The conceptualisation of meditation as involving mental silence is virtually absent in Western scientific discussion. Why has this important notion been ignored? How did contemporary, popular notions of meditation become almost diametrically opposed to the ancient Indian ideas which form their source? Some explanations are examined below.
When René Descartes made the philosophical statement “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) in his Principles of Philosophy he laid down a foundation element of Western philosophy. The “cogito ergo sum argument” essentially states that “I am thinking therefore I exist”. The metaphysical implications of Descartes’ phrase, which equate thinking activity with self identity contrast sharply with the Eastern metaphysical idea that existential reality can be perceived only when one is not thinking, which might be stated in Latin as “sum cogito ergo” — I am, therefore I think!
The influence of Descartes’ “cogito” on Western thought is widely acknowledged and cannot be overstated. It offers some explanation as to why the idea of mental silence has failed to find currency in the Western scientific literature on meditation. For example, Wright (2001), in an attempt to dispel myths and misconceptions about meditation (as he, a Western scientist, sees it) completely contradicts the Indian tradition when he states:
When we close our eyes to meditate our mind does not go completely blank, void of thoughts at one with the universe, because just as hearts are meant to beat and lungs to breath, brains are meant to think and will never be completely devoid of thought, perhaps until they are dead.
Wright’s comments in many ways are a reflection of Descartes’ cogito argument. It suggests that Western scholars having been brought up in the milieu of a Western philosophy built on the notion of “I think therefore I am”, might have difficulty acknowledging the possibility that a state of consciousness which is devoid of thought might be possible.