Stoic Zen; 10 Crucial Life Lessons from Ancient Eastern and Western Philosophy

“As long as you live, keep learning how to live.” 
 — Seneca

1. Everything is Exactly How It’s Supposed to Be

“The first thing to do — don’t get worked up. For everything happens according to the nature of all things…”
 — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“As long as you remember that everything is exactly how it’s supposed to be, you will always be sane.”
 — Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind

At any given time, there is always at least one thing that appears out of place in our life. And if we seriously contemplate our existence, we tend to feel slightly alien to this world, what many call existential depression.

The fastest way to go insane is to adopt a view of the world in which everything appears out of place. There is an old psychological war tactic where one sneaks into the house of their enemy and moves every object in the house one inch to the right. Continue to do this, and eventually their enemy becomes psychoneurotic.

Alan Watts has an interesting take on an old, provoking thought-experiment: he asks you to imagine if you could ask God any question. You may ask, “what is the meaning of life?” God would simply reply, “the question makes no sense, you are asking what is the meaning of meaning. It is only you that can create meaning in this world.”

Disappointed in this answer, you may question further, “what is the question I should ask then?” Presumably, God would smile, and answer, “Ah, so you do want a problem?”

The simple fact of the matter is that nothing is out of place. It is simply human nature to create problems to solve.

We live in a world that makes sense, where no paradoxes exist, where no problem exists outside of human opinion. We live in a universe that’s enormously vast in size and enormously old, so as to have all the room to mix countless chemicals countless times in countless places so as to eventually cook up something as complex as human life — in other words, we find ourselves in exactly the kind of universe we can expect to find ourselves in.

2. Emotions Are Hallucinations; See The World As It Is

“From the very beginning, make it your practice to say to every harsh impression, ‘you are an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ Next, examine and test it by the rules you possess, the first and greatest of which is this- whether it belongs to the things in our control or not in our control, and if the latter, be prepared to respond, ‘It is nothing to me.’”
 — Epictetus, Enchiridion
“Just as when meat or other foods are set before us we think, this is a dead fish, a dead bird or pig; and also, this fine wine is only the juice of a bunch of grapes, this purple-edged robe just sheep’s wool dyed in a bit of blood from shellfish; or of sex, that is only rubbing private parts together- in the same way our impressions grab actual events and permeate them, so we see them as they really are.”
 — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

All feelings are the brain’s way of guessing what the world around us looks like, and what dangers it may pose. If you place a fake hand in a position that resembles your real hand, and then crush the fake hand, you will feel the pain. Emotions, especially the emotion of fear, are extremely practical in keeping an organism alive. In our largely sedentary lifestyle, these emotions are heavily confused.

Humans have the ability to create our own fears and delusions. We’re also extremely social creatures, and our brain is hardwired to calculate our position in society. Zebras in comparison, don’t get ulcers; they’re only afraid of the lion in front of them.

Most of our fears are completely imaginary. How long have you spent your life in pointless grief, fettering over largely-imaginary fears and hypothetical dangers? See the world as it really is, and it loses its power over you.

3. Find What Is In Your Control

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals that are not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.”
 — Epictetus, Discourses
“Relax, nothing is under control.”
 — Adi Da

The vast majority of things in this world are outside of our control. You do not have direct control over your wealth, your health, your social status, and all of the things that happen outside of your reasoned decisions. Even many of your thoughts occur outside of your control.

But think of what a terribly responsible position it would be to control every aspect of your life. Every negative aspect of your life would be, unequivocally, your fault. So relax, there is only one thing in life that you should worry about: making the most reasonable, logical decisions possible.

You may not have complete freedom of will, but you certainly have the ability to reason. Reason has the ability to mitigate our more animal emotions, and the more we think critically, the more efficient we become at doing so. “The greatest portion of peace of mind is doing nothing wrong. Those who lack self-control live disoriented and disturbed lives.” — Seneca, Moral Letters

4. Happiness and Desire are Incompatible

“It is quite impossible to unite happiness with a yearning for what we don’t have. Happiness has all that it wants, and resembling the well-fed, there shouldn’t be hunger or thirst.”
 — Epictetus, Discourses
“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor,’ avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly… Life is short — the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”
 — Marcus Aurelius, (Great Emperor of Rome, circa 165 AD)

Freedom isn’t found by filling up on your desires, it’s found by removing your desires. Especially if your happiness is based on very hopeful desires of achieving vast wealth or attaining positions of power or status, you may find yourself in a very disappointing position. Life rarely goes according to plan.

Or worse, you may actually get what you want, only to realize that it’s not enough. There are many people who have all the things that it would take to be happy, and still, they are not happy. Celebrities are far from immune to depression, and even those in the most powerful positions may grow to hate it. Ask Marcus Aurelius.

So approach the world with a grateful attitude. If you stumble upon vast wealth, be indifferent to it. It can, and likely will, be taken from you at any time. It is not wrong to be rich or famous, it is simply risky and irresponsible to base your happiness on achieving such goals.

