A recurring theme in popular discussions of Stoicism is a perceived affinity between Stoicism and mindfulness techniques adapted from Buddhism. This modern version of mindfulness, often abstracted from its original context, promotes attention to one’s immediate experiences and often proceeds by recommending paying close attention to the experience of one’s own breathing. The Stoic idea that we ought to keep our thoughts not on the past or future but rather the present moment (e.g. Marcus Aurelius 12.3) looks like it might offer some form of parallel here. Did the Stoics in their comments about the importance of focusing on the present moment propose something close to modern versions of mindfulness?
I want to suggest that the Stoics did have their own version of mindfulness but that it was quite different from the modern version adapted from Buddhism. While that version encourages paying attention of our immediate sensory experience (e.g. our breathing) in order to draw our attention away from anxieties or destructive thoughts, the Stoic version proposes that we continually keep in mind a series of key philosophical principles so that they can guide our action in each moment. So, while modern Buddhist-inspired mindfulness attempts to shift our attention from thoughts to experience, Stoic mindfulness attempts to replace unthinking actions shaped by habit with conscious actions shaped by philosophical principles always kept ready to hand.
There are two interesting texts where this idea is developed, one in Epictetus and one in Marcus Aurelius. The key term here is prosochê, which is usually translated as ‘attention’. Epictetus’s Discourses 4.12 is devoted to this notion. There Epictetus exhorts his readers to pay attention not to the present moment but rather to a number of fundamental principles, none of which will come as any great surprise to readers familiar with his work: i) no one can control another person’s faculty of choice (proairesis), ii) this is where all good and evil reside, and so consequently iii) each person has complete control over good and evil in their lives. What is striking is Epictetus’s insistence that one’s attention to these principles must be maintained at all times without exception and that if one falls into inattentiveness poor behaviour and distress will follow almost immediately. Epictetean mindfulness demands constant vigilance lest one lose sight of central Stoic ideas even for a moment.
In the Meditations we can see Marcus Aurelius trying to put this idea from Epictetus into practice. The key passage is Meditations 4.3. Here Marcus recommends periods of retreat during which one might reflect on ‘brief and fundamental truths’ already within the mind in order to ‘wash away all distress’ and to attain ‘perfect ease’. He then gives us a couple of examples of what he has in mind, such as reminding himself that he is by nature a social animal in order to keep in check any anger he might feel towards people who behave poorly. He goes on to suggest that there are two fundamental ideas that must be kept ‘ready to hand’ (procheiros): i) that mental disturbances are the product not of things but of our judgements, and ii) nothing is stable and everything passes, subject to universal flux. He then summarizes these two principles as concisely as possible in order to aid memorization: ho kosmos alloiôsis, ho bios hupolêpsis, which might be translated expansively as ‘the cosmos is in continual change; the concerns of human life are the product of opinion’. What is striking about these two key principles that must be kept ready to hand is that they are not ethical principles relating to conduct. Instead one comes from Stoic physics, the other from Stoic logic. (Marcus is interested in logic and physics – not in the details of logical and physical theory, but rather living in accord with a series of logical and physical claims central to Stoicism.) In Meditations 4.3 as a whole he shows us how reflecting on doctrines in Stoic epistemology and physics might contribute to the cultivation of a mind at complete ease and in good order. His version of Stoic mindfulness involves keeping these maxims abstracted from Stoic physics and epistemology continually in his conscious mind.
So, while the Roman Stoics do often encourage us to pay attention to the present moment rather than dwell on the past or be anxious about the future, their own brand of ‘mindfulness’ is quite different from the sort of thing people usually associate with the term today. Rather than try to empty the mind of everything and pay attention to one’s sensory experiences in the present moment, Stoic mindfulness involves continually repeating and reminding oneself of the central Stoic ideas according to which one is trying to live. Hence the importance of short summaries (Epictetus’s Handbook), memorable maxims (such as Marcus’s above), and daily reading practices.