Tuesday, May 10, 2011

EARLY GREEK PHILOSOPHERS AND MINDFULNESS [PART 3]

This is the third 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 of Anaximenes (585-528 BCE) [pictured right] and examine 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. For Anaximander the basic “stuff” and qualities of life were opposites ... and those opposites were in conflict. He postulated a theoretical entity (apeiron) to explain observable phenomena.

Anaximenes was of the view that the basic “stuff” and qualities of the world were not opposed (cf Anaximander) but were simply different stages of a continuum of differences, “air” being the material substratum. Anaximenes spoke in terms of an interconnected and interacting fire-air-cloud-water-earth-stone continuum, with everything that exists having developed out of the original air and now being made of air.

Anaximenes’ naturalistic cosmology may seem odd but it was a bold attempt at an overall theory as well as being a constituent analysis. The important thing is not whether Anaximenes was right or wrong in his conclusion that everything was made of air – although we do know that atoms are mostly empty space (cf air) despite the apparent solidity of objects – but that he analysed one feature in terms of another.

His empirical methodology involved making observations and then forming explanatory theories of successively greater generality with the final theory being tested against a mass of superficially unconnected phenomena. He looked for the broader picture in nature, seeking unifying causes for diversely occurring events rather than treating each one on an ad hoc basis or attributing them to supernatural causes.

Unlike Anaximander, Anaximenes’ theory did not rely on any unobservables. His methodology was entirely experiential as he sought to explain how the process and mechanism of change (transmutation) actually occurs.

What has all this to do with mindfulness? A fair bit. In any session of mindfulness practice, one’s stream of consciousness will consist of numerous superficially unconnected and diversely occurring phenomena (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, sounds, etc). The important thing is not to dwell or focus on any one or more of these ad hoc occurrences but to fix and keep our mindfulness (that is, attention and awareness) at its “post of observation” whether that point be the tip of the nostrils against which the breathing air strikes or that part of the lower abdomen where one can most noticeably observe its rise and fall. This needs to be done in a unified fashion, allowing the process of transmutation (that is, one occurring phenomenon is quickly replaced by another, and then another, and so on) to unfold naturally, automatically and unselfconsciously.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, keeping your attention focused on the breath enables you to stay with the broader picture (cf Anaximenes) without getting caught up in the detail of each passing phenomenon.

In my next blog (the final one in this series) we will look at the ideas of Heraclitus (c535-c475 BCE) - a real favourite of mine - 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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