuminated: a Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness

One thought on “Stoic Zen Stuff

  1. Greetings, Mr. Bivens-Tatum….What a surprise to find your lovely meditation on Stoicism and Zen! Thank you, as well, for the kind call-out to my own writing on the connections between Stoicism and Buddhism (and Judaism).
    Your incredible journey–physically, spiritually–over the past ten months would have challenged our friend Epictetus himself! Your wise reflections on self-mastery and gratitude are truly an inspiration.

    Best regards and all good wishes for recovery,

    Ron Pies

    Ronald W. Pies MD
    SUNY Upstate Medical University
    and Tufts USM

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