My New Zafu: Towards an Epicurean Contemplative Practice

From the early writing of my piece for The Humanist titled Death and the Skeptic, through my explorations of Zen in Tending the Epicurean Garden (inspired, in part, by Sam Harris’ call for the development of a science of contemplation in his piece Killing the Buddha), and later the book review by, it has been always obvious in my explorations of Epicurean philosophy that there are more than a few parallels and similarities between the teaching of Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) and Epicurus, and these have been explored in interviews I’ve given, mainly when the issue of desires is approached.

In the chapter of my book where I share ideas on how to build a hedonic regimen, I propose chanting, sitting meditation and loving-kindness meditation based on the empirical evidence that supports them. All of these practices exist in the Buddhist tradition, although chanting exists also in many other traditions, and repetition was known to be one of the therapeutic methods of ancient Epicureans.

I specifically cite a study by neuroscientist Dr. Marian Diamond, from the University of California, that demonstrates how chanting decreases blood pressure and heart rate, which are signs of de-stressing and relaxation that correlate specifically to better heart health and lessening of cortizone (the stress hormone) levels; and how metta (loving-kindness meditation) facilitates the release of oxytocin, the feel-good chemical which acts as a social lubricant, encouraging trust and cheerfulness.

I’ve also personally noticed that some of the happiest religious people I’ve met have been chanters of the Hare Krishna mahamantra. Maybe this is only my individual experience, but it’s one of the things that has left an impression of me regarding the practice of chanting. This may not vindicate their particular beliefs, but it does in my view vindicate the practice of chanting beyond the lab (or university, or wherever research on meditation and chanting has taken place) and in my own social circles.

Keep in mind that these practices do not, in any way, imply the need or desirability of living an ascetic life and separating oneself from the world. There are numerous religious lay organizations that encourage chanting today as a beneficial practice for everyday people, not just monks.

The ancient Epicurean practice of repetition and memorization probably would have been not too different from Buddhist chants, while our other practices probably looked more like cognitive therapy. Unfortunately, the Christians came along and convinced Emperor Justinian to close all the philosophy schools in the fifth century, and we no longer have the continuity of this rich tradition, and must reinvent it from scratch, utilizing of course the sure means of the Canon that was given to us by Epicurus, who wisely advised us to trust our own faculties, to trust the guide of nature, and to trust empirical evidence on all matters.

It’s 2015, and modern Epicureans are finding new means and methods to meet their existential needs and take care of their existential health. Unlike other philosophies, which are frequently only theoretical, the Epicurean way carries a practice. Converts to Epicureanism both ancient (like Colotes) and modern (like myself and others) agree that this is probably the only philosophy that can actually be practiced. In future blogs, I intend to explore the many ways in which this is so.zafu

I just received my new zafu, which I purchased online. It’s a cushion used in the East for meditation practices. I have installed it by the wall in my living room, and have begun engaging in various chants and contemplative experiments with the purpose of, eventually, finding out through experiments and trials what might be the best contemplative program for an Epicurean who is seeking to be true to the peculiar insights of my tradition.

Thus far, I have chanted “Lathe biosas“, an ancient Greek-language saying that related to living a life of tranquility and not seeking fame and vain pursuits. I’ve found that chants such as this one have soothing effects, and can help to go to sleep, so it’s best to use at night, perhaps as a relaxation ritual before bed. As a result of my recent experiments with the Nam Myoho Renge Kyo chant, I’ve adopted a tone, persistence and way of chanting similar to that one, except a little slower at first.

A more invigorating chant is the Tetrapharmakon, or the Four Cures. It’s a summary of the first four of the Principal Doctrines: “Fear not the gods. Fear not death. Pleasure is easy to procure. Suffering is easy to endure“. I’ve been experimenting with this chant both in English and Esperanto, my third language–because it rhymes beautifully, sounds a little more like Sanskrit when chanted, and produces a trance-like state that I’m enjoying quite a lot. The Esperanto version of this chant is: “Ne timu’l diojn. Ne timu’l morton. Plezur’ facile akireblas. Sufer’ facile traireblas“. (the j is pronounced like a y).

