Some Greek Philosophers and Mindfulness

In this short article I will discuss the ideas of some (for the most part) early Greek philosophers with a view to delineating what there is of value to us today as regards the regular practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is not a philosophy in itself. However, there are a number of philosophical ideas and principles that can be said to underlie the practice of mindfulness in its secular and non-sectarian form, and some of those ideas and principles are of quite ancient provenance.

The ancient Greeks produced some great thinkers. Although notably disinclined to theology, the Greeks made great philosophers. (Both theology and philosophy attempt to ‘explain’ things, but philosophy, at its best, does so by rejecting unobservable agencies as the cause of observable things. That is the greatness of philosophy, especially Greek philosophy.) Let’s go back to the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. We begin with some of the more important Presocratic philosophers. First, Thales.


Thales (c624-c546 BCE) can be called the founder of philosophy. He was ‘doing logic’ – for logic is about things, and the relations between things, not words or ideas – some 150 years before Socrates. Thales had travelled to Egypt to study geometry. (It seems that the Greeks derived their philosophy from the Egyptians.) He was the first upon whom the title, Sophist, was conferred, and in his advanced years was visited by Pythagoras whom Thales instructed in the disciplines of a scholar. It is written that Thales, a proto-scientist, opined that the earth was made of, or rested upon, water, but for Thales that was simply a hypothesis to be tested, and was offered only as an attempted explanation as opposed to some final evaluation. Water was perhaps something out of which things came and into which things returned, as opposed to being a supposed characteristic of all things at all times.

Thales was a naturalist and an empiricist. What is important and lasting about Thales' ideas is not so much his search for a supposed common ‘substance’ of all things but his attempt to provide an overall theory which was general, which was based on observation, and which made no appeal to supernatural causes. Thales wrote that ‘all things are full of gods’. That was his attempt at de-supernaturalisation – that is, bringing the gods down to earth. He reminds us ever to reject unobservable agencies as the cause of observable things. Cause-and-effect belong to the observable here-and-now, for life itself is nothing more than a continuum of living things living out their livingness in time and space. Never forget that.

How true that is of the practice of mindfulness! There is a continuity of moment-to-moment experience and awareness ... a continuous process or transformation from one state to another (cf water-ice-steam). Everything is observable, and all things observed exist and are observable on the same plane of observability. Furthermore, there must be a continuity between what is proposed as an explanation for any occurrence and the occurrence itself, for if there were no such continuity it would not be possible for us to say how observable effects are produced ... nor even that they are effects at all.

The legacy of Thales is this ... there is only one order or level of reality. No wonder we speak of the practice of mindfulness in terms of the presence of bare and curious attention to, and choiceless and non-judgmental awareness of, the action of the present moment ... from one moment to the next.


Let’s look at the ideas of Anaximander (c610-c546 BCE), successor to and pupil of Thales, and how those ideas relate to the practice of mindfulness.

Thales thought that the basic ‘stuff’ (material substratum, essence or ‘first principle’) of things was water. Anaximander raised a logical objection, namely that how can one take one thing as a description of all things? Clearly, Thales exaggerated the ‘moist’ at the expense of the ‘dry’. What this means is this ... any theory of reality must account for the existence of opposites, for if there were only water, there could not be anything hot, or any fire. So, for Anaximander the basic ‘stuff’ and qualities of life are opposites ... and those opposites are in conflict. He postulated a theoretical entity (apeiron) to explain observable phenomena. The word apeiron can mean ‘infinite’ as well as ‘indefinite’ (especially the latter, and in a qualitative as opposed to quantitative sense).

One defect in Anaximander’s otherwise realist methodology is that he attempted to explain the observable in terms of some supposed basic unobservable entity, namely the apeiron. As we saw in our last blog, logic compels us to reject the unobservable as the cause of the observable. Nevertheless, Anaximander is to be otherwise commended for his honest and rigorous insistence on and pursuit of the real.

What do we learn from the empirical naturalist Anaximander? For one thing we learn the importance of demarcation and differentiation, that is, marking off one thing from other things. We also learn that there is a simple unity containing opposites – not a unity in the sense that all things are one but that a single logic applies to all things, there being a continuous process among different things.

