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A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism Empty A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism

on January 16th 2020, 2:58 am
(this is pretty off-the-cuff so sorry if I miss anything)

I'll focus on the secular interpretations of the two. They both make claims that aren't very congruent with modern Science (though Buddhism's were far more overtly religious while Stoicism's were reflective of the natural philosophy of the time). I'm not going much into their respective histories, though that makes for an interesting topic as well.

I'm going to be simplifying and combining concepts here, and the parts on Buddhism will probably be longer since I'm more familiar with it and there's more surviving info / more practicing Buddhists. I'm also not necessarily intending this as an actual manual for practicing either, though the techniques and concepts will naturally overlap with that.

Purpose


Buddhism's goal is pretty simple: the end of suffering (and the flourishing of happiness, which isn't stated as often in traditional texts but is still brought up). Traditionally, this includes ending the cycle of rebirth but of course from a secular angle that isn't a part of it.

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Traditionally Stoicism defined the ultimate goal as living virtuously, with "virtue" having a somewhat different definition from the modern one; the Stoics thought that living a life of virtue was synonymous with living "in accordance with reason", though this may seem somewhat circular. By the Roman times the emphasis had somewhat shifted to achieving tranquility / peace of mind (which the Greeks had viewed more as a means / cool side effect), which matches what most modern people interested in Stoicism are seeking: an ability to be resilient in the face of events beyond your control.

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Here, modern Buddhism and Stoicism can converge quite nicely. Some of the implementation differences that we'll see can manifest in differences over the exact meanings of terms like "suffering" though.

Major Concepts


Buddhism identifies craving, which can also be framed as aversion, as the proximate cause of suffering. This makes sense intuitively for something like, say, suffering because you don't have that fast car that you want. You might wonder how that applies to something like physical discomfort, but Buddhism also identifies the aversion to certain sensory input and preference for others as a form of craving (that's not to say that you shouldn't optimize your external life for some things over others - some have accused Buddhism of being paradoxical in that sense, but there are resolutions that I could go into if someone wants me to). 

What is craving caused by? Well, to somewhat simplify a lot of different ideas, Buddhism links the arising of craving to:

  • The sense of a distinct "Self" that identifies and attaches to things. Buddhism teaches that there is no inherent concept of a continuous identity, given that you are constantly changing. It likewise notes that, contrary to your intuition, you aren't your thoughts or sensations - those are just transient things arising in consciousness. Nor are you some sort of "observer" of those thoughts - if you look closely, no permanent observer seems to exist. At most, "you" can be defined as pure awareness at any given moment. (Buddhism also extends this to mean that selfishness of yourself over others doesn't make sense either)
  • The delusion that emergent things have inherent existence. On a physical level, something like a chair is just a label we apply to a lot of different atoms that are temporarily arranged in that manner. On a mental level, thoughts and feelings can be reduced to transient waves of "energy". Both are inherently "empty", and both are inherently impermanent.

But it's not just about understanding this on an intellectual level - Buddhism says that one can understand this on an experiential level, and then eliminate suffering, where you would be an arhat (or a buddha if you attained it on your own) and obtain "Enlightenment". It is considered important to also help others become Enlightened once you have become Enlightened yourself.

There are also other concepts in Buddhism like dependent origination (basically: everything is caused by something else and you can draw a line of causation connecting thoughts, stimuli, etc.), but that's IMHO the major gist of it (separating the techniques for later).

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Modern stoicism focuses on the idea that there are things within our control and things outside of our control, and that we can learn to focus on the former and not get disturbed by the latter (basically the Serenity Prayer). One may wonder about things that are partially within our control; I'd note (though I'm not sure if this was explained traditionally) that you can probably break those things into sub-components that are either in your control or outside of it (e.g. getting a good grade is partially in your control -> putting effort into studying is in your control, how well others do for the curve isn't).

Stoicism also puts a high emphasis on public and social duty, and in particular looks down on the performance of such duties purely for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.

The Stoics identify the Sage as someone who lives ideally given Stoic virtues, and thus cannot be disturbed from tranquility. This concept of a Sage isn't as emphasized as the concept of an arhat is in Buddhism though.

