Even now as Stoicism has spread in a resurgence around the world, many people still think of it as a “stiff upper lip.” Some see it as a tough, uncompromising ideology that can turn us into modern-day Spartans, impervious to our own pain and unconcerned with the suffering of others.
But these views are narrow and inaccurate. In my vision of Stoic thinking and practice, it’s a way of cultivating our inner resources to make us stronger and better humans, more capable of living fully in the world, and more realistic and reasonable about our place in it.
And that’s why I believe that you can be a Stoic and cultivate compassion for the suffering of other human beings (as well as yourself). In other words: Stoic compassion is not an oxymoron!
I recently gave a talk about how the two approaches—Stoicism and compassion cultivation—can work together side-by-side for the Stoics Care conference. I’d like to share a few highlights of that talk here. You can also check out the video here:
Why Stoic compassion?
Why did I turn to both Stoicism and compassion cultivation, and combine them together in my own life? A number of years ago, I went through a period when I was very stressed. I experienced stress at work, the stress of family needs, financial stress, everyday life stress. And politics played a big role—the divisions and rancor that grew in the public sphere in the US in 2016 was off the charts, and this situation hasn’t subsided since. I felt disconnected and sad and wanted to have a more positive connection with other people. I started practicing Stoicism and then in fall 2016 I took a course on Compassion Cultivation that has influenced me ever since.
The word compassion comes from Latin for “with suffering.” It begins with acknowledging that people face pain, loss, and adversity. The core of compassion is “being there” for others, wishing them happiness and peace. Put simply: “Compassion is the recognition of the suffering of another, along with a desire to alleviate that suffering,” according to James Doty, a co-founder of Compassion Cultivation Training. This 8-week training program that originated at Stanford University in 2009 focuses on insights from psychology, neuroscience, and contemplative practice. It aims to build calm and resilience in the practitioner, and to give techniques to learn how to grow a compassion muscle in ourselves so that we can spread compassion to others.
Compassion allows us to be with another person’s pain without absorbing it into our own being—preserving our sense of inner strength. Compassion for others is a resource that won’t run out, as long as we take care of our own internal resources.
Some people think that if Stoics truly follow their philosophy, they won’t suffer themselves, and perhaps there is nothing that they can do for the suffering of others. I have two things to say to that: first off, we all know many other loved ones, friends, colleagues who are not Stoics and who suffer. And it is our duty as humans—and as Stoics who believe in common humanity, cosmopolitanism, and that need for pro-social interactions inborn in all people—to care about these others and to support them. Second, we ourselves are not Stoic sages and are imperfect beings. That means we are bound to feel negative emotions and suffering, and we must also support and tend to ourselves.
What do Stoicism and compassion have in common?
Now let’s get to the heart of what Stoicism and compassion cultivation have in common.
Both are inexhaustible inner resources. Once you build and maintain these mindsets within yourself, they will never run out! That’s really the key here. You grow Stoic approaches and compassion in your mindset, attitude, and personal practices. Through mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness practices, journaling to encourage and analyze your approach, reading to re-set your mind, and new ways of being with other people, you light this fire within yourself. I will share a bit more about some of these practices at the end of this post.
I like to think of my Stoic and compassion practices like a flame within me. I can use that flame to improve relationships with other people and myself.
In this way, compassion can be the “missing piece” that connects your Stoic practice to other humans. In other words, you can unite your Stoic ruling center with a compassionate ability to support other people and yourself through adversity.
To build Stoic compassion, keep in mind these Stoic and compassionate concepts:
In a future blog post, I’ll dive deeper into self-compassion. For now, I’d like to briefly address how Stoic compassion is different from our typical concept of empathy, and why it is preferable.
Stoic compassion vs. empathy
Most often, people approach others’ suffering through the lens of empathy and emotional identification with pain. It sounds OK in theory, but empathy has flaws. Empathy (or emotional empathy) usually means putting yourself in the shoes of the suffering person. It can lead to feeling emotionally drained and experiencing “empathy fatigue”—especially for caregivers or medical professionals.
