One Good Life, Two Systems

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Issue 310
September/October 2018
Inspired to Action

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One Good Life, Two Systems
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Cover: Milano Garden by Beppe Giacobbe www.beppegiacobbe.com/en

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Christine Toomey finds much to savour in a study of Buddhist and Stoic thought and practice. More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age by Antonia Macaro. Icon Books, 2018. ISBN: 9781785781339

We live in an age inclined towards a naturalistic outlook on life, one that seeks to explain the universe without reference to the supernatural. “This seems right: our beliefs should be compatible with our best science, which is thoroughly naturalistic,” writes Antonia Macaro in her introduction to More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age.

It is a bold statement, which captures the conundrum for many today of applying practices from either Buddhism or Stoicism, both of which stem from times when belief in the supernatural was a given. But since both traditions place great emphasis on our ability to see things clearly, there is no contradiction, Macaro argues, in updating our understanding of their practices by incorporating advances in scientific knowledge.

“We should feel comfortable putting aside the doctrines that don’t quite square up: freezing them in time is no way to pay homage to the creative thinkers who shaped them,” says Macaro, an existential psychotherapist with a long-standing interest in both Buddhism and Stoicism.

Given her professional focus, it seems fitting that much of her book concentrates on the aspects of both traditions that have practical potential to make an impact on how we live. Not just by achieving happiness, as “happiness is not everything,” Macaro writes, but also by “challenging rather than indulging received notions of who we are and what our aims in life should be”.

To this end Macaro distils the essence of both systems of ancient wisdom and offers a succinct and highly readable synthesis of practices both share, in an effort to help us live not only happier lives, but also ones that are more ethical and are guided by placing value on the right things.

Her precis of the relationship of both Buddhism and Stoicism to metaphysics is a helpful introduction. Despite the protestations of some that any supernatural aspects of Buddhism are a late addition to an original, purer message, Macaro concedes that this may well be wishful thinking. “A wandering ascetic at the time of the Buddha is likely to have believed many things we find improbable,” she argues. As she explains, much of Buddhism is built on the twin foundations of karma and rebirth, belief in which would have been common and widespread in ancient India.

Likewise, in the ancient Hellenistic world, the Stoics believed the cosmos to be ordered by a divine rational principle called God, or Zeus. The thoughts and writings of some of the best-known Stoics, such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Chrysippus and Epictetus, threaded throughout the book, make reference to this. And, as in Buddhism, their work is open to different interpretations. While some read into the Stoic God “a providential architect of the world”, others, Macaro explains, take “all this God talk as just another way of referring to natural processes”.

Mindful of the pitfalls of discarding the supernatural and metaphysical aspects of both traditions in order to cherry-pick those parts of both Buddhism and Stoicism that can help us to live flourishing lives, Macaro devotes the first half of More Than Happiness to explaining the origins and framework of both, including a discussion of whether either can best be described as a religion, or as a philosophy.

It is the recognition that we suffer as human beings because we are deluded and hold false views about ourselves and the world, meaning that we value and become attached to things that are neither permanent nor valuable, that, amongst other things, the two traditions agree on. Both, Macaro argues, are “radical systems that ask much of their followers”. Since both promise to unlock the door to peace of mind and the end of suffering, the common essence of their spiritual practice she then outlines makes for compelling reading.

While Buddhism and Stoicism differ in their understanding of the origins of our delusion, both place great emphasis on the importance of meditation as a practice that, if performed with disciplined regularity, can help us to “live fully in an imperfect world”.

As an aid to meditation, Macaro outlines 10 practices she calls “Meditations for a Better Life”, inspired by both Buddhist and Stoic insights:

1. Get the self-monitoring habit. The Stoics advised thinking ahead to the challenges of the day in the morning and reviewing the day just gone in the evening to identify where we can improve.

2. Question your thinking. Epictetus said: “People are disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of things.”

3. Remind yourself that excessive attachment to wealth and possessions, excess and accumulation is based on wrong values.

4. Don’t get hung up on status and reputation.

5. Radiate goodwill.

6. Don’t be too optimistic. Accept that all lives contain pain and heartache.

7. Think about death (but not too much). Here Macaro quotes the Buddha:

I am of the nature to grow old; I cannot avoid ageing.
I am of the nature to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
I am of the nature to die; I cannot avoid death.
All that is mine, dear and delightful, will change and vanish.

8. Consider the bigger picture. Marcus Aurelius’ favourite method of imagining his life was “to see them from above: the thousands of animal herds, the rituals, the voyages on calm or stormy seas, the different ways we come into the world, share it with one another and leave it. Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands.”

9. Use common sense. Both Buddhist and Stoic practices concentrate on making efforts to change ourselves rather than harbouring the delusion that changing our circumstances will bring us satisfaction.

10. Be quiet. Both traditions’ praise of silence can be seen as a “useful corrective to our culture’s emphasis on social networking, communication and extroversion”. Macaro offers three useful criteria for assessing speech today: “Is it truthful? Is it beneficial? Is it pleasing to others?”

Macaro ends these meditations by quoting Marcus Aurelius: “Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present – thoughtfully, justly.” She then concludes her graceful and thought-provoking book with the observation, “We should not aim to make ourselves fortress-like, but to be vulnerable more wisely.”

Christine Toomey is a journalist and is the author of The Saffron Road: A Journey with Buddha’s Daughters (Portobello Books).

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