There may be no new-age psychological trend as ubiquitous as mindfulness. From yoga studios to cell phone apps to meditation to traditional talk-therapy, mindfulness is finding its way into the fabric of Western culture as a promise of freedom from overstimulation and pressures of capitalism.
Similarly, the Hellenistic philosophical school of Stoicism is on a meteoric rise since its pop-philosophical revival, bringing the ancient philosophy to the forefront of some of the leading minds in the world today. The promises are similar, offering an operating system (analogy courtesy of Ryan Holiday of the Daily Stoic) for how to live a healthy, productive, and meaningful life.
The overlap between these two traditions is vast, but in no way more obvious than the dealings with emotions. To better understand this, let us briefly explore mindfulness, Stoicism, and then their combined approach to emotions and emotional regulation.
Mindfulness is a process by which the mind is reconnected with the body, resulting in the ability to be in the present moment, without judgement. In mindfulness, it is important to distinguish between the mind and brain. “Mind” is a substitute word for consciousness; it is separate from the brain in that the brain is part of the physical body, while the mind consists of thoughts and ideas. The mind requires the activity of the brain, but the brain does not require the mind.
Think of the purpose of the mind as the ability to plan ahead and remember the past, to organize and implement, to do anything that involves reason or “thinking things through.” The body is the physical body, including the brain, and operates with its own knowledge that is separate from consciousness. Think of skin and bone, pain centers and nerves, tension, and intuitive knowing.
The reconnection of mind and body needs to occur because the mind operates fluidly through time, constantly being pulled backward or forward as situations require, but the body is anchored to the present. This disconnect manifests in many ways; at any given moment, people might be completing a task in front of them but ruminating on the past, or worrying about the future. The mind is free to explore all of time— past, present, and future— but settling back into the present with concentration and non-judgment is challenging.
That is where mindfulness comes in. The body and its functions, especially breathing, serve as an anchor point for the mind’s attention, giving it something tangible in the present moment to which it can connect. This initial concentration is strengthened by the exploration of passing thoughts as they enter the mind, acknowledgement of where they came from, and a release and return to the original focal point.
This forms the basic premise for mindfulness meditation, resulting in a reconnection of your mind and body in the present moment. Mindfulness practice can be as formal as deliberate, daily meditation or as informal as remembering that you are breathing when going up a flight of stairs, or checking in with your body for thirty seconds before a big presentation.
The benefits of mindfulness practice are immense, which is why it has become such a cultural force in the arena of self-help. The Western thought tradition has been plagued by the concept of mind-body duality, where the mind and body are distinctive and separate. Philosopher René Descartes codified this theory, which held that the mind was immaterial and the body material, both having distinctive modes of being that were related but disconnected. This conceptualization serves as a cornerstone of Enlightenment-era philosophy, which shapes Western thought today. Mindfulness argues, though, that there is no better way to help yourself than to overcome this duality and bring the mind and body back into oneness.
Eastern philosophy has long taught the benefits of mindfulness. Vietnamese Bhuddist Monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, known as the “father of mindfulness,” brought many of these ideas to the West in his work in the 20th and 21st century. During his 39-year exile from his home country (for outspokenly opposing the Vietnam War), he brought his traditions, teachings, and writings to a Western audience. Through this window, we are able to see into the world of Eastern philosophy and Zen and Taoist traditions.
These traditions teach of enlightenment and ultimate connection between mind, body, and spirit, elevating human consciousness. Often, the stillness exercises of these traditions are pulled into mindfulness practice, with meditation having been co-opted from these as well. New research is being conducted all of the time showing what Eastern traditions intuited long ago, and the necessity of stopping, even for a few moments, becomes clearer every day in our fast-paced, late-stage capitalistic society.
Stoicism is a philosophical school that was founded in the 3rd century BCE by Zeno of Citium, a Greek merchant-turned-philosopher. In its current form, it is a philosophy primarily concerned with ethics and virtue, but in ancient times it dealt with questions of physics and biology as well. From its lowly Greek origins, it became a primary philosophical school in the Roman empire, continuing to get closer to the seat of power until the Stoic Philosopher-King Marcus Aurelius took control of the empire in 161 CE. After this turning point, Stoicism became a historical philosophy that was often studied, but did not have a prominent and active membership.
Historical figures such as Saint Augustine, George Washington and Friedrich Nietzsche were all on record as being familiar with and studying the works of the Stoics but, until recently, that body of work remained relatively untouched, with few additions from modern thinkers. Popularized by a variety of improvement-hungry thinkers, maybe none more so than author Ryan Holiday of the Daily Stoic, Stoicism has vaulted into the consciousness of the 21st century. New works are being added and detailed, theories expanded upon, and communities built around the ethical ideas of the Stoics.
Stoic ethics are primarily concerned with upholding virtue— specifically the four virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance— first in the individual and then in society. In order to distinguish between virtue and vice, and thus determine how best to act, the Stoics developed two broad categories of all things: things under human control, and things not under human control.
