Saturday, May 14, 2011

EARLY GREEK PHILOSOPHERS AND MINDFULNESS [PART 4]

This is the fourth and final blog 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 previously mentioned, 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 and teachings of the nobleman Heraclitus of Ephesus (c535-c475 BCE) [pictured left and below] – my favourite Presocratic philosopher – and examine how those ideas relate to the practice of mindfulness.

Professor John Anderson wrote of Heraclitus’ “wide awake approach to problems”, by which he meant that Heraclitus adopted and advocated a rigorously empirical and logical methodology in the pursuit of truth (reality ... what is).

Heraclitus was known as the “flux and fire” philosopher. He wrote, “All things are flowing”, and “There is nothing permanent except change”. (How very Buddhist!) He also famously said, “Let us not conjecture at random about the greatest things. We must follow the common.”

What that means is that if we would know the conditions of existence we must look for that which is “common” to all things. In addition, we should reject supernatural, occult and all other unobservable explanations of the otherwise observable conditions of existence. “The things that can be seen, heard and learned are what I prize most,” he writes. In other words, naturalism, for Heraclitus eschewed all notions of the occult and the supernatural. He wrote, “"this world [or world-order] did none of the gods or humans make; but it always was and is and shall be: an ever-living fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures." Such is the cosmology of Heraclitus and the other exalted thinkers of his day. How ancient, yet so very modern.

Heraclitus warns us that we need to be prepared to be surprised by our discoveries. He writes, “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it is hard to be sought out and difficult.” How often life teaches us what we thought we knew was not at all in accord with things as they really are. “The sun is new every day,” writes the anything but world weary Heraclitus.

All things are in a state of flux, says Heraclitus. Everything is in process and no single element is ever predominant for there is a contrary tension of things by means of which there is a resolution (an "attunement", cf "at-one-ment") of conflicting opposites. Nothing is simple, indeed all things are complex, have internal differentiation, and interact with other things ... all on the same level or order of reality and observability. In addition, things are constituent members of wider systems and exchanges of things. The forms of things are constantly being transmuted.

For Heraclitus change is the unity of all things, and there is a single logic that applies to all things and how they are related. (By now readers should be aware that logic is about things, not thought, and how things are related. Sound logical thinking means relating [that is, putting together or distinguishing] different pieces of information about actual or alleged facts. “Reality is propositional,” writes John Anderson, for there is a logical direct relationship between any proposition and the way things actually are.)

The unity underlying all change and opposition is the Logos [λόγος] – a term first used by Heraclitus in around 600 BCE to refer, not to any theological abstraction, but to the organised and co-ordinated way in which, as Heraclitus discovered, all things work and are constituted. That is, the logic (or “formula”) of things. Not surprisingly, Heraclitus also taught that the single logic applying to all things also manifested itself as objective moral law.

Mindfulness is a lifelong inquiry into what it means to be fully present and alert in the present moment. (Heraclitus was right when he said that most people “sleep-walk” their way through life. How very relevant that is to the successful practice of mindfulness!) Each moment of our existence is but a brief occurrence in what is otherwise a state of flux. Life is nothing but the very livingness of all things living out their livingness from one moment to the next. The unity of all things derives, not from all things being one, but simply from the fact that a single logic applies to all things.

In our mindfulness practice thought will follow feeling, feeling will follow thought, and so on. Nothing is predominant even if from time to time some particular thought, feeling or sensation is particularly strong. Mindfulness enables us to look at ourselves thought-less-ly and feeling-less-ly such that in time our minds become free from notions of self (that is, notions of “I” and “me”). Notions of self have the appearance of solidity and continuity, but that is only by reason of habit and memory. The only solidity (if there be any at all) and continuity there is subsists in the seemingly endless process or flow of things and their transmutation.

I hope you have enjoyed these blogs on the ideas of some of the more important Presocratic philosophers.


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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