There’s a further reason why I’m experimenting with chants in Esperanto: I do not habitually think in that language, and the experience and benefits are different when one chants in a foreign language.

Philosophy heals through parrhesia (frank speech). – Philodemus of Gadara

According to Philodemus in his scroll On Music, music can only be therapeutic when it has words that make sense to us, and it’s their meaning that heals. Therefore, there is a kind of benefit derived from the words themselves and their meaning, when clearly articulated and understood by the patient. Epicurus encouraged the practice of repetition because he said that the teachings “become strong in our souls” and help to remove bad habits. These pieces of advice justify chanting in our native language, the preferred method.

On the other hand, there are different mellows to these chants. Because we are putting aside the logical and rational side of our brain, when we stop trying to make sense of the chant and simply focus on the sound, the chant becomes more trance-like and relaxing. In my experience, the use of a language other than the one used for habitual thought maximizes this other benefit. The mind, when trained to focus on a chant for at least ten minutes, gains greater concentration and discipline, relaxes together with the body, and the chant also acts as a mood-booster.

The main effect that I can report, thus far, on chanting the Tetrapharmakon, is a feeling of connection with the ancient Masters of our tradition. I’m not sure that this is easy to explain, but it makes me feel like something was given or transmitted to me and I am embodying or cultivating that gift, and that the teaching becomes here-and-now alive and useful in the chant.

Another psychological effect of chanting the Tetrapharmakon, I think, can probably be best explained by making references to neuroplasticity and to the thousands of connections that our brain cells make daily. Chanting is like working at digging riverbeds for these neural pathways to ensure that they run smoothly. False beliefs and views that contradict the teaching have less of a chance of making their own neural pathways. You feel like a lion ready to roar at the end of the practice, strong in your convictions, and connected with the noble words of your philosophy.

Notice that I speak here of experiments. The point of going through an experimental stage with these practices is to notice, empirically and directly, the effects that these chants have for me. Once I’ve done this, I can articulate what my Epicurean chanting practice would be in the future, if any. I must first taste the proof in the pudding, in enargeia (immediacy) and using the Canon. That’s what it means to utilize the Epicurean Canon: my faculties of pleasure and aversion, and my sensorial faculties, must guide me.

If some of my readers engage in similar practices, please feel free to share your experiences so that others can learn from them. This is a different way of experiencing the philosophy, and one that has been neglected for at least fifteen centuries. We must re-learn the practice of repetition, as Epicurus assigned it to his pupils, via these experiments.

Also, do not continue chanting if you do not experience the benefits. Be empirical in this practice, and remember that the proof is in the pudding. Like George Harrison said: Chant and be happy!

Further Reading:

Small Amounts of Loving-Kindness Meditation Lead to Big Change

Discourse on Loving-Kindness (Metta Sutta, a Buddhist Scripture) – rich in content on contemplative science

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The Natural Limits of Pleasure

A recent thread on the Epicurean Philosophy discussion group has brought about discussion on the important distinction.

This distinction is important for many reasons. It helps us to clearly understand the science of happiness, but also protects us from the attacks of the people who hate life and who hate pleasure and hedonism who, either out of willful ignorance or willful misrepresentation, characterize hedonism as instant gratification and do not evaluate the necessary distinctions made by sages like Epicurus.

The initial question posted in the thread was:

We say that the ultimate goal is happiness/pleasure. And the path to pleasure is through some known (or at least can be known) ways. E.g. very basic pain/pleasure balance, simple life with friends etc. So the maximazing of pleasure implies that we have looked into what is a person (A human being) and found ways to increase the pleasure of this human being.