Often, empathy leads to entangling your response with negative emotions stemming from the other person (fear, anger, hurt, remorse, jealousy, etc.). You try to help but feel yourself becoming overwhelmed. You may experience a sense of powerlessness or guilt when you realize you can’t fix the other person’s problems, or make different choices for him or her. Ultimately, this could lead to you withdrawing from the suffering person due to frustration, fatigue, or despair.
The ancient Stoics understood the pitfalls of empathy and taught a form of compassion that avoided emotional over-identification. Both Stoicism and Compassion Cultivation acknowledge that only certain things are up to up and that we need to stop trying to control or fix other people.
Epictetus said that “you should not disdain to sympathize” with people who are suffering, “at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” He then added: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.” (Enchiridion, Chapter 16)
This sounds harsh to our ears, yet I think it’s a reflection of a form of compassion, one in which we share sympathy and loving expressions, but we do not give our soul over to the other’s pain. We maintain the integrity of our own hearts in order to stay strong for others in a more sustainable, long-term way.
Exercises to build Stoic compassion
Here are a few exercises for building Stoic compassion:
Mindfulness meditation is not specific to compassion cultivation training, but it is a practice widely accepted to calm and center the mind. We sit quietly, follow our breath, and let our chaotic thoughts flow out of our minds. (You’ll still have thoughts occur to you, of course, but you’ll be able to let them go more easily—and observe them less judgmentally—if you practice this kind of meditation regularly.) Once we are more grounded and relaxed, we are more open to experiencing compassion.
Loving-kindness meditation is a classic practice derived from Buddhism (where it is called metta) that plays a strong role in encouraging compassion towards ourselves and others. The focus is to feel compassion without any sense of judgment, and without wanting anything in return. Here is a quick review of how it works:
A more advanced type of compassion-oriented meditation is called tonglen, which originated in Tibetan Buddhist practice. It’s not recommended for beginners because it can sometimes bring up tough emotions or negativity.
Here’s a quick explanation of tonglen, if you feel ready to try it:
In addition to meditating, journaling is another excellent way to combine compassion training and Stoic practice. It’s a Stoic tradition dating back centuries.
You can write in your journal how your meditations are going and what aspects are hard for you, exploring why. You can investigate challenges in your life and share supportive thoughts to “be there” as a friend for yourself.
You can also use your journal to cultivate gratitude, recognizing what you love and appreciate about other people. You can also write about aspects of their lives that you’d like to build compassion for, even if you disagree with the person’s decisions or approach. A more advanced practice would be to journal about those who are tough to feel compassion for, and imagine their inner struggles.
All of these are ways to grow connection and feelings of kindness, benevolence, and support for others—in other words, compassion—in alignment with your Stoic mindset. When combined, these two practices are incredibly powerful to the individual, and to all those around her/him who benefit from that bright flame within.
Whenever you see someone in tears, distraught because they are parted from a child, or have met with some material loss, be careful lest the impression move you to believe that their circumstances are truly bad. Have ready the reflection that they are not upset by what happened—because other people are no upset when the same thing happens to them—but by their own view of the matter. Nevertheless, you should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief. But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.
– Epictetus, Handbook, Chapter 16
I am committed to Stoic principles, but this passage from Epictetus has always been very difficult for me. As a mother, I think of losing one of my children as the worstpossible thing, worse than losing my own life. These “circumstances” would leave me eviscerated.
I know I’ll never be a “Stoic sage” able to handle that kind of loss with equanimity, and in a way, I don’t want to be. Some people in my life are just too important to me—I wouldn’t be the same human being if I truly reached that state of mental discipline. I can’t image the sage-me.
Yet the second portion of this passage is even more important to me and holds a valuable key. “You should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” Indeed. We should all be there for the people in our lives going through pain and loss. Yet Epictetus is very wise to add this: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.”
