The Dharana of medieval reading

I’ve always found it surprising that the Western secular world has been unable to salvage any of the meditative practices which the Middle Ages (western, to be clear) had developed and perfected.

I’m not going to rewrite the hitchhiker’s guide to the medieval period, but if you were a man or a woman living in 14th or 15th century Europe, you’d have had a catalogue of mindfulness and meditative practices, traditions and schools of thought to choose from. There was no far Eastern import happening as it has been since the 20th century (The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Vipassana movement come to mind ) but a deployment of Axial Age modes of being and thinking which had completely transformed the Indo-European and Semitic worlds, from Europe to India that is, passing through the Middle East and the Jewish-Arab world since the 6th century BC. To be in the world as a self-actualising individual, before the forces of transcendence and of God, was to plunge inwards, to exhaust the resources of the self and to seek betterment through self-transcendence.

To meditate, to look within, to listen, to become aware of what stirs in the heart and what flows through the lungs was a typically, though of course not exclusively, Western medieval preoccupation of those enlightened or keen enough to rise up to the challenge that the Greek world, at least in the West, had thrown in the face of culture: know yourself, the unexamined life is not worth living, observe yourself before you cast your eyes on the world — and which medieval Christianity had endorsed, under the searching eye and love of the human God.

The Sanskrit word ‘Dharana’ means ‘holding’ and refers to the ability to master attention and intention, when the mind focuses on one object, while bracketing off everything else, including itself. It’s a key element in many meditative practices, a federative principle of mindfulness and self-focus.

The same idea was at play in many medieval understandings of reading, or the best kind of reading the human reader can achieve. Meditative reading, through what the medievals called ruminatio, or the chewing of the words slowly and focusedly, was a kind of mindfulness that activated the body and the mind in the plenary of its cognitive faculties.

The highest kind of reading was designed to be transformative, to settle the mind by arousing it in acts of love and self-knowledge. The power of the word in its capacity to quiet and to rally.

Saint Augustin had written that the word ‘presents a kind of mirror to the eyes of the mind, that our inner face may be seen in it. There truly we learn our own ugliness, there are own beauty. There we know how much we have gained, there how far we lie from our goal.”

The medieval mind knew how to hold a thought in such a way that it became its nourishment for the whole of meditatio. With the mind full of the poverty which made its richness and its strength, it is clear the Middle Ages understood the meaning of mindfulness quiet well.

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