Calmer than you are

There’s a scene from The Big Lebowski where the Dude is upset, and hotheaded Walter brags, “Calmer than you are.” But we all know that Walter is faking it.

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What does it really mean to not worry about things that are not up to us?

I just completed a cross-country move to be closer to family. By any objective standard things have gone well. A week after we decided to move a job opened up, and a week later I had an offer. Within 9 days of arriving (on schedule) my significant other was offered her first choice job, and our first choice apartment came through.

So what’s to complain about?

In retrospect the events I stressed over were minor. We had to haggle with the landlord to avoid fees related to breaking our lease. U-Haul’s communication for the delivery of the U-Box was poor, creating uncertainty and last minute schedule juggling. We had more stuff than we thought, and had to make several trips to Goodwill. Avoiding an approaching tropical storm meant a detour which added a day to the drive. And our dog was totally stressed out from 5 days on the road.

Stressors like this seem minor when they’re happening to someone else. But my anxiety levels were sky high, especially because I worried that each event could derail the entire cross country move.

This is not a rational position. Every bump in the road had a simple solution, and none of the consequences were as dire as my fevered imagination would have it. In the end I expended unnecessary energy stressing over unimportant things I could not control—even though I could choose my favored solution.

Buddhists like to say that the point of practice is not to make the waves go away, but to learn how to surf. I write about taking life’s difficulties with greater equanimity not because I am calmer than you are, but because I aspire to be calmer than I was yesterday.

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Stoic Buddhism? Or Buddhist Stoicism? Or neither?

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Stoicism and Buddhism have many similarities, but significant differences as well. What follows is my attempt to modify Stoicism with aspects of Buddhism.

I also modify aspects of Stoicism I don’t fully agree with, such as describing a spectrum rather than a dichotomy of control, and saying that things that are not up to us (externals) don’t cause the greatest harm instead of saying they can’t harm us. Extreme circumstances can cause people to mentally decompensate, and dementia can result in loss of the ability to make effective choices.

Stoicism’s focus is aretê, usually translated as virtue or excellence—the best of what human nature is capable of. One’s practice of these higher ideals defines one’s character.

Buddhism’s focus is the cessation of suffering.  I argue that being people of character—reflecting the best humanity has to offer—would greatly reduce suffering.

Certainly the Buddhist focus on loving kindness—which I more generally refer to as goodwill—is among the best of what human beings have to offer. And goodwill toward self and others is a choice that is under our control.

I would even argue that goodwill is the common thread of values such as justice, courage, self-control, and wisdom (good judgement). As such, goodwill is integral to eudaimonia, or human flourishing. But kindness and compassion are sometimes weak spots for Stoicism.

And while similar to the Buddhist concept of nonattachment, I find the Stoic notion of indifference toward externals to be less realistic.

Further, while Stoicism seeks to restrain destructive emotions through reason, Buddhism seeks enlightenment by transcending the self (which is said to be an illusion). And I would argue that recognizing the illusion of a permanent self—along with Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing—is a rational perspective that can decrease anger and greed while increasing compassion.

I hope what follows is a coherent framework:

  • We all suffer.
  • But the greatest harm comes not from things or events but rather from our judgments of them.
  • Thinking we can control anything other than our choices, values, and deliberate thoughts can result in actions that cause harm, especially to one’s character. We must realize that external things are not up to us.
  • Practicing goodwill toward ourselves and others is a choice that is up to us, and it’s the surest path to human flourishing (eudaimonia). To promote goodwill, reason must restrain overpowering emotions and focus on:
    • Correct understanding: the spectrum of control (externals are not up to us), interbeing, and the illusion of a permanent self. So we must practice nonattachment and realize that life is constant change—everything is impermanent.
    • Good intentions focused on values such as:
        • justice,
        • courage,
        • self-control,
        • and good judgment
    • Compassionate communication.
    • Non-coercive action based on the four values listed above, as well as recognizing what belongs to us and what does not belong to us.
    • Pursuing our livelihood in an ethical manner.
    • Full effort.
    • Focus.
    • And mindfulness.

Practice combines Stoic exercises such as morning and evening reflections, and Buddhist-style meditation. And the inspirational texts of both philosophies are utilized.

