I recently came across a paper by Susanne Bobzien, titled Responsibility and Moral Development in Epicurus. It is partially based on the 25th book of Epicurus’ On Nature. In it, she discusses how Epicurus believed that some of our dispositions (underlying beliefs that sustain our choices and avoidances, and our entire worldview) are based on nature or environment, but that at some point in our moral development we must assume ownership for our beliefs and dispositions, for the content of our mind and of our character, and work to change those dispositions that we have inherited.
The work of doing this, Epicurus believed, potentially has the power to change the atomic structure of the brain. This theory is vindicated by what we are today learning in the emerging field of neuroplasticity, and it shows how far ahead of his day Epicurus was. This is what Bobzien says about the practice of chanting and repetition, as it relates to neuroplasticity:
The practice of memorizing the canon of Epicurean philosophy by repeating it again and again to oneself and others, is on this interpretation in no sense a ‘mindless’ enterprise. The repetition is meant to increase one’s understanding of new beliefs (especially those that are incompatible with the ones one has so far held) and thus to increase the ﬁrmness with which one holds those beliefs (they have to make a ‘lasting impression’ in the mind, quite literally).
Similarly, the Epicurean practice of producing a number of different arguments to prove the same point becomes comprehensible in this way … For the new beliefs have to be integrated, harmonized with one’s other beliefs–and here different arguments for them will lead to connections with different beliefs. All this is needed, since only if one ﬁrmly holds the new beliefs will they be able to result in a change of one’s desires and emotions, and thus lead to a change in what actions one tends to perform.
The point of the paper is that we are not responsible for our nature and our environment, and that these can hinder or help our moral development. However, we are partially responsible for our moral development via restructuring of our minds according to the program that philosophy offers.
I’ve continued to chant the Four Cures as I said I would in a recent blog, and am increasingly becoming convinced that it’s the ideal Epicurean practice, particularly for a beginner. My practice usually goes for about 8-10 minutes, and I usually use a mala (rosary) of either 99 or 108 beads.
Fear no Gods
Fear not death
Pleasure is easy to procure
Suffering is easy to endure
Chanting the Four Cures might be a kind of highway to ataraxia. One of the insights that came to me recently while chanting is how the teaching is meant to counteract the constant cultural corruption that we are exposed to: the multitudes of family members, co-workers, and friends who are either given to consumerist views or religious fantasies, and in their daily speech either say or imply that we should purchase this or that needless good, or fear God’s wrath or punishment, or that this or that natural event was caused by God.
We’re constantly exposed to claims about psychic powers and ghosts in American media, even at times in channels that claim that their content is about history or science. In some communities, various beliefs in witchcraft are still presented as normal; for instance in Miami and Louisiana we frequently hear santeros (practitioners of an Afro-Cuban diasporic religion) attaching phenomena of the seas to their Goddess Yemayá, and storms to Oyá.
These implied and stated views act as hypnosis, as different kinds of trance that weave themselves into the culture and the conversations, frequently through repetition if one is a member of a certain community. This is, in part, how many religious and superstitious views are acquired. When Epicurus instructed his disciples in the art of repetition using doctrines that were based on the study of nature, he must have been thinking of the need to counteract similar trance-like states of religious indoctrination that he saw in his own time and society. For instance, the God Hermes was said to be Thrice-Great because a chant for him said “Great, Great, Great!”. And we know that, today, Muslims also have a similar mantra that gets repeated almost unconsciously at all times: “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great). All of this has effects on the human psyche when one is immersed in a particular culture. These act as charms, as incantations, and people in Epicurus’ milieu would have been exposed to them and would have taken Hermes’ greatness for granted: it became culturally true by virtue of constant repetition.
The fact that people could get killed for not believing in the Gods of the city illustrates the depth of this indoctrination and of the expectations and peer pressure to conform to religious conventions. This tension between cultural and natural trance-like messages might have been what Epicurus was insinuating when he praised a disciple for taking up philosophy for his own sake, rather than for the sake of Greece.
Hence, it seems that the repetition of the various Epicurean Cures as an antidote for religious and superstitious thinking, and for other forms of cultural corruption, was instituted to efficiently counter-act the effects of these trance-like false doctrines that were based on fear or ignorance of the nature of things, by using the efficient means of a similarly powerful verbal formula that similarly “grew strong in the soul” through repetition, as Epicurus said, to save it from ignorance and suffering.
Another insight that I’ve experienced from chanting deals with how our voice is a central part of our identity: we are saying “this is who I am” and aligning ourselves with the content of the chant. We are also judged by our word, whether we keep it, and what it says about the content of our character. Our word is our Law. Therefore, particularly for people of authenticity and integrity, our voice is our authority. A practice that incorporates the use of one’s voice to assert one’s true philosophy is an exertion of power and self-creation. When one chants, one is tuning into a frequency. One feels the good vibes of the chant. One’s state of mind is live, on the air: while chanting one feels like one is a live radio station that is emitting Epicurean radio waves and channeling ataraxia.
As the name implies, the Four Cures are a treatment, they are medicinal, and like some medicines, the chant can produce a mild (or sometimes euphoric) trance and a natural high. It can be one of the most enjoyable ways to practice concentration and meditative practices. Many traditions that use chants also have produced examples of people giving up other, more dangerous or expensive ways of seeking a high in favor of chanting.
I will continue to chant and to share my observations. In the meantime, you might enjoy the mellows of the Tibetan Medicina Buddha mantra, Ravi Shankar’s Chants of India collection, or Dave Stringer’s beautiful rendition of Devakinandana Gopala.
Also, in addition to the Marian Diamond study that I shared in my book‘s chapter on the science of contemplation, which links chanting to lower blood pressure and heart rate, lower levels of cortizone (stress hormone) and release of endorphines (feel-good hormones), I’ve recently come across a new study that shows that chanting reduces anxiety related to competitive events.