Meditation can be considered an overarching term for spending time alone examining the contents of our minds. There are multiple different approaches to this, from different traditions across the world. Typically, when people hear the word “meditation”, they consider this to be something from the Eastern traditions of Buddhism.
But, the Western philosophical tradition has a rich history of meditation, although it is less well known. After all, it was Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, who proclaimed the foundation of the entire Western philosophical structure: Know Thyself.
And how can we possibly know ourselves without spending time with ourselves? You wouldn’t imagine that you can learn as much about a person from your studying them from a distance compared to actually meeting them and getting to know them personally, and the same logic can be applied to yourself.
This also hints at one of the key differences between the Eastern and Western meditation traditions. The Eastern tradition is in some ways more advanced: the main concern is understanding the fabric of consciousnesses and how the thoughts that we identify with are just appearances in consciousnesses. So this is why not identifying with the thoughts that appear but just being able to observe consciousness itself is the goal—turning attention towards itself and noticing what happens. The Western tradition does not take this step but works within the sphere of thinking and thus does not require sitting in a particular position with our eyes closed, and it can even be done while writing, which is essentially the same thing as thinking.
The Western approach we can term “philosophical meditation” to distinguish it from the other types of meditation, and the core premise is that a lot of the ongoing mental problems that we all suffer from, such as uncertainty, anxiety, stress, and regret are all caused by not spending enough time thinking through why we suffer. We haven’t taken the time to review, untangle, organize, and confront the root causes of our suffering.
Let’s take stress as an example. It can be viewed in two ways. “Every event has two handles,” Epictetus said, “one by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t.” So let’s look at the two handles of stress. The first, the handle on which you cannot carry stress, is the one where it overwhelms you and leaves you feeling helpless. It overcomes your ability for rational and critical thinking, and you run around in circles — you cannot even consider that there may be a solution to your problems, so you worry and worry and worry.
But there is a second handle of stress, one in which it can be carried. This is where you view stress as a signal from your mind and body, almost like an early warning alarm that there is a Tsunami coming. With this approach, the next question is obvious: I know that something potentially harmful is coming, but what can I do about it? Do I retreat to higher ground where the water won’t reach me? In other words, can I avoid the problem? Or, do I tackle things head and swim directly out into the vast open sea towards the large incoming wave which will then harmlessly pass over me?
I have previously written about the concept of Resistance (here and here and here). When we feel resistance towards doing something, it signals that this is precisely what we should be doing. The more resistance we have, the more likely it is the right thing to do. The things in which we procrastinate the most are typically the most important.
And so stress primarily comes from not taking action over something that you can have some control over. So use stress as a signal that you need to investigate further and undertake a philosophical meditation session. You need to identify, clearly and succinctly, what is bothering you. Dig into your consciousness, ask yourself questions, and get to the precise thing that is causing you stress. Then, take some action. It might be making a phone call, sending an email, tidying something up, or whatever. Even if that action does not fully resolve the problem, you will feel much better already because you have started to have some agency over the problem: you are taking control.
One thing to note about stress is that it does not, by default, accompany hard work. You can be working extremely hard and loving every single moment. This requires that the work is meaningful and that you can see the progress that you are making. On the other hand, you can be entirely out of work and be incredibly stressed about that!
And this gets to the heart of philosophical meditation. It is about viewing your own life and mind from an objective standpoint. You work to build distance from the every day “you” and the meditation “you”, so you can provide advice to yourself in the same manner you would for another person. And we are far better at looking after other people than ourselves. Here’s one crazy fact: Most people take better care of their pets when they’re sick, ensuring they get their regular medicine dose. But they don’t do the same for themselves.
So what is the structure of a philosophical meditation? How do we go about it? Well, you do not need any special equipment, but sometimes a pencil and paper can help if you want to write things down, but you can just as easily do everything in your head.
The key to the practice is three questions:
- What am I anxious about?
- What am I upset about?
- What am I excited about?
What am I anxious about?
Most of our anxieties are not caused by real worries but by confusion and uncertainty. Because we haven’t spent the time to consider our anxieties, there is a cloud of confusion with regard to:
- How likely they are to happen.
- How enormous (or minute!) the negative consequences may be.
- If there are any silver linings (i.e. unexpected positive consequences)
- What can be done about it?
I really love the last point here, because there is a really simple logical train of thought here:
Can I do something about my situation?
If yes, then let’s do that and not worry.
If not, then nothing can be done, so there is no point in worrying about things we cannot control.
Whichever way you answer that question, the obvious result is that there is no point worrying about things.
So consider your anxieties, large and small, and then work through these questions; keep asking why and eventually, you’ll notice that the anxiety dissipates. You don’t even have to solve the root cause for this to happen; you may realize that it is not worth worrying about it in the first place. And even if you still worry, you are now on far more familiar ground after having spent time considering the subject matter, and this will reduce anxiety.
What am I upset about?
While anxiety deals with the future, you may be upset about something in the past or present.
On a first mental pass, you may think that there is nothing in your life that you are upset about, but I would suggest that you dig deeper and look at even the smallest of things. Perhaps a co-worker said an underhanded comment that you were still thinking about a few days later. Perhaps our partner made a joke that stung a little more than it should have.
We usually try to store these things behind a barrier that “everything is fine”. This builds up pressure that, over the years, can significantly burden our mental health. A far better approach is to consider what made us upset and why it made us upset, and what are truths that being upset is shining a light on.
What am I excited about?
I like to consider excitement as the other side of the coin of stress. It also deals with the future, and often excitement and stress accompany each other. You’re excited about doing something but also a little stressed about the unknowns of doing something new.
And just like stress, excitement can be used as a signal for changes that we need to make and new directions that we may want to take.
It is natural to want to grow and develop the self. Excitement, and the curiosity that it arises within us, can help us to daydream about different states of the future. Then, we bring ourselves back to the present and ask: How can I move in the direction of this better future? What action can I take today, however small, to get closer to that vision?
Philosophical meditation is not a cure for all of life’s problems, but it is a good starting place as it helps us better know ourselves.