This is a viewpoint that accepts modern science as the best explanation for the functioning of the natural world. But it’s open-ended regarding other metaphysical questions. Diversity of thought about God, atheism, life after death, rebirth, nirvana, free will and determinism, and so on is accepted.

And it is tolerant of disagreements regarding what political approach best produces human flourishing. Conservatives, progressives, libertarians, and others honestly believe their political ideals are best for humankind. But there are unacceptable ideologies, such as those that promote hate or deny human rights.

Outrage: Passion as a disease of the mind

What Stoicism says about resisting manipulation.

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Resisting cultural forces requires constant effort. The unending stream of media and entertainment is background noise that influences us more than we’re aware of or care to admit.

And as Russ Roberts points out on his Econtalk podcast, the internet age enables us to customize our newsfeeds to amplify our biases and suppress viewpoints we disagree with. It’s not that human nature is more tribalistic today. It’s just easier to indulge our tribalism compared to decades past.

To make the walls of my bubble less opaque I follow conservative publications such as the National Review and Fox News; progressive outlets including The Nation and The Progressive; and Reason, a libertarian magazine.

What they all have in common, however, are headlines designed to elicit outrage. If you don’t share their bias then the outrage often seems silly. But if you do share their bias then the headline easily evokes anger.

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca writes in letter LXXV that,

“Passions” are objectionable impulses of the spirit, sudden and vehement. They have come on so often, and so little attention has been paid to them, that they have caused a state of disease.

This disease of the mind is

a persistent perversion of the judgment so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or if you prefer we may define it thus: to be too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all.

This doesn’t mean, for example, that we shouldn’t oppose separating children from parents who have illegally entered the United States. But outrage over minor things like the latest mean tweet can diminish the seriousness of issues such as separated families. Furthermore, anger and outrage, including wanting revenge, can cloud our judgement and lead to irrational behavior that fails to achieve justice—or which in the long run might actually make things worse.

Notice how our reactions to harmful things is too often an overcorrection. Street drugs can be harmful, so we throw a pot smoker in prison for 10 years along with murderers and rapists. Globalism sometimes neglects local concerns, so the president declares NATO a foe. Capitalism someones exploits low income people, so we must turn to socialism—even though capitalism has greatly reduced poverty.

But outrage is seen most loudly on social media. Its anonymity—particularly that you don’t actually have to face the person you’re insulting—incentivizes people to say all sorts of horrible things. The problem isn’t just that they think they’re doing no wrong. Most do so self-righteously, implying their moral superiority. The desire to punish transgressors can create irrationality to the point of causing even greater harm. That’s why murders of intimates are often more vicious than murders of strangers.

Stoics philosophy claims that events don’t harm us. Rather, our thoughts about these events harm us. That is, we can choose to put our passions aside and do the right thing even when something unfortunate or harmful happens. Physical or psychological harm may occur, but only we can harm our souls.

If we fail to pay attention to the constant barrage of daily outrages, however, we can get caught up in a pattern which can lead to a disease of the mind—a pervasive anger that never quite seems to resolve. And by paying attention I don’t mean becoming outraged, but rather being aware of the attempt at manipulation so that we can step back and not take the bait.

Stoicism might not be a bummer after all

I’ve heard the Dude is Epicurean. He follows the pleasure principle. Take ‘er easy.

And he’s anything but unemotional. I’ve never heard anyone say Mr. Spock is a dude.

But wait a minute. The Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski is a tale of the Dude being very unDude.

A carpet pisser ruins his rug. And that’s a bummer, man. That rug really tied the room together.

There are two Jeffrey Lebowskis. The Dude is an unemployed aging hippie. The other Lebowski is a millionaire (sort of) whose young trophy wife owes money to known pornographers. It takes the goons a while to figure out they’re at the wrong Lebowski residence.

The Dude was about to realize it’s all part of the durned human comedy. Except his bowling buddy Walter convinces the Dude that he’s entitled to compensation. And the Dude gets uptight and decides to confront the Big Lebowski.

A Stoic dude would have been like, “Amor fati, man. It’s just a rug.”

But in the Dude’s mind the rug is not a preferred indifferent. The soiled rug didn’t mess with his eudaimonia. The Dude’s belief that he was done wrong did that.

The serenity prayer is Stoicism in one sentence: change the things you can and accept the things you can’t change.

