I was just thinking…

A moment ago, I wrote a comment on The Frumplingtons to the effect that I do sudoku puzzles while listening to the radio. The reason why I do this is that I hate to be inactive. This set me thinking.

What I thought was this: Western culture is characterized by thinking whereas Eastern culture sees merit in not thinking. Given that all humans resemble one another more than they differ from one another, is this not odd?

It is often said that the Western intellectual tradition began with the Ancient Greek philosophers and that we therefore place a high premium on logical thought. This has paid off in many ways, as advances in science and technology show. So powerful is the reputation of logical thought when used properly that even religious movements (which, for obvious reasons normally eschew logical thought) have often been seduced into trying to set their beliefs on a rational footing, as witness the theological tradition of Western Christianity. (I would, of course, not regard that as a proper use of logical thinking but that’s another matter.)

You should not think that I am ignorant of the supposed benefits of meditation and other Eastern remedies for the sickness of living. For about ten years, I studied religion intensively and practised meditation for about a year, and also joined a Zen group. I found meditation “interesting”, much as one might find stamp collecting or embroidery interesting. I never found it useful. I did on one occasion experience a few minutes of suspended thought and on several occasions altered mind states which seemed wonderful at the time but now seem less significant than they did at the time.

Religious philosophies such as Buddhism regard thought as a nuisance if not a bad thing. It supposedly clutters the mind and leads it away from the timeless serenity that is our birthright. Enlightenment, the sages tell us, cannot be achieved through meditation alone but meditation is nonetheless promoted as an essential practice for anyone on the road to satori.

I am not as insensitive to this as you might think. I remember being deeply affected by a Zen poem I read in which the poet, a Zen monk, speaks of the tranquility of the cultured mind being like a tank of still water reflecting the calm and beautiful image of the moon: in that state, the mind reflects the world in all its immediate beauty.

If you find meditation and its results beneficial, then by all means practise it. I am all for people doing whatever works for them and doesn’t harm or inconvenience others. All I can say is that meditation did nothing for me. I don’t want to escape thought: I love thinking and I want to think all the time. I rarely lay my head on the pillow at night without having some topic in mind to meditate upon (in the Western sense of that word) while falling asleep. I am only ever bored when on rare occasions I am too tired or out of sorts to find solace in thinking.

If the foregoing has Buddhist adepts shaking their heads sadly, well, too bad. You’re not in my skin and I, thankfully, am not in yours. It seems to me that a belief in Buddhism depends critically on accepting certain myths, just as a belief in any religion does, for all that Buddhists claim that their philosophy differs from other religious philosophies. Yes, there do exist Westernized versions of Buddhism based on Jungian and other psychological models and purged of the supernatural baggage that all religions attract but they are still founded on a myth that I do not buy into.

The idea that original Mind exists, pure and serene, and that we are separated from it only by our delusions and mistaken ideas, seems to me no more valid than any of the Lost Golden Age philosophies that abound, especially in the East. Ask yourself the question: Why, if ancient wisdom was so wonderful, did mankind abandon it for newer ideas? It is not enough to say that it is because we are deluded by our selfish desires and our endless craving for satisfaction. If the ancient wisdom were that wonderful, it would have produced that satisfaction and we would have stayed with it. It is precisely because it did not satisfy us that we moved on.

I agree that hard-headed rationalism is not without its problems: logic must be tempered with human warmth or we risk turning into a race of Daleks. Some may find solace sitting meditating on a mountain crag and achieving enlightenment (or freezing to death) and if you are one of these, good luck to you. For myself, I say with Socrates that “An unreflected life is not worth living” and I stick with that.

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About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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2 Responses to I was just thinking…

  1. tomachfive says:

    I think it is truly a convenient generalization to say that Eastern culture is characterized by not thinking, and I anticipate that you would clarify that you’re not really referring to the whole but it is clear that the words said blanket Eastern thinking as such.

    I am an admirer of western culture however despite of my mastery of Spanish and English as well as profound study of its history and world contributions, I would not be too hasty to confine in a few limiting descriptions a culture or a way of thought. Buddhism, Zen, or any meditative religions are not practiced by everybody, and Asian Eastern peoples are as pragmatic as anybody in the planet.

    Each religion, race, and way of thinking contributed to the development of the whole human civilization. East and West compliment each other, learn from each other, and really need each other. I believe God understands this complexity and intends for mankind to use each other’s contribution for good and not so much to differentiate each other to the point of indifference to the other’s humanity.

  2. SilverTiger says:

    Another “convenient generalization” runs as follows: “All generalizations are false… including this one.” I agree that East and West cannot be completely described and contrasted in one sentence and did not intend to do so. My remark was really just a seed to start the train of thought. Nonetheless, I think there is a certain truth hidden away in there somewhere. Meditation is an Eastern predilection only lately come to the West. Zen in particular does seek a truth beyond what it sees as the limiting confines of rational thought. No better expression of this can be found for Western readers than Dr D. Suzuki’s The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind.

    As an atheist I don’t believe God comes into it. We are like sailors on a stormy sea: we control the ship of our life to a certain degree but the sea always has the last word. We should face this reality instead of trying to hide it behind a screen of comforting but misleading myths.

    If people want to pursue Zen or other systems, that’s their business and no concern of mine (as long as they don’t interfere with my freedom to go my way). I am simply expressing my preference for thought rather than its suspension or its marginalization as something inferior to mystical insight.

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