Philosophical Meditation

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

It is hard to control our minds. Obsessive, unclear, unwanted, and destructive thoughts 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 in 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



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7 thoughts on “Philosophical Meditation

  1. The only place a Human has any Sovereign is the space between his ears, and even there, it is difficult to embrace the ideas we ‘think’ we want to entertain and to exclude the ones we don’t welcome! Yet this is the most important battle we can enjoin, for our very peace of mind hinges on the outcome!

  2. A very interesting article. The way I learned anything about meditation, is: it is definitely not an alternative to thinking and understanding, but a way to let the mind rest. The mind is temporarily “emptied”. The mind is like a muscle: thinking (like a philosopher, or learning, studying, examining, etc) is an effort. The mind needs a lot of energy for that. People who exert physically at the gym, etc, train and then rest, they are not constantly training. Interestingly, the muscles develop during rest after the training, not during training.

    I see meditation as resting the mind by emptying it, and thinking as a focused effort in understanding something. I think the philosopher needs meditation even more than others. The question might be asked: well, why not resting the mind by watching a fun movie? The difference between this and meditation is that the latter is an exercise in completely stopping the “mind chatter” in a disciplined and composed manner, like a ritual (it is indeed one), which is why I am fascinated with the samurai, Zen masters, etc. Now I am not saying that I agree with everything about the samurai, for they were men of their own times, but I think they can still teach a lot.

    Then again, I disagree with Buddhist thought about how knowledge and thought are almost an evil, or something completely unnecessary. Obviously, we can immediately spot the fallacy of how impossible it is to dismiss something that is not known….one can dismiss only something he knows, therefore the “all knowledge is unnecessary ” is obviously a big red flag, for dismissing all knowledge would imply that one first learned everything.

    Still, I think meditation is very useful, it is a kind of spiritual activity…. the practice of silence. It is just a way to let the mind rest and regain energy, and especially, to have some control in the obsessive thoughts you mentioned. Even the various Buddhas had the same problem (which is why they undertook meditation as a way of life).

    As for journalling, I learned to do that from Herr Schopenhauer….he too advised journalling.
    But there’s a caveat: journalling is only useful if one really understands anything. As for the Stoics, one just needs to look around to see that people need to learn from the Stoics more than ever, for everyone is blaming someone and bitching about someone else, “protesting”, and doing all the stupid ‘thinking’ that the Stoics always derided and admonished.

    Everyone is going around expecting everyone else to never say anything in disagreement, or by automatically assuming that they are right by default, with no arguments given other than “believe” (them, us, this or that), so these people blame the others for being offensive, then they “protest”, and “generally engage in all the stupid plots, intrigues and rascalities that mankind is well known for”.

    Oh, and my favourite fools, the ones who say: “So this is Stoicism? But this is common sense!’.

    Well, if it’s really so common, and simple, why is no one thinking like that at all?

    Thank you for your excellent article.

  3. As always thanks for your thoughtful comments Luigi. It seems you know a lot more about meditation than I do. For me, writing is meditative as I get lost in the experience. I forget the ego.

  4. And that is why I admire you. Your writings and thoughts are done with a a kind of cool deliberation (which I lack!). Interesting that you mention ” forgetting the ego”, this has always been a very big part of Zen thought and the people I mentioned. It is interesting that you do the same as them. I experience the same when I play music. Some call it “flow”. Incidentally, Schopenhauer saw this “being lost in the experience” as the one worthwhile relief against the “Will”. And as we know, he was much interested in Buddhism. Kind of all making sense, even though we are talking about different people, cultures, and times in history, yet they all hold the same thread, as it were :). Thank you.

  5. I have long practiced dealing with nagging problems and anxieties by compartmentalizing them and coping with them after a goodnight’s sleep or a long nap. Funny how a refreshed mind and time minimize their importance.

  6. very wise. don’t react immediately.

    a good friend of mine who was about 35 years older than I was used to tell me that “nothing was a big deal.” that too was good advice.

  7. well, don’t admire me too much before you talk to my wife:) but yes, “flow” is a great idea and it’s what I experience when writing. hours go by so fast. one of my professors in grad school practiced zazen and told me it really helped him focus.

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