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You can look at parts of Buddhism as related to the locus of control idea, though it's a rather detailed and specific version of it. Buddhism makes much more detailed claims about the internal nature of conscious experience in addition to its relationship to external stimuli, while Stoicism also focuses on the level of experience <-> stimuli but doesn't make as many claims about the "experience" part internally beyond some basic ones and deals more with the interface between the two. The two on this level aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, though historically the Stoics did not preach the concept of there not being a Self or things not having inherent existence.

Casual Precepts


Buddhism identifies some things to refrain from like lying, hurting living beings, engaging in sexual misconduct, and consuming intoxicants. This seems like a pretty generic list, and can probably be considered a set of rules of thumbs rather than some very philosophically tight closure of all possible bad things. It also emphasizes practicing universal kindness and compassion, including to animals, and even to those who you would categorize as "bad" people. Of course, that doesn't preclude practical steps to defend yourself and others, but it does oppose hatred and ill will even to those who "deserve" it.

Buddhism teaches "the middle way" between deprivation and indulgence of luxury; you can eat, drink, etc. what you need to and enjoy the pleasantries of life, but you should not hoard or obsess over them to the detriment of others and your own suffering.

There is some controversy over whether Buddhism mandates vegetarianism; this varies by tradition.

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I'll merge the Stoicism part of this into the techniques below since there isn't the same difference. I suppose I should include again that Stoicism does emphasize public and social duty.

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None of Buddhism's more casual precepts are mutually exclusive from Stoicism, though not all of them are as emphasized; e.g. most Stoics didn't shun alcohol, nor was there the same focus on animal welfare. The concept of unconditional love is indeed touched on in Stoicism as well, though it's again not as emphasized.

Techniques


The main technique of Buddhism is meditation (though "right livelihood" in doing the things above was traditionally considered a necessary component as well). This is something that can be covered far beyond this overview, and there are many differences between schools, teachers, etc.; generally speaking, meditation involves the training of your focus and awareness. Most iconically this is done sitting with your eyes closed, though there are other forms like walking meditation. You can broadly break meditation into a few types:

  • Concentration
  • Wisdom/Insight (vipassana)
  • The four sublime states (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity)

(Meditation on the four sublime states can be considered a part of concentration meditation)

The idea is that concentration and wisdom are both necessary conditions for Enlightenment, but there is a lot of debate over the order in which the two should be developed, and how deep of a concentration is needed. Indeed, the most fundamental split between different Buddhist meditative traditions is probably between "wet" insight, which develops very deep concentration (jhana) and uses that to do vipassana, and "dry" insight, which develops vipassana on much less concentration. I personally prefer the "wet" insight route; among other reasons, the evidence suggests that it's "safer" and less likely to produce disorientation (I can elaborate if someone wants me to).

Concentration - the general idea here is that you have an object of meditation that you direct your attention to, and if your attention diverges you gently nudge your attention back to that object. The most common object is your breath, but there are others like kasinas, visualized images, and loving-kindness (though I put that into a separate section). Going into concentration meditation, you should have somewhat suppressed the five hindrances: sensual desire, ill will, sloth, doubt and restlessness, though this can also be dealt with while starting into the meditation. You can get into very deep concentration, which produces an incredibly pleasant mental state. This can develop into the jhana states, which are perhaps the most pleasant states you can possibly achieve given current technology. There are either 4 or 8 jhana states depending on how you define them (4 material, 4 immaterial), and there are some differences in how they are taught. A high level of concentration is considered extremely important to doing vipassana.

Vipassana - once you have a sufficient level of concentration ("sufficient" being a highly contested question), you can turn that to examining the nature of your consciousness. This is essentially done by noticing how sensations are impermanent, with a beginning and an end, and not identical to "you". They may also seem to have no inherent meaning or value, but are instead just "empty", vibrating "energy waves". You can look further into this and see that there is no "observer" of these sensations, and thus no Self. There are a variety of techniques for doing this, like the body scan or the dzoghen style meditations. Note: doing this on a really deep level isn't just something that you should jump into.

