My account of the ‘curative’ effect of meditation practice on my insomnia has been published on the Everyday Mindfulness website and can be found here:
Our guest today is the internationally renowned Buddhist meditation teacher and best-selling author Sharon Salzberg. Sharon co-founded the Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. She’s been leading meditation retreats around the world for over three decades and in many ways has become the leading advocate for the practice of metta or loving-kindness meditation in the West. Her books include Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, A Heart as wide as the world, The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program, Real Happiness at Work and Room to Breathe: An at Home Meditation Retreat. She’s here to talk to us today about loving-kindness meditation, her forthcoming book Real Love and a new online initiative she’s recently started called The Boundless Heart.
MWS Podcast 112: Sharon Salzberg as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_112_Sharon_Salzberg
Several times recently I’ve come across friends mentioning neo-Stoicism as an increasingly popular movement. This is perhaps an aspect of a wider revival of interest in the Hellenistic philosophies of the later Greek and Roman times (Stoicism, Scepticism and Epicureanism) as practical ways of life, perhaps developing out of frustration with the dogmatic limitations of analytic philosophy on the one hand and established religions on the other. Coincidentally, too, I’ve recently been teaching about these Hellenistic philosophies in an adult education class, and finding they raise a lot of interest in the students. This revival of interest may well have a lot to do with a search for the Middle Way, integrating experience and avoiding both positive and negative dogmas. But there are also limitations in the traditions of the Hellenistic philosophies themselves that carry the danger of them becoming new dogmas for the people that adopt them.
Perhaps I’ll write some other blogs in the future about Scepticism/ Pyrrhonism and Epicureanism, but here I want to focus on Stoicism, which seems to be the most popular of the three at present. Stoicism is a long and influential tradition, beginning with Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE), popular amongst educated Romans, and marked by such famous figures as Chrysippus, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The term ‘Stoicism’ came from the stoa (porch or colonnade) where the earliest Stoics used to hold their discussions. It also had a major influence on the development of early Christianity.
What might be attracting people to Stoicism today? I suspect that the integration of philosophical theory with moral and spiritual practice is a key element. Established modern thinking has suffered so much from the unnecessary disjunction of facts and values, and accompanying impoverishment of ethics, that people would have good reasons for yearning for a philosophical era before the breach occurred. But meaningful ethics is also an activity needing practical support rather than just instruction.
Writers such as Pierre Hadot and Martha Nussbaum have done a great deal to raise awareness of the spiritual and therapeutic practices in Stoicism, which have a great deal in common with Buddhist practice. For someone with a background in Buddhist meditation, the Stoic practice of prosoche sounds very much like mindfulness, and oikeoisis very much like loving-kindness meditation. There is also an attractive meditation exercise called the ‘flight of the soul’ or ‘view from above’, in which you put your life into perspective by imagining a flight into the sky and look down on the circumstances of your current life. For more on Stoic practices, see this excellent booklet by a number of collaborating academics.
It would be quite possible to make use of such practices without necessarily accepting Stoic philosophy, and indeed, I would argue with Stoicism (as with Christianity, Islam or any other tradition) that one is responsible for one’s own interpretation of it, and can always make use of the resources that it offers whilst taking care to avoid its absolutisations. However, I think it is important to be aware that Stoicism is also a dogmatic philosophy. There is always a danger when people adopt such material from another context that they will gloss over the dogmatic elements, which may seem to have a much more limited practical impact than the more obvious dogmas today coming from evangelical pulpits or the propaganda of groups like Daesh/ Isis. Even if we take such dogmas on board only because they seem to be part of the deal in a practically useful package, there is still a danger that they can be used to support unhelpful absolute judgements further down the line after the approach has become more established and enculturated.
The central dogma of Stoic philosophy is the metaphysical belief in the logos or rational ordering of nature. The universe is believed to have a purpose, and human beings to be too easily distracted from that purpose. Nevertheless, Stoic practice is believed to help us develop the orthos logos, or natural order within each of us as individuals, which then fits into the cosmic order. To do this we can use integrative practices and become aware of our biases. There seems to me here an obvious dogmatic leap: because we overcome our biases and become more objective in our judgement, we do not necessarily participate in a natural order. Given that the appeal to a natural order is so frequently the basis of biased assumptions and fallacious reasoning, a dangerous contradiction thus lies at the heart of Stoic thinking.
The links between Stoicism and early Christianity should also be evident here. Christians have often taken the Stoic logos and merely installed God as the overseer of this natural order. But whether or not there is a personality at the head of it, belief in and absolute order of nature raises the same problems, foremost of which is the problem of evil. If the order of the universe is ultimately good, why do we encounter so much evil in it? The same theological arguments found over evil in Christianity are also found in the Stoic tradition, and they seem to me to arise not because there aren’t hidden benefits to what we take to be ‘evil’ that we would do well to recognise, but because the goodness of nature (with or without God) is absolutised. Whatever explanations for evil and suffering we come up with, they are never likely to fully vindicate the extent of it that we encounter. But we have no need to adopt this belief in absolute cosmic good in the first place when it tends to lead us into defending and vindicating evil.
Together with the metaphysics of logos in Stoicism, there is also an epistemological dogma: the phantasia kataleptike. This is the belief that, despite sceptical arguments to the contrary, it is possible to gain certainty in our beliefs about the cosmos, because our language is capable of representing the truth as long as it is fully formed into propositions, justified by experience in normal reliable circumstances and known by a wise man. This is an approach that closely parallels that of scientific naturalists today, who tend to dismiss sceptical arguments that cast doubt on claims to knowledge by assuming the reliability of normal observation and demanding positive reasons to justify doubt. The trouble is, of course, that we have no way of knowing whether or not our observations take place in ‘normal’ circumstances, and all the evidence about the way we process the meaning of language suggests that it does not simply form truth-correspondent propositions that can be reliably verified. Without a wider sceptical perspective we are liable to get stuck in the most basic cognitive bias of them all – confirmation bias. The Stoics may well believe the universe is ordered because they interpret the world they observe in those terms, which then reinforces their belief that the universe is ordered.
I find that when raising issues like this about any tradition of thinking, they are readily dismissed as philosophers’ quibbles. But, particularly when a tradition has been revived or reinterpreted relatively recently, it seems a great shame if people nevertheless adopt dogmas from the past rather than taking the opportunity to correct past mistakes. To do so doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning a tradition one has found fruitful, together with its potentially helpful cultural, practical and social elements, but it may mean going through a rigorous critical process to distinguish what caused things to go wrong in the past and may do so again. Most basically, I would warn that any absolutisation can be used as a shortcut to justifying the use of power. In Stoicism, for example, one can readily imagine someone claiming to be a ‘wise man’ with claimed true representations of the cosmic logos (functionally indistinguishable from religious revelations) starting a neo-Stoic cult. The best way to stop that ever happening is to ensure that absolute beliefs about the natural order are no longer part of Stoicism.
But in the meantime, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from engaging with the rich resources of Stoic practice if they find it helpful to do so, provided they do so also with critical discrimination. Indeed, the Hellenistic philosophies in general offer a great field of cultural and philosophical resources that until recently was largely forgotten and misunderstood by Western philosophers. I’d particularly recommend Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life and Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire to anyone wanting to engage with the Hellenistic philosophies as practice.
Our guest today is Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the first woman ever to be tenured in psychology at Harvard. Her studies include the illusion of control, decision-making, ageing and mindfulness theory and she has often been described as the mother of mindfulness. She has written many books including the best selling, Mindfulness, The Power of Mindful Learning, On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity; Counterclockwise and the Wiley Mindfulness Handbook . She’s going to talk to us today about mindfulness, mindful health, mindful learning and the power of possibility.
MWS Podcast 83: Ellen Langer as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_83_Ellen_Langer
Gaynor had now given up her early obsession with music and decided to focus on her career. In fact, it had been several years now since she had even thought about music. Instead, her focus was on the completion of this project, the approval of her boss, the likelihood of more responsibility in the next project, the need to overcome obstructive colleagues and placate demanding customers, the determination to make an impression for her ability and commitment. She had barely noticed as her relationship unravelled and her boyfriend moved on. She lived alone now, and worked.
But suddenly, like a swimmer stricken by weakness in mid-channel, she began to find herself undermined by weakness. One morning she woke up at 3am overwhelmed by despair – knowing suddenly that she was not good enough and there was no point. She could not go to work and she could not go on. She took time off, and at first her boss was sympathetic. “You’ve been overdoing it, Gaynor” she said on the telephone, “But you’re a valuable asset to the company, so you need to look after yourself. You take some time off and get better.” The doctor advised a new treatment: mindfulness based stress reduction. Really good for depression, he had said, much better than giving her drugs. So one afternoon, Gaynor found herself in a class learning how to meditate.
At first it was really annoying. The mindfulness teacher led them in a body scan and then told them to focus on the breath. For Gaynor, the body scan had just made her feel insecure about her body: it wasn’t good enough, it was full of tension. Then when asked to focus on the breath she just found it boring. She tried doing it for a few seconds, but then immediately started thinking about the office again.
In the discussion afterwards, Gaynor asked the mindfulness teacher how she could focus on her body or on the breath without getting stressed about it. To her they just seemed like new sources of stress. Why go to a meditation class and fail at doing something else, having just failed at going to work? If she tried to stop doing these things, she would float around and then just land right back on her stress points.
