Tag Archives: happiness

Tending the Epicurean Garden, by Hiram Crespo

The following is the English-language translation of the Spanish-language review of the book Tending the Epicurean Garden, in its first Spanish edition, which was originally written by Alan Furth for the Las Indias Blog (the link of which is no longer live, unfortunately).

Following the publication of the English translation of David’ post on Epicurus (“Fraternity, subversion, pigs and asparagus“), we contacted Hiram Crespo, with whom we have since maintained an enriching conversation about the role that Epicurean philosophy can play in the revival of the ancient therapeutic function of philosophy, a role that is becoming increasingly necessary in a world in accelerated decomposition.

Hiram is the founder of the Society of Friends of Epicurus and has just published a book that I had the pleasure of reading over the past two weeks.

The book is a condensed but comprehensive introduction to the basic principles and practice of Epicurean philosophy. But it also provides an interesting interpretation of the teachings of Epicurus from the point of view of positive psychology, neuroscience and other scientific disciplines that today corroborate much of the legacy of the master. Given the prominence of Epicurus as one of the first philosophers to defend the need to study science to get rid of our irrational fears, this aspect of the book is itself a tribute to his memory. One can not help thinking that, were he alive today, he would have expanded the focus of his teachings to address these issues.

The Road to Ataraxia

epicurusThroughout the book, Hiram breaks down the elements that Epicurus regarded as indispensable to achieve ataraxia, that state of imperturbability and serenity that would allow his disciples to live a genuinely pleasant life.

The road to ataraxia that Epicurus invites us to tread is fundamentally minimalist: although we are not called to give up the “kinetic” pleasures–those pleasures we enjoy as a result of achieving a more or less structured plan of action, like playing, engaging in sports, eating, drinking, or having sex–, those are considered secondary and potentially dangerous for their ability to cause restlessness, addictions, and generally to divert us away from ataraxia, particularly if they degenerate into a pursuit of the more destructive unnatural and unnecessary desires, like the lust for power, fame, glory and other delusions.

By contrast, Epicurus considers the “katastematic” or stable (abiding) pleasures to be essential. These are defined as those that nurture a state of inner harmony through the absence of pain of body and soul–a “soul” that is defined here in a strictly naturalistic sense, understood as the and neurological or nervous system, as everything that today we refer to as the psyche of an individual. And to eliminate the pain of the soul, Epicurus proposed several basic remedies, among which are philosophical reflection and cultivation of friendship, of true community.

The Analyzed Life 

For Epicurus, philosophical reflection was primarily aimed at freeing us from prejudices and irrational beliefs that become a source of anxiety and fears of all kinds. Perhaps the best known example is his argument against the fear of death, but the general idea is that irrational passions–from excessive appetite for food and sex to irascibility and arrogance–generally are based on irrational beliefs, and that if we clarify the contradictions inherent in these beliefs, we will be liberated from the tyranny of the passions which support them.

Hiram also reminds us that much of this capacity to analyze our lives has to do with the simple–but not always easy–task of learning to focus our attention and direct it so that we may become aware of our habits and automatic forms of behavior: the analysed life is not necessarily only based on an advanced development of the faculties of reflection beyond the proper control of attention. This is perhaps one of the reasons why contemporary movements, like existential minimalism, are largely dedicated to the cultivation of mindfulness in a hyper-connected world that is increasingly full of banal distractions. But while in the blogosphere of existential minimalism, metaphors and meditation exercises inspired by Zen Buddhism abound, Hiram’s book reminds us that there is no need to go beyond our own very rich tradition of Western thought to find inspiration in this regard.

Attention is the tool used by our minds to give us a model of reality: if we misuse it and let our minds dissipate in every direction like a running river, we’ll get lost in the cracks of inertia and habit. By living according to our firm resolve to create pleasant lives and by paying attention, we make sure that is it we who captain the boat of the mind, and not the pirates of our unconscious tendencies.

The purest happiness requires full attention and is a way of being, not a way of thinking or seeking. At the moment that we make the observation that we are happy, we are moving away … from our experience through the act of observing it, and if we were, for example, entranced dancing and listening to music … now the experience is less ecstatic. The bubble breaks.

The calculated and rational hedonistic theory of philosophy is vehemently opposed to the hedonism of instant gratification commonly practiced today, which is not Epicurean at all. It requires a preliminary process of introspection, to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary desires.