Sublime States - essentially, this is concentration meditation where the object of meditation is loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and/or equanimity. Most frequently the meditation is done on loving-kindness. Loving-kindness (or "metta") is generated and then sustained through a variety of means including visualizations and mantras (like "may you be happy"), with the target moving from easier ones (like a close friend, or yourself {if that's easy}) to progressively harder and/or broader ones. Ultimately the metta can be generated universally for any being. This has several uses; it can generate an extremely high level of happiness, mend the hindrances in preparation for other concentration meditation, be used unto itself to get into jhana, create better social warmth, and be used as its own method for dealing with suffering.

There is also a more general concept of "mindfulness". Essentially, mindfulness is having a metacognitive awareness of what you are experiencing at any given moment. Instead of just doing things on autopilot, you can notice and be aware of the fact that you are doing, thinking, or feeling something. You can also be aware of it and observe it without judgment, so instead of feeling suffering from a negative emotion you just are like "the sensation of sadness is arising", thus staggering its translation into suffering. This is useful both within meditation and outside of it when applicable.

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In Stoicism there are several techniques that can be broadly summarized into helping you not get disturbed by things outside your control. 

Journaling - journaling can help you in ways beyond Stoicism like recording ideas and your life, etc., and within the lens of Stoicism can be used to essentially keep track of your Stoicism and mentor yourself on it. Writing things out often has a therapeutic and motivating effect. See: Marcuse Aurelius's famous Meditations.

Negative Visualization - you can periodically (probably not too often - this shouldn't be your default state any more than lifting weights should be your default activity) imagine what it would be like if X bad thing happened, and realize that it wouldn't actually be that bad if it did. Of course, at first "X" would have to be something relatively minor, but over time you can increment to larger things until you realize that practically anything can be psychologically handled. This both prepares you for if it does happen, since you've already encountered it in your mind, and also gives you a sense of confidence and lack of anxiety because you realize you can maintain your tranquility even if something bad happens. 

Voluntary deprivation - you can periodically practicing living with fewer material things, e.g. taking a day to only eat simple food, to reduce your attachment to material things that you can lose and realize that you can be content with little.

View from above - if you imagine your life from the third person, perhaps as just a tiny dot from high up in the sky, you can realize how trivial your problems are. 

Role model - find someone who embodies an ideal person, or imagine/fuse one, and use that as a source of inspiration and guidance.

Gratitude - recognize how improbable your good fortune is (no matter how poorly off you are, you can do this - e.g. the statistical improbability of being a human born in the 20th/21st century). 

Self-talk - find some useful thought experiment, mantra, argument, etc. that is particularly motivating to you.

Re-framing - frame obstacles as opportunities (the one that you can always fall back on is that it's an opportunity to practice your Stoicism).

And some others I'm missing.

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Once again, the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. The "techniques" part is where the two do seem to have different (but potentially complimentary) areas of focus though.

  • In areas of focus, Buddhism deals a lot with how you deal with thoughts, emotions and other sensations in consciousness by, for example, temporarily overwhelming them with concentration on an object, mindfully observing them to put space between them and any potential suffering, generating positive emotions like loving-kindness, or noting their impermanence and emptiness. Stoicism, meanwhile, uses thoughts as the main area where you have agency, and encourages you to alter your thinking patterns to alter your emotions and mental states. Stoicism is often seen as a precursor to modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, while you could argue that mindfulness is a type of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (indeed, ACT and now MCBT use a lot of mindfulness techniques). Basically, Stoicism wants you to use your thoughts, while Buddhism deals more with your awareness.
  • In terms of techniques themselves, Buddhist meditation techniques are very specific and formalized, while you can say that Stoic techniques represent a more informal toolbox of different techniques.

There can indeed be some apparent tension between cognitively processing emotions and mindfully observing them, but there have been pretty helpful attempts to combine the two depending on the context.

IMHO


I try to incorporate both philosophies into my daily life. I don't think either is complete or perfect, but they've both been immensely helpful for myself and numerous others. Again though, this isn't meant to be a complete manual of practicing either - I may go into more details in subsequent threads.

