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 SecularBuddhism.org, 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 on 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 guidance 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.
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. Chant and be happy!
Discourse on Loving-Kindness (Metta Sutta, a Buddhist Scripture)
SecularBuddhism.org – rich in content on contemplative science