So, in our mindfulness practice we learn to focus our attention on whatever comprises the action of the present moment. Our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations will often be contradictory in nature but they nevertheless constitute the ‘content’ of our experience. When we stay in the action of the present moment, being mindful (in an immediate and direct way) of whatever we are thinking, feeling and experiencing from one moment to the next, we are able to separate out thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others from the person each one of us really is. We look and see ... and the mind empties itself of its content from one moment to the next ... and what was previously unconscious becomes conscious.

Like Buddha Shakyamuni Anaximander taught that all things were impermanent. In the words of Anaximander, in Simplicus’ commentary on Aristotle’s physics, ‘Whence things have their origin, thence also their destruction happens, as is the order of things; for they execute the sentence upon one another---the condemnation for the crime---in conformity with the ordinance of time.’ However, there is nevertheless a certain regularity and predictability about life by reason of a certain balancing out of all opposites which act on, dominate and otherwise contain each other. Things flow in and out of consciousness, for such is the flux of life.

Anaximander questioned the existence of the gods in the same way that Buddha Shakyamuni was agnostic on the question of God’s existence. Both taught that one could attain ‘deliverance’ independently of any external agency. Good news indeed.


Let’s now turn to the ideas of Anaximenes (585-528 BCE) and examine how those ideas relate to the practice of mindfulness.

As already mentioned, Thales thought that the basic ‘stuff’ (material substratum, essence or ‘first principle’) of things was water. For Anaximander the basic ‘stuff’ and qualities of life were opposites ... and those opposites were in conflict. He postulated a theoretical entity (apeiron) to explain observable phenomena. Anaximenes was of the view that the basic ‘stuff’ and qualities of the world were not opposed (cf Anaximander) but were simply different stages of a continuum of differences, ‘air’ being the material substratum. Anaximenes spoke in terms of an interconnected and interacting fire-air-cloud-water-earth-stone continuum, with everything that exists having developed out of the original air and now being made of air.

Anaximenes’ naturalistic cosmology may seem odd but it was a bold attempt at an overall theory as well as being a constituent analysis. The important thing is not whether Anaximenes was right or wrong in his conclusion that everything was made of air – although we do know that atoms are mostly empty space (cf air) despite the apparent solidity of objects – but that he analysed one feature in terms of another. His empirical methodology involved making observations and then forming explanatory theories of successively greater generality with the final theory being tested against a mass of superficially unconnected phenomena. He looked for the broader picture in nature, seeking unifying causes for diversely occurring events rather than treating each one on an ad hoc basis or attributing them to supernatural causes.
Unlike Anaximander, Anaximenes’ theory did not rely on any unobservables. His methodology was entirely experiential as he sought to explain how the process and mechanism of change (transmutation) actually occurs.

What has all this to do with mindfulness? A fair bit. In any session of mindfulness practice, one’s stream of consciousness will consist of numerous superficially unconnected and diversely occurring phenomena (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, sounds, etc). The important thing is not to dwell or focus on any one or more of these ad hoc occurrences but to fix and keep our mindfulness (that is, attention and awareness) at its ‘post of observation’ whether that point be the tip of the nostrils against which the breathing air strikes or that part of the lower abdomen where one can most noticeably observe its rise and fall. This needs to be done in a unified fashion, allowing the process of transmutation (that is, one occurring phenomenon is quickly replaced by another, and then another, and so on) to unfold naturally, automatically and unselfconsciously.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, keeping your attention focused on the breath enables you to stay with the broader picture (cf Anaximenes) without getting caught up in the detail of each passing phenomenon.


Now, let’s look at the ideas of Heraclitus of Ephesus (c535-c475 BCE)---a real favourite of mine---and how his distinctive ideas relate to the practice of mindfulness.

The Scottish-born Australian philosopher Professor John Anderson wrote of Heraclitus’ ‘wide awake approach to problems’, by which he meant that Heraclitus adopted and advocated a rigorously empirical and logical methodology in the pursuit of truth (reality ... what is). Heraclitus was known as the ‘flux and fire’ philosopher. He wrote, ‘All things are flowing’, ‘There is nothing permanent except change,’ ‘No person ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and they're not the same person,’ and ‘The sun is new each day.’

