A Buddhist and Stoic Meditation Exercise – The “Scala Naturae” Exercise
The following instructions will introduce you to a purely natural and therapeutic askêsis.
Ancient Hellenistic philosophers had introduced a very interesting theory about nature inner levels (scala naturae in latin) and divided the universe into four levels: hexis (stones), phusis (flowers, plants trees), psuchê (animals) and finally nous (a characteristic belonging only to human beings). However, human beings, the most complex creation of nature, are composed of all these four levels.
As individuals immerged day after days in contemporary buzzing industrial societies, we have often lost contact with the nature’s natural elements, which go together to form our microcosm. This may lead to all sorts of discomforts, emotional disturbances and sicknesses. The individual feels unwelcome, estranged from the world. That is why this askesis, according to the ancients, has as its first task, entering into contemplation and praise the entire universe.
Find an isolated peaceful place, where you are alone. You should feel good: it must be a place where you will be not exposed to the others. A special place in your home or flat, specially dedicated to this exercice, somber, with one single burning candle is usually considered as a useful help.
First of all, consider the idea that there are three things of which you are composed: body – that is hexis and phusis – breath and mind. Of these, the first two are your own in so far it is your duty to take care of them; but only the third is your own in the full sense.
(1) Taking care of your body: the instructions about stability (hexis):
The ﬁrst counsel to give anyone who wants to meditate is not on the spiritual level, but on the physical. Sit down. Sit down like a stone.
Sitting down like a stone means taking roots, putting on weight, going down. Meditation is finding out your earth, your roots, being here with all your weight, immobile.
The best is to have your pelvis higher that your knees. That is why you will find useful to use a round, thick enough, firm but not flabby cushion. This cushion will enable you, with crossed legs, to find a stable and firm base during long period (a Buddhist zafu cushion will do well).
Do not be mistaken, finding a good posture will require some experimentation. You may find useful to test traditional oriental positions such as the lotus or the semi-lotus ones. The important thing is that you are feeling comfortable and at your ease.
The goal of settling into a good posture is threefold:
- It will procure you a stable sensation in your body and this will allow you to free your attention from balance problems and muscular fatigue and to focus, to be centred.
- It will favour physical immobility which will be reflected by mind stability: the habits of the body condition those of the mind
- It will enable you to remain sit during a long length of time without having to give way to the meditator enemies: pain, muscular tensions and drowsiness.
At another level meditating like a stone is also acquiring a sense of eternity. Nature lives with another rhythm. You have eternity behind you and ahead of you. If you are well-centred, you have eternity inside you.
(2) Taking care of your body: the instructions about orientation (phusis):
Meditation is first of all a posture, but meditation is also orientation. The most important is to settle down with a straight back. Your spine must be straight, with vertebras positioned as a pile of coins, one above the other. Your head must be aligned with the rest of your spine.
All of this must be achieved in a relaxed way. No rigidity: there must not be muscular tensions originating from the fact of keeping a straight back. You are not a soldier. Your spine should be like a poppy with a straight stem and the rest of your body is simply hanged to your spine.
All of this will require experimentation. Generally, our body is full of tensions and defensive postures when we walk or speak or find itself in indolent postures when we relax. None of them are good.
At another level, this meditation is also adopting a proper frame of mind, to orientate yourself toward the good (to kalon). The observation of plants, flowers and trees teaches us that they are all fragile, they blossom then fade. They give us a sense of time.
(3) Taking care of your breath: The instructions about sensation or aisthêsis (psuchê)
Askêsis is posture, orientation, but also sensation. The term aisthêsis describe the intelligent breathes which carry information from your senses to your hegemonikon but in a more general way also mean “apperception by mean of the senses”.
You are noticing the close affinity in stoic philosophy between your thoughts and your breathing. Thus at this stage, you will learn to listen to be in tune with the subtle sensation of breathing, yet distinctive.
This observation will teach you that the taking care of yourself is also achieved through the vigilance of the senses, using breathing.
The first step in using breathing as object of askêsis is to find it. You are searching for the physical tactile sensation of the air going back and forth through your nostrils. Generally, you can find it just at the cutting edge of your nose. However, the precise location varies from one person to another.
To find your own point, take a deep quick breath and notice where the sensation is located. Now, expire and note the sensation in the very same place. This place will become you focus point in observing the inspiration and expirations natural waves.
You must not try to control your breathing: this is not a breathing exercise. Your breathing must remain spontaneous and natural, not amplified or adjusted: let the process ‘be’ according to its own rhythm.
