The Essence of Stoic Mindfulness

What makes Greco-Roman mindfulness different

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

The essence of Stoic mindfulness is presence and principles.

The idea of presence has much in common with modern mindfulness.

An influential definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” If you’re mindful, you’re more aware and accepting of your current reality. Today’s Western, Buddhist-influenced mindfulness is about how we pay attention.

Understood this way, mindfulness enhances Stoicism. What Stoic mindfulness urges us to do is improve what we pay attention to, not merely how. It’s important for the Stoic to build up the ability to stay in the present, maintain their focus, and notice their environment. However, it's not sufficient. After all, skills of mindfulness can be utilized for any end – even bad or worthless ones. In order to transform yourself into someone excellent, it’s essential to keep the Stoic target in mind. Further, there’s a significant difference between Stoicism and modern mindfulness. The Greco-Roman philosophy requires that we make judgments – not in the sense that we hold judgmental attitudes towards other people – but in the sense that we must accurately judge what is good and true.

In his chapter On Attention (Discourses 4), Epictetus urges us to keep 3 rules in mind:

Stoic mindfulness involves the how and what of attention. The how: we ought to pay attention in a specific way – in the present with objective calm. The what: we must also keep the Stoic principles in mind. The Stoic skillfully uses their faculty of attention and remembers to apply the Stoic principles. This is what Marcus Aurelius is aiming to internalize by writing his Meditations. He writes:

Wipe out the imagination. Stop pulling the strings. Confine thyself to the present.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.29

When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstances, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep on going back to it.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.11

The world is constantly presenting us with impressions to judge and decisions to make. With mindfulness, we can stay on top of this and avoid sleepwalking through life. With Stoic philosophy, we can make better judgments and decisions.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius is urging himself to pay attention well and never forget his principles. That’s the essence of Stoic mindfulness: presence and principles.

🎯 Action

Practice Stoic mindfulness by staying present and keeping with Stoic principles in mind today. Keep things simple and focus on a single Stoic maxim or principle.

🔗 Links

🧘‍♂️ Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life is the famous take on mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

🎧️ Listen to this detailed discussion with Greg Lopez on how he thinks about the relationship between Stoicism and Buddhism. You may also find this episode between Michael and me on this very topic instructive.

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