So I feel our philosophical model of what is a person will inform our understanding of how to maximize pleasure/pain.

e.g. For someone that sees a person as a ‘brain in a body’ then maybe mental stimulation such as art, media, philosophy can be a big part of pleasure. In contrast, someone that sees a person as primarily a ‘consumer of commodities’ then they would assume that having many diverse things to consume is a big part of pleasure.

There are many diverse mental models of what a person is. Which of these are compatible with our thought? Which ones are not or need to be tweeked. Which ones do YOU generally follow? Meaning what do you think a person is primarily?

To which I replied:

Mindless consumption can lead to addiction, debt, and many other problems. Therefore without understanding clearly the natural limits of our desires we can’ t maximize happiness.

… if one is an autarch and can experience the pleasure of satiation without constantly consuming things, isnt that self sufficiency in one’s pleasure a sign of prudence? I think consumption can be a source of pleasure but it’s important to understand that pleasure is not addiction or instant gratification. If people can’t grasp that pleasure requires no object, it will be difficult to understand what Epicurus meant by this pleasure, this state of satiation, ataraxia and satisfaction that is part of our nature in its healthy state

There are many problems with the consumerist model of the human being as a consumer, and nothing more. There is also a huge amount of propaganda out there to get us to consume, therefore there’s the additional problem of cultural corruption around this. We see a burger commercial, and we are left craving for the thing even if we just ate, and this happens all the time throughout the day with many other items that we do not need.

The key here is not that it’s “bad” to consume, but it’s misleading to say that this or that level or kind of consumption equals pleasure and happiness. We only need a little food to sustain ourselves, a good measure of wholesome friends, and a variety of other goods, and if our minds are grateful and content, we can live like kings and queens.

Finally, someone on the thread brought up three of the Principal Doctrines relevant to the problem of the limits of desires:

Doctrine 19. If we measure the limits of pleasure by reason, infinite and finite time both provide the opportunity for complete pleasure.

Doctrine 20. We assume that physical pleasure is unlimited, and that unlimited time is required to procure it. But through understanding the natural goals and limits of the body, and by dissolving the fear of eternity, we produce a complete life that has no need infinite time. The wise man neither flees enjoyment, nor, when events cause him to exit from life, does he look back as if he had missed any essential aspect of life.

Doctrine 21. He who is acquainted with the natural limits of life understands that those things that remove the pain that arises from need, and those things which make the whole of life complete, are easily obtainable, and that he has no need of those things that can only be attained with trouble.

So the key here is hedonic calculus is usually the answer, particularly when it comes to individual choices regarding pleasures and the annoyances they may carry. This is a matter that must be decided in each case separately, according to the particular circumstances.

A sister tradition that tackles this issue of desires and how they may lead to annoyances is Buddhism. In the Dhammapada, Shakyamuni Buddha addressed his disciples also teaching them about hedonic calculus–although most people would not consider him a hedonist, or label his teachings in the same way we do. But here it is … it’s the same teaching:

If by giving up small pleasures great happiness is to be found, the wise should give up small pleasures seeing (the prospect of) great happiness.

Verse 290 of the Dhammapada, or Gospel of Buddha

… and notice how implied in the teaching is the view that the goal of life is the increase of long-term happiness. Like with Epicurus, it seems here self-evident that this is what our own nature seeks.

This English translation misleadingly differentiates between pleasure and happiness, but in the original version the same word, sukkha, is used in all cases. Buddha’s system was meant to lead from dukkha (suffering) to sukkha (pleasure, bliss), yet–except for a few enlightened souls–our prejudice keeps us from seeing Shakyamuni Buddha as a hedonist.

In future blogs, I will be taking on the task of exploring in detail the differences and the parallels between Epicurus and Buddha, which is a subject that has been brought up time and again in my work, and even in interviews I’ve given. Stay tuned!

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The Paris Attacks

… because nothing convinces everyone of your moral superiority like executing dozens of innocent people, recharging your weapon, and doing it again, and again. (sigh) So here we go. Please share this, together with the hashtag #ImagineNoReligion. It’s the Society of Epicurus Message of Solidarity.

