Ataraxia

Having imbibed the flavor of solitude and the flavor of tranquility, one becomes free from fear and free from evil, drinking the juice of delight in Truth. – Dhammapada 15:9

Ataraxia is the Greek word for equanimity, sometimes translated as imperturbability.  It generally translates as tranquility, serenity, or peace. The entire system of Epicurus‘ teachings is meant to cultivate a state of abiding pleasure which includes ataraxia. This makes perturbation (defined as mental disquiet, disturbance, or agitation) the enemy of the philosopher.

Like Buddha’s doctrines about nirvana, ataraxia requires the extinction of desires, to reach a sated state of not-wanting, not-hungering, a state of satisfaction.  However, Epicurus distinguished between the necessary and the unnecessary desires, and concluded that since we cannot escape certain needs (such as shelter or food), that the wise man should attend to those needs and dismiss the unnecessary and vain desires.  He also pointed to the fact that these needs are easy to procure.

Our longing, our craving, our thirsting for something other than Reality is what dissatisfies us. – Steve Hagen

Desires are like fire.  When fed, they get stronger and they want more.  When we indulge in them, we find that they increase over time instead of going away.  They can also become addictive and enslave us.  Research indicates that sugar is as addictive as any other drug and that when people fall in love, the brain operates as if addicted to another person.  We can easily become dependent on external factors and must therefore be watchful of our minds.

Ataraxia is satisfaction with life as it is here and now, not seeking its perfection but accepting its limitations and never minding them.  It’s the mental aboveness of one who’s learned to be happy and to live in a pleasant state always, regardless of conditions.  Ataraxia is taking pleasure in living.

Although it’s defined in negative terms (as non-perturbance), Epicurus–who called mortals to constant pleasures–maintained that the sage could train himself to experience more or less constant pleasure, and insisted that ataraxia is a mindful, positive state of peaceful abiding which can be cultivated through certain disciplines, including the cultivation of deep gratitude to life, to nature, to one’s teachers and ancestors, etc.

Recollection and Oblivion

Unlike Cyrenaic hedonists, who taught that bodily pleasures are superior to mental ones, Epicurus taught that they are equally valid, except that mental pleasures and pains could be experienced over the long-term. As a result of this, remembering past pleasures, anticipating future ones, and other techniques of abiding in pleasure were accepted as part of the hedonic regimen of an Epicurean.

One of the remedies that Epicurus employed was recollection, which must hold hands with oblivion.  He recognized that we are all selective in our memory, that impressions of past pleasures stay in the mind and can be evoked easily. This includes fond memories of laughter and play with friends, of the affection of loved ones, of happy songs, funny situations, and silly people.

Epicurus in his death bed, on his last day on Earth and while experiencing great physical pain, wrote an epistle to a friend where he confessed how happy he was to reminisce about their time together. Being able to easily ignore pain and to evoke and hold pleasant recollections is an art that can be learned.

The ingratitude of the soul makes a creature greedy for endless variation in its way of life. – Vatican Saying 69

Equally important is thankfulness, which might be seen as a form of recollection of the good things that we sometimes take for granted. Sincere gratitude is an act of instant awakening which changes any situation into a positive one. There are studies that suggest a clear positive correlation between gratitude and happiness.

Recollection should be balanced with oblivion: the blessed ability to forget unpleasant situations and people. Loved ones who pass away or move on, should be let go after our initial mourning.  This is healing after the trauma of death or separation. Sad or difficult situation should also be let go. A philosopher must learn the art of dismissal, along with the art of recollection.

When a loved one dies or when we’ve been wronged, we often tell ourselves we’ll never forget. But do we really want to never forget? Do we really wish to live our short years regretting what could have been, or nurturing our grief and hatred? Is it intelligent to make ourselves miserable while living in the past, haunted by memories while being inexorably swallowed by Time? That is a choice we have to make frequently.

The value of forgetfulness is one of the most important principles in the science of happiness. The inability to let go is sometimes a disease that should be treated like an enemy who has wronged us for years.

If by bad habit our minds frequently evoke a memory or an experience of anger, fear or other negative experiences, one technique is to choose a word that we can train ourselves to use to instantly dismiss them. Buddhists do this with the word neti, which translates as ‘not this’, or ‘not now’. In Epicurean parlance, these techniques are known as remedies (from the Greek, pharmakon).

There is a reason why nature has stipulated that we must have a cycle of sleep and wakefulness. The mind needs to reboot, recharge, and begin again. Otherwise, it gets saturated with experience and we’re exhausted. Thankfully every morning, we live again, and we have this choice to recollect and forget at every moment.

INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY OF FRIENDS OF EPICURUS


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About Hiram

Hiram is an author from the north side of Chicago who has written for The Humanist, Occupy, Infidels, Ateistas de Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Dia, and other publications. His book Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014) is a contemporary and interdisciplinary introduction to Epicureanism. He earned a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from NEIU.