Mindfulness is all the rage nowadays. But what is it, exactly? If you try to define it yourself, what do you come up with? If you compare your answer with the answers of others, you might find quite a bit of heterogeneity. That wouldn’t surprise me; while mindfulness is of interest to many, it’s hard to pin down exactly what different people mean by the term.
One definition that’s been put forth is from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the researcher behind Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). He defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p.4) This “modern” definition may capture some or even most of many people’s definition of mindfulness.
Kabat-Zinn’s form of mindfulness is derived from Buddhist mindfulness, with heavy influence from one particular lineage of Buddhism known as Theravada. This lineage gets its teachings from one of the earliest sets of scriptures in Buddhism known as the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon inherited its name from the language in which it is written: Pali, which is related to Sanskrit.
In Pali, the word we translate as “mindfulness” is sati. While MBSR and our modern conception of mindfulness may be derived from the ancient Buddhists texts, how much does our modern “mindfulness” resemble sati as described in the Pali Canon? And do either of these concepts resemble anything found in ancient Stoic writings? Can some form of “mindfulness” be found in the writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius?
The goal of this essay, based on my workshop from Stoicon 2016, is to answer these questions.
To begin tackling this question, a good place to start would be looking for explicit definitions of sati in the Pali Canon. Unfortunately, little came up when I tried this approach. This is possibly because the term sati was well-understood and in common use during the time the Pali Canon was written. After all, I didn’t have to define “common” or “term” in the previous sentence, did I? But fortunately, we can still get some grasp on what sati means by looking at the etymology of sati and some similes the Buddha gives for sati.
Let’s start with the etymology. Sati is a noun derived from the Sanskrit term smrti, which means recollection or calling to mind. The verb form of sati is sarati, meaning “to remember”. So it seems that sati has something to do with memory, at least from an etymological viewpoint. However, etymology can sometimes lead one astray. So let’s turn to some similes for sati the Buddha gave in the Pali Canon to see if we can triangulate its meaning.
One such simile is found in Theragata 6.12:
If your mind runs loose
after sensual pleasures
and states of becoming,
quickly restrain it with mindfulness (sati)
as you would a bad ox
Another simile comes to us from the Sutta Nipata 5.4:
there are in the world:
their blocking is
mindfulness, mindfulness (sati)
is their restraint — I tell you —
they’re finally stopped.
These two similes seem to indicate that mindfulness can act as a kind of restraint on the mind and “streams in the world” (which may be taken to mean sense data and the mind, as defined in Samyutta Nikaya 35.82). Note that this is pretty different from “mindfulness” as we defined it in the previous section; there it seemed relatively passive. Here it’s not.
Sati also seems to have another major quality seen through similes in the Pali Canon. Let’s take a look at a couple of more similes to see what they’re pointing to. In the Anguttara Nikaya 6.43, we see mindfulness being compared to the neck of an elephant, with the head being wisdom. Also, in Sutta Nipata 1.4, we see mindfulness being compared to the goad and plowshare of the farmer, suggesting guidance. Both of these metaphors seem to indicate that sati has a guiding quality to it. The elephant metaphor illuminates what it is exactly that sati is guiding: the cultivation of wisdom.
How sati could lead to wisdom is clarified through a few other similes. Anguttara Nikaya 7.63 compares sati to a gatekeeper:
Just as the royal frontier fortress has a gate-keeper — wise, experienced, intelligent — to keep out those he doesn’t know and to let in those he does, for the protection of those within and to ward off those without; in the same way a disciple of the noble ones is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering & able to call to mind even things that were done & said long ago. With mindfulness (sati) as his gate-keeper, the disciple of the [noble] ones abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is blameless, and looks after himself with purity.
And in Majjhima Nikaya 105, the Buddha compares sati to a surgeon’s probe which is used to find the arrow of craving poisoned with ignorance. Together, these seem to point at how sati is thought to develop wisdom: through deeply and actively attending to one’s internal phenomenon, and noting what is harmful (or “unskillful”) and how it is so, along with what is helpful, or “skillful”.
The faculty of sati requires attending to four specific areas, described briefly in Samyutta Nikaya 48.10:
And what is the faculty of mindfulness (sati)? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering & able to call to mind even things that were done & said long ago. He remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. This is called the faculty of mindfulness.
The several practices to develop the faculty of sati within each of these four domains are laid out in more detail in Majjhima Nikaya 10, known as the Satipatthana (“foundations of mindfulness”) Sutta. Going into the details of these practices is beyond the scope of this essay. But a refrain throughout that sutta tells us of some similar qualities used throughout all four areas:
In this way he remains focused internally on the body/feelings/mind/mental qualities in & of itself, or externally…, or both internally & externally…. Or he remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body/feelings/mind/mental qualities, on the phenomenon of passing away…, or on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to the body/feelings/mind/mental qualities. Or his mindfulness that ‘There is a body/feelings/mind/mental qualities’ is maintained to the extent of knowledge & remembrance. And he remains independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world.
In short, one watches these four areas to see how they arise and pass away, maintaining enough attention for the sake of “knowledge & remembrance” while putting aside worldly concerns.
The above seems to indicate to me that sati has many of the same qualities of mind that a student has when studying a subject they’re engrossed in. This is indicated through the allusions to memory and knowledge mentioned several times. But instead of studying textbooks, the practitioner is studying their phenomenological experience. There is also a judgmental aspect of sati that is not present in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of a more modern form of mindfulness, as indicated by the simile of the gatekeeper and the metaphors of blocking streams and restraining an ox. One does not seem to simply observe passively, but instead one takes note of what phenomena are helpful or hurtful, how they are so, and what makes them arise and cease. In short, sati seems to be the careful self-study of one’s physical and mental experiences.
Now that we’ve laid out one definition of modern mindfulness and gotten a sense of what ancient Buddhist sati is like, let’s turn our attention to Stoicism and ask if something similar to either of these notions be found in the ancient Stoic texts. Many people think there is, and that it can be found in the notion of prosoche.
For instance, Donald Robertson seems to indicate that prosoche is similar to “mindfulness” when he writes: “Stoicism is a ‘here and now’ (hic et nunc) philosophy that centres upon the concept of prosoché, ‘attention to oneself’, which can also be translated as ‘mindfulness’ or ‘self awareness’.” (Robertson, 2010, p.153). He also suggests that “[t]he closest thing the Stoics have to a technical term for ‘mindfulness’ is prosoche, or ‘attention’, which refers to the continual self-monitoring of one’s thoughts and actions, as they happen, in the here and now.” (Robertson, 2013, p.189)
Other modern writers have suggested that prosoche plays a central role in ancient Stoic spiritual practice. For instance, Pierre Hadot calls prosoche “the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude.” (Hadot, 1995, p.84) And Christopher Fisher writes that “Prosochē is essential for the prokoptōn to practice the three Stoic disciplines prescribed by Epictetus (Discourse 3.2.1-5). Constant attention is necessary to live according to Nature. Once one embarks on the path of the prokoptōn, the attitude of prosochē serves as an ever-present, vigilant watchman to ensure one continues to make forward progress.”
Putting the above together, modern writers have painted the following picture of prosoche:
- It is a sort of attention to oneself that is similar to “mindfulness”
- It was a fundamental part of Stoic practice
I disagree with both of these claims to at least some extent.
To start with, let’s tackle the first claim, that prosoche is a kind of self-awareness that is similar to mindfulness, by examining what this Greek term means and how it was used in the ancient texts.
For instance, Marcus Aurelius, when speaking of his father, states in Meditations 1.16 that:
…he cared for his body with due moderation without valuing his life at too high a rate or being concerned about his outward appearance, but also without neglecting it, and in such a way that, because of his own attentions, he rarely had need of a doctor’s help, or medicines, or external treatment.” (Hard, 2011)
The word “attentions” here is the accusative form of prosoche. And in 11.16, Marcus states reminds himself
“…that we shall have to attend to these [indifferent, external] matters for only a short while, and then our life shall be over.” (Hard, 2011)
“Attend” here is prosoche. Finally, in De Stoicorum Repugnantiis 1045e, Plutarch reports that Chrysippus said that there “…are some things not worthy of much study or attention.” “Attention” here is the genitive form of prosoche.
These three instances of the use of ‘prosoche” seem to indicate that the term has a pretty straightforward translation into English: “attention”. These examples do not seem to have any connotations of “mindfulness” that we’ve seen thus far. In Marcus’ first quote above, it simply seems to mean that his father “paid attention to ” or “took care of” himself. In the second quote, he is simply using it as “paying attention” just as we would in modern English. In the last example, we see a similar use; it seems to simply mean “attention” – not a kind of mindful self-study of one’s phenomenological experience and behavior. There are plenty of Greek terms that I think are best left untranslated since they don’t loan themselves to easy, English translations (e.g., eudaimonia, arete, hegemonikon). But prosoche is not one of them.
While the term “prosoche” is just used to mean “attention” in many instances, it does play a role as a Stoic practice in Epictetus’ teachings, which he expounds upon in Discourses 4.12 (“On Attention”). There, he explicitly explains what a practicing Stoic should pay attention to:
To what things should I pay attention, then?
In the first place to those general principles that you should always have at hand, so as not to go to sleep, or get up, or drink or eat, or converse with others, without them, namely, that no one is master over another person’s choice, and that it is in choice alone that our good and evil lie. …
And next, we must remember who we are, and what name we bear, and strive to direct our appropriate actions according to the demands of our social relationships, remembering what is the proper time to sing, the proper time to play, and in whose company, and what will be out of place, and how we may make sure that our companions don’t despise us, and that we don’t despise ourselves; when we should joke, and whom we should laugh at, and to what end we should associate with others, and with whom, and finally, how we should preserve our proper character when doing so. (Hard, 2014)
In short, one pays constant attention to one’s general philosophical “at-hand” precepts (especially the dichotomy of control) and one’s appropriate social role in all circumstances. This bears some faint resemblance to mindfulness of thoughts and actions, but is quite different from sati’s four areas of mindfulness practices and Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness of the present moment.
What about the claim that prosoche is a fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude or practice? It is hard to answer this question since the large majority of Stoic texts are lost. However, we can take a stab at guessing how fundamental prosoche was to ancient Stoic practice by looking at how often the term was used and how widespread it was.
One way prosoche could be considered fundamental is if it is mentioned by multiple authors writing about Stoicism. However, this isn’t something we witness in the extant texts. For instance, Diogenes Laertius does not use the term at all in his description of Stoic philosophy in Book VII of his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Marcus uses the term only three times, to my knowledge, in Meditations; two of the times were mentioned above, and the third time he quotes Epictetus as saying that we “must find an art of assent, and in the sphere of our impulses, take good care [prosektikon – “attentive”] that they are exercised subject to reservation….” (Hard, 2011) Seneca wrote in Latin, so it’s a little harder to tell if he was referring to this specific term. However, the Latin translation of Epictetus’ writings often translate “prosoche” as “animadversio”. Seneca uses this word less than 10 times throughout all his writings, and it never seems to indicate anything close to a Stoic practice.
But that alone doesn’t rule out prosoche being an essential Stoic practice. Perhaps it was essential in Epictetus’ Stoicism, as something either he himself emphasized or something he acquired from writings lost to us? However, this doesn’t seem to be the case, either. Epictetus himself seems to only use the term three times outside of Discourses 4.12: twice in 1.20.9-10 (where it seems to just mean “attention” in the normal sense) and once in Enchiridion 33.6 where it could refer either to the exercise of prosoche as described in Discourses 4.12 or simply “attention”. Within Discourses 4.12 he only uses the term 4 more times.
Let’s compare this with some other practice-related terms that are seen more frequently in his writings. For instance, logikos (logic) appears over 30 times in his writings, along with sullogismos (syllogism – related to logical reasoning); this seems to indicate that these practices were important to Epictetus, especially when one looks at uses of these terms in their context. Also, the practice of having “at-hand” rules, which one says to oneself, also seems of major importance; “procheiros” (having phrases or thoughts “at hand”) appears over 60 times, “epilege “ (“say to yourself”) appears 14 times, and “dokimazo” (rules which one compares impressions or value judgements to) appears 28 times. Compared to these concepts, it seems that Epictetus does not emphasize prosoche as something central to Stoic practice. It would be easy to miss it in a casual read of his works.