Heraclitus also famously said, ‘Let us not conjecture at random about the greatest things. We must follow the common.’ In other words, if we would know the conditions of existence we must look for that which is ‘common’ to all things. This means, among other things, that we should reject supernatural, occult and all other unobservable explanations of the otherwise observable conditions of existence. ‘The things that can be seen, heard and learned are what I prize most,’ he writes. Indeed, Heraclitus eschewed all notions of the occult and the supernatural. He wrote, ‘this world [or world-order] did none of the gods or humans make; but it always was and is and shall be: an ever-living fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.’ Note, especially, those words 'was and is and shall be.' The world is, was, and ever will be what it is now. There is only the now. That is why it is often referred to as being the 'eternal now.' That is the logos of Heraclitus. And what of time? 'Time is a child playing draughts; the kingdom is a child's.'

Such is the cosmology of Heraclitus and the other exalted thinkers of his day. How ancient, and yet how very modern! Everything---and I mean literally everything---is in a constant state of flux. ‘A thing rests by changing,’ he wrote. ‘Everything flows and nothing abides, everything yields and nothing remains permanent.’ Whatever lives does so by the destruction of something else. Things wax and wane, and come and go. We, too. We come, and in a very short time we vanish from view. We go. Only life itself, in the form of change and the eternal now, remains. In the words of Heraclitus, 'all things are steered through all things.'

What that means is that if we would know the conditions of existence we must look for that which is ‘common’ to all things. In addition, we should reject supernatural, occult and all other unobservable explanations of the otherwise observable conditions of existence. ‘The things that can be seen, heard and learned are what I prize most,’ he writes. In other words, naturalism, for Heraclitus eschewed all notions of the occult and the supernatural. He wrote, ‘‘this world [or world-order] did none of the gods or humans make; but it always was and is and shall be: an ever-living fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.’ Such is the cosmology of Heraclitus and the other exalted thinkers of his day. How ancient, yet so very modern.

Heraclitus warns us that we need to be prepared to be surprised by our discoveries. He writes, ‘If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it is hard to be sought out and difficult.’ How often life teaches us what we thought we knew was not at all in accord with things as they really are. ‘The sun is new every day,’ writes the anything but world weary Heraclitus. All things are in a state of flux, says Heraclitus. Everything is in process and no single element is ever predominant for there is a contrary tension of things by means of which there is a resolution (an ‘attunement’ (cf ‘at-one-ment’) of conflicting opposites. Nothing is simple, indeed all things are complex, have internal differentiation, and interact with other things ... all on the same level or order of reality and observability. In addition, things are constituent members of wider systems and exchanges of things. The forms of things are constantly being transmuted.

For Heraclitus change is the unity of all things, and there is a single logic that applies to all things and how they are related. Logic is about things, not thought, and how things are related. Sound logical thinking means relating [that is, putting together or distinguishing] different pieces of information about actual or alleged facts. ‘Reality is propositional,’ writes John Anderson, for there is a logical direct relationship between any proposition and the way things actually are.

The unity underlying all change and opposition is the Logos, a term first used by Heraclitus in around 600 BCE to refer, not to any theological abstraction, but to the organised and co-ordinated way in which, as Heraclitus discovered, all things work and are constituted. That is, the logic (or ‘formula’) of things. Not surprisingly, Heraclitus also taught that the single logic applying to all things also manifested itself as objective moral law.

Mindfulness is a lifelong inquiry into what it means to be fully present and alert in the present moment. (Heraclitus was right when he said that most people ‘sleep-walk’ their way through life. How very relevant that is to the successful practice of mindfulness!) Each moment of our existence is but a brief occurrence in what is otherwise a state of flux. Life is nothing but the very livingness of all things living out their livingness from one moment to the next. The unity of all things derives, not from all things being one, but simply from the fact that a single logic applies to all things.

In the practice of mindfulness thought will follow feeling, feeling will follow thought, and so on. Nothing is predominant even if from time to time some particular thought, feeling or sensation is particularly strong. Mindfulness enables us to look at ourselves thought-less-ly and feeling-less-ly such that in time our minds become free from notions of self (that is, notions of ‘I’ and ‘me’). Notions of self have the appearance of solidity and continuity, but that is only by reason of habit and memory. The only solidity (if there be any at all) and continuity there is subsists in the seemingly endless process or flow of things and their transmutation.

Here’s another gem from Heraclitus in the form of some not-so-new New Thought. It highlights the importance of keeping your thoughts pure and noble, for as you think so you are: ‘The soul is dyed the colour of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny---it is the light that guides your way.’

