Hackernoon logoWhen Buddhism's Nonattachment Overlaps Stoicism's Dichotomy of Control by@roxanamurariu

When Buddhism's Nonattachment Overlaps Stoicism's Dichotomy of Control

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@roxanamurariuRoxana Murariu

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As Ryan Holiday remarks in his Daily Stoic book, we have a mental image of the Zen philosopher as the calm, serene monk. In contrast, the Stoic is the man in the marketplace, the senator in the Forum, etc. Nevertheless, both people are equally at peace.  

Although for every philosophy, there are different goals, eudaimonia or a life worth living for Stoics and enlightenment for Buddhists, there are strikingly similar concepts from Buddhism and Stoicism. An example is the Buddhist nonattachment concept and the Stoic dichotomy of control theory.

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

Nonattachment to results + self-compassion = a supple relentlessness that is hard to match. Push hard, play to win, but don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go your way.  Striving is fine, as long as it’s tempered by the realization that, in an entropic universe, the final outcome is out of your control. If you don’t waste your energy on variables you cannot influence, you can focus much more effectively on those you can. 

Remember what our parents used to say? Try your best. The difference between trying our best and nonattachment to results is that we do not let the outcome define us. Instead, there is gentle wisdom in acceptance of things not going our way. Otherwise, we might lose ourselves when, and it is a matter of when, not if, the result is not what we wanted. 

Nevertheless, practicing nonattachment is not giving up on dreams, aspirations, or desires but merely realizing that it would be wise to drop the attachment to our thoughts on the outcome. 

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

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us, and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.

Up to us are our judgment, emotions, behaviors, and values. It is not up to us other people’s behaviors, what they think of us. Even health is not entirely in our control, as incurable or genetic diseases can still occur, regardless of healthy lifestyle choices. 

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people but care more about their opinion than our own. - Marcus Aurelius 

The framing effect can be employed to see difficulties and misfortunes in a Stoic manner: at its core, the Stoic exercise of the dichotomy of control states that things are either up to us or not. We would gain more if we focused our time, attention, and efforts on control variables. This concept doesn’t sound mind-boggling, and yet… 

And yet, how much sorrow, pain, betrayal, hurt, disbelief we endure when we navigate the shallow, toxic waters of “if-only”: 

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

If only I got that job, I would be happy. 

If only I could meet somebody special, I would be happy. 

Perhaps you have heard about the Serenity Prayer:

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

It will not be a surprise that the Wikipedia page of the Serenity Prayer mentions Epictetus and Buddhist scholars as influences. 

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

Remember, then, that the only things truly yours are those that are entirely up to you. Everything else is on loan from the universe, and the universe may recall such loans at a moment’s notice in any number of ways. - Massimo Pigliucci 

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


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