A sudden stab of memory at the word “music”: Gaynor and her lute, at the age of 14. That lute given to her by her aunt, and the local guitar teacher keen on the baroque, who had taught her and encouraged her. At one time she hadn’t just played music, it had seemed that music had also been playing her.
“Yes,” responded Gaynor after a pause, “I used to play the lute, but I gave it up to concentrate on my career.”
“Ah! Well, there’s a story told by the Buddha about a lute. Once there was a monk who came to him whose name was Sona. Sona had been trying too hard in meditation. Like you he was just finding it another challenge, another source of stress. But Sona also used to play the lute. So the Buddha asked him, ‘What happens if the lute-strings are too tight?’ What would you say, Gaynor?”
“You don’t get a good tone. You get distortions, and it’s bad for the instrument.”
“And what happens if the lute-strings are too slack?”
“Similarly, you don’t get a good tone. It’s out of tune.”
“So you need the lute-strings to be neither too taut nor too slack, but somewhere in between, the Middle Way. Meditation is just like that. You have to find a point in yourself where you start getting the right tone, the one that just hits the note and is in tune. You won’t do that by forcing your effort or having too rigid an idea of what you want to achieve. You have to be a bit exploratory and provisional. On the other hand you do need to have a sense of purpose in meditation, and to maintain that sense of purpose, otherwise you will just drift off.”
When she got home, Gaynor went impulsively to her wardrobe, where, under a pile of clothes and other detritus, she found her lute in its case. In excitement, she took it up and tried to tune it, but straight away one of the strings snapped. She had to make a trip to a music shop before she could go any further. But then at last she was there, with a lute once more in her hands, and with the strings neither too taut nor too slack. After a few minutes of initial clumsiness, she was amazed at how quickly her musical agility returned: the technique, the expression, the memory of the pieces, all were still there.
She played solidly for two hours, and then realised that her depression had apparently lifted. But she felt no urge to go back to work.
The next week she returned to the meditation class. In the practice, this time, she tried to tune her breath like a lute-string: neither too taut, nor too slack. For a while she seemed to find that point, then she got distracted by congratulating herself and thinking about her lute. At least she wasn’t thinking about work, she thought.
The Middle Way and psychological states
This story uses an analogy directly used by the Buddha to illustrate the Middle Way in relation to psychological states. The Middle Way appears not just in relation to sets of explicit views – what we might typically think of as ‘extreme’ views – but also in the assumptions we make in everyday life. If you are not an extremist, unfortunately you can’t congratulate yourself that you are necessarily already practising the Middle Way, as the kinds of states encountered by Gaynor are, more or less, the ones we all encounter, to a greater or lesser degree, on a regular basis. We are not quite hitting the Middle Way at every point where we are not optimally ‘tuned’.
However, it’s important to understand how beliefs relate to psychological states here. It is not the psychological states that are extreme, but the beliefs that accompany them. For example, Gaynor was not in an ‘extreme’ state just because she was depressed – depression may have a variety of causes, after all. Rather her depression was being perpetuated by a rigid view: in this case the view that fulfilling the goals of work and career would meet all her needs. This view was inadequate to the conditions, not because the work was bad, but because her needs were more complex than that. If she were to flip to the opposite negating view, that work was bad and she should give up work entirely, it might have equally negative effects. These views are only ‘extreme’ because they are rigid and fail to notice the possibility of a balanced and flexible judgement in between, not because they would necessarily be conventionally understood as ‘extreme’.
As a good lute-player will know, it is no good just tuning your lute once. You have to keep re-tuning it, because otherwise it will go out of tune, and similarly the Middle Way consists of a series of flexible judgements constantly re-made, all of which hit a middle point between the affirmation and denial of fixed beliefs. The Middle Way is thus a process of judgement, not a fixed belief in itself. If you had a sense of it in the past, and then forgot it, rediscovering the Middle Way can indeed be a bit like rediscovering your lute at the bottom of your wardrobe.
Meditation is an excellent context for directly experiencing the Middle Way. If you approach it with a fixed belief of the kind Gaynor had (that it was just another source of stress requiring too much of her), it will not yield any satisfaction, any more than a badly-tuned lute will provide satisfactory music. Someone approaching it with the opposite belief (that meditation was just about relaxing and having no purpose at all) would probably have an equally bad time. However, as soon as you hit on the right tuning for the lute, meditation can become much more rewarding. For a short while you may create beautiful music, but then it is very likely that you will get stuck in some other way, hanging onto a rigid belief of some other kind rather than finding the balance. Every time you manage to loosen that belief (every time you re-tune the lute), you begin to live a little more provisionally, and build up more adequate habits in relation to the world.