Sunday, May 8, 2011


Today I begin 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.

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.

The ancient Greeks produced some great thinkers. Although notably disinclined to theology, the Greeks made great philosophers. (Both theology and philosophy attempt to “explain” things, but philosophy, at its best, does so by rejecting unobservable agencies as the cause of observable things. That is the greatness of philosophy, especially Greek philosophy.)

Let’s go back to the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. We begin with some of the more important Presocratic philosophers. First, Thales (c624-c546 BCE).

Thales (pictured below) can be called the founder of philosophy. He was “doing logic” – for logic is about things, and the relations between things, not words or ideas – some 150 years before Socrates.

Thales had travelled to Egypt to study geometry. (It seems that the Greeks derived their philosophy from the Egyptians.) He was the first upon whom the title, Sophist, was conferred, and in his advanced years was visited by Pythagoras whom Thales instructed in the disciplines of a scholar.

It is written that Thales, a proto-scientist, opined that the earth was made of, or rested upon, water, but for Thales that was simply a hypothesis to be tested, and was offered only as an attempted explanation as opposed to some final evaluation. Water was perhaps something out of which things came and into which things returned, as opposed to being a supposed characteristic of all things at all times.

Thales was a naturalist and an empiricist. What is important and lasting about Thales' ideas is not so much his search for a supposed common “substance” of all things but his attempt to provide an overall theory which was general, which was based on observation, and which made no appeal to supernatural causes. (Thales wrote that “all things are full of gods”. That was his attempt at desupernaturalisation – that is, bringing the gods down to earth.)

Thales reminds us ever to reject unobservable agencies as the cause of observable things. Cause-and-effect belong to the observable here-and-now, for life itself is nothing more than a continuum of living things living our their livingness in time and space. Never forget that.

How true that is of the practice of mindfulness! There is a continuity of moment-to-moment experience and awareness ... a continuous process or transformation from one state to another (cf water-ice-steam). Everything is observable, and all things observed exist and are observable on the same plane of observability. Furthermore, there must be a continuity between what is proposed as an explanation for any occurrence and the occurrence itself, for if there were no such continuity it would not be possible for us to say how observable effects are produced ... nor even that they are effects at all.

The legacy of Thales is this ... there is only one order or level of reality. No wonder we speak of the practice of mindfulness in terms of the presence of bare and curious attention to, and choiceless and non-judgmental awareness of, the action of the present moment ... from one moment to the next.

In my next blog we will look at the ideas of Anaximander (c610-c546 BCE) and how those ideas relate to the practice of mindfulness.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed all your posts about mindfulness and early greek philosophers very much. I am also involved in writing a book about how ancient Greek philosophy can help people in their personal and business life. I would like to ask you to review it and tell me how you find it, and provide me with a testimoniual, if you find it of value. My credentials follow. Kindly get back to me. Please also connect with me on linkedin.
    John Kyriazoglou, CICA, B.A (Hon-University of Toronto),
    Business Thinker, Consultant and Author of several books
    Editor-in-Chief for the Internal Controls Magazine (U.S.A.)
    Member of the Board of Directors of Voices of Hellenism Literary Society (U.S.A.)
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