Nous Sommes Tous la France

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“This Week in Epicurus” Newsletter

As some of you may know, the “Happy 20th” newsletter won’t be running any more and instead New Epicurean has updated the quality of their “This Week in Epicurus” newsletter. The last couple of entries have been of very good quality, particularly this one on the proper starting point in the study of natural philosophy. We invite everyone to subscribe and to share the content–there’s a small subscription box on the left of the main page at NE.

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Newsletter Archive

Dawn of a New Age of Epicurus

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We realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns. The wise saying “the pen is my sword” was true. The extremists were and are afraid of books and pens, the power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. – Nobel Prize winning Malala Yousafzai

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Christianity Without God

xtianitywogodI recently read a book titled as above, only to realize that there is another, more recent book with an identical name written by Daniel Maguire. For the record, the book I got a hold of was the one by Lloyd George Geering, whose author has fully come to terms with the death of God and even argues–accurately, in my view–that the word God has come to lose all meaning. The book is refreshing in that it’s not about moderate Christian apologetics, and instead fully owns the maturity of secular thought that we have achieved and proposes the Good News that Christianity has transcended the need for God and has naturally evolved into contemporary secular humanism. The book closes on an Atheist Gospel note:

there is increasing personal freedom to think and to speak, the slaves are being freed, patriarchy is crumbling, homosexuals are free to come out, weapons of mass destruction are being widely condemned, racist attitudes are being overcome, equality of the sexes is being achieved, the disadvantaged are no longer being ignored, human worth and values are being increasingly honored.

The book advises that we see Christianity as an evolving civilization, and even argues that this shift towards a Christianity Without God is necessary, not just inevitable, for the full emancipation of man–a project which, he argues, advanced with Jesus but then became stagnant until the Renaissance.

The above mentioned progress, he argues, is the outcome of Christianity’s natural evolution into secularism, which was in part due to the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. God became human, and this divinized humanity so that ultimately humanity realized the irrelevance of Platonic, non-incarnated divinity. I disagree to some extent, in that he fails to recognize that this shift had begun not with Christianity but with Hellenistic Greek religion, which was seeing an increase in Man-Gods, like Dionysus and Orpheus, whose incarnation mysteries were not different from the Christian one. It just happened that the Emperor chose Christ, not Orpheus.

To his credit, we must concede that the Jesus of the Gospels did say that the sabbath was made for man, and not man made for the sabbath, and that truth would set us free. These humanist views indicate a move away from the prevailing legalism in the Jewish religion that Jesus would have followed.

The author gives at times too much credit to Christianity, and not enough credit to Epicureans, scientists, philosophers, and to the generations-long struggles of the masses against religious tyranny. It’s noble for Christianity to want to evolve into a liberating force, but is whatever remains of it still Christianity? And is it worthy of preservation? The author argues in the affirmative.

Having grown up Catholic, I personally have absolutely no desire to join a Christian Church ever again, even if a Humanist one. I also would find it difficult to attempt to weave meaning into my life using tools as inept as the linear narrative of history in the Bible, when everything we know about the nature of things tells us that time is cyclical, not linear. But I can relate to people who cherish certain things about how they grew up, and I think there is a strong case for Christian Humanism, and in fact even the rabid Richard Dawkins has spoken out in support of Atheists for Jesus.

Those atheists who miss the ritual, the ceremony, the marking of the seasons, and the communal aspects of Christianity, will probably derive good inspiration from this book. Also, those who still see Jesus as a good moral guide, or who in some way love or appreciate Jesus, the man, as a cultural hero of our civilization, will likely enjoy this book.

Ultimately, the true mystery of the cross was most accurately articulated, not by the pope or by any priest or minister, but by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra … to which philosopher Michel Onfray in his Traité d’athéologie adds: “Yes, God is dead, but we haven’t buried him, and we are still dealing with the stench of his body, which is everywhere“. THAT, in my view, is a much more relevant existential task for our age than the preservation of the feudal vestiges of an outdated religion. And for that, we should turn primarily to philosophy.