5. When Hungry Eat, When Tired Sleep

“A student once asked a wise zen master how to achieve zen. The master replied, “eat when you’re hungry, and sleep when you’re tired.” The student, completely confused, responded, “isn’t that what people do already?” The zen master replied, “no, people don’t just eat, but think of 10,000 things, and people don’t just sleep, but dream innumerable dreams.”
 — Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind
“Two elements must be rooted out once and for all:
The fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering.
Since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.”
 — Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind

6. Remember That You Will Die

“Were you to live three thousand years, or even a countless multiple of that, keep in mind that no one ever loses a life other than the one they are living, and no one ever lives a life other than the one they are losing. The longest and the shortest life, then, amount to the same, for the present moment lasts the same for all and is all anyone possesses. No one can lose either the past or the future, for how can someone be deprived of what’s not theirs?”
 — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“You are afraid of dying. But come now, how is this life anything but dying?”
 — Seneca

As a child, remember the dread of waiting even five minutes; as an adult feel the dread as 5 years go by in a moment. We tend to feel time in proportion to our total life already lived, and we panic as life speeds by.We live in fear of dying, we dread its approach, we’d bargain with any god for an eternity longer on this Earth, but why?

Remember that the nature of human existence is to create problems where none exist. We are in constant search of something to concern ourselves with, and this can be stimulating and enjoyable. But imagine solving problems for an eternity. Sooner or later, that becomes the definition of hell.

There’s nothing to fear. If you believe there is no afterlife, then you approach an end as comforting and burdenless as anesthesia. If you believe in an afterlife, then by definition, whatever vessel you inhabit in the afterlife will not be you; it will be a different existence.

Simply remember that you will die, that all of the problems of this world will eventually be lifted, and enjoy the problems while you can.

7. A Wise Man is a Good Man

“In the end, what would gain from everlasting remembrance? Absolutely nothing. So what is left worth living for? This alone: justice in thought, goodness in action, speech that cannot deceive, and a disposition glad of whatever comes, welcoming it as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same source and fountain as yourself.”
 — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“Wherever there is a human being, we have an opportunity for kindness.”
 — Seneca

The Stoics realized that a morality is simply wisdom in actions. Being good is not an arbitrary, aesthetic choice. It is a practical, wise thing to do.

Henry Hazlitt explains this best in his Foundations of Morality:

“In brief, the aim of each of us to satisfy his own desires, to achieve as far as possible his own highest happiness and well-being, is best forwarded by a common means, Social Cooperation, and cannot be achieved without that means. Here, then, is the foundation on which we may build a rational system of ethics.”

8. Train Rigorously Against The Stirrings of the Senses

“When you first rise in the morning tell yourself: I will encounter busybodies, ingrates, egomaniacs, liars, the jealous and cranks. They are all stricken with these afflictions because they don’t know the difference between good and evil. Because I have understood the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil, I know that these wrong-doers are still akin to me…and that none can do me harm, or implicate me in ugliness- nor can I be angry at my relatives or hate them. For we are made for cooperation.”
 — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“The reason we are all stuck in life’s mud is that we ceaselessly run from our problems and after our desires. Meditation provides us with a laboratory situation in which we can examine this syndrome and devise strategies for dealing with it.”
 — Henepola Gunaratana

It seems zen meditation was not an ordered practice at the time of the Stoics, although they surely would have been proponents of its use. Meditation is a place to view consciousness in its entirety, to see problems as they arise, and watch them pass.

This is the true athlete — the person in rigorous training against the stirrings of emotion, mind, and body.

9. Stay the MiddleWay

“Of course you are desiring not to desire, and that’s of course, excessive. All I want you to do is give up desiring as much as you can. Don’t want to go beyond the point of which you’re capable. And for this reason Buddhism is called the Middleway.”
 — Alan Watts
“Just because of the simple fact that you are human, you find yourself heir to an inherent unsatisfactoriness in life that simply will not go away.”
 — Henepola Gunaratana

Of all the sand, how much of it has arranged itself in a shape that resembles a castle? Shape sand in a way that resembles a castle, and how long does it stay in that form? There are simply more ways things can go wrong than ways things can go right. Chaos is a much easier state of the universe, which is why the human eye loves looking at orderly things.

Understand that there will always be at least one problem in your life. Don’t expect to solve every problem and don’t expect to always do the right thing. Simply do the best that is in your power, but don’t try so hard that you create more problems than solve. Walk the tightrope; stay the middleway.

10. Always Keep Learning and Continue to Study Philosophy

What is the fruit of these teachings? Only the most beautiful and proper harvest of the truly educated- tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom. We should not trust the masses who say only the free can be educated, but rather the lovers of wisdom who say that only the educated are free.”
 — Epictetus, Discourses
“Don’t return to philosophy as a task-master, but as patients seek out relief in a treatment of sore eyes, or a dressing for a burn, or from an ointment.
 — Marcus Aurelius
“As long as you live, continue to learn how to live.”
 — Seneca

Education is largely the process of removing fears — fears of strange men, strange ideas, and strange happenings. The notion, ignorance is bliss is vastly exaggerated, as the mind will invent explanations that are far more terrible than reality.

For example, life in the Middle Ages, was to live in constant fear, as sociologist Robert Scott explains, “Rainstorms, thunder, lightning, wind gusts, solar or lunar eclipses, cold snaps, heat waves, dry spells, and earthquakes alike were considered signals of God’s displeasure. As a result, the hobgoblins of fear inhabited every realm of life… contributed to a collective paranoia.”

Keep learning, learn about the world, about yourself, and continue to contemplate.