De Umbris Idearum: the shadows of ideas. Giordano Bruno used this as the title of one of his treatises on the art of memory. As thematic inspiration for this weekly column, the notion of shadows is taken for its most expansive potential. Everything we encounter in the environment is in some way a shadow of an idea, whether in nature, where our interpretation of what we encounter is predicated on a complex assemblage of conceptual precedents, or in the social world of artifice, where everything from our cell phones to the buildings we live in are in some ways the physical shadows of someone’s idea.
Meditation and contemplative practice, in many traditions, are tools for overcoming some of the inherent problems that come from dealing in shadows. Think of yourself on a darkened street. You see a tall figure moving towards you from an alleyway. Unsure of whether facing friend or foe, the mind immediately moves to react in the way best suited for survival. If friend, the shadow will be no threat, but if enemy, then without the proper attention, we could face injury or death. It makes sense, then, to react immediately in defense rather than taking a chance on becoming a victim. But this is nevertheless a very taxing way to go about things. What if one could more clearly judge potential threats or potential benefactors? In the material realm, this is a key to the practice of martial arts. In the mental and spiritual realm, this is the key to the practice of philosophy.
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