Overall, it looks like the two claims made about prosoche (that it is a fundamental part of Stoic practice and that is about self-examination of one’s thoughts and actions) do not quite reflect what is written in ancient Stoic texts. The term, when used as a practice, is specific to Epictetus, and he uses it relatively rarely and in a somewhat different way from what some modern authors claim.
The spirit of “mindfulness” in Stoic Practice
While it doesn’t appear that prosoche as used in the ancient texts is quite “mindfulness” as we construe the term nowadays, there are several aspects of Stoic practice that do reflect aspects of both modern mindfulness as well as sati. These similarities exists in ancient Stoic literature; they’re just not explicitly connected with prosoche.
One similarity between Buddhist practice and Stoic practice can be seen in Discourses 3.3:
It is in accordance with this plan of action above all that one should train oneself. As soon as you leave the house at break of day, examine everyone whom you see, everyone whom you hear, and answer as if under questioning. What did you see? A handsome man or beautiful woman? Apply the rule. Does this lie within the sphere of choice, or outside it? Outside. Throw it away. What did you see? Someone grieving over the death of his child? Apply the rule. Death is something that lies outside the sphere of choice. Away with it. You met a consul? Apply the rule. What kind of thing is a consulship? One that lies outside the sphere of choice, or inside? Outside. Throw that away too, it doesn’t stand the test. Away with it; it is nothing to you. If we acted in such a way and practised this exercise from morning until night, we would then have achieved something, by the gods. (Hard, 2014)
While the term “prosoche” is not explicitly used here, it does seem to be an application of it, in that Epictetus is advocating paying constant attention to “the rule” of the dichotomy of control in all that one does at every moment. A similar kind of rule application can also be seen in Buddhist practice, although this is also not explicitly connected to sati:
“What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”
“For reflection, sir.”
“In the same way, Rahula, bodily actions, verbal actions, & mental actions are to be done with repeated reflection.
“Whenever you want to do a bodily/verbal/mental action, you should reflect on it: ‘This … action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful … action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful … action with painful consequences, painful results, then any … action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful … action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any … action of that sort is fit for you to do.
Instead of control, the rule here is focused on the harm to oneself or others. And, while sati is not explicitly mentioned, the “judgemental” aspect of sussing out what’s helpful and harmful does also appear in the concept of sati as I described earlier. A similar theme with regard to impulses to action can be seen in Meditations 8.7:
Every nature is contented when things go well for it; and things go well for a rational nature when it never gives its assent to a false or doubtful impression, and directs its impulses only to actions that further the common good, and limits its desires and aversions only to things that are within its power, and welcomes all that is assigned to it by universal nature. (Hard, 2011)
Thus, while these practices aren’t explicitly related to sati or prosoche, they do still have an aspect of “mindfulness” to them in that they’re both focused on the quality of thoughts and deeds in the present moment.
Indeed, a major similarity between modern “mindfulness” and Stoic practice can be seen in Marcus’ explicit focus on the present moment, which he mentions in several places throughout the Meditations. For instance, in 3.10, he writes: “Cast everything else aside, then, and hold to these few truths alone; and remember, furthermore, that each of us lives only in the present, this fleeting moment of time, and that the rest of one’s life has either already been lived or lies in an unknowable future.” And in 12.26, he states that “the life of every one of us is confined to the present moment and this is all that we have.” This is similar to some statements about the present moment in ancient Buddhism. For instance, we see in Majjhima Nikaya 131:
You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind.
is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
Not taken in,
that’s how you develop the heart.
what should be done today,
for — who knows? — tomorrow
There is no bargaining
with Mortality & his mighty horde.
As a brief aside, I should note that it’s not clear to me that “the present moment” is mentioned quite as often in the oldest Buddhist texts as many believe it to be, and when it is, it seems to be for a quite different purpose than what modern mindfulness focuses on. We can see a hint of that in the quote above, but going more deeply into the role of sati in Buddhist practice is beyond the scope of this essay. For more information, see Ronald Purser’s The Myth of the Present Moment.