What does this mean? It sounds rather heartless and cold at first, but I don’t think so. It gets at the heart of a thorny issue that I’ve wrestled with before: the difference between empathy and compassion.
A little history here. In 2016, at the same time as a I adopted Stoic ideas, I also became fascinated with the nature of compassion and the role it can play in making us better people. I took a course called Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University, part of a program combining science (from the Stanford School of Medicine) and meditation/contemplation (with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama).
One of my major takeaways was that while it is possible drain yourself psychologically through an excess of empathy, compassion--when cultivated with care-- is bottomless and, potentially, healing.
Here’s how my compassion training instructor described it. With empathy, you try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If that person is taken over by grief, loss, and sorrow, or other very powerful emotions, you begin to experience those same feelings yourself. You overidentify, to the point where you feel overwhelmed, almost as much as that person feels.
That is sustainable for a short period, say when coping with a colleague’s funeral or listening to a friend describe a divorce or a partner announce a job loss. But when that person is in a very close relationship with you, and is given over to sadness, grief, anger, or other suffering over a long period of time, their suffering can become your own suffering. You eventually find yourself exhausted by it, as it is shared over and over—with one of two outcomes. You might begin to experience the same emotion, wallowing in a pool of difficult feelings that you have no way to solve, or you might decide shut yourself off from that person and feeling after a time, just to survive psychologically.
Either path is not ideal, and it can lead to more suffering. The problem with empathetic pain at one remove is that you don’t even have the tools to help relieve the other person’s pain in any tangible way. It’s up to that person to cope. You can’t handle that for him or her. (This is reflected clearly in the Stoic dichotomy of control.)
On the other hand, if you cut off that suffering person from your life, you’ll miss out on a valuable relationship. And you’ll be hardening your own protective shell in ways that separate you from your common humanity.
Compassion, by contrast, is about accepting that people do experience pain. It emphasizes our ability to be near it, sit with it, and be a comfort and support to that person (or to yourself), without trying to solve it.
When we struggle, we feel alone. This practice combats that in a meaningful way. That's how it can be a source for healing and strength.
With loved ones who are going through grief or depression, it’s a constant balancing act to maintain compassion without falling into the same depths of negative emotion. We can picture ourselves as a loving flame. Those in pain can come close and can hold their hands up to the fiery warmth. In time this may help, or it may not, but it’s the best we can do under difficult circumstances.
With children who are struggling, it can be very hard because we want to help and heal them. Parents tend to think this way: wouldn’t it be better if we could just solve our kids’ problems for them, and thereby make them happy and whole again?
But that’s not the way it works, and as Stoics we can recognize that we have no control over how bullies or “frenemies” treat our children at school, how their teachers reprimand them (fairly or unfairly), what decisions they make on the playground, and what corrosive ideas they pick up from their friends, their classmates, and whatever they see online.
For a long time, one of my daughters was terrified of the movie “It.” I couldn’t figure out why, since we’d never let her watch a horror film about a vicious clown attacking kids. Then one day she admitted she’d seen imagery from the film in an online ad while watching an otherwise-harmless YouTube video aimed at tweens.
There was very little that we, her parents, could do. We tried to explain that no evil clown would come and kidnap her. We tried to explain it was all make-believe, intended for people who like to be scared around Halloween. In spite of all that, she cowered in bed, unable to sleep, images returning over and over again. Sometimes she’d run to our room, saying quickly, “I’m scared.”
I would sit at the edge of her bed, saying, “You’re OK. Everything is fine. I’m right here. We’re with you. We love you. We’ll do whatever we can to protect you.” That was the best I could do. I gave her a hug. And asked her to try to be strong. After months passed, she slowly conquered her fear and slept better.
Try compassion. The combination of knowing you can’t solve other’s problems with a loving heart is a powerful approach, and a solid support for our kids and our families—one not dependent on judging them or needing to repair them—can go a very long way.