David (de Ugarte) reminded us in his post that, above all else, what made Epicurus truly subversive was his strong sense of communal fraternity:

Like the Mithraics, who seem to have been influenced (by Epicurus) to a lesser extent than the Stoics, the Epicureans seem to intuit Dunbar‘s number. Not only are they preaching the apolitical stance, but they divide their communities so as to not be so many that fraternity can not be enjoyed, which in practice seems to be as important as freedom for the pursuit of happiness.

The fact that Hiram is committed to the growth of the Society of Friends of Epicurus already speaks for itself, but also in his book he makes it clear that he could not agree more with David regarding the prominence of fraternity as a fundamental value of Epicurean philosophy:

It is one thing to read and learn these lessons from a book, but quite another to learn them from close friends who wish us well, who express this affection, and remind us that death is nothing to us. This wholesome friendship makes all the difference. The experience of the teachings of philosophy is much more comforting when it’s acquired in the context of affiliation.

That is why Epicurean therapy only can be lived fully and concisely within a community of like-minded friends, and the task of building and nurturing a network of such friends should be seen as one of the most important long-term projects for every Epicurean philosopher.

Synthetic Happiness

One of the reflections that I like the most about Hiram’s book is the way in which he rescues the concept of “synthetic happiness” as posed by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness, in light of Epicurean philosophy.

In his book, Gilbert demonstrates an enormous amount of empirical evidence–experimental and otherwise–according to which the human being has a kind of psychological immune system that allows us to maintain a stable level of psychic well-being regardless of external circumstances. For example, Gilbert refers to a study that analyzed data measuring the levels of psychological well-being of people who have won millions in the lottery and comparing them with those of people left paraplegic.

Surprisingly, the study concludes that differences in welfare levels of both groups are not significant after a year of winning the lottery or losing a limb. That’s why Gilbert tells us that happiness is synthetic: our psyche has the ability to manufacture it regardless of external events, and the quality of that manufactured happiness is as genuine as that obtained when one stumbles upon a lucky event in life. Happiness is not something we have to strive to find: it is the natural state of a truly healthy psyche.

This TED talk transmits a clearer picture of what Gilbert wants to convey in his book, and illustrates other interesting experiments that support his theory.

One of the fundamental conclusions that Gilbert arrives at in his book, is that the fact that we are surprised to learn that paraplegics are as happy as the lucky winners of a million dollar lottery, says a lot about how likely we are to have a strong irrational bias that prevents us from predicting the factors that contribute genuinely to our happiness.

As a corollary of this conclusion, one might then ask about the socio-cultural factors that reinforce this irrational bias which, ultimately, prevent us from seeing what Epicurus has been telling us for centuries, and which is right under our noses: that pleasure is easy to obtain and suffering is easy to bear.

And it almost irresistibly evident that among the socio-cultural factors that reinforce this bias are the artificially inflated production scales which are predominant in crony capitalism. Or as Gilbert puts it in his TED talk:

Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we want, and synthetic happiness is what we manufacture when we do not get what we want. And in our society, we have a strong bias to believe that synthetic happiness is of an inferior quality. And why do we have that belief? Well, it’s very simple. What kind of economic engine would work if we believed that not getting what you want can make us as happy as getting it?

It is an extremely interesting question. And our attempts to answer it will surely continue to generate discussions that will enrich the discourse on what it means to live an interesting life: a pleasant life like the one that Epicurus invites us to live.

Originally written by Alan Furth for the Las Indias Blog.

Further Reading from the Las Indias collective:

The Book of Community (SoFE Review here)

Tending the Epicurean Garden

The Punctured Jar Parable

Divine Pleasure, the Guide of life, persuades mortality and leads it on that, through her artful blandishments of love, it propagate the generations still, lest humankind should perish. – Lucretius, De Rerum Natura II.172

I’ve been enjoying the pleasures of reading Lucretius’ classic On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), and will be blogging based on it in the future. I’m concerned today with Lucretius’ approach to therapeutic philosophy and to the pursuit of happiness as exemplified in his parable of the punctured jar.

The parable presents Epicurus as a Doctor that heals the ills of the soul. Like all good physicians, he must evaluate the symptoms and determine what the spiritual health problem is. The Frank Copley translation of DRN is much more eloquent in describing the existential situation of an ungrateful, unphilosophical mortal, linking her anxieties to a pervasive, untreated, and unevaluated fear of death.

Will you hang back, indignant that you must die: alive and awake, you live next door to death; you waste the greater part of life in sleep, and even waking, you snore, and dream, dream on; you wear a heart confounded by empty fears. You rarely can tell what caused them when, oppressed and drunk and wretched with unremitting cares, you wander, waver, and wonder where to turn.