Inhale…exhale …inhale…exhale…inhale…exhale during a few minutes until you think that you have succeeded in maintaining a certain concentration during a few minutes. You should feel relaxed, yet with a clear mind.
Now observe what is going on in your mind.
(4) Taking care of your mind: the instructions about the logos (nous):
Imagine that your mind is like a vessel filled with water. Phantasiai (impressions) are like a ray of light that falls upon the water. If the water is disturbed, the ray will seem to be disturbed likewise, though in reality it is not.
The impact of the deep concentration is to slow down the mental process, thus making your mind like a vessel filled with still water and strengthening your observing consciousness. You will gain a greater capacity in examining the thought mechanism.
In the silent observation of breathing, there are two things to avoid: thinking and drowsiness.
There is a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought. This is a very subtle difference which is well expressed in terms of sensation or texture. A thought you are simply attentive to is felt as being very light in its texture. There is a feeling of distance between this thought and the consciousness which perceive it. It appears and disappears without necessarily give birth to the next thought.
The normal conscious thought is of a much heavier texture: it aspires you and takes control of your consciousness. By its very nature, it is obsessional and directly conducts to the next thought in the chain and it usually take the form of:
(1) all that others do or say
(2) all that you yourself have done or said
(3) all that troubles you with regard to the future
(4) all that belonging to the body which envelops you and the breath conjoined with it
(5) all that is the vortex whirling around outside you sweeps in its wake, so that the power of your mind
You will soon realise that your mind will constantly try to escape, to go in every directions. Do not worry, this phenomenon is well known and every prokopton has to overcome it. When this happens, simply note that you were thinking or dreaming and go back to the observation of your breathing with the help of your focus point, without judging yourself.
Drowsiness is almost the contrary: it denotes a loosening of the attention. It is a hole, an emptiness, a grey mental zone. Avoid it. This askêsis is here to help you to develop a strong and energetic concentration, a clear and distinct vigilance, focused on one single point. If you realise that you are drowsy, simply note it and go back to the observation of your breathing.
The essence of this askêsis is learning to “put away from yourself” these always and extremely agitated ordinary thoughts and be able to remain in a state of listening, of openness in every circumstances. You will soon realise that a phantasia may it be a thought, a physical sensation or an outside noise, rises then disappears and that you have no need to get involved into it. If you are able of maintaining this observing consciousness for a while, you may succeed in making yourself ‘a well rounded sphere rejoicing in the solitude around it’ that is the very famous Empedocles’ Sphairos.
The Sphairos is a powerful image, profoundly Hellenistic. Understanding what the Sphairos is will require from you to get rid of your natural tendency to geometric and spatial vision. Roundness is a metaphor for perfection: for ancient Greeks, the sphere is an expression of the divine for it has neither beginning nor end and can be travelled infinitively in both directions. It expresses the most beautiful, the most sublime, the most accomplished and this accomplishment is the kosmos itself, everlasting and flourishing. In the perfection of the sphere, there is neither love nor hatred, neither attachment nor detachment, neither knowledge nor ignorance, neither vertu nor vice, neither a word nor silence: all of our categories scatter. The solitude reflects the unicity of the kosmos: there is only one universe, and this universe is the whole (to pan). The kosmos is solitude and perfection.
Retired in your dwelling of knowledge, you give yourself over to the mindful perception. This askêsis is about listening and contemplation, which implies the absence of direction, thus abandoning your ‘human all too human’ self-centred point of view. You are then able to pass at least the time that is left to you until you die in calm and kindliness, and as one who is at peace with the daîmon that dwells within you. An oriented listening, to the contrary, is a listening of the known, of the ordinary though, of memory, of habit, of all of our packet of memories or scar tissues.
Nothing belongs to us, but everything belongs to Nature, to the logos. Genuine eternity is not a determination of time but mindfulness, the nous realising by itself the perfection of sphairos.
The sphairos is the sage.
After a Law degree in France and in Scotland as an Erasmus student, Elen Buzaré has been working in the insurance broking field for over 10 years now. She first encountered Stoicism when she read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at the age of 20 and since then, dedicated herself to the comprehension of the Stoic teaching, mostly as self learner. This led her a few years later to publish a little essay on Stoic spiritual exercises, a little book very much inspired by Stoic (in the light of the regretted Pierre Hadot’s work), Christian orthodox and Buddhist spiritualities. She is convinced that practising a form of mindfulness is central to Stoic practice in the sense that it develops an acute awareness of phantasiai and hence the ability to suspend judgement to question them. She would also be happy to explore further the Stoic physics as she feels that ethics has no real sense without its foundations.