Updated: Mar 8, 2019
“Meditation” is on everyone’s mouths today. I would venture that, throughout the urban and cosmopolitan first world, most non-senior adults have now either already attempted meditation or been advised by some acquaintance of theirs to do so. Yogi meditation can be a difficult practice to learn, and so its success in spreading is an interesting phenomenon in itself. Among the factors that may, I believe, have aided its spread, is a western culture increasingly centered around norms of wellness and individual satisfaction (rather than, say, institutionalized religion). People are less interested in totalizing ideologies, or in any worldviews that would suppress their intuitions and natural impulses. The individual is increasingly supreme, along with his or her sense of pleasure and tranquility. While meditation seems to be associated with Hindu and Buddhist religions, it has the advantage that it can be practiced for its own sake – pursued as a technique that is separable from any religious meaning. In this it is unlike Christian, Jewish or Muslim prayer, which may also be helpful in improving one’s spirits, but seem to necessarily involve a profession of faith.
In his book, Philosophical Practice (see chapter 4), Lou Marinoff revives a different meaning of meditation – one which has actually been more central to Western cultural history, though we now forget that meaning when we use the word. This is meditation, not in the Eastern sense of “sitting still and paying attention to one’s breath,” but in the western philosophical sense of examining oneself and one’s own thoughts, often in writing. Marinoff mentions as examples two classic works that actually bear the name of meditations: the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the Meditations of René Descartes. He calls their practice “active meditation,” in contrast to yogis’ “inactive meditation.”
Consider this example of self-talk in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher:
“Remember … how often thou has received an opportunity from the gods, and yet dost not use it. Thou must now at last perceive of what universe thou art a part, and of what administrator of the universe thy existence is an efflux, and that a limit of time is fixed for thee, which if thou dost not use for clearing away the clouds from thy mind, it will go and thou wilt go, and it will never return.
Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity …”
Some of this type of speaking may seem antiquated, but the practice of taking time out of other activities to, in writing or in conversation, survey one’s general tendencies and challenge oneself to “see a bigger picture” may be just as important today. Ran Lahav argues that Marcus Aurelius wrote, not in order to instruct himself, but to awaken and give expression and form to his rational guiding self.
The fact that many people today are pursuing yogi meditation without a determined interest in Buddhism or Hinduism suggests that many may still be operating without a defined context of values and standards to orient themselves by. This suggests that they may benefit from using active meditation as a complement to inactive meditation. Active meditation conforms with the individualistic attitudes of today, while offering the possibility of more than just a tranquil temperament; it creates a space in which values and standards may be assessed and become clearer.
Marinoff proposes to us that both kinds of meditation are integral to a good life. (Marinoff is actually the founder of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, or APPA, and has spear-led the development of professional philosophical counseling.) In addition to being well-versed in western philosophy, Marinoff also teaches Buddhist philosophy at CUNY, and is thus familiar with both traditions. He holds that, even though the two kinds of meditation are in some ways at odds with each other – one involving silencing thought, the other involving concentrating it – the practice of one can actually aid the practice of the other. As he attests from his own experience: “attending to one’s respirations” then allows one to do a better job of “attending to one’s cogitations.” “One form of meditation improves the other.”
Perhaps we could say it this way: the problem with our mental states most of the time is that we are consumed and besieged by our thoughts. Inactive meditation can remove some of this intensity and clutter. Once this is done, we are more able to actively meditate on our goals and purposes. A better-oriented mind may then in turn be less subject to getting cluttered with unnecessary information and losing its tranquility.
Therefore I pass on Marinoff’s injunction to you: “Meditate actively and inactively both”.
Calm your thought, then awaken your reason.