The Greeks had a word for it

Sooner or later I think we all come around to seeing that our lives need a little more balance.  Sometimes we have to get sick before we acknowledge that something is out of kilter.  For many of us, though, we know perfectly well, even when we’re healthy enough to get out of bed in the morning, that the work-day or school-day is frenetic and fragmented. Superimposed on this are the demands of domestic life – children, parents, and spouses (to say nothing of the management of all our stuff).   And some of us also have creative dreams and ambitions, projects that nobody requires of us and nobody would miss if we failed to do them, but which would leave a void in us if we don’t at least attempt them.  (How’s your novel coming?)

Our attention, in other words, is constantly being drawn from one thing to another in a riot of distractions that keeps us largely skimming the surface. The word “distractions” in fact may seem too mild for this phenomenon we experience – until we realize that the origin of the word is the Latin distrahere, literally ‘to tear to pieces.’

What we need is something to pull us back together and, ideally, something to keep us integral and intact as we move forward.

The way to arrive at this balance and harmony, however, is not always apparent.

It’s not just a matter of reducing the number, diversity and intensity of the activities we’re involved in.  After all, most of us delight in a life that is richly diverse and active. And how much could we really cut out from the varied and increasing demands of work (or school), family, friends, and recreation?   Modern urban life and sophisticated, inexpensive technology make this abundance and diversity increasingly possible, necessary and even desirable.

So when I suggest to someone, “you might consider taking up meditation,” the usual reaction is conflicted and contradictory. On the one hand I hear, “That’s exactly what I need; I’m so stressed!” and on the other, “Are you kidding me? When would I have the time?”  In fact, most people give both of these answers: one part of them says this sounds like what they need, while the other part knows they will never do it.

If meditation were just one more activity to fit into a busy schedule, this reaction is about all we could hope for.

But meditation is best understood as an undertaking of a wholly different order than the other activities in our life. Through the practice of meditation, all parts of ourselves – the physical, mental, spiritual, inter-personal, emotional, and whatever other dimensions there are – assume, through self-awareness, their healthy place in the total mix of who we are.  That mix is as different for each of us as our faces, so how we do it will be slightly different in each individual.  Meditation is attending to the integration of the disparate parts of our lives.

The ancient Greeks – the ancestors of Western culture – had a term for this: sophrosyne (don’t even try to pronounce it).  It was a term that meant…well, there is no easy and direct translation for this word. It was one of the fundamental ideals of their now defunct civilization, and included what we would call wisdom, but also harmony, moderation, and the idea of balance. It was their definition of health, encompassing both mind and body.  The term also had a personal dimension, based on the practice of philosophy, and meant self-awareness and self-control.

By comparison, our term “meditation,” which implies a largely mental activity, or even the somewhat clunky but now commonly heard word “mindfulness,” seem only to capture a much narrower slice of the phenomenon.

As we rediscover our Western patrimony of personal harmony, balance, self-awareness and health, we’ll eventually come up with a good English word for it, something with the breadth of the Greek word sophrosyne.

In the meantime, let’s remember that meditation, contemplation, mindfulness and prayer aren’t names for just one more activity to try to squeeze into an already over-charged agenda.  They are imperfect terms for the one indispensable dimension that every healthy, well-founded life requires.