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.
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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.