Monday, November 13, 2023

Stoicism: Marcus Aurelius and Zen

 The Joy of Stoicism? Marcus Aurelius?

I just read an article by Brian Daly in the digital magazine, The Collector.1 The article is entitled “Why Has Stoicism Gained Popularity in Modern Times?” I’ve been quoting Stoicism for years in my talks and without having previously given it much thought, I realize that I completely understand the connection Brian makes between Stoicism and Mindfulness! I would extend this connection further to include a somewhat superficial resemblance to Zen Buddhism: “Chop wood, carry water.” 

But first I suppose I should make some statement about what Stoicism is. Usually, it is quoted to us as pithy aphorisms, but it essentially embraces the yogic path in its emphasis on non-reactivity to life’s ups and downs. A Stoic accepts life as it comes and strives to live a life of calmness, integrity and self-control. In many ways the Stoic resembles those who practice mindfulness and Zen (and all the traditional meditative paths) because all express non-attachment and practicing the present as the middle way of achieving equanimity and contentment.  

I practice Kriya Yoga in the yoga lineage of Paramhansa Yogananda, author of the popular classic, “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Kriya Yoga appealed to me because I felt the Buddhist way did not have an aspiration for upliftment of feeling and consciousness. Just chopping wood and carrying water was not enough for me.  

My perception at the time, as I look back, was inaccurate and superficial because meditation, properly practiced within any of the accepted traditions, awakens within us the joy that is our own nature. Zen has, moreover, a delightful sense of humor, epitomized in its famous koans.  

The striking similarity of Stoicism to mindfulness came to me slowly over the years of teaching meditation. But “pure” mindfulness by itself can leave one asking, “Is that all there is?” Don’t we also seek joy? Shouldn’t negation be balanced by a positive affirmation?  

During those same decades, psychology was expanding to include behavioral therapy. This resonates with yoga and its lifestyle with the basic idea that to be happy one must affirm happiness! In hatha yoga, you move the body and hold a position that induces a particular quality of thought and feeling. In the practice of Ananda Yoga, we have affirmations for each pose that reflects the specific quality and attitude of that position (asana). Affirming positive attitudes is a valuable behavioral modification therapy. “As we think, so we are” goes the popular expression. But does an affirmation of a positive attitude run counter to mindfulness, Stoicism, and non-attachment? Let’s explore. 

By not reacting emotionally to outward circumstances, Stoicism resonates with the core teaching of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Verse two of Book One states the basic premise of yoga in words loosely fashioned like this: “The state of yoga (perfect equanimity) occurs when the oscillating polarity of the reactive process of likes and dislikes, thoughts, imagination and memory subside into a steady state of deep calmness and pure, unbroken awareness.” 

It is a common reaction to such precepts to object that these practices lead to a state of consciousness devoid of feeling. The reason the calmness of one-pointed focus on the moment seems to rob us of feeling is due to the habit of associating superficially stimulating but fleeting emotions with our frenzied activities. With the deliberately steady practice of mindfulness meditation, we achieve progressive degrees of quietude and calmness our of which dawns an inner sun of happiness and well-being. Like the story of the tortoise and the hare, victory (happiness) goes to the steady, Zen-like Stoic-yogi!  

Moreover, Stoicism, like yoga and Zen, isn’t practiced in order to achive the dubious goal of making us lifeless robots. Stoicism, for its part, affirms various active and positive virtues such as courage and moderation, to name just two. Yoga encourages devotion to the Supreme Spirit (in whatever name, form, or formless state appeals to your heart) while Zen fosters compassion and respect for all life. These positive intentions bring us a natural satisfaction and calm, inner joy. It’s not unlike outgrowing the restless, somewhat frenzied energy of a child in preference for the calm adult-satisfaction of sitting with a friend in meaningful conversation. 

The positive consequences of equanimity are NOT mere opposites of negative moods. The quiet satisfaction, joy, compassion and connection that results from the deep practice of self-awareness and calmness reflect the deeper nature of our consciousness. This deeper nature is our center. It does not possess a dual, opposite side.  

I can understand Brian Daly’s article about the growing interest in Stoicism because it naturally induces a calmness that can be an antidote for the over-stimulation, dizzying range of choices, and high expectations of success and pleasure that are so common today. The same motivation applies to many who seek to learn to meditate.  

Another modern phrase or attitude that coincides with these practices is the value of delayed gratification. Much is admitted in our culture of the flaws associated with seeking short-term profits, pleasure, or success at the expense of longer-term, more stable rewards. Paramhansa Yogananda stated that “Loyalty is the first law of God.” He might as well have stated as “Patience is the shortest route to success!” Again, the tortoise wins the race.  

Since here we are speaking of happiness—a state of consciousness—our reference to the poor tortoise should not be mistaken for a dull or mindless attitude of endless repetition. In meditation, we re-direct our attention inward and onto a mental image, thought, feeling or awareness of breath or mind. As we turn towards inner awareness, our awareness quickens even as our metabolism slows down. Regular meditation increases the depth and breadth of our perception and intuitive intelligence. Therefore, in an odd kind of way, meditation sharpens our inner range finder in part because the calmer we are, the less static thoughts and passing emotions block our view of what is true. 

Stoicism represents the “via negativa” or first stage in getting off the merry-go-round of our emotional, reactive life. Meditation, added to stoic attitudes and habits, awakens within us our higher, happier nature. With the regular practice of meditation, we can discover that we begin to see a new world—a world brighter and more meaningful because devoid of the colored filters of our own subconscious tendencies.  

Who, then, would have thought to connect ancient and classical Stoicism with modern mindfulness meditation, Zen, Yoga and behavioral psychology?  

Blessings to you while you connect the dots of life! 

Swami Hrimananda