Notice the Buddhist-like reference to wakeful dreaming. What is expected of a philosopher is a kind of awakening, of mindfulness, a way of paying attention. Let’s not think of this as a state (a noun, which often Platonizes what’s meant) but as a verb (an activity). We must be present in order to savor life.

In the parable, which is meant to serve as therapy for existential angst and fear of death, Mother Nature advises mortals to be ready to leave this world as one who has enjoyed a banquet and is satisfied. Satisfaction and gratitude are important ingredients in the cultivation of ataraxia. In the banquet passage, Lucretius places words on the lips of Mother Nature:

“Mortal, what hast thou of such grave concern
That thou indulgest in too sickly plaints?
Why this bemoaning and beweeping death?
For if thy life aforetime and behind
To thee was grateful, and not all thy good
Was heaped as in sieve to flow away
And perish unavailingly, why not,
Even like a banqueter, depart the halls,
Laden with life? why not with mind content
Take now, thou fool, thy unafflicted rest?
But if whatever thou enjoyed hath been
Lavished and lost, and life is now offence,
Why seekest more to add- which in its turn
Will perish foully and fall out in vain?
O why not rather make an end of life,
Of labour? For all I may devise or find
To pleasure thee is nothing: all things are
The same forever. Though not yet thy body
Wrinkles with years, nor yet the frame exhausts
Outworn, still things abide the same, even if
Thou goest on to conquer all of time
With length of days, yea, if thou never diest”

In the text, Lucretius argues that if we were to live forever, eventually the pleasures that the Earth has to offer would be all the same. There would be no new experiences, and therefore we should feel sated at the end of a good life.

Ungratefulness to life, to nature, to time, is on the other hand a mortal sin to the Epicurean philosopher. The William Leonard translation does not express it as beautifully as the Frank Copley one, which says: “you wanted what isn’t, scorned what is … life slipped through your fingers shapeless and unlovely“.

What’s being said here is that life is full of many kinds of blessings, but when we are mindless and ungrateful it’s as if we are walking through life with a punctured jar. The water in the punctured jar drains off and the blessings are squandered. With the help of Epicurus, we can train ourselves to make the vessel whole again so that we are enjoying the fullness of the blessings that life has to offer at all times.

In Book VI, his final one, Lucretius picks up the metaphor again, saying that when we fail to experience life’s pleasures, the “fault must lie within the vessel”, with the broken vessel image representing our own souls. The idea of our brokenness would be usurped by the Christians to build a guilt-based theology. In Epicurus and Lucretius, the goal is therapeutic.

For when saw he that well-nigh everything
Which needs of man most urgently require
Was ready to hand for mortals, and that life,
As far as might be, was established safe,
That men were lords in riches, honour, praise,
And eminent in goodly fame of sons,
And that they yet, O yet, within the home,
Still had the anxious heart which vexed life
Unpausingly with torments of the mind,
And raved perforce with angry plaints, then he,
Then he, the master, did perceive that ’twas
The vessel itself which worked the bane, and all,
However wholesome, which from here or there
Was gathered into it, was by that bane
Spoilt from within,- in part, because he saw
The vessel so cracked and leaky that nowise
‘T could ever be filled to brim; in part because
He marked how it polluted with foul taste
Whate’er it got within itself. So he,
The master, then by his truth-speaking words,
Purged the breasts of men, and set the bounds
Of lust and terror, and exhibited
The supreme good whither we all endeavour,
And showed the path whereby we might arrive
Thereunto by a little cross-cut straight …. And he proved
That mostly vainly doth the human race
Roll in its bosom the grim waves of care.
For just as children tremble and fear all
In the viewless dark, so even we at times
Dread in the light so many things that be
No whit more fearsome than what children feign,
Shuddering, will be upon them in the dark.
This terror then, this darkness of the mind,
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
But only nature’s aspect and her law.

Epicurean philosophy, therefore, is meant to help cleanse our souls by speaking truth, and by limiting our desires and fears through exposure to the study of nature, and by establishing clearly that life’s goal is happiness, and by which methods we most efficiently arrive at happiness: Epicurus gave us a science of happiness.

Today is the International Day of Happiness. Isolation and depression are proven health risks, epidemics on par with obesity and smoking. A smart mortal would never leave something as sacred and important as his or her happiness to the whims of fortune and chance. Happiness is a path best trod mindfully and in good company. Please share philosophical literature and content with your friends today and take care to restore your own punctured vessel via a philosophical education. You may also enjoy deep-belly laughter exercises for fifteen minutes … or share something funny online, or call a friend who is a clown and always makes you laugh. Whatever you do, don’t postpone your happiness today!

