When Buddhism’s Non-Attachment Straddles Stoicism’s Dichotomy of Control

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As Ryan Holiday notes in his book Daily Stoic, we have a mental image of the Zen philosopher as the calm and serene monk. On the other hand, the Stoic is the man of the market, the senator of the forum, etc. Nevertheless, the two people are also at peace.

Although for each philosophy there are different goals, eudaimonia or a life worth living for Stoics and enlightenment for Buddhists, there are surprisingly similar concepts of Buddhism and Stoicism. An example is the Buddhist concept of non-attachment and the Stoic dichotomy of control theory.

In his book 10% Happier, Dan Harris wondered how to strike a balance between his professional ambitions as a news anchor, always on the move, and the stillness of meditation. Is it possible to become a better version of yourself without becoming ineffective? The answer he found:

Non-attachment to results + self-compassion = flexible relentlessness hard to match. Push hard, play to win, but don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go the way you want them to. The effort is fine, as long as it is tempered by the realization that, in an entropic universe, the end result is beyond your control. If you don’t waste your energy on variables you cannot influence, you can focus on the ones you can much more effectively.

Do you remember what our parents used to say? Do your best. The difference between doing our best and not focusing on results is that we don’t let the result define us. Instead, there is sweet wisdom in accepting things that are wrong with us. Otherwise, we might get lost when, and it’s a matter of when, not if, the outcome is not what we wanted.

However, practicing non-attachment is not letting go of dreams, aspirations, or desires, but simply realizing that it would be wise to let go of the attachment to our thoughts about the outcome.

In his Enchiridion, Epictetus mentions the dichotomy of control: some things are under our control, while others are not:

Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as you go. Some things are up to us, and some are not up to us. Our opinions are ours, and our impulses, desires, dislikes, in short, everything we do. Our bodies do not depend on us, nor our possessions, our reputations, or our public functions, or, that is to say, anything that is not of our making.

Our judgment, our emotions, our behavior and our values ​​are ours. It is not for us to see the behavior of others, what they think of us. Even health is not entirely in our control, as incurable or genetic diseases can always arise, regardless of healthy lifestyle choices.

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love each other more than others, but we care more about their opinion than ours. – Marc Aurelius

The framing effect can be used to view hardships and woes in a Stoic way: Basically, the Stoic exercise of the dichotomy of control declares that things are up to us or not. We would gain more if we focused our time, attention and effort on the control variables. This concept does not seem mind-boggling, and yet …

And yet, how much heartache, pain, betrayal, hurt, unbelief we endure as we navigate the shallow, toxic waters of the “if-only”:

If only I could have more money, I would be happy.

If only I had this job, I would be happy.

If only I could meet someone special I would be happy.

Perhaps you have heard of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

It will not be surprising that the Wikipedia page for the Serenity Prayer mentions Epictetus and Buddhist scholars as influences.

Finally, it might seem that these concepts of the Stoic dichotomy of Buddhist control and non-attachment employ detachment from personal tragedy or widespread devastation. On the contrary, I believe that these concepts, in fact, bring more awareness to our ephemeral existence:

Remember, then, that the only things that are truly yours are those that are entirely up to you. Everything else is on loan from the universe, and the universe can recall such loans at any time in several ways. – Massimo Pigliucci

Previously published on https://www.roxanamurariu.com/nonattachment-and-the-dichotomy-of-control/.

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