Buddhism, or rather meditative and mindfulness practices that largely originated under Buddhism, has probably played a relatively larger role (to the extent of perhaps being the most important thing I've ever learned to do). I say this because formal meditation and mindfulness techniques are just so potent, with the ability to have effects beyond placebo or gradual positive thinking into the stage where I can get myself into states of extreme bliss and euphoria. I like a lot of Stoicism's ideas (though many can be independently discovered in other philosophies / modern positive psychology/therapy / etc.), but it doesn't have a "smoking gun" like meditation/mindfulness. Journaling, for example, is definitely an extremely helpful habit, but it doesn't have the documented effects on your brain to the point where some master meditators from MRI's can be accurately defined as the "happiest" people ever recorded.

That being said, if I can give some nods to Stoicism, it would be that it's easier to carve out the supernatural parts (you can for Buddhism too, but it requires more effort), and has more methods for cognitive appraisal (mindfulness techniques just unto themselves won't work 100% of the time) and for when you aren't feeling like doing something very formal. It also doesn't have the "dark night of the soul" risk that can come with deep vipassana (I hesitated to mention this because it's low probability / esoteric and may inspire overreaction, but I can elaborate on it if you want).

But it isn't a competition, of course. The two can be used in tandem, and both can go a long ways towards improving your life.

Anyway, would be happy to hear your thoughts.
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A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism Empty Re: A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism

on January 16th 2020, 4:00 am
Traditionally Stoicism defined the ultimate goal as living virtuously, with "virtue" having a somewhat different definition from the modern one; the Stoics thought that living a life of virtue was synonymous with living "in accordance with reason", though this may seem somewhat circular. By the Roman times the emphasis had somewhat shifted to achieving tranquility / peace of mind (which the Greeks had viewed more as a means / cool side effect), which matches what most modern people interested in Stoicism are seeking: an ability to be resilient in the face of events beyond your control.
A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism 20200110

The Stoics inherited the Cynic concept, which was also shared in Socratic/Platonic philosophy, of living in accordance with "Nature". Other words used to describe this include "the Whole", "Fate", "Providence", "God", "the Gods", "Fortune", etc. They believed that each thing has a nature in accordance with the governing nature of the universe, and that the highest virtue is to live in accordance with that nature. For Man, we have the faculty of reason, and Socrates argued that reason is the only faculty in which men are made equal to the gods, and so it is the highest goal we should strive towards. So for that reason I'd argue it's not circular because they do not hold reason as the highest virtue for it's own sake, but because acting according to reason means acting in accordance with Nature. Socrates actually debunked a circular providential argument of ethics made by Euthyphro where the latter argued that what is good is holy, and when asked what is holy, he said what the gods consider good.

Nice write up. Stoicism is a kind of western analogue to Buddhism and Daoism to an extent, and it is indeed the precursor to CBT.

Modern stoicism focuses on the idea that there are things within our control and things outside of our control, and that we can learn to focus on the former and not get disturbed by the latter (basically the Serenity Prayer). One may wonder about things that are partially within our control; I'd note (though I'm not sure if this was explained traditionally) that you can probably break those things into sub-components that are either in your control or outside of it (e.g. getting a good grade is partially in your control -> putting effort into studying is in your control, how well others do for the curve isn't).

Epictetus clarifies this in his Discourses. You are in control of your desires and aversions. You can attempt to walk through a door, you can have the inclination to walk through it, but it is outside of your control if someone or something stops you. 

Stoics also have a concept called preferable indifferences. They differed from the Cynics in this way, who believed that suffering was a shortcut to virtue. The Stoics, like Socrates, argue that pleasure is preferable to pain but the Stoic sage is indifferent to either - they are not virtues. This is where the idea of moderation comes from - rather than overindulging in food and suffering from excess, or living on the bare minimum and abstaining from pleasure at all costs, it is actually a sign of a more well ordered mind if one can enjoy a pleasure in moderation without becoming its slave or having to avoid it altogether. This also an Epicurean concept of pleasure.