English-Language Translation of Interview with Hiram and Alex, of the Society of Friends of Epicurus

H. Hiram, Founder
A. Alex, Member
P. Pilar (interviewer, for Rey Yacolca Producciones)

H. Epicurus is one of the philosophers of the atomist tradition who studied under a teacher, Nausiphanes, who himself studied under Democritus, who along with Leucippus is the founder of the atomist school and father of materialist philosophy and is considered the first of the laughing philosophers. We talk about there being a tradition of laughing philosophers today thanks to Democritus. Basically it’s a series of philosophers who have studied the nature of things and believe in a natural, scientific explanation for reality. Because of that they have strong minds and aren’t easily convinced of superstitions, the common people’s beliefs, and they laugh at that and so that is part of their role. Many of them have been comedians. One of them died recently, George Carlin. I didn’t know he had studied philosophy, I thought he had studied acting. But no, he studied philosophy and was a great comedian who mocked everything, politics, corruption, religion, children, marriage, all the social conventions. That’s extremely important because we should learn to laugh at ourselves and look at society from the outside, which is also the role of philosophers. this is why the school Epicurus founded was at the boundaries of the polis. They looked at the polis from outside. I’ve always thought it interesting. So Epicurus was a pupil of the school of atomism that Democritus started. He took insights from science and physics and applied them to the realm of ethics. The art of living. Taking this knowledge about the true nature of things and to live happily and at ease.

A. It’s important, if we’re going to dedicate our time and our minds and our lives, that we not waste them in thoughts that are not of benefit, that will harm us and are only founded on fancy. It’s best to wait for problem to actually arrive before our eyes, our ears, and manifest physically. Problems usually generate less anxiety that we expect and are resolved, well, using the faculties that nature has given us ….

H. Well, I see Epicureanism as a vehement affirmation of life, joy, pleasure, and in general all the things that make life worth living. Many people, even in academia, it’s unfortunate, many teach philosophy and mix Stoicism and Epicureanism and much confusion is generated, people start to interpret Epicurus as an analgesic (pain reliever, to alleviate pain only) but it includes that and yet goes far beyond, and affirms the things that make life worth living. Tells you the things you must seek, the “principal things”, needful things that nature gives you no choice but to have in order to be happy and healthy. Friends, protection, shelter, wholesome association, home, food, clothes, but Epicurus takes you to enjoy those things to the max, and to also have an attitude of gratitude. To take notice of them and appreciate them because today people have attention deficit with the internet, instant gratification … people go through life and don’t notice the little things that make life worth living. They call their friends, talk to them, but don’t stop to appreciate the time they have (until they’re gone). And so Epicurean philo. accentuates always those things that make life worth living.

P. Yes, Hiram. When we were talking about this conversation between us three you were saying that if you could entitle this, it would be the science of happiness. So based on this and what Alex was saying that this has helped him to be more present, as you said more attentive, I was reading in this Las Indias review, they mention a researcher that talks about synthetic happiness as superior to natural happiness and says something very interesting. He says that we all think that natural happiness is real and good and other happiness sort of has less value. How have you experienced this and you, Alex? Have you put this in practice?

H. You’re talking about Dan Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist who wrote “Stumbling on Happiness” and we’ve exchanged emails, he’s a fan of Epicurus. He’s basically teaching Epicurean philosophy by another name, as is what’s being taught today as positive psychology, which focuses on the mind in its natural state, in its healthy state instead of focusing on pathology. It focuses on the mind when one is happy, healthy. This is positive psychology. It contains the science of happiness that he elaborates and now, people like Sam Harris and other neuroscientists are researching how the brain operates when one is happy. They’re scanning the brains of lamas and other people, looking at their brains when they meditate to see what is going on there, how it changes long term when people engage in meditation, or gratitude, and the other things that we also teach in Epicureanism. There’s a science of happiness, a theory of things observed, research on neuroplasticity which shows how the neural system and brain change over the years when people are involved in certain activities. These are scientific techniques towards what we call katastematic pleasure, Gilbert calls synthetic happiness, but it’s not that it’s any less real: in life, it’s experienced as real. I translated it (into English) as abiding pleasure (in the book). There is research being done now on how to increase the levels of steady, abiding pleasure that are normal for each person. It’s quite interesting, and it all vindicates Epicurus’ teaching. What Gilbert teaches is Epicureanism by another name.

A. What Stoics and ascetics teach is that we should reject certain pleasures and not try to find happiness like children, like when children are playing in joy, that we should just seek tranquility and only avoid pains. But Epicurus teaches that we should not reject joy, it’s not necessary to eat luxurious food daily, we should eat only what is necessary, but if we are invited to a banquet or a dance there is no need to reject it. One should accept it.