Compassion is a muscle we can exercise. If you are like me, at first, it will feel really odd not trying to fix other people. But after a while, it feels even more loving and supportive to simply be there and to care.
This post summarizes three classic compassion-based meditations. The last one, Tonglen, is considered an advanced, challenging Tibetan Buddhist visualization practice—you breathe in darkness and suffering, and breathe out compassionate light.
Perhaps we could all work up to expressing this kind of compassion by allowing ourselves to sit with those going through hardship and pain. The goal: to just be with other people, sharing a sense of common humanity, offering steady support and a touchstone of tranquility. I will aim to do that. And I hope others could do so for me, too.
Writing as Philosophical Practice
As I gave a presentation about my work on compassion recently, I heard myself saying several times, “it’s a practice.” I was trying to emphasize that learning to be more compassionate towards oneself and others doesn’t just happen instantaneously, and that we need to work at it over time, developing new habits.
Then a woman in the audience asked me this:
“You said it's a practice. But HOW do you practice this on a regular basis?”
In other words, how do you integrate your values around compassion into your everyday life? How do you reinforce it, and teach yourself to live up to your own ideals?
A great question. The same could be asked of Stoicism, too, the other pillar of my life philosophy.
(And if you are wondering about the connection between my compassion work and Stoicism: I believe that the common humanity emphasized in Stoic thought is beautifully complemented by the practice of compassion and self-compassion. Both emphasize the same thing: we are all human trying to live our lives with the least possible pain and the most possible peace, while also getting along with the people in our lives, in the most positive way possible. This is a hard, livelong practice because none of us are Stoic sages: As Seneca said, we’re all patients in the same hospital.)
To describe how I practice, I mentioned my long walks and runs, which I use to meditate (seated meditation is good, too). I talked about my attempts to raise awareness in myself, to stop myself when a random thought or first impression appears, and work to make a good and reasonable judgment. (This is also the Stoic practice at the heart of the philosophy. It’s the one that Epictetus speaks of when he says, “[We] should… train for impressions every day,” in Discourses, 3.8.1.)
What I did not bring up in the discussion, and realized after the session was done, is that I also practice through writing.
Writing is a form of the philosophical life for me. I write to make meaning from my experiences. I write to understand what I think, to analyze why some moments offer insights into the whole of existence.
In fact, through writing I’ve learned to value my role as a parent more than ever, because it helped me explore my underlying parenting beliefs and values. It also helped me to realize that some of the pain and struggle I’ve experienced has a deeper meaning—and that in many ways, it has taught me something.
Things as serious as my father’s death. And as minor as my children’s squabbles in the pool.
My family life is not just a laundry list of issues to deal with—it’s where I live my philosophy. And as such, it can (and should) be a source of rich strength.
As my kids get older, far from the baby stage, parenting has become more and more about applying practical common sense and ethical core values. That’s where my Stoic thinking, and compassion training, have served me in recent years. When a tough situation comes along, I’m more able now to take a step back, question the impression, and make a wiser judgment. The big picture and “accord with nature” prevail more often over knee-jerk reactions and high-flying emotions.
And writing about it, from my point of view on this blog, has given me a way to understand and explain some of that, to myself most of all. And I’m grateful for the opportunity and time (snatched between numerous obligations) to do it.
In a way, writing is an extension of the discipline of assent—of thinking clearly and agreeing to a rational interpretation of the world. After all: Once I write it, and especially after I blog publicly about it, I must really agree to it!
The ancient Stoics did write philosophical journals, at least some who had leisure time to make that possible. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were the thoughts recorded in his personal journal. Seneca kept a journal late at night analyzing his actions daily, and Epictetus told his followers that those who wished to “be a philosopher” should “write down every day” the most accurate philosophical interpretation of the world around them (Discourses 1.1.25).