There is some controversy over whether Buddhism mandates vegetarianism; this varies by tradition.
If you go by the strictest definition of ahimsa, then yes it does. Sometimes in both Buddhist and Greek traditions the sage would forgo eating meat as an exercise of abstinence (Diogenes and the Pythagoreans did this, Seneca talks about it and the even the Roman gladiators were largely vegetarian). I believe there is a quote of Hippocratic origin that specifically argues that eating animals out of indulgence is unethical. They also seemed to intuitively understand that it was healthier based on their observations. Although there have also been providential arguments made which reflect the later Christian attitude that animals are under mans dominion, and it is in their nature to produce meat or wool for us.
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A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism Empty Re: A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism

on January 16th 2020, 6:42 am
ILS wrote:The Stoics inherited the Cynic concept, which was also shared in Socratic/Platonic philosophy, of living in accordance with "Nature". Other words used to describe this include "the Whole", "Fate", "Providence", "God", "the Gods", "Fortune", etc. They believed that each thing has a nature in accordance with the governing nature of the universe, and that the highest virtue is to live in accordance with that nature. For Man, we have the faculty of reason, and Socrates argued that reason is the only faculty in which men are made equal to the gods, and so it is the highest goal we should strive towards. So for that reason I'd argue it's not circular because they do not hold reason as the highest virtue for it's own sake, but because acting according to reason means acting in accordance with Nature. Socrates actually debunked a circular providential argument of ethics made by Euthyphro where the latter argued that what is good is holy, and when asked what is holy, he said what the gods consider good.

Yeah, though like most modern readers I don't find that argument very convincing given its multiple leaps about the existence of "gods"/an anthropomorphic Nature, their involvement in the creation of humans, their decision to give us rationality and the purpose of that, whether that leads to some moral position, etc. It seems like the attainment of resilience to negative circumstances can easily be justified on more coherent grounds than that chain.

It does seem convenient that a lot of ancient life philosophy schools, or at least the "good" ones, happened to prescribe useful things even based on unscientific premises, as if they kind of reverse engineered what was useful and then molded the justification around that.

Nice write up. Stoicism is a kind of western analogue to Buddhism and Daoism to an extent, and it is indeed the precursor to CBT.

It does indeed mirror Taoism as well.

Epictetus clarifies this in his Discourses. You are in control of your desires and aversions. You can attempt to walk through a door, you can have the inclination to walk through it, but it is outside of your control if someone or something stops you. 

Though I'm not sure whether we are really in control of our desires and aversions on an emotional level - they can be modulated and altered to an extent, but there's still a large degree of involuntariness. Even putting aside the free will question (which isn't really the point of the concept anyway), our emotional responses to stimuli are pretty instinctive and can't be flipped on or off (though they can be trained over time). While thoughts can't be entirely controlled either, we certainly have a far greater degree of immediate control over what we do think (if not what we *don't* on a micro-scale).

So Stoicism focuses on the thoughts (kinda like CBT), and I suppose there's this implication that from changing thought patterns, your tranquility will change too. This is certainly true to an extent, especially over time. It isn't an absolute relationship though (you can feel bad without any particular thought patterns), hence why I don't think purely cognitive changes are a complete counter. Meditative practices seem to zero in on the root of what you can control (not that they're mutually exclusive).

For some reason, the Eastern philosophies and religions developed meditation a lot more deeply than the West did.

Stoics also have a concept called preferable indifferences. They differed from the Cynics in this way, who believed that suffering was a shortcut to virtue. The Stoics, like Socrates, argue that pleasure is preferable to pain but the Stoic sage is indifferent to either - they are not virtues. This is where the idea of moderation comes from - rather than overindulging in food and suffering from excess, or living on the bare minimum and abstaining from pleasure at all costs, it is actually a sign of a more well ordered mind if one can enjoy a pleasure in moderation without becoming its slave or having to avoid it altogether. This also an Epicurean concept of pleasure.

Yeah, it's interesting how that parallels the "middle way" of Buddhism.

The prescriptions on that level are similar but it's interesting how the Greek schools framed them in the language of virtue ethics, while the ancient Eastern traditions framed them in the language of being instrumental to ending suffering (e.g. the ascetics believed that deprivation was the path to spiritual enlightenment, and Buddha thought that this wasn't).