P. Hiram, when we were talking on facebook you were saying that a comparison could be made between the sumac kawsay (Incan “good living” philosophy) and Epicurean philo. I was researching this indigenous tradition. How would you contrast.

H. Sumak kawsay, the main differences are that this tradition comes from the elders from South America. First of all there is an ecological sensibility among indigenous values, a collectivist sensibility whereas in Epicurus life is celebrated and in fact Epicurean gardens were communities where things were shared, they were growing crops for food, writing scrolls, got fees from teaching philosophy. Living in self-sufficient context within a cooperativist context at a small level. Another parallel is the emphasis on ecology: one of the Principal Doctrines of Epicurus says that nature must not be forced, that we can gently influence her through soft and sweet persuasion, using natural tendencies to be happier and more efficient. Not going against nature. Another one is respect for elders, sages, the people teaching the wisdom tradition because they help to nurture wholesome character, so the importance of healthy association. The importance of leisure. Having time to love, as President Mujica of Uruguay says often: this idea that we are not wage slaves, that we need time for production and time to love, to be with friends, for joy, for sports, whatever, that is necessary for the mental health of people, for balance. These days things look like in Japan, where people work at times 16 hours a day, and that is seen as part of the culture. Much corporate culture is like that: we’re an antidote against that.

P. Makes sense, of course! Alex, I have a doubt. What’s your profession.

A. I’m electrical engineer.

P. With regards to what Hiram said, before you came to Epicurean philo. did you have time for quality leisure? Did you value your friends well?

A. Well, I think I sought to better my life so I have to say that I’m still learning. I didn’t value my friend as much as now, I’m now realizing I should. Also I’m making better use of my time of leisure, vacation, and time with friends which I sometimes didn’t before. Sometimes it’s best to seek what we have in common instead of our differences. But yes, I think it has helped but I still have work to do, am still experimenting and it’ll be some years, I don’t know, maybe less than that but I hope to better my life. (laugh)

P. We all do! Epicurus says “Good is easy to procure, Evil is easy to suffer”. I think that when we are not here and now, present, we accept things that are bad for us as something normal. In Eastern traditions, monks have to sit, etc. so they awaken. In this tradition, what is done? Are there exercises, ways to be more present?

H. Ancient Epicureans had their own exercises which incorporated a type of cognitive therapy. Epicurus was one of the precursors of psychotherapy. He acknowledged the existence of the subconscious and he taught that when people have bad habits usually there are underlying tendencies or opinions sustaining them, called dispositions. For instance, people who are consumerists, who like to squander money and be ostentatious about things that they don’t have, usually have beliefs, they think this will make them happy, that happiness can be experienced by showing off riches or measured against neighbors, based on other people’s standards and on comparisons with others. One can’t ever be happy that way. Happiness research shows that people who show off riches are usually in debt and people who are truly wealthy are like you and I, like any other normal person with a normal house and a normal car, just that they care more about their financial independence than showing off. So it’s all a fantasy, and when you are in the process of Epicurean therapy you’re challenging yourself in self-betterment using all this research to challenge yourself and your false beliefs that are the product of cultural corruption, beliefs without base, what society teaches common people and isn’t necessarily true in your nature. In therapy, we use reasonings, we use arguments: you argue against your own dispositions, your tendencies, your own beliefs, and you challenge yourself showing them legitimate information re: what does take you to happiness so that you slowly get rid of those bad habits of belief which produce the bad habits of your lived experience. So it’s a cognitive therapy process.

P. Hiram, I also read in that review that today science in many branches is proving what Epicurus said is still valid. As I hear what you say, I think Epicurus can be incorporated into our lives because what it does is show us what we can be with simple practices, so I’d like you to encourage people to investigate more about him. Because everyone knows about Plato, Aristotle but not about Epicurus, in college I never learned about him. So if it wasn’t for you, who have been slowly exposing me to this, I would have remained ignorant. My personal opinion now is that it’s important for everyone to incorporate this knowledge. Encourage the viewers to read your book and to approach this!

