Western or Philosophical Meditation

“Philosopher in Meditation” Rembrandt, 1632, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, October 23, 2015.)

We all know how difficult it is to control our minds. Obsessive, unclear, unwanted, and destructive thought continually invade our minds causing fear, anxiety, indecision, anger and depression. Sometimes we seem powerless to prevent this  invasion.

In response, the practice of meditation has become increasingly popular in the West as a way of dealing with this problem. These practices, which have their origins in Buddhism, take many forms, but generally refer to the attempt to get beyond the thinking, discursive or logical mind into a more attentive, aware, and relaxed state.1, 2 By sitting quietly we can learn to empty our minds of its confusing, anxiety, anger, and depressive-inducing content, leaving behind a serene state of mind. Many people have found this practice successful, and scientific research supports its causal efficacy. 3

But there is another path to peace of mind that derives from the Western philosophical tradition—what we might call philosophical meditation. The goal of philosophical meditation is also to minimize the troubling effects of unwanted thoughts and to bring inner peace, but the method is not so much an emptying or ridding the mind of its negative content as much as clarifying and understanding the mind.

To do this the School of Life has proposed instructions for philosophical meditation, just as there are instructions for Buddhist Meditation.  The basic idea is to set aside some time each day to write about our troubles, anxieties, regrets, fears, desires, etc. The idea is to then intellectually reflect on these things in order to understand them and thereby remove much of the anxiety that accompanies them. This process of sorting out the mind can be comforting in itself. Furthermore it keeps us from making mistakes. For example we might be excited by something that upon reflection we can’t achieve; or we might be anxious about something that really doesn’t matter much. Countless psychic pain results from not analyzing and organizing the contents of our minds. 

This isn’t to say that clarifying the content of our minds is necessarily better than emptying the mind of turbulent thoughts; this isn’t to say the Western approach is better than the Eastern approach. It is to say that sometimes our problem is one of too little thinking rather than too much thinking. Sometimes we have not thought deeply enough about the causes of agitated minds.  These thoughts swirling within our minds are not useless clutter but deserve to be examined in the hope that clarity of mind may bring peace of mind.

( If I had to choose a group of Western philosophers to emulate in this regard it would be the Stoics. I have written about them many times on this blog.)


  1. “[M]editation refers to a family of self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calm, clarity, and concentration. Roger Walsh & Shauna L. Shapiro (2006). “The meeting of meditative disciplines and western psychology: A mutually enriching dialogue”. American Psychologist (American Psychological Association) 61 (3): 227–239. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.61.3.227.ISSN 0003-066X. PMID 16594839.
  2. “[M]editation is used to describe practices that self-regulate the body and mind, thereby affecting mental events by engaging a specific attentional set…. regulation of attention is the central commonality across the many divergent methods.” B. Rael Cahn & John Polich (2006). “Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies”. Psychological Bulletin(American Psychological Association) 132 (2): 180–211.doi:10.1037/0033-2909.132.2.180. ISSN 0033-2909.PMID 16536641
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_on_meditation#Systematic_reviews_and_meta-analyses

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