This is the third in a series.
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Medusa, Medea, and Meditation
In Greek mythology Medusa was one of the three Gorgons, female monsters--gorgon meaning “dreadful, terrible”--who had long hair, the strands of which were venomous vipers. The sight of a Gorgon was said literally to petrify the viewer, that is, to turn the viewer to stone. The Greek hero Perseus--a hyper-masculine figure upright and rigid enough to be able to accomplish the deed--beheaded one of the three, Medusa, thereby "castrating" her (or anyway the hyper-fear she engendered), at least by Freud's interpretation of the ancient myth.
As petrifying as the sight of Medusa’s head might have been, Medousa, the name of one of the Gorgons, literally meant “guardian,” from the verb medein, “to protect, guard over.” The ultimate root of the word is the Proto Indo-European *med-. That original root meant “to take appropriate measures.”
The same root, *med- , is also the root of Medea, the name in Greek mythology of the partner of Jason, of Argonaut fame. Medea is storied, at least as the story is told by Euripides in his tragedy Jason and Medea, to have murdered her own children out of revenge after Jason abandoned her. That is certainly a dreadful enough tale to stiffen the listener, as the sight of the head of one of the Gorgons, those three dreadful females, was said to do.
What is more, it might be argued (unsavory as the argument might be) that at least in her own mind Medea’s homicidal act of revenge was appropriate to the circumstances. Taken as designed to occasion the very reactions of horror and dread that her act evokes, one could argue that her petrifying deed was actually a cunningly measured response (Greek medea originally meant “cunning”) to Jason’s betrayal, even though by common measure it appears monstrously excessive.
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At any rate, *med-, the stem from which both the name Medusa and the name Medea derive, is also the root of the word meditation. To meditate on something is to reflect on it and mull it over in one’s mind, ruminating upon it until it finally opens itself up fully to let thought flow through. Ruminating upon a thought is, thus, like a cow chewing its cud to extract all the life-preserving juices from what it chews.
Teachers of forms of meditation that require sitting still for prolonged periods of time teach beginners in meditation to do the same thing with the given object of meditative attention, such as a mantra or one’s breathing. That begins with the physical discomfort that sitting without moving for any length of time occasions, especially with those who are newcomers to such meditation, but also extends beyond that to the very thoughts that come into one’s mind and tempt one to lose one’s focus.
Teachers of various forms of sitting meditation encourage their new students not to react to those inevitable thoughts as they continue cascading through one’s mind, whether those thoughts be of the pain in one’s left knee or of the horror invoked by the memory of kindergarten. The meditation teacher encourages the meditator neither to cling to whatever thoughts may come, nor to try to drive them away—that is, not to react to them either seductively*, trying to draw them aside from their course and attract them to oneself, or in an apotropaic way, trying to ward them off. Instead, the meditator is merely to let thoughts come and go in the mind as they will—which most thoughts do very quickly, though some linger for a while, even for what may seem like an eternity to the meditator, especially the new one, who has not yet practiced the meditatively measured (to be redundant) conjunction of non-clinging and non-avoidance for long.
Regular practice of such meditation sends down deep roots of “detachment” in the sense prized within such Asian traditions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, or Taoism, and no less in Islamic Sufism or the modern Baha’i faith. That detachment is the same virtue as the “apathy”so esteemed in Stoicism, the early Christian eremitic tradition, and still today in Orthodox Christian monasticism (as I discussed in my preceding two-post series “In Defense of Apathy,” accessible at this website).
Such apathetic detachment (to venture another redundancy) may well seem to be a monstrous thing—until one begins to practice it.
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To be continued.
*Seduce: from se-, “aside, away,” plus ducere, “to lead, to draw,” also the root of such other words as educate, production, reduce, conducive, deductive, or even of Mussolini’s title, il Duce, the German equivalent of which is der Führer, Hitler’s chosen honorific. It is interesting to reflect that in Latin se is a reflective pronoun meaning “self,” as in per se, literally “by itself.” Though there may be no etymological connection between the se- of seduce and the se of per se, to “seduce” someone is not merely to draw that person aside, away from the course that the person is traveling, but specifically to draw that person aside and to oneself—to attract that person to oneself. Seduction is in that way a self-ish drawing or leading aside and astray.