Tuesday, September 24, 2013

MINDFULNESS ACCORDING TO HERACLITUS

In an earlier post I discussed the ideas and teachings of the enigmatic Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus (c535--c475 BCE) [pictured], and sought to show how those ideas and teachings relate to the practice of mindfulness.

The Scottish-Australian philosopher 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 (that is, reality, or what is). Heraclitus was known as the ‘flux and fire’ philosopher. He wrote, ‘All things are flowing’, ‘There is nothing permanent except change,’ ‘No person ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and they're not the same person,’ and ‘The sun is new each day.’

Heraclitus also famously said, ‘Let us not conjecture at random about the greatest things. We must follow the common.’ In other words, if we would know the conditions of existence we must look for that which is ‘common’ to all things. This means, among other things, that 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. Indeed, 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.’ Note, especially, those words 'was and is and shall be.' The world is, was, and ever will be what is is now. There is only the now. That is why it is often referred to as being the 'eternal now.' That is the logos of Heraclitus. And what of time? 'Time is a child playing draughts; the kingdom is a child's.'

Such is the cosmology of Heraclitus and the other exalted thinkers of his day. How ancient, and yet how very modern! Everything---and I mean literally every thing---is in a constant state of flux. ‘A thing rests by changing,’ he wrote. ‘Everything flows and nothing abides, everything yields and nothing remains permanent.’ Whatever lives does so by the destruction of something else. Things wax and wane, and come and go. We, too. We come, and in a very short time we vanish from view. We go. Only life itself, in the form of change and the eternal now, remains. In the words of Heraclitus, 'all things are steered through all things.'

Here’s another gem from Heraclitus in the form of some not-so-new New Thought. It highlights the importance of keeping your thoughts pure and noble, for as you think so you are:

The soul is dyed the colour of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny---it is the light that guides your way.

Heraclitus also wrote that most people are ‘asleep,’ so to speak. Even in their waking moments most people are far from ‘awake,’ that is, mindfulness. Yes, many people ‘live’ their whole lives that way. One may as well be dead. There is little difference between the two states. Here’s what Heraclitus wrote:

Men are as forgetful and heedless
in their waking moments
of what is going on around them
as they are during their sleep.
Fools, although they hear,
are like deaf;
to them the adage applies
that whenever they are present
they are absent.
One should not act or speak
as if he were asleep.
The waking have one world in common;
sleepers have each a private world of his own.
Whatever we see when awake is death,
when asleep, dreams.

How true all that is! All too often we go through the day ‘forgetful’ and ‘heedless,’ unaware of what is happening and going on around us. It is as if we were asleep---or worse, dead. Heraclitus calls such people ‘fools,’ for ‘whenever you are present / you are absent.’ In truth, we can hardly be said to be ‘present,’ for that requires an awareness of awareness---that is, an awareness or mindfulness of the content of one’s consciousness from one moment to the next. 

Here's some more good advice from Heraclitus on the subject of mindfulness, which Heraclitus refers to as the 'ground of being' ('God' according to the 20th century Christian existentialist theologian Paul Tillich):

Since mindfulness, of all things,

is the ground of being,
to speak one's true mind,
and to keep things known
in common, serves all being,
just as laws made clear
uphold the city,
yet with greater strength.
Of all pronouncements of the law
the one source is the Word
whereby we choose what helps
true mindfulness prevail. 


When we do not practise mindfulness in our daily lives we are, ‘whatever we see when awake is death,’ writes Heraclitus. Yes, death! Because whatever was the action---internal or external---of the then present but now gone moment has died on us. Yes, died on us. It is like watching a motion picture film; the picture is moving, but what is being screened is not happening now. It’s in the past.

Heraclitus also wrote that we do not learn what we should, largely because we go through life mindlessly. ‘Many do not understand such things as they encounter, nor do they learn by their experience, but they think they do.’ So, how are we to learn? Certainly not from books. ‘Knowing many things doesn’t teach insight,’ wrote Heraclitus. Insight comes only from awareness and observation---that is, mindfulness. That’s why it’s called ‘insight meditation.’ Heraclitus also urged people to ‘look within,’ saying, ‘I searched into myself,’ and ‘Those who love wisdom must investigate many things.’

Don’t spend your whole life as if you were asleep---or dead. Wake up! Live with awareness. Live with attention. Watch. Observe. Learn by your experience. Live!


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