H. Actually I want to mention something as to what you said, that they didn’t teach you this at the University, and precisely there are misinterpretations in academia influenced by other schools many of which have been very opposed to Epicurus. A philo. professor from Univ. of Oklahoma, Dara Fogel, wrote the Epicurean Manifesto where she talks about this problem and how the academic world, what it teaches as philo. is in a fossilized state, a study of the history of itself, a repetition of historical events sometimes irrelevant, logical formulas often also irrelevant, that have nothing of the medicinal that Epicurus teaches and say nothing about how to live a healthy, happy life. I’ve also gotten feedback from one of my readers, he loved my book, but he talked about how when he was at the university he lost the desire to study philo. because the classes were so boring that he never thought philosophy could be THIS. It’s not what he expected: a system of applying logic. It’s not about that. We say that philosophy that doesn’t heal the soul is no better than medicine that doesn’t heal the body, to us. So I think people need a system to deal with their baggage, with their difficulties, not just that but also to plan a happy and healthy life. So Epicureanism equips you to do that for the long term with empirical, scientific knowledge so you can create a beautiful life and keep your feet firm, on the ground. I also like that it respects your intelligence. It doesn’t make any type of supernatural claim and such, it’s very scientific, naturalistic, and helps you to see reality, to see nature as shown before your natural faculties and take it as the starting point, so you have no risk of believing in things that aren’t evident to you. I really respect that. There is so much New Age stuff, many philosophies that don’t do that.

P. Great. Well, thank you so much Hiram. I think you’ve encouraged us with everything you’ve shared to be able to dig deeper into this. And you, Alex, thank you because I think that if I was an author and a friend accepted to get involved in a conversation about this it would be a huge joy. So I thank you both. Blessings!

H. I want to thank Alex also, and say he spoke very good Spanish, we’ve always talked in English and hadn’t heard his Spanish but he did well. And thank you, I’ve known you for many years, we’ve shared blogs, we’ve written about food!

A. And thanks to you all also.

Further Reading:

Review of TtEG, from Las Indias

Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press Review, 2014)

Tending the Epicurean Garden, Book

Back to the Main Page

Reasonings About Neuroscience

The following considerations are based on my reading of Buddha’s Brain, a book by neuroscientists Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius.

The book Buddha’s Brain adds much flesh to the bones of Epicurean notions of a science of happiness. It teaches how to scientifically and methodically cultivate a happy and healthy brain. It also substantiates and helps to understand the neuroscientific theories behind the practices that early Epicureans used to engage in (repetition, memorization, gratitude, etc.) as part of their regimen of abiding pleasures. These practices create and strengthen healthy neural connections in the tissue of our brain that are experienced, over the long term, as happiness.

The book also reminds us constantly of the physicality of the soul and all soul phenomena, of how each and every soul experience is rooted in some way in hormonal changes, bodily organs, neurons, etc. This is one of the crucial, central insights of our materialist philosophy, and the main reason why we utilize medicinal language when referring to the health of the soul just as mainstream culture does with the body. Like our own wisdom tradition, this book demonstrates a strong tendency to make applied, therapeutic philosophy tangible and concrete.

The Hedonic Tone

One of the first things the book does is to give us a theory, and new words, by which we may refer to the important knowledge being imparted. Much of the beginning portion of the book consists of establishing this framework.

The feeling tone, or hedonic tone, is defined as the quality of whether something is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The hedonic tone is produced by the amygdala.

On the Importance of Mindfulness

As with all therapy, contemplation and meditation help us to identify suffering in its initial stages and to see how it arises in the mind. With this insight, we can stop the suffering process and lead the mind in a new direction.

People given to frivolous mental exercises might have a habit of avoiding mindfulness and attention, aware (or maybe unaware?) of the fact that once you observe pleasant activities, you burst the bubble and they cease being enjoyable. It is important to challenge this habit of mindlessness. Without attention and patient, non-judgemental mindfulness, it’s impossible to bring into awareness the issues that we must work through in order to cultivate a progressively happier mind.

There are many references to Buddhist teachings and techniques to educate the mind. The book frequently goes back to the first and second darts, a reference to the things outside of ourselves that generate suffering (loss of a loved one, insult, loss of a job, accidentally hurting ourselves, etc.), which constitute examples of the first dart, versus our REACTIONS to these things (anger, hatred, obsession with vengeance, vindictiveness, annoyance, etc) which are examples of the second dart. As you probably imagine, we have control usually only over the second dart, and so a great part of the training that we must undertake if we make a resolution to be happy, is to avoid throwing the second dart.

The authors speak of a progression from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, and later on to conscious competence, and finally to unconscious competence. In the first stage, we are easily annoyed and affected by things with no conscious acknowledgement of it. In the second stage, we become aware of our reaction to events and how these reactions generate suffering, but we have not yet developed the wherewithal to discipline ourselves with prudence. The third stage is the beginning of discipline: we begin making conscious efforts to avoid throwing the second dart, and finally when we reach the fourth stage, we have become wise enough and gained enough insight to understand that our serenity, our ataraxia and tranquility, is worth too much to be sacrificed at the altar of vindictiveness, anger, or annoyance.

