Nowadays, we understand 'mindfulness' to be about paying attention to one's present moment experience with kindness and non-judgementally. The Stoics also had a technique, called prosoche, which involved paying attention to the present moment.
‘Stoic mindfulness’, however, is not just about paying attention to the moment. Neither is it about focusing on your breath, or things you are doing at the level of sensation, as it is in Buddhist mindfulness. That is not to say that such Buddhist mindfulness techniques would not complement a Stoic’s actions. Indeed, they would: focussing on the moment, and doing what you do with care, is a key Stoic quality. But ‘Stoic mindfulness’ is also a gentle yet consistent monitoring of yourself throughout the day, which asks: ‘am I concerned here with something which is in my control or not in my control?’
Epictetus gives us the example of a singer with stage-fright. This person has ‘placed himself’ in something he cannot control, which is what the crowd thinks of him, such that his happiness depends on that. Epictetus says:
‘When I see man in anxiety, I say to myself, “what can it be that this fellow wants? For if he did not want something that was outside of his control, how could he still remain in anxiety? That is why when singing on his own he shows no anxiety, but does so what he enters the theatre, even though he has a beautiful voice. For he does not wish merely to sing well, but also to win applause, and that is no longer under his control....Why is this? Why, he simply does not know what a crowd is, or the applause of a crowd...hence he must needs tremble and turn pale.’
This is because the singer did not ask himself: ‘Where, in this situation, should I ‘place myself’?’ Had he asked this, he would have decided to focus purely on the performance of his art. Of course, the Stoic singer will be glad if the crowd applauds, but was never the point of his singing. The irony, of course, is that the one who focuses on the performance of his art, on being ‘in the zone’, is more likely to do his or her task well, and to win the applause of the crowd anyway. In any event, the key practice is to ask yourself: ‘where I am placing myself here?’ and if, as Epictetus told his students, you find your thoughts are concerned with things you cannot control, remember to say to yourself: ‘that is nothing to do with me!’ [Encheiridion, §1].
You can download a free video and audio exercise on the Stoic Early Morning Meditation from the main Stoic Week 2013 page below: