Stoicism and suchness

Maria asked in a comment on my previous blog what the similarities are between Buddhism and Stoicism, and I gave a rather didactic answer in the comments section, but I wanted to explore it a little more, because there is an aspect to Stoicism that perfectly expresses a Buddhist principle that doesn't get much love, and that I personally have found to be very helpful.

The principle is this: that things are as they are.  That seems kind of obvious, but think about how we tend to relate to things, and it becomes clear that there really is something important to be found in this statement.

Whenever I find myself upset, I can always trace it to a state of mind that is not accepting what is happening at the moment.   A state of mind that wants to reject what is here, what I can work with, because it should be some other way.

This is pretty easy to notice, actually.   When I'm driving, do I feel this wish that the person in front of me were behaving somewhat differently?   That the person behind me were not following me so closely?   There is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) tension that comes up when these models of what should be arise in the mind.

One of the joys of a mindfulness practice is being able to notice these even when they are quite subtle—I remember driving down to Virginia a couple of months ago and having this idea of when I wanted to arrive, and this constant very gentle but unpleasant noticing of the difference between what I wanted and what was happening.  The way it arose was just in this moment-by-moment ongoing wishing that the person in front of me would drive a tiny bit faster, or that traffic would ease just a tiny bit.

Nothing major, barely noticeable on a conscious level unless you are doing mindfulness practice (long drives are a great time to do this, by the way).   But what really struck me was that when I noticed it, I was able to let go of it, and then suddenly, magically, I felt this lovely sense of contentment.   What I found interesting about this is how close I was to that contentment when I was in the sort of grey, slightly-but-not-very annoyed state of driving in traffic and wanting it to go faster.

Since then I've played with this quite a bit, because that sense of contentment is a nice place from which to live.  It's not a complacence.  You might imagine that if a person is contented, they will not try to change what is, or that accepting what is in this moment means that there is nothing to do.   My experience has been quite the opposite—when I am in this state of contentment, I'm much more able to see what to do.   In traffic, what to do is just drive, of course, but I've noticed that I can access this flow of contentment when I am programming.

The way it manifests when I am programming is that it's just okay when something isn't working.   The next step is easy to see, because my mind isn't clouded by dissatisfaction.   It might take hours to get to the point where whatever obstacle I have encountered has been characterized and dealt with, but those hours pass by pleasantly, without any sense of frustration, even though what is happening is something that might, if I were being less mindful, really be quite frustrating.

This is the Buddhist idea of suchness, and the Stoic idea of amor fati.  Suchness is that things are as they are.   Amor fati is loving one's fate.   To quote Marcus Aurelius,

“Every hour focus your mind attentively…on the performance of the task in hand, with dignity, human sympathy, benevolence and freedom, and leave aside all other thoughts. You will achieve this, if you perform each action as if it were your last…”

The point of Stoicism is not to grimly endure whatever comes.   It is simply to spend one's effort dealing with what is.   If my situation is unfair, it is still my situation.   If I want the world to be a better place, the surest way to prevent myself from bringing about that change is to pretend that it is already how things are, or that merely by crying out to the sky a clear description of the injustice, the world will see its mistake and adjust.

Things are as they are.   If we want them to be different, one way to become more able to bring that about is to get in touch with suchness, and always to act from that solid foundation.