Implicit Memory

Notice that mindfulness, resolution, and discipline are all necessary in the cultivation of a steady, happy mind that habitually abides in pleasure.

The authors speak of implicit memory. It consists of the unconscious expectations, outlook, values, emotional states, relationships that are built around our experiences and result in our sense of self, our very identity, “what it feels like to be you”.

Going back to the learning process mentioned previously, the idea is to generate sufficient momentum for the happy and wholesome memories and experiences to become unconsciously competent. It is here that the daily practice of gratitude and other Epicurean disciplines of abiding (katastemic) pleasure gain a theoretical foundation in neurology.

Some piles of these implicit memories harm us, others help us, and so the idea is to increase the ones that help us. Part of the task of a good Epicurean has to do with wholesome memory-building. We are reminded of our sages’ advise to practice reminiscing about the good times frequently. The Epicurean Garden was provided as a place where practitioners built fond memories of virtuous friendship and affection. By allowing good times to settle into our memory banks as implicit memory and to become part of our very identities, we are nurturing a habitually happy, blessed state of being.

Dan Gilbert speaks about how happy memories are formed, insisting that his research leads to the understanding that people do not derive happiness from things. They derive happiness from experiences and relationships. Fond memories come from living, not having or thinking. Elsewhere in the book, the authors argue that we must turn happy facts into happy experiences.

It’s clear that happiness and abiding pleasure do not take place at the level of the intellect so much as at the level of being, of existing; that the entire being must be turned over to the experience of the good.

We buy things which give us some pleasure (clothes, cars, art, etc.), but we quickly forget the newness of these things. However, a night out with friends, weekly dinners with family, vacations with one’s partner, these are the things that fond memories are built from. They are experienced, they are lived.

Negativity Bias of the Brain

Since during our evolutionary history so much of our chances of survival depended on whether we were able to identify and avoid or confront dangers and threats in our environment, humans (like all animals) have a fairly developed fight-or-flight system of instincts which is coordinated, to a great extent, by the SNS (sympathetic nervous system).

In this way, we can understand how normal levels of anxiety and of threat response are natural and necessary, helping us to be more vigilant and pay attention. However, the necessity of the fight-or-flight instinct produces a brain that has a strong tendency to pay attention to the negative stimuli in our environment, those that are not particularly pleasant. Our brain is good at reminding us of what to avoid, and in this manner it believes that it’s constantly doing something good and important for us, for which we should be grateful.

The Cool-Head and the Hot-Head

The SNS produces instances where one must be hot-headed: angry, alert, ready for battle, impervious to pain. In contrast to this system, we also have the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system), which balances the fight-or-flight tendencies with tendencies that the authors of Buddha’s Brain call the rest and digest reflex.

This rest and digest reflex is the cooling, steadying tendency of the mind that we associate with ataraxia (imperturbability) and with abiding pleasure, which facilitates practices of gratitude and contemplation. It is here that (as in the case of Dan Gilbert’s science of happiness discourse) we begin to clearly see Epicurean theory by another name, even delving into the canon. In our tradition, we refer to these two tendencies as the pleasure and aversion principles.

Considering the fact that Epicureanism often gets called a philosophy of the stomach, it’s curious that the authors chose to include digestion into their notion of steady, cooling states of being, or the rest and digest reflex.

Buddha’s Brain refers frequently to notions of heat / hot-headedness and coolness. The book also makes mention of how awareness of the body suppresses chatter when one is attempting to meditate because chatter and body-awareness are tackled by two different hemispheres of the brain. This is all reminiscent to Yoruba lore and other traditional African wisdom traditions with their references to the physicality of the soul, which refer to the heat or coolness of the head and which were explored a bit in the piece On the Importance of Protecting One’s Head.

“Taking In the Good” and the Practice of Abiding Pleasure

The above is the framework within we can understand the importance of internalizing the good, the pleasant, of gratitude and of reminiscing about fond experiences. But what are the best techniques for this art of living, this art of abiding in pleasure?

In addition to the traditional Epicurean techniques known from our sources, there is in Buddhism the technique of taking refuge. Buddhist liturgy tells people to take refuge in the three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (or teaching) and the Sangha (the brotherhood of people who seek enlightenment).

