Monday, May 9, 2011


This is the second in a series of blogs discussing the ideas of some of the early Greek philosophers with a view to delineating what there is of value to us today as regards our mindfulness practice.

As mentioned in my previous blog on the ideas of Thales, mindfulness is not a philosophy in itself. However, there are a number of philosophical ideas and principles that can be said to underlie the practice of mindfulness in its secular and non-sectarian form, and some of those ideas and principles are of quite ancient provenance.

Let’s look at the ideas of Anaximander (c610-c546 BCE) [pictured above], successor to and pupil of Thales, and how those ideas relate to the practice of mindfulness.

Thales thought that the basic “stuff” (material substratum, essence or “first principle”) of things was water. Anaximander raised a logical objection, namely that how can one take one thing as a description of all things? Clearly, Thales exaggerated the “moist” at the expense of the “dry”. What this means is this ... any theory of reality must account for the existence of opposites, for if there were only water, there could not be anything hot, or any fire.

So, for Anaximander the basic “stuff” and qualities of life are opposites ... and those opposites are in conflict. He postulated a theoretical entity (apeiron) to explain observable phenomena. The word apeiron can mean “infinite” as well as “indefinite” (especially the latter, and in a qualitative as opposed to quantitative sense).

One defect in Anaximander’s otherwise realist methodology is that he attempted to explain the observable in terms of some supposed basic unobservable entity, namely the apeiron. As we saw in our last blog, logic compels us to reject the unobservable as the cause of the observable. Nevertheless, Anaximander is to be otherwise commended for his honest and rigorous insistence on and pursuit of the real.

What do we learn from the empirical naturalist Anaximander? For one thing we learn the importance of demarcation and differentiation, that is, marking off one thing from other things. We also learn that there is a simple unity containing opposites – not a unity in the sense that all things are one but that a single logic applies to all things, there being a continuous process among different things.

So, in our mindfulness practice we learn to focus our attention on whatever comprises the action of the present moment. Our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations will often be contradictory in nature but they nevertheless constitute the “content” of our experience.

When we stay in the action of the present moment, being mindful (in an immediate and direct way) of whatever we are thinking, feeling and experiencing from one moment to the next, we are able to separate out thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others from the person each one of us really is. We look and see ... and the mind empties itself of its content from one moment to the next ... and what was previously unconscious becomes conscious.

Like Buddha Shakyamuni Anaximander taught that all things were impermanent. In the words of Anaximander, in Simplicius’ commentary on Aristotle’s physics, “Whence things have their origin, thence also their destruction happens, as is the order of things; for they execute the sentence upon one another - the condemnation for the crime - in conformity with the ordinance of time.” However, there is nevertheless a certain regularity and predictability about life by reason of a certain balancing out of all opposites which act on, dominate and otherwise contain each other. Things flow in and out of consciousness, for such is the flux of life.

Anaximander questioned the existence of the gods in the same way that Buddha Shakyamuni was agnostic on the question of God’s existence. Both taught that one could attain “deliverance” independently of any external agency. Good news indeed.

In my next blog we will look at the ideas of Anaximenes (585-528 BCE) and how his distinctive ideas relate to the practice of mindfulness.

Recommended Reading: John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 3rd ed (A & C Black, 1920); John Anderson, Lectures on Greek Philosophy 1928 (Sydney University Press, 2008). 


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