I wish that all parents could find the time (and interest) to write about their experiences. Not just to record memories for our kids’ future reading or to remind ourselves of what it was like raising a child. But also to frame what we are doing, to understand it better.
This wish extends beyond parents too. Writing things down, and analyzing our own challenges and actions, can help us become philosophical people, realizing that the everyday work we do as human beings is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Adjusting our expectations
I talked to my 11-year-old daughter this weekend about ancient philosophy and how Stoic "slogans" can help us keep things in perspective. (My previous post offered up quite a few of these brief maxims.) She focused in on the biggie in Stoicism: "Some things are under my control and other things are not." And then, "What is beyond my control is indifferent to me."
The question she asked is a very valid one: What is really indifferent? Why shouldn’t you care about things you can't control? Even simple things like weather?
This is one of the biggest hurdles that we face as modern Stoic thinkers. How should we relate to those things that we can’t control, but that do affect us?
Just take weather. If it’s stormy and lightning fills the sky, we can’t realistically go out and swim in an outdoor pool. If the temperature is 105 degrees, maybe we shouldn’t run that marathon.
Or I could ask just as easily, how can I not care when one of my children starts screaming, ratcheting up emotional pressure on me? Or when another driver cuts me off in traffic, endangering us both? Or when a financial investment I made loses a ton of money, because of unpredictable market “corrections,” and now I can’t afford to move to a bigger home or even take a vacation?
For ancient Roman Stoics, the stakes were even higher. Rome was not exactly known for the stability of its leadership, despite its political and military strengths. Ancient men and women were subject to capricious banishment and summary executions. In the very first section of his Discourses, Stoic thinker (and ex-slave) Epictetus writes about men being sent to be beheaded, and how they face their end. (Literally sticking out their necks.)
Thankfully, most people today aren’t being sent to live on a rock in the Mediterranean, and the majority of governments don’t kill execute folks on a whim. Certainly, there are many perilous life circumstances out there. But even our regular old "first world" problems create plenty of situations where we are horribly disappointed and confused—when life doesn’t turn out like we expect it to.
That’s when we can try to fall back on the most basic principle of Stoic philosophy: Some things are in my control, and some are not. Whatever I can’t change, I have to accept and that means it is separate from me, indifferent.
Ideally, when things happen outside my control that seem pretty unfavorable, I could work to find ways to change my own behavior--and my own thought process--to make my situation better. So if it’s 105 degrees, no marathon, but maybe I can find an indoor gym with a treadmill. If my child is screaming, I could give her a pillow to punch and scream at, and go into another room. (I seem to recall that when one of my babies was colicky and hollering, someone told me I could put on noise-cancelling headphones to block out the constant sound of crying!) If my investment turns sour, maybe I could try a stay-cation this year and find a new source for investment advice, postponing the house move for a year. Not ideal, I realize, but these are just a few of the ways that we can adjust our actions.
Often, it's the emotional reactions we experience that are much tougher on us than the changed behavior itself.
That's because of a simple concept. It’s when our circumstances don’t match our expectations that we suffer. I’ve learned about this in my Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford, where we focus on how to bring compassion to the suffering of others and of ourselves. (More on that in an upcoming post.)
Perhaps the most important lesson of Stoicism is that we ought to adjust our expectations. We can try not be so quick to compare our situations to others' that we assume are more advantageous. Our endless wishes for money (and what it can buy), status, and power—so deeply infused in our competitive culture—can cause us pain when they don’t come true.
And even when they do come true it can result in problems for us, which the Stoics clearly recognized when they professed a mistake for fame, fortune, and prestige. Sadly, we are not "entitled" to perfect children, high-paying investments, pristine houses, and dream vacations. We’ll sure be lucky if we get them, but that won’t necessarily satisfy us--and, after all, we could lose them. It’s learning to be happy with what we have in front of us that is the real dream we all can strive for. (Myself included!)
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.