Throughout my inquiry into the science of meditation, I often ponder why meditation is not a part of our cultural norm. It is so ancient and beneficial, yet it is a lost art. Sure, it is still alive in regions such as India and Eastern Asia, yet even those cultures have become so engulfed by western culture that the dedicated practice of this art seems lost to the wayside. I began to think that the reason western philosophical tradition became more popular than eastern traditions was because one was easily transcribed into heritable texts.
All ancient cultures explored philosophical questions, attempting to unravel the mystery of reality. We all know of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, who wrote their ideas down into books that sparked a long lineage of philosophers and writings. The tradition of writing down the attempted understandings of reality contrasts with the East in some ways. The opening chapter in the Dao De Jing, the introductory book of Daoism written by Laozi (老子, laozi) in ancient China, states (老子, 1994):
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations
These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders
Daoism involves mindfulness practices such as meditation and Qi Gong that cultivated a sense of understanding of reality through these practices. It is a philosophy that claims the understanding of reality, not through analytical thinking but meditation. Therefore, the wisdom achieved is not easily described in words, hence the poetic and cryptic nature of the Dao De Jing. In the East, the ideas are not easily transcribable, contrary to the West, indicating why modern society is dominated by western thought and not meditative practices because communities learn from our ancestors’ writings. Westerners, in my mind, took a different route in understanding reality, or so I thought. My ideas changed when I read two fascinating books: The Immortality Key by Brain C. Muraresku and In the Dark Places of Wisdom by Peter Kingsley. These books argue that the ancient ancestors of the West sought wisdom through the same means as the ancestors of the East, and we have just forgotten.
A defining trait of western thought is the use of logic to deduce the nature of reality. Before the time of Plato, there was an ancient Greek philosopher known as Parmenides. He is known as the discoverer of logic. In my mind, logic is not something discovered. Yet, the title given to Parmenides speaks volumes to his contributions to the foundations of Greek philosophy and culture.
Contrary to the philosophers who followed him, he did not write a book of ideas. Instead, he wrote a poem. A cryptic one, nonetheless providing a distinct similarity between Parmenides and Laozi. The cryptic nature of his poetry has led to much scrutiny by scholars. They seek to understand his ideas from an analytical point of view and fail to do so—a method of analysis expected from classicists. However, Peter Kingsley takes a perspective that is far more conducive to the poem’s true intention. In his book, Kingsley describes Parmenides as an Iatromantis, a prophetic healer of sorts with ties to Apollo who practiced incubation (Kingsley, 1999). Incubation is where an individual would lay down (as if a corpse) in a cave for extended periods until they had a sort of dream where their body descended into the underworld then came back. This experience could be used as a form of healing (Apollo was also the god of medicine) and granted wisdom derived from the gods. The insight could be philosophical and applied to the creations of laws (Kingsley, 1999). Incubation was not only associated with Parmenides either but also with Pythagoras (Kingsley, 1999). Surprising is the stark similarities between meditation of the East and incubation of the West. It seems that culturally significant individuals from the ancient world, regardless of geographical location, used the same method to achieve great wisdom.
Incubation may not have been the only means by which the ancient Greeks sought to achieve the wisdom of the gods. In the book The Immortality Key, Muraresku argues that during the Eleusinian Mysteries, the ancient Greeks consumed a beer spiked with psychedelic chemicals possibly derived from ergot (Muraresku, 2020). The experience was a means of going into the underworld, dying before dying, and coming back with greater wisdom and immortality (Muraresku, 2020). Muraresku further argues that this tradition continued into the Christian age with wine and holy communion. In double-blind studies, psychedelics induce incredible life-changing spiritual experiences (Griffiths et al., 2006). Both meditation and psychedelics seem to deactivate certain brain areas within the Default Mode Network (Farb et al., 2007; Palhano-Fontes et al., 2015; Scheibner et al., 2017; Speth et al., 2016). It is easy to draw a plausible connection of psychedelics as biotechnology capable of inducing, if not temporarily, the experience achieved by meditation and incubation. This experience, which reaches an altered form of consciousness, grants a spiritual understanding of great insight. At least, the Greeks and Romans likely thought so.
In The Immortality Key, I learned that the Greeks had two words for the English “know.” There is a Greek word that describes a more reflective, analytical, and logical form of knowing. Then there is “gnosis,” which describes a more intuitive and experiential state of knowing (Muraresku, 2020). Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, their knowledge lies within the former, whereas Parmenides and Pythagoras were in the later “gnosis” camp. I suppose this dichotomy could be voiced in the difference between “knowledge” and “wisdom” in English. Ironically, we derived our word “know” from” gnosis.” In this context, do we truly know much of anything?
When it comes to archeology, nothing is certain. I cannot claim that these researchers are correct. Nonetheless, it is common knowledge that many cultures across the ancient world used meditation and psychedelics for various spiritual and ceremonial purposes. It existed in China, Japan, India, the Toltec people of southern Mexico, the Amazon, and other places. Why would the foundational cultures of the western world be any different?
I remember learning that scholars point to the crusades as a pivotal moment that leads to the development of the Renaissance in Europe. The reason was that Europeans had lost connection to the writings of ancient Greek and Roman society during the last age. It wasn’t until the Europeans invaded the Middle East, andacquired the texts from the great libraries there that a massive boom in cultural prosperity and development began. Perhaps we are due for another remembering.
Farb, N. A. S., Segal, Z. v., Mayberg, H., Bean, J., Mckeon, D., Fatima, Z., & Anderson, A. K. (2007). Attending to the present: Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(4), 313–322. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsm030
Griffiths, R. R., Richards, W. A., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2006). Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology, 187(3), 268–283. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5
Kingsley, P. (1999). In the Dark Places of Wisdom (Seventh). The Golden Sufi Center.
Muraresku, B. C. (2020). The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name. St Martin’s Press.
Palhano-Fontes, F., Andrade, K. C., Tofoli, L. F., Jose, A. C. S., Crippa, A. S., Hallak, J. E. C., Ribeiro, S., & de Araujo, D. B. (2015). The psychedelic state induced by Ayahuasca modulates the activity and connectivity of the Default Mode Network. PLoS ONE, 10(2), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118143
Scheibner, H. J., Bogler, C., Gleich, T., Haynes, J. D., & Bermpohl, F. (2017). Internal and external attention and the default mode network. NeuroImage, 148(January), 381–389. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.01.044
Speth, J., Speth, C., Kaelen, M., Schloerscheidt, A. M., Feilding, A., Nutt, D. J., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2016). Decreased mental time travel to the past correlates with default-mode network disintegration under lysergic acid diethylamide. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 30(4), 344–353. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881116628430
老子. (1994). 道德经 Translated by Derek Lin.