On control

Stoics and Buddhists

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where do I look for good and evil? Not to the externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own. -Epictetus, Discourses

This pithy quote on control does not come from the Pali Canon or the words of a Kadampa master of the Himalayan plateau. It is a quote from Epictetus, a Roman Stoic.

Stoicism was a movement started by philosophers who would meet to teach and debate at the stoa poikile, a painted portico with pillars from which the school’s name derived, in the agora of Athens.

They studied logic and physics, but their primary concern was ethics. The goal was excellence, or virtue (arete) which they saw as synonymous with happiness (eudaimonia). Stoic disciplines aimed at removing delusion and disciplining emotional life.

Stoicism

The Stoics stressed the difference between what is ones control and what isn’t. Ones focus follows this dichotomy as well. Simply, a Stoic focuses on what’s in their control and accepts what isn’t. 

What’s in ones control:

  • what one does

  • what one says

  • what one thinks

What isn’t:

  • what others do

  • what others say

  • what others think

Like Buddhism, modern Stoicism is grounded in the insights of ancient teachers who believed that overcoming self-caused suffering should be at the center of philosophical inquiry.

Once one understands what is in and what is out of ones control one can be more focused and efficient. If one knows that it is pointless to waste time and energy on things in which they have no power, they will be freed to focus on the things in which they do have power over.

The core of Stoic practice summed up nicely by Epictetus, as the recognition that “some things are up to us, and others are not.” What is up to us are our own opinions, and the desires and aversions we assent to. What is not up to us is everything else—things like the behavior of other people, our health, our lifespan, our reputation, or our wealth. We should cultivate equanimity towards these externals.

Stoicism has an unwarranted reputation for cultivating a life of repressed emotions and lack of empathy. The Stoic aim known as apatheia does not mean thoughtless indifference, but rather freedom from afflictive emotions (pathos), chief of which are distress and fear. Apatheia results in a healthy emotional life, known as eupatheia.

A stoic is not a sociopath devoid of emotions, rather a stoic is someone who is able to meter their emotional responses through reflection and discipline. Sociopaths are born, Stoics are cultivated.

Like Buddhism, Stoicism is often misunderstood in the West. Stoicism and Buddhism have both been misconstrued as individualistic because of their focus on tranquility and self-discipline. Contrary to this parody, Stoicism emphasized human dignity and civic responsibility. It was Stoicism that first popularized the concept of cosmopolitanism, that all of the world (cosmos) is my community (polis).

Marcus Aurelius once wrote to himself:

When you think you’ve been injured, apply this rule: If the community isn’t injured by it, neither am I.

Buddhism

Buddhist principles unfold along the the noble eightfold path, the middle way: lead a balanced life that is not too lavish or too stringent. This is a life that is focused, it is lived with intent, it is filled with tasks that are meaningful.

  • Right view

  • Right intention

  • Right speech

  • Right action

  • Right livelihood

  • Right effort

  • Right mindfulness

  • Right concentration

As the Buddha put it, “Gain and loss, status and disgrace, blame and praise, pleasure, and pain: these conditions among human beings are ephemeral, impermanent, subject to change. Knowing this, the wise person, mindful, ponders these changing conditions. Desirable things don’t charm the mind, and undesirable ones bring no resistance (The Failings Of The World Sutta, AN 8.6).” As in Buddhist meditation, many Stoic contemplations center around visualizing the impermanence and uncontrollability of all things.

Buddhist’s might object that nothing is under ones control. Isn’t everything not-self? The Buddha asserted, however, that there is a faculty of choice that human beings possess and can be cultivated.

What would the proper focus of our choices be? To follow the path. The development of the path in Buddhism equates to what is up to us in Stoicism, and we can imagine the Buddha agreeing that one should not desire anything other than the path. Though the Buddha famously opposed tanha (craving) he named chanda (desire, or aspiration, here directed at the path of practice) as a factor of the path itself. While desire for the impermanent and uncontrollable is a source of suffering, for the Buddha desire for the path is pure.

Whether one follows the principles of discipline and refrain inherent in Stoicism or the path of Buddhism it is clear that each practice has lasting effects on not only happiness and equanimity but on ones ability to focus and execute.