Heraclitus also wrote that most people are ‘asleep,’ so to speak. Even in their waking moments most people are far from ‘awake,’ that is, mindfulness. Yes, many people ‘live’ their whole lives that way. One may as well be dead. There is little difference between the two states. Here’s what Heraclitus wrote:

‘Men are as forgetful and heedless
in their waking moments
of what is going on around them
as they are during their sleep.
Fools, although they hear,
are like deaf;
to them the adage applies
that whenever they are present
they are absent.
One should not act or speak
as if he were asleep.
The waking have one world in common;
sleepers have each a private world of his own.
Whatever we see when awake is death,
when asleep, dreams.’

How true all that is! All too often we go through the day ‘forgetful’ and ‘heedless,’ unaware of what is happening and going on around us. It is as if we were asleep---or worse, dead. Heraclitus calls such people ‘fools,’ for ‘whenever you are present / you are absent.’ In truth, we can hardly be said to be ‘present,’ for that requires an awareness of awareness---that is, an awareness or mindfulness of the content of one’s consciousness from one moment to the next.

Here's some more good advice from Heraclitus on the subject of mindfulness, which Heraclitus refers to as the 'ground of being' ('God' according to the 20th century Christian existentialist theologian Paul Tillich):

‘Since mindfulness [sic], of all things,
is the ground of being,
to speak one's true mind,
and to keep things known
in common, serves all being,
just as laws made clear
uphold the city,
yet with greater strength.
Of all pronouncements of the law
the one source is the Word
whereby we choose what helps
true mindfulness prevail.’

When we do not practise mindfulness in our daily lives we are, ‘whatever we see when awake is death,’ writes Heraclitus. Yes, death! Because whatever was the action---internal or external---of the then present but now gone moment has died on us. Yes, died on us. It is like watching a motion picture film; the picture is moving, but what is being screened is not happening now. It’s in the past.

Heraclitus also wrote that we do not learn what we should, largely because we go through life mindlessly. ‘Many do not understand such things as they encounter, nor do they learn by their experience, but they think they do.’ So, how are we to learn? Certainly not from books. ‘Knowing many things doesn’t teach insight,’ wrote Heraclitus. Insight comes only from awareness and observation---that is, mindfulness. That’s why it’s called ‘insight meditation.’ Heraclitus also urged people to ‘look within,’ saying, ‘I searched into myself,’ and ‘Those who love wisdom must investigate many things.’

Don’t spend your whole life as if you were asleep---or dead. Wake up! Live with awareness. Live with attention. Watch. Observe. Learn by your experience. Live!


I now want to look at the ideas of a later philosopher, Epictetus (c55-135 CE), who was born in Hierapolis in Phrygia (modern-day Turkey), was a Greek sage and Stoic philosopher of some renown. He was one of the last of the Stoics---even though he adhered very closely to the early Stoic tradition---and he was possibly the greatest of them all. When only a boy he was made a slave in Rome, banished by the Roman emperor Domitian, but he managed to study under the great Roman stoic teacher Musonius Rufus. After being freed---we are not sure when or why that occurred---he went to Greece, to a little town in Epirus, where he opened his own school of philosophy.

It seems that Epictetus wrote nothing himself, and we are indebted to one of his students, Flavius Arrian, for committing to writing the Encheiridion (‘Manual’), the work that represent Epictetus’ teachings, being lecture transcriptions of Epictetus. Sadly, most of Arrian’s writings, including those that purport to record the philosophy of Epictetus, are no longer extant. What is of interest is that the Encheiridion was much used in the Middle Ages as a guide to the principles of the Christian monastic life.

Now, Epictetus was not a mere theoretician or speculative philosopher, for he saw and wrote about things-as-they-really-are. As Epictetus rightly saw it, life is ever so often harsh and cruel, and there is much that happens to us that we have not actively or even passively brought about. Acceptance, he said, is the answer to all our problems and difficulties. As the Indian spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti would often say, ‘In the acknowledgment of what is, there is the cessation of all conflict.’ Not only the cessation of conflict, but serenity, peace of mind, and freedom. Epictetus expressed it this way: ‘Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within our control, and some things are not.’

