Sunday, December 28, 2014

Free Your Thoughts with Stoicism, Buddhism and Epicureanism

I have long been interested in the parallels between Stoic and Buddhist insights about the mind. When people from vastly different cultures arrive at the same ideas about human nature, that's strong evidence in their favor, I think
My point is that their shared insights about the process of the thought — controlling the emotions by controlling the perception of reality — are important because of their implied universality.
The emphasis on thought control and clear vision is the same, I think. “The example is given of the person who mistakes a coil of rope for a snake at twilight and becomes terrified. When he realizes his mistake, his fear subsides and his desire to run away disappears.
“What is needed for liberation, then, Nagarjuna reasoned, is essentially correct vision — to see things as they really are — rather than to embark on a flight from one supposedly imperfect reality (samsara) to a better one (nirvana). Nirvana is thus reinterpreted … as a purified vision of what is seen by the ignorant as samsara. It follows that nirvana is here and now, if we could but see it.”
That’s from “Buddhism: A Brief Insight” by Damien Keown, but the ancient Greeks had the same insight.
Here, for example, Epictetus' thought parallels the Buddhist quote. “As for us, we behave like a herd of deer. When they flee from the huntsman's feathers in affright, which way do they turn? What haven of safety do they make for? Why, they rush upon the nets. Thus do they perish by confounding what they should fear with that wherein no danger lies,” Epictetus said. “Reflect that the chief source of all evils to man, and of baseness and cowardice, is not death, but the fear of death."
And compare the Buddhist emphasis on relief from suffering as the reduction of desire to this Epictetus quote: “The origin of sorrow is this: To wish for something that does not come to pass.”
This quote attributed to Buddha sounds quite Stoic to me: "Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a giant tree in the midst of them all.” Compare that to Epictetus: “It is the part of an uneducated person to blame others where he himself fares ill; to blame himself is the part of one whose education has begun; to blame neither another nor his own self is the part of one whose education is already complete.”
Epicurus headed a rival school at the time of the Stoics, and Epicurus' view of pleasure echoes the Buddhists: “When we say that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasure of the profligate or that which depends on physical enjoyment — as some think who do not understand our teachings, disagree with them or give them an evil interpretation — but by pleasure we mean the state wherein the body is free from pain and the mind from anxiety.”
Both Buddhism and Stoicism remind you to calmly and carefully observe not merely reality, but the way that reality is reflected in your mind.
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them,” said Epictetus. “Whenever you are angry, be assured that it is not only a present evil, but that you have increased a habit.”
“Zen meditation is often misunderstood as a practice of stopping thoughts or having no thoughts, but it’s actually a practice of noticing thoughts,” author Kim Boykin observed. “Zen is not about eliminating thoughts, but illuminating them.”
I’ve linked an insightful essay by Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at the City University of New York. He compares Stoicism, Epicureanism and Buddhism. Among other things, he writes: “Both Buddhists and Stoics, for their part, developed techniques to improve people’s mental well being, and there is good empirical evidence that those techniques do work (though my personal preference is for the more reflective Stoic approach rather than the overly meditative Buddhist one).”
“The ultimate goal of the Stoic was apatheia, or peace of mind, which I think is akin to both the Epicurean ideal of ataraxia and the Buddhist goal of nirvana (again, with due consideration given to the significant differences in the background conditions and specific articulation of the three philosophies). And of course Stoics too had a ready-made recipe for their philosophy, in the form of a short list of virtues to practice … These were: courage, justice, temperance and wisdom,” Pigliucci wrote.
“Perhaps more interestingly, though, all three philosophies arose and thrived in times of social and political turmoil, within their respective geographical areas. This is relevant because I think it may go some way toward explaining some of the similarities I am interested in. Of course, Buddhism still thrives today, with hundreds of millions of followers. Epicureanism and Stoicism, on the contrary, largely exist in textbooks, the main reason being Christianity: as soon as the Christians took over the Roman empire they put their newly found political and military might in the service of the one true god and persecuted both Epicureans and Stoics. Both schools were officially abolished in 529 CE by the emperor Justinian I, that prick.”
Times of social and political turmoil, eh? No wonder they’re relevant again.

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