Focus

Lack of focus pervades modernity. One can seldom start and complete any task without being distracted by myriad environmental stimuli. Many incorrectly believe focus is merely applied to cognitively rich endeavors such as studying complex subjects or tasks like playing chess. While these tasks require one to be supremely focused, they are but a small subset of tasks that one should maintain upmost focus on while performing.

The list of tasks one needs to focus on can be added to ad libitum. The key is cultivating the ability to narrow ones focus on the task at hand in order to execute at the optimal level. In short, everything one does well requires full attention and focus. This point can be argued by those that believe in flow states, a flow state is a state one enters when doing a task that is familiar yet challenging. I am proponent of flow states, but do believe that even in these states that feel effortless, one is supremely focused.

One needs to focus on one thing at a time to be most efficient, there are not shortcuts. The myth that some people can multi task is extremely overblown and downright misleading. When one is required to listen - one should listen intently, when one is reading -one should read fastidiously, when one is writing - one should write attentively. Don’t do things passively, be active in life at all times. Act with intent.

The partial becomes complete; the crooked, straight; the empty, full; the worn out, new. He whose desires are few gets to them; he whose desires are many goes astray. - Lao Tzu 

Focus should be applied to what one consumes (eat, watches, reads, listens to) and does across myriad planes. The choice of what to read, the choice of what to eat, the choice of how and when to sleep, the choice of partner, and the choice of money management all of these things need to be chosen and carried out with intention and focus. All of these areas are vital to ones overall survival and well being in the modern world. Yet, it is difficult to focus on one area at a time to make the best decisions. It is very easy to deliberate with oneself as to the tradeoffs in each category. Living in abundance of choices across nearly every domain has lead many to poor choices and inaction. Strip away distractions and externals to act on what is most important. If one doesn’t actively manage ones attention someone else will do it for them.

The application of fractals to thinking of focus is fitting. On the one hand one can focus on the entirety of ones life and on the other hand one can focus on the task in front of them. This is not zero sum, long term and short term focus work together towards the cultivate of a good life.

Focusing on the entirely of ones life vs the moment to moment ellipses allows one to make long term decisions that don’t take away from the present. When one decides to pick up weight lifting because they know that it will benefit their future selves, that is focus on a longer time outcome, yet carried out in the present. Understand that by doing something in the present you are making a deal with yourself in the future. Decisions and actions are weighted in terms of trade offs. One is constantly trading time and attention for other things one values. We are always becoming, not simply static beings. As Heidegger said “Accept all responsibility for the decisions you make.”

When viewing ones life in its totality is is often said that Happiness is the ultimate end because all things one pursues ultimately terminates into one seeking happiness. Aristotle wrote that no matter what one does with their focus it is aimed at deriving Happiness. Love making, vocation, exercise, and consumption are all driven by the happiness function.

First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do. - Epictetus

What one chooses to focus on is ultimately a personal decision. The decision can and will be influenced so it is ones responsibility to focus on the right things and to hone ones focus on what is vital to health, wealth, and happiness. One needs to focus on the root of what one does in any circumstance, simply their desire that compels them to act. Desire is the prime mover, the ability to cultivate ones desires is a powerful tool to direct ones life towards flourishing and away from fading.

As Seneca wrote, explaining why he quoted Epicurus, the founder of a rival philosophical school, “I make a practice of going over to the other camp, as a spy, not a deserter!” To that end, let me leave you with a gift from Marcus Aurelius which offers both comfort and a spur to practice in our troubled times: “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

Both Buddhism and Stoicism knew that to achieve the deep transformation they were after intellectual understanding was not enough, so the practical training was an integral part of the path. In Buddhism there were different kinds of meditation and a formal meditation practice, whereas in Stoicism as far as we know the practice involved more things like reading and memorising texts, daily reflection and visualisations, with the aim of really embedding the principles into daily life.

Focus is not always on what is most virtuous, focus can easily drift to the vices that surround us. So, focus on what truly matters in the grand scheme of your life and the moment in which you are currently in. Create a mental model of what focus is and apply it to all that you do. Focus is akin to achieving the flow state in everything that you do. Long term planning should be done with focus, short term decision making should be done with focus, and the task at hand should be executed with focus. Cultivate practices that will be of benefit in modernity through the assistance of ancient wisdoms embodied in Stoicism and Buddhism.