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Juan Gonzalez’ Laudable Lecture on the Puerto Rico Crisis

During the Occupy Movement, many of us became increasingly cognizant of the grave need to get our news from non-corporate, alternative media outlets. RT, Alternet, and many other outlets gained much greater visibility as it became increasingly apparent that Fox News was not the only circus in town. Of these outlets, DemocracyNOW provides a consistent source of information that is populist, non-corporate, and has credibility.

DN’s Juan Gonzalez’ shocking and detailed lecture on the Puerto Rico fiscal crisis, and the long history of unfair colonial policies that led to it, is one of the most thoroughly-researched, professional samples of investigative journalism that I’ve come across in a long, long time. It’s also food for thought. Juan Gonzalez has done an amazing job at patiently explaining the many sources of Puerto Rico’s very old and complex problems.

There are several pieces of trivia that I didn’t know about. For instance, we hear that former Puerto Rico Secretary of State, Kenneth McClintock-Hernandez, has been actually hired as a lobbyist for the vulture funds that are prowling over the dark gray, windy Caribbean skies. McClintock is a Democrat and, up until today, I considered him one of the most respectable members of the political class from the territory. Now, he’s more like a Pirate of the Caribbean.

This is eye-opening, and shows that politicians both on the Commonwealth and the states have historically worked to the detriment of the people of Puerto Rico. The political class (politricksters, to use the Rasta term) works for itself and for moneyed interests, very rarely do they work for the people.

Perhaps less skocking is the revelation that the reason why Puerto Rico was arbitrarily excluded from the right to declare bakruptcy, a right which it initially enjoyed, is because of a Southern lawmaker who had a long history of advancing racist policies: the infamous Strom Thurmond, who for no apparent reason added this exclusion to another, unrelated piece of legislation which passed. The causeless exclusion of Puerto Rico from bankruptcy protections is, therefore, another vestige of old southern racist hatred of people of color which has, for generations, contributed to the widening of the gap between the richest and the poorest American citizens.

Speaking of arbitrary denial of access to the American dream, specifically to Hispanics and in spite of their citizenship status: Gonzalez also mentioned when discussing the Jones Act, that the US Virgin Islands are exempt from the Jones Act, but not Puerto Rico. Congress never produced an explanation for this, but Gonzalez did: he demonstrated, with charts, how profitable Puerto Rico has been for big US corporations, including the shipping industry, and how when the territory had been struggling fiscally, the corporate powers made even greater profits there.

The Jones Act instituted a monopoly of American ships in U.S ports, so that Puerto Rico under the American regime has had no option but to pay higher shipping costs. It’s estimated to have cost the island territory over 75 billion dollars over the last century–a bit over the amount of the Commonwealth’s current debt. Although the islands did not participate in the decision-making process which led to the Jones Act, they can’t avoid the fees imposed because, well, they’re islands and they’re not self-sufficient. They have to to be able to transport needful things weekly in order to meet their needs.

The cabotage laws have been criticized both left and right for different reasons: for the left, because they’re detrimental to the poorest citizens of the country; and by some libertarians, because monopolies such as the one created by the Jones Act in the country’s waters, disallow a free market.

This is JUST the tip of the iceberg. I strongly recommend Gonzalez’ lecture to anyone wanting to gain an in-depth understanding of the Puerto Rico crisis; and if you’d like to understand why it is morally reprehensible for there to be so much money in politics that rather than a democracy we end up with a corporatocracy that impoverishes the people and produces an oligarchy; and why it’s abhorrent for America to continue implementing imperial policies that literally destroy entire societies and nations, even when those societies and nations are entirely loyal, trusting, and at its mercy … even sharing a common defense, common values, a common currency, and a common citizenship, as Puerto Rico does with the United States.

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