Stoicism isn’t emotionless. That’s just being a human paraquat. Calmer than you are. Shoosh.

So someone peed on your favorite rug? Sometimes you eat the bear. And sometimes the bear, well, he eats you.

A wiser dude once said, “Life is change, but that’s only a bummer if you think it is.” Is that some kinda Eastern thing? Far from it. It’s Marcus Aurelius. Maybe I paraphrased a bit. Whatever, man.

Back in the day, Stoics and Epicureans were bowling for different teams. Maybe we still are. But it’s not about winning the semi-finals. It’s how we play the game.

Putting negative emotions in perspective makes us chill. Anger, greed, lust, fear, jealousy are just different words for uptight. In the final estimation Stoicism is about being a good person. And it’s hard to be dudely toward other people if you’re uptight.

But not freaking out over stupid stuff takes a little self-discipline. The Dude wouldn’t have had to put up with all those ins and outs if he hadn’t been greedy for a cut of Mr. Lebowski’s money in the first place.

Stoicism and Dudeism are compatible. Parts, anyway. Some guy peed on your rug? Forget it. Let’s go bowling.

Stoic & Epicurean rivalry

Both can agree that a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona © Dave DuBay

Stoics and Epicureans were ancient rivals. And some modern followers of these philosophies may feel inclined to perpetuate that rivalry. But it’s unnecessary.

Stoics and Epicureans have different answers to what it means to live a good life. There’s no objective answer to this question, of course. Your chosen path is your responsibility.

Stoics believe that virtue—justice, courage, practical wisdom, and temperance—is the greatest good. And not letting negative emotions overwhelm us is essential in this endeavor. As such, it’s crucial to distinguish between what is up to us—our choices; and what is not up to us—external events. We must regard external events as indifferent, not because they don’t matter, but because good or bad is about how we choose to respond to them.

Both philosophies warn against anger and fear—especially fear of death.

Epicureans believe pleasure is the greatest good. But that doesn’t mean sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Epicurus taught that maximizing pleasure requires moderation and limiting our desires. Drinking a glass of wine is pleasurable but getting drunk causes pain in the long run. So avoiding pain is a greater pleasure than a desirable but fleeting physical sensation.

Stoics, however, point out that sometimes doing the right thing means doing something painful. And seeking pleasure or avoiding pain can at times cause pain to others.

Epicureans counter that virtue for virtue’s sake makes no sense—we seek to be virtuous because we find it pleasurable in the long run even if there are some bumps in the road.

But modernism clearly favors one philosophy’s ancient physics. Epicureans were and are atomists. Even in ancient times they believed we live in a material universe in which the gods do not interfere. Ancient Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists. They believed the universe is God and that divine providence plays a central role.

While there are traditional Stoics who adhere to ancient Stoic theology, most modern Stoics have adopted a position similar to Epicurean cosmology. This doesn’t necessarily mean atheism or agnosticism, but it often does. Some modern Stoics are monotheists in the usual sense of the word, and a few are even practicing Christians.

Modern science means philosophical revisions for Stoicism far more than Epicureanism. The Stoic injunction to live according to Nature raises the question, What is Nature? Ancient Stoics said Nature is divine reason—the Logos. But that answer won’t work for a deist, an atheist, or an agnostic.

Nontheist Stoics reject the idea of providence and see fate as synonymous with blind cause and effect. Though Nature is still synonymous with reason, its basis is redefined as the best that evolution has endowed humanity with.

But despite their differences on how to live a good life, there is a common point for both Stoicism and Epicureanism: from a big picture perspective a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable than a life of vice. Individual moments are more problematic, but as a Stoic I hope if I’m tested I will choose to do the right thing even if it’s painful. Of course, I hope I’m never tested in that way.

Who’s the most Stoic Star Trek character?

Mr. Spock is often seen as the ultimate stoic. Yet, Stoic philosopher Epictetus says not to be like a stone statue.

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Can you be emotional and stoic at the same time? No—that’s a contradiction in terms. But can you be emotional and Stoic at the same time? Yes—Stoicism has a nuanced perspective on emotion.

Whether the “s” is capitalized or not matters.

Kolinahr—the final purging of all emotion—is the ultimate Vulcan goal.  Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek TV series, said he didn’t play Spock as emotionless but rather as someone who was suppressing his emotions. This fits the dictionary definition of stoic: “not showing or not feeling any emotion, esp. in a situation in which the expression of emotion is expected.”

