Stoicism, “McMindfulness”, & Brunch

The Third Sunday of Easter, Year B.

Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

Luke 24:36b-48

Does your job stress you out? Do you have trouble taking time for yourself because of your responsibilities? Is the constant state of domestic and international crisis causing you anxiety and fostering unhealthy habits? Has the endless struggle for financial security with the knowledge that a single medical event could easily cast you and your family into bankruptcy caused you to lose sight of what’s really important in life? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, well then I have good news for you! What if I told you that all of these troubles of yours could be solved in minutes a day at only a minor cost?

Now I know what you’re thinking, “it’s too good to be true!” and you’d be absolutely right. It is too good to be true.

But if you want to at least feel a little better while not actually solving any of your troubles, I can assure you that there is an app for that! Well, actually, several thousand apps for it. All with various cost structures and notification settings, but generally bearing the same marks of peaceful music, soothing npr-styled guided meditation, and a complete gutting of complex spiritual traditions to better fit the corporate agenda.

Over the past few years there has been a revival of sorts in two ancient traditions: Stoicism and Mindfulness meditation. As people have become increasingly disenchanted with the promises of a techno-utopia, and as the economic landscape of our society has become increasingly volatile, people have been searching for wisdom and practices to cope with these issues that are beyond their individual power to solve. Though both Stoicism and Mindfulness come from vastly different cultural contexts, they share a few similar features that are proving attractive to a modern consumer audience. Mainly a recognition and acceptance of what one can change, mainly one’s inner response to adversity, and a letting go of what one cannot change, fate, external events, death, etc.

Stoicism originated in the 3rd century BC in Athens but rose to prominence in the Roman world a few hundred years later. Famous writers, orators, and even Emperors such as Marcus Aurelius promoted the philosophy. Stoicism was one of several influential philosophies of the well-off intellectual class in the Roman world. Though the Apostle Paul wrangled with the Stoics in Acts 17, Stoicism was such a part of the intellectual landscape of the time, that parts of the New Testament were influenced by the philosophy. Though this is a vast oversimplification of its tenants, Stoicism mainly teaches that the path to true happiness is by accepting the present as it is, not allowing oneself to be controlled by desire for pleasure or fear of pain, and using logic to understand the world and one’s place in nature’s plan. Like all good philosophy there is wisdom and practical advice in stoicism; being able to have realistic expectations of one’s life and a well-honed ability to regulate one’s emotions is a path to a happier life. But there is an unavoidable irony that those who practiced stoicism tended to be the wealthy and intellectual elite, people who had the luxury of being able to “truly accept the present”, rather than worrying about their next meal.

Mindfulness mediation does not fall into the same hypocrisy, at least when practiced properly. Mindfulness originates with the eightfold path in Buddhism, and is a meditative technique designed to train oneself to experience the present while moving past unproductive anxiety or other thoughts. Like Stoicism, Mindfulness focuses on experiencing the present, accepting one’s place in the universe, and avoiding suffering by detaching oneself from material and emotional distractions. Again, this is wisdom and a path to a happier life, but to focus on Mindfulness without considering and incorporating the other tenants of Buddhism, guts it of being anything more than a cheap breathing exercise. I will not pretend to be an authority on Mindfulness as part of a legitimate Buddhist practice; but the modern, western appropriation of Mindfulness that we see in app stores and corporate management techniques relies on the breathing exercises, emotional self-regulation, and aesthetics of its Buddhist tradition, while quietly ignoring the tenants of love for sentient life, rising above greed, and the seeking of justice for your fellow man.

What do these ancient philosophies and their modern misuses have to do with the Risen Jesus showing up for brunch with the disciples? In a way, today’s Gospel is about addressing the same problems that the disciples faced in the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion, and that we face today: fear and how to cope with problems beyond our individual powers to address. Stoicism, Corporate Mindfulness, and the Risen Jesus all instruct us how to deal with an unjust world. They even share some of the same basic techniques: spiritual practices to aid emotional regulation, prioritizing the proper things, recognizing one’s place in the cosmic order, etc. Yet what separates the Gospel from the modern appropriations is that Jesus has hope for the world, and expects His followers to transform the world to God’s intentions, rather than accepting the world as it is.

For Stoics and Corporate Mindfulness, the world does not nor should it change. The point of their practices are not to make the world better, but to better train you to deal with the status quo. It is a way of placation and pacification in the face of injustice. Their primary goal is to help you avoid suffering in the face of injustice, rather than question what caused the injustice in the first place. Having been stripped of their complex cultural context and repackaged into slick apps for easy consumption and commodification, these philosophies have been reduced to another product in self-help industrial complex, though with the marketing benefit of ancient pedigree and/or “exotic” flavor. Stoicism and Corporate Mindfulness have had a revival and received corporate sponsorship because they can be easily twisted into supporting the status quo. By promoting “mindfulness” or stoicism, suddenly the ills and injustices of society are not something that can or should be addressed, but rather your personal problem of not managing stress properly. Are you stressed out because you work too much? Don’t demand reasonable boundaries and working hours, instead take ten minutes listening to peaceful music and contemplating the universe! Then get back to work.

The Risen Jesus stands among us as a stark rebuttal to that hopeless attitude. In appearing among His frightened disciples, Jesus showed them how God is making the whole world new. By showing His wounds, talking with them, eating with them, Jesus is showing that the victory over death is not some spiritual or philosophical victory, but real change. In presenting His material body to the disciples, He shows that He really conquered death, and while He exists in a state we can scarcely comprehend, we are witnesses to that victory and know what God is doing in the world. In showing His wounds, Jesus does not deny that suffering is part of the journey, but He also shows that it is something that should not be avoided but redeemed. In eating the fish, He shows that we are not called to put away our concerns and attachments to the world but to raise the world to a higher state. In listening to the disciples’ questions, and opening their minds to Scripture, Jesus shows that the world is not a static, unchangeable place, but the beloved and dynamic creation of God who has from the very beginning been working to redeem it. We are called to be witnesses to the Risen Jesus. To proclaim the Good News that the world has been redeemed. While none of us individually have the power to make the changes the world needs, as a great cloud of witnesses we shall rise above the divisions and distractions of our present age and lead the world to a holier state. Amen.

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