As a final example, of something that could be reasonably construed as “mindfulness” in Stoic practice, let us take a look at what I call “decomposition” or “stripping” exercises, a practice which is advocated in one form or another by Epictetus, Marcus, and Seneca. One of several versions of it can be found in Meditations 6.13:
When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that the corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. Thoughts such as these reach through to the things themselves and strike to the heart of them, allowing us to see them as they truly are. So follow this practice throughout your life, and where things seem most worthy of your approval, lay them naked, and see how cheap they are, and strip them of the pretences of which they are so vain. (Hard, 2011)
Here, Marcus strips descriptions of external things of their value judgements, describing their component parts in order to reign in desire. Compare this to one of the mindfulness of body practices laid out by the Buddha in Majjhima Nikaya 10:
Furthermore…just as if a sack with openings at both ends were full of various kinds of grain — wheat, rice, mung beans, kidney beans, sesame seeds, husked rice — and a man with good eyesight, pouring it out, were to reflect, ‘This is wheat. This is rice. These are mung beans. These are kidney beans. These are sesame seeds. This is husked rice,’ in the same way, monks, a monk reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of various kinds of unclean things: ‘In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.’
In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or focused externally… unsustained by anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself.
Here, the Buddha is advocating breaking both one’s own body (“internally”) and possibly the body of others (“externally”, although this is not the only interpretation of these terms) down to its component parts, possibly for a similar purpose.
So, while prosoche is not explicitly connected to much of what we could relate to our concept of “mindfulness”, it is still fair to say that some similarities between Stoic practices and the concept exist.
The concept of prosoche is said to be a fundamental part of ancient Stoic practice involving mindfulness of one’s thoughts and deeds in the present moment. I hope I made a credible case for why this doesn’t seem to be entirely accurate. “Prosoche” is not mentioned very frequently in the ancient texts we have. When it is, it often just means “attention” in the common sense of the word. Only Epictetus (or Marcus quoting Epictetus) seems to mention it as an exercise, and even then it only bears a cursory resemblance to sati or modern mindfulness. While the “four foundations” of sati to which one pays careful attention are body, feeling tone, mind, and mental qualities, Epictetus defines the “two foundations” of prosoche as basic Stoic precepts and social role. While one pays attention to phenomenological experience in sati, one pays attention to more abstract concepts in prosoche. And while both touch on aspects of one’s present moment, neither sati nor prosoche are as explicitly tied up in that concept as modern definitions of mindfulness are.
However, as modern Stoics, we’re not compelled to exclusively follow the ancient texts. The fact is that mindfulness is a concept that has become embedded in our language and culture, and it is a useful concept. So, as modern Stoic practitioners, we should be free to co-opt the term “prosoche” to suit our own needs. After all, we do see a few aspects of “mindfulness” in Stoic practice, even if they’re not explicitly tied to prosoche proper in the ancient texts.
Patrick Ussher expresses similar views in his essay “Was There a ‘Stoic Mindfulness’?” There, he states that “although it is not strictly accurate to call prosoche ‘Stoic ‘mindfulness’, historically speaking, it is probably a helpful term to use as prosoche, like mindfulness meditation, clearly does involve developing a kind of attention: Stoic mindfulness is about bringing the two-fold distinction discussed above with you, in the various situations in which you find yourself, throughout the day…. In fact, all Stoic ‘mindfulness’, or prosoche, is really about is remembering the key precepts of Stoic ethics and putting them into practice.” (Ussher, 2014)
I completely agree. We should feel free to adapt and change terms for our modern time as long as our words are clear and useful. The goal of this essay was to simply clarify the roots of what it is exactly that we’re adapting.
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Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Robertson, D. (2010). The philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic philosophy as rational and cognitive psychotherapy. London: Karnac.
Robertson, D. (2013). Stoicism and the Art of Happiness. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Ussher, P. (2014). Was there a ‘Stoic mindfulness’? In P. Ussher (Ed.), Stoicism today: Selected writings vol. 1. CreateSpace/Stoicism Today.
Greg Lopez is a practicing secular Buddhist and Stoic, founder and facilitator of the New York City Stoics meetup, co-host of Stoic Camp New York, Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship, and co-organizer of Stoicon 2016. He also runs a nonprofit that uses cognitive behavioral therapy, which is what led to his interest in Stoicism. His professional and academic background is in pharmacy and basic science. His other interests include psychology, statistics, philosophy, and swing dancing.
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