Characters without emotions are not compelling, though. Ultimately, Spock ends up rejecting Kolinahr.

Captain Picard from the next generation of Star Trek is similar to Spock in some ways. Picard values reason, and he’s particularly concerned with ethical resolutions to conflict.

But Picard is also a very emotional man. He’s compassionate, and he gets angry often. It’s rare, though, for Picard to let his anger overwhelm him to the point where doing the right thing is no longer important.

Roman Emperor Nero’s tutor was a Stoic who wrote a book On Anger. Living a good life is Stoicism’s ultimate goal, but intense emotions can cause us to act unethically. Seneca notes that passion can override reason, and that’s a problem. And anger is one of the most destructive emotions.

But what about anger in the face of evil? Gandhi could have been angry but wasn’t. Hitler shouldn’t have been angry, but was. Seneca asks us to imagine a ship in a storm. One sailor becomes angry at the sea, the wind, the ship, and his fellow sailors. Another sailor calmly but resolutely grabs a bucket and starts bailing water. Which sailor is going to save lives?

Seneca says that emotions start as an impression, and often this happens without us even noticing it. The first sign is often physical: tense muscles, churning stomach. Then our thoughts kick in, and this is where we need to cut things off at the pass. Once our imagination gets away from us we start to believe that other people really are malicious and deserve punishment. We need to pause, take a step back, think it through, and keep our focus on an ethical solution.

That’s more nuanced than simply suppression our emotions. Absent super-human self-control, it would be much hard to be consistently ethical using Mr. Spock’s approach to emotions compared to Captain Picard.

Stoicism & Western Buddhism

The similarity of Buddhism and Stoicism is not a new observation. But Patrick Ussher in Stoicism & Western Buddhism offers a more nuanced perspective. The similarities apply more to Western Buddhism and modern Stoicism than to the ancient versions of either.

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In both cases, Ussher argues, modern Westerners have revised ancient philosophies to fit current cultural sensibilities. Buddhism has a long history of adapting itself to new cultures. That’s why there’s so much diversity from Zen to Tibetan to Theravada Buddhism. Western Buddhism likewise departs from ancient Buddhism in several key respects: it detraditionalizes, demythologizes, and psychologizes traditional Buddhist beliefs.

The similarities between modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism, then, start from ancient seeds but have been nurtured by modern Western soil. One ancient seed is harmony as an ideal. Buddhism teaches that suffering is an inevitable part of life. Dukkha literally means “bad wheel.” Similarly, virtue is Stoicism’s goal, which is said to result in Eurhoia, or “good flow.” In both cases, wishing things were different results in emotional disturbance.

And while the Buddhist belief that all is mind can be interpreted variously, the Stoic belief that our thoughts are opinions—interpretations of the world—but not reality itself, is also possible in Buddhism.

That we are social beings with social responsibilities is central to Stoic ethics. Marcus Aurelius writes that people must work together like parts of the body work together. Because we are all connected, harming one harms all. This gels with Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing.

There are important differences, however. Mindfulness is one example. Stoic mindfulness, Ussher writes, pays continual attention to the nature of judgments and actions. But Buddhist mindfulness is more expansive. It focuses on greater self-awareness, not only of one’s thoughts but also of one’s body. The Stoic goal is to live according to nature while Buddhism seeks the cessation of suffering.

Further, Stoicism has no tradition of sitting or breathing meditation like Buddhism does. And Stoics have no equivalent of Zen simplicity. Further, while Buddhism has a strong focus on compassion, Stoic virtues center on justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom.

Ussher also points out that modern Buddhist works by Jack Kornfield, Stephen Batchelor, and Thich Nhat Hanh are far more popular in North America and Europe than ancient Buddhist texts are. In contrast, Roman Stoic texts by Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca are very popular among modern Stoics. However, there are significant themes in these texts that many Stoics today ignore—particularly Epictetus’s strong emphasis on God.

Ussher concludes that modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism could benefit from borrowing from each other. Buddhism’s meditation techniques and perspective on compassion can be beneficial even to non-Buddhists. And the same is true for Stoic ethics and practical approach to reframing our thoughts.