Things under human control are “internals,” which are the things that originate in the mind. Broadly speaking, this is the capacity for reasoned choice and the ability to pursue virtue. Anything else is an “external,” including other people, events, and possessions. Even the body is viewed as an external, in that being injured is not solely in our control and does not hinder our capacity for reasoned choice.
Much of Stoicism, then, happens in the metaphysical realm of the mind, providing logical proofs and training to fortify responsiveness over the only thing in our control: our reasoned choice, our actions, our self. Many of the primary texts are full of pithy aphorisms and longer-form advice about how to navigate different situations. Of primary concern is the wrangling of the natural emotions before they transform into passions, which (by Stoic definition) are emotions carried to their fullest extent, resulting in damage to self.
One of the primary misconceptions about Stoicism is that it requires the practitioner to reject all emotions and remain perfectly neutral in the face of grief, joy, and anything in between. That is not so. In fact, the Stoics often talked about joy they felt or grief they experienced. Instead of rejecting emotion, the Stoics sought to put it in its proper place, experience it, and move on from it before it overtook their capacity for reasoned choice.
Herein lies the connection between mindfulness and Stoicism. Neither the Stoic nor the mindfulness practitioner wants to change the emotions, but rather put them in their proper place. Stoicism attempts to achieve this by training the mind to change pathways when emotions arrive, rerouting them before they lead to their more negative outcomes. Mindfulness attempts to achieve this through awareness of the body by the mind, connecting the two in the present to overcome the pressing emotion.
These processes, although pulled from disparate traditions, align very closely, forming two sides of the same coin. A complete understanding of emotions and emotional responses can come from looking at both Stoicism and Mindfulness, as they fill in each other’s gaps.
Seneca the Younger, who is considered one of the Big Three Stoics along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, wrote extensively on emotions. One of the most compelling arguments he makes is on the process of emotional transformation from a natural response to a malevolent force, detailed extensively in his work On Anger. As the title suggests, his primary focus was anger, but his outline for emotional processing can be extrapolated to any emotion.
The outline consists of three phases:
1. Initial emotion 2. Perception 3. Passion
For anger, this breaks down as follows: the initial jolt anger, caused by an external or internal source; the perception that anger is justified and necessary; and the transformation of that anger to vengeance, a passion-form of anger that seeks destruction.
The goal of the Stoic process, then, is to change the perception of the initial emotion and the circumstances surrounding it, rerouting it away from passion and towards indifference, which opens the gateway to forgiveness and acceptance. This occurs by training the mind to let go of externals and realize that only reasoned choice is truly in our control. If, the logic goes, only internal things are in our control, what is there to be angry with? That someone injured us? At least they did not harm our virtue or our reason— only we can do that.
A lot of good can come from the reframing that the Stoic operating system provides, but it is not enough to overcome excess emotional response with sheer willpower alone. It neglects the reality of the body and the physiological and chemical responses that occur in the brain in response to emotional stimuli. Mindfulness provides the solution, elevating the body and its knowledge, bringing it into connection with the mind, so the whole self can continue on the pathway the Stoic theory lays out.
Mindfulness provides a very similar model of emotional responsiveness in the body as Stoicism does in the mind:
1. Bodily Activation 2. Pause 3. Response
In his book Growing Up Mindful, Christopher Willard, PsyD, explores this process. He says: “Eastern psychology suggests that emotions arise in the body before reaching the mind, which creates suffering out of pain and discomfort” (P. 89). The first step, the “initial jolt” of Stoic thought, occurs first in the body before it is processed in the mind. This creates the need for the mind and the body to convene in the moment, because “we can’t deal with an emotion when we are consumed by it or fighting it” (P. 91).
The process of pausing, then, allows for the connection of the mind and body, and is the only pathway to influence perception.
One of the most common ways to pause in mindfulness practice is to name the emotion. “Name it and tame it” is an old saying in psychotherapy; the very process of naming an emotion reconnects it to the critical thought centers of the brain. This allows activated individuals to “pause and respond with forethought, rather than react with emotion” (P. 92). The mind acknowledging the physiological reality of emotion in the body is mindfulness; emotions are felt in the present moment, and the mind can use them as anchor points to draw itself back and establish connection.
In this pause, perception can change. Reason can re-enter the picture. Explanations can be heard and emotions can be rerouted. Appropriate response can be determined while inappropriate responses (i.e. giving in to passion) can be rejected.
Thus, mindfulness and Stoicism are a two-pronged approach to emotional management. Mindfulness practice helps to validate the reality of the body and bring the mind into connection with it, even during volatile emotions, and Stoicism provides the framework for decision-making and perception-shifting to select the best responses. Each lends itself to a habitual approach and, with practice, allows growth to be positively reinforced.
Edited by Jeremy Harr and Abigail McKay Cherry