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From Vol. 6, Issue 4, April 2024

My train ride to mindfulness

Practicing Stoicism || Chuck Chakrapani

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Many years ago, I was on a long train journey. I noticed that there was something different about the person seated across from me. While everyone else on the train was frantically rushing around, he looked calm and centered. 

When the train stopped for a while in an intermediate station, we both got out to stretch our legs. He pulled out a cigarette pack from his pocket, offered me one, and started smoking. (By the way, this was long ago, when people used to eat their food without taking a picture of it first for social media. In those days, smoking was not considered to be dangerous or unhealthy, and you could smoke anywhere.)  

What struck me most was, how deliberate he was getting out of the train, getting a cigarette pack from his pocket, lighting the cigarette, and smoking it. There was a deliberateness to every one of his acts. It looked as though he did not take a single puff without being aware of his taking a puff. There was no rush. He would raise his hand slowly to his lips and inhale slowly.  

This was a far cry from how I was doing things. Most things I did mechanically, without any thought to what I was doing. I was distracted by everything that was happening. I asked him about the deliberateness with which he seemed to be doing everything. He didn’t answer me directly. Instead, he took the burning cigarette out of his lips and held each end between two fingers. With a smile on his face he asked me,

“How many people can do this?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen anyone do this before. Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Of course, it does!”
“But you are smiling.”
“Yes, your finger hurts, but you choose to smile.”
“But how?”
“By training yourself to act the way want to, no matter what happens.”

It turned out he was trained in Japan and was a martial arts master. I studied martial arts with him for a few years after that, but that’s not the point of the story. (Neither is smoking!) What remained with me was that every one of his acts was deliberate. It looked as though he did nothing out of habit, nothing without being aware. For years I tried to emulate him whenever I felt frantic. I don’t think I ever succeeded in doing things as deliberately as he did, but I became aware of what it would be like to live deliberately. Years later, when I read this quote, attributed to Victor Frankl,

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom,”

I remembered the above incident when my former martial arts master held a burning cigarette in his hand. It hurt, but he chose his response – to smile.

That is the essence of mindfulness. All your acts are conscious acts. When our acts are conscious, we realize we have a choice. Our actions are not automatic responses to our conditioning or to what someone else does. If someone is angry with us, upset with us, or insults us, we don’t have to be angry with them, upset with them, or insult them back. We can choose how we want to respond.

Sometimes we have automatic physiological responses to things.  It’s natural to be startled by a loud noise. Or be frightened by an unexpected tsunami. When we are in a potentially dangerous situation, our physiological responses take over even before we become aware of the situation. As Seneca put it,

Nature exerts its power and make its presence known even to the strongest. - Seneca, Moral Letters, 11

Sometimes we react negatively because we have conditioned ourselves to repay anger with anger, hatred with hatred, one insult with another. We never realize how mechanical and robotic our reactions are. When this happens, there is no gap between the stimulus and the response. Then what? For example, we feel that someone has offended us without having thought about it. What do we do now? The Stoic suggested that, even in these situations where you are already offended, you should take a step back before responding.

So it is essential not to respond to impressions impulsively. Take some time before reacting. You will see you are in better control. - Epictetus, Encheiridion, 20

After suspending our judgment we should calmly examine our impression of what happened. When we feel negatively about anything, we should realize that we could be feeling this way because of physiological factors or because of our own conditioning.

Start by challenging everything that appears disagreeable. “You are only an appearance. Let me fully understand what you are.” - Epictetus, Encheiridion, 1

So, we should not go by our first impressions. We must challenge them and rationally examine them. This is Stoic mindfulness. 

Even the very act of stepping back will bring rationality to our decisions. Over a period of time, the habit of reacting mechanically to what happens around us will lose its grip on us and our acts will become more and more rational and deliberate.

Mindfulness is common to many traditions. For example, mindfulness is central to Buddhism. Different traditions describe mindfulness in different terms. Scholars debate such differences. Stripped off all such scholarly distinctions, the essence of mindfulness lies in paying complete attention to something, so we understand its nature correctly. Our judgment then does not rely on our habitual reactions, but on a proper understanding of things. Even when our acts become conscious and measured, they could be wrong. But mindful acts give us an opportuntity to correct them, if not now, then at some future time.

We can experience total freedom when all our actions are our own. We are not helplessly pushed or pulled by our instincts or by our conditioning. This is the power of mindfulness, a lesson I learned on my train ride so long ago.

Chuck Chakrapani
PS. When you read this issue, you will find different contributors defining Stoic mindfulness somewhat differently. Who’s right? I think all are. We all are talking about different aspects of mindfulness interwoven into Stoicism.