Philodemus, on the other hand, accentuated the importance of personal choice in his oath where he spoke of “choosing to live according to Epicurus”. Many humanists today have difficulty with the idea of allegiance to a sage or Master, and when I wrote Tending the Epicurean Garden, my book editor encouraged me instead to articulate a modern version of Philodemus’ oath where we choose to live according to Epicureanism (the teaching) instead of according to Epicurus.

Perhaps a modern evolution of this refuge-taking remedy for abiding pleasure might be a simple liturgy along the lines of this one:

I choose to think good and wholesome thoughts
I choose to speak good and wholesome words
I choose to engage in good and wholesome activities
I choose good and wholesome association

In this manner, we choose the good actively rather than taking refuge in the good, which is a more passive choice. I am not saying refuge-taking is wrong or useless as a practice, merely offering an alternative liturgy for humanists and Epicureans to carry out experiments in their practice of abiding pleasure. In fact, Buddha’s Brain also speaks in an active voice with regards to how we must build our refuge through nurturing wholesome memories; and how this is not a denial of the bad or a mask for the prosaic. We must see it as a place within our very identity and experience where we can always go for safety. We must choose our anchors for refuge.

The notion of building our refuge, and the insights behind it, also vindicate the way in which our sages encouraged the development of an Epicurean identity rather than just allegiance to the teachings or concordance with the doctrine. An identity is a more visceral thing than an ideology and it is strengthened through association, through affiliation.

The above liturgy may be recited together with and prior to our daily practice of gratitude, which is required to have the disposition that is necessary for the practice Epicureanism. Our sages, in unison, teach that it’s impossible for an ungrateful person to be a true Epicurean.

A Natural Measure of Self

Among many life-denying faiths, the term ego has acquired a negative connotation. For that reason, I will stick to the use of the word self here in lieu of ego, but I wish to make a note of the fact that we have learned to speak of ego either as a bastion of weakness and vulnerability or as a crest of arrogance, almost invariably attaching a negative tone to any reference to ego and never considering that there is a natural measure of self that it is healthy to recognize and respect.

Buddha’s Brain draws from the wisdom tradition of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) and assumes many of its doctrines. One key distinction between Buddhism and Epicureanism is the doctrine of anatta, or no-self, which is one the the three marks of existence in Buddhism. Gautama Buddha believed that, because all beings are transitory and impermanent, they therefore do not exist as atman in the way Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas believe them to exist (as eternal beings composed of soul).

Buddha further argues that suffering arises because of our illusion about the existence of a self. The “me” is hurt, the “me” is betrayed, the “me” suffers injustice, the “me” lacks basic needs and suffers misfortunes.

In the book, at one point the authors go as far as to compare the self to a unicorn because it’s nowhere to be seen, only to later admit that the self is useful. But usefulness does not go far enough in explaining the phenomena that appear as the self, even if it’s an accurate assertion.

The self is not just useful: it’s necessary and natural. Need breeds invention, and the varieties of experience tied to this body which appear as self are all inventions of nature that arise from the needs of the natural beings.

If we are perplexed by the varieties of experience that we think of as self (memory, personal historical narratives, possession of things and of people, jealousy, self as subject and object of perception, etc.) and which do not appear to be composed of atoms, and if we are perplexed by the fact that the self appears to be hidden from view and immaterial, then perhaps we can use terms that many English-speaking Buddhists use such as presence, or maybe mindstreams, to refer to the chain or currents of thoughts, memories and experiences that characterize each living being. All of these minstreams are impermanent, but they compose unique expressions of collective and individual self which is experienced as very real.

Do I form a desire, or does a desire form an I? – Buddha’s Brain

In Epicureanism, we do acknowledge that there is no self that is separate from the body and the conditional experiences of the natural being, and we do recognize the impermanence of it, but we do not deny the existence of self.

We also acknowledge that the self carries within it the potential for suffering, but we consider it madness to attempt to escape our natural condition into fantasies about selflessness. Self is context. We cannot operate efficiently in the world selflessly, and in fact the recognition of the self and of the self in another being is the very foundation of ethics and of compassion, kindness, and a plethora of other virtues which become unnecessary and make no sense without the self.

Many central concepts in our ethics require individual selves. Natural justice, for instance, is based on the social contract: an agreement that can only be entered into by independent agents who exhibit volition.

And so there is a way in which we exist as natural beings: a natural and necessary self which is anchored in the material experience of the human body.

If we fail to acknowledge the natural needs of the self, we risk generating even more suffering than when we attach ourselves obsessively to the self. We must, therefore, find a happy and healthy medium where we respect the self.

New Verbiage:

Hedonic Tone
Implicit memory
Natural measure of self
Refuge (-building)
Rest and digest reflex

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