Epictetus' idea of acceptance is well-expressed in this statement attributed to him: 'I do not obey God, I agree with Him.' In other words, we must accept things-as-they-really-are. One of the most important things to learn in life is this---events, in particular things that happen, are, in and of themselves, impersonal. They do not happen to us. They simply happen. Yes, we must take responsibility for making an appropriate response to events for which we are responsible, but we are not responsible for the actions or opinions of others. Events don’t, or shouldn’t, hurt us. It is our perceptions of those events that hurts us. In that regard, Epictetus wrote, ‘We are not disturbed by things, but by the view we take of them,’ and ‘It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.’ He went even further, saying: ‘Does the tyrant say he will throw me into prison? He cannot imprison my spirit. Does he say that he will put me to death? He can only cut off my head.’

Epictetus wrote much on the right disposition of the will---the will to live, the will to survive, the will to overcome, and the will to be happy. Will is the ability, that is, the power, to make a decision, and then do what is necessary to see things through, but no more power than that is required for the task. Will, and not so-called 'will power,' is the way to go. We must, however, learn to properly control our will, and use it wisely, if we wish to be masters of our own fate.

Then there’s this gem of Epictetus, which says much about the nature and ‘purpose’ of both philosophy and life itself: ‘The essence of philosophy is that we should so live that our happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.’ Yes, Epictetus was an early apologist for living simply. One other thing---he never speculated on life after death; indeed he never dealt directly with the subject at all. Here’s another wonderful thing about the man. He understood the power and workings of the human mind in a way that was very much ahead of his time. He wrote: ‘In all people, thought and action start from a single source, namely feeling.’ In saying that, Epictetus showed that he had more than a little understanding of the workings of the subconscious mind. You see, thought must be backed up by feeling for it to have any power. Thought and feeling blend together in forming conviction. Without conviction no thought (eg ideal, hope) can take hold in the subconscious mind, and it is only when the subconscious mind accepts one’s thought is there any chance of its actualization. Epictetus was an early exponent of self-image psychology and creative visualization. He wrote: ‘First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do.’

Epictetus also saw the inter-connectedness and interdependence of all things whilst resisting an overall monism. He also held that, despite our preconceptions (prolepsis) of good and evil, there was only one ultimate Power (‘God’) and that Power was All-Good and very near to us. Yes, the Power can be used by us and others for purposes that are either relative good or relative bad, but unity, not duality, is the name of the game. Unhappiness is due to opinions and beliefs that we hold---preconceptions that not only stand in objective contradiction to things-as-they-really-are but also prevent us from seeing things-as-they-really-are. Happiness comes from a mindful acceptance of things-as-they-really-are. And difficulties? Well, they are things ‘that show a person what they are.’ Further, ‘you are not free unless you are master of yourself.’ On the subject of what we now call mindfulness Epictetus wrote: ‘Open your eyes: see things for what they really are, thereby sparing yourself the pain of false attachments and avoidable devastation.’

Over the years many writers and commentators have remarked upon the similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. Both systems of thought espouse the view that pain and suffering are largely the result of attachment and not seeing things-as-they-really-are. Both systems of thought stress the importance of acceptance and non-resistance. Both systems of thought assert that happiness and freedom are attainable---even in a most imperfect and often harsh world that is not entirely or even substantially of our own making.

Epictetus was also an early apologist for the art and science and practice of mindfulness. What does he say on the matter? Here's this gem, which reminds me of the Buddha's advice, 'When you walk, just walk, when you eat, just eat, when you sleep, just sleep, and when you sit, just sit,' and Saint Paul's 'This one thing I do' (Phil 3:13):

‘When you are going about any action, remind yourself what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, ‘I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.’ And in the same manner with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, ‘It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.’

'Open your eyes: see things for what they really are,' says Epictetus. The result? You are then spared the pain of false attachments and avoidable devastation. False attachments take many forms, perhaps the worst being beliefs, misbeliefs, and delusions. We are in direct and immediate contact with what is real, but beliefs, misbeliefs, and delusions distort reality and obstruct our moment-to-moment experience and awareness of reality. That is why I rail against all the traditional religious belief systems, especially those of the three great (or not-so-great) monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, at least in their conventional, exoteric forms. Buddhism, at least in its early forms---still found in many parts of the world today---is not a belief system; indeed the historical Buddha also railed against beliefs, asserting that there was nothing to believe.

Open your eyes. See things for what they really are. Know. Understand. But don’t believe.

Recommended Reading: John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 3rd ed (A & C Black, 1920); John Anderson, Lectures on Greek Philosophy 1928 (Sydney University Press, 2008).