On Meditation

While listening to the radio show “on Being” broadcast on public radio on Sunday mornings, I heard an interviewed guest mention meditation and in particular the mantra used by a group of meditators.  It stuck with me because if Stoics had a mantra, that would be it. Before I explain what is essentially Stoic about the mantra, let me say up front that I have found little if any value in meditation– sitting in one spot and letting some word rattle around my brain is not Stoic per se or useful in my opinion, that view being based on experience with transcendental meditation (TM) in the late 1970s—TM, that cleverly marketed version of ancient practices. To learn how to do TM, I paid my fees and got my mantra, which was a German woman’s name, Inge.  It turns out now I have a friend and neighbor from Berlin whose name is my mantra.  The TM gurus cautioned the initiates strongly not to ever reveal one’s mantra.  Why?  It would weaken it, they said.  And why should that be?  I came to understand that if the TM folks aren’t handing out mantras they are offering little in exchange for their fees other than the chance to gather to watch video tapes of a bearded man rattling on about cosmic consciousness in an abstruse and boring dialogue heavy with repetitive metaphors. There was another element (which philosophy does not have): the gathering together to share experiences in meditation and to meditate together—the latter of which is a bizarre and uncomfortable experience.  In the end, I found meditation in the morning was simply an invitation to fall back to sleep; I felt no benefits, doubted the attainability or the existence of cosmic consciousness, and concluded that if there were such a state of mental improvement it waited at the end of other methods than repeating “ Inge” to myself twice a day. These many long years later, I recognize the similarity between cosmic conscious and a Stoic sage—a person whom Seneca readily admits is not to be found except in the rarest of cases!

So, back to the radio show. I am listening to an interview of a Catholic brother (a member of another group of people whose notions do not square with mine) who mentions a group of meditators and he reveals that their mantra (apparently they are free to divulge their mantra) is “here.” Given that he spoke that word on the radio he had to spell it to distinguish it from “hear.”  As a Stoic, I right away saw the value of that word as something one might focus on.

“Here” denotes the present moment, denying the importance of the uncontrollable past and the uncertain future.  Any happiness (or more moderately phrased, any respite from trouble) can be found only in the present moment; confine whatever miseries we have to the present without compounding them with the ones that have not yet arrived.

I feel particularly under attack these days by anticipation and call upon my reason to stop thinking pointlessly, knowing that by living in the future I miss this day and whatever good it might bring, or, if little good, at least more tranquility  than if I import past and future ills. Hence I need to focus on “here” — this day, this moment.  Lying awake a few nights ago, unable to sleep, a common occurrence, the word “here” popped into my head. I used it as my mantra, corralling my wandering thoughts repeatedly back to that word as they ran riot around my too-busy brain.  It worked—I fell asleep.


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