If you go by the strictest definition of ahimsa, then yes it does. Sometimes in both Buddhist and Greek traditions the sage would forgo eating meat as an exercise of abstinence (Diogenes and the Pythagoreans did this, Seneca talks about it and the even the Roman gladiators were largely vegetarian). I believe there is a quote of Hippocratic origin that specifically argues that eating animals out of indulgence is unethical. They also seemed to intuitively understand that it was healthier based on their observations. Although there have also been providential arguments made which reflect the later Christian attitude that animals are under mans dominion, and it is in their nature to produce meat or wool for us.

That's interesting; did they explicitly give moral value to animals, or was it "unethical" for reasons of indulgence outside of animal welfare?
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A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism Empty Re: A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism

on January 16th 2020, 7:08 am
I should look up the quotes. Pythagoras believed in the reincarnation of souls at the point of bodily death, and reasoned that animals must have souls, therefore killing them is wrong. And there is this quote from fragmentary Hippocratic writings:

 “One should not kill a living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should one incite another to kill. Do not injure any being, either strong or weak, in the world.”

And also:

“The soul is the same in all living creatures although the body of each is different”

And come to think of it, Socrates in Phaedo makes the same reincarnation/soul argument to justify drinking hemlock. So it seems the Greeks did have a belief in soul reincarnation and some went a step further and applied it to animals.
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A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism Empty Re: A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism

on January 16th 2020, 10:41 am
Message reputation : 100% (3 votes)
Deep philosophical discussion from someone who can't accept that Revan is sub Yareal poof
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on January 16th 2020, 4:35 pm
Pythagoras was a strange man.
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A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism Empty Re: A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism

on January 16th 2020, 6:11 pm
I hear pythagoras was the guy who created the devils triangle
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A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism Empty Re: A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism

on January 16th 2020, 10:31 pm
BoD (Away) wrote:Pythagoras was a strange man.
No kidding.
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on January 17th 2020, 10:34 am
Tbf, the ancient Greeks were totally for old men diddling young boys and teenagers so he was probably more normal than most.
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A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism Empty Re: A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism

on January 17th 2020, 11:13 am
hmmmm
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A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism Empty Re: A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism

on January 17th 2020, 12:35 pm
BoD (Away) wrote:Tbf, the ancient Greeks were totally for old men diddling young boys and teenagers so he was probably more normal than most.
Yeah that was fairly normal and if anyone, it was the philosophers who abstained from this.
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on January 17th 2020, 12:52 pm
Depends. The philosophers were also warriors, which is usually where those kind of relationships form. Socrates for example had a younger lover.
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on January 20th 2020, 2:41 pm
I definitely fit more into the stoicism camp. Interesting read, I'll have to go back and look at the techniques more closely later.
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A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism Empty Re: A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism

on January 20th 2020, 2:43 pm
is ur profile pic the son?
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A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism Empty Re: A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism

on January 20th 2020, 8:52 pm
@lorenzo.r.2nd wrote:is ur profile pic the son?
Yes, the specific image is the Fanged God from Mother Talzin's tome Wild Power
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on January 20th 2020, 8:54 pm
Anyone know good Anakin avatars?
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A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism Empty Re: A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism

on January 20th 2020, 9:23 pm
cool cool. always thought he was dope, but looked so dumb lol
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A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism Empty Re: A comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism

on January 24th 2020, 3:51 am
I think the general summary of the extent to which the two differ is that Stoicism focuses on changing and optimizing the quality of your thoughts, while Buddhism focuses on changing and optimizing the quality of your concentration and mega-cognition. Of course, there's crossover; Buddhism cares about thoughts and vice versa.

Sometimes when I'm met with a negative thought trigger, I wonder whether I should focus on managing the thoughts CBT/Stoicism style or dissipating their power from the inside-out Buddhism style. There are some clever ways to combine them though, like the RAIN acronym (Recognize, Accept, Investigate, and Nurture with Compassion or Non-identify depending on the version, or preferably both).
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