Ataraxia

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I discovered a new word. Actually it is a very old word (Ancient Greek to be specific) but it is a new discovery for me. That word is ataraxia. Ataraxia is defined as: imperturbability, equanimity, or tranquility. The Stoic philosopher (and former slave) Epictetus lists ataraxia as one of the three goals of the Stoic praxis (the other two being freedom and fearlessness). I am not the first person to notice the similarities between some central aspect of Buddhism and Stoicism but the ataraxia piece is one point that the two seem to definitely be describing similar territory.

For anyone reading this who doesn’t know, I am a bit of a meditation geek. My interest on meditation could be described as pragmatic or results oriented. By this I mean that I do the practice because I want the promised results. The problem here, particularly with much of Buddhism (and other traditions I have experienced) is that most people shy away from talking openly and honestly about what the results are, and where they would put themselves in that continuum. After many years as a dedicated Buddhist practitioner what I discovered is that most of the other practitioners I encountered seemed to reserve all discussion of meditation attainment to the great deeds of their teachers or past masters. Sure, people would tell you all about how enlightened their teachers were, or the great masters from their tradition but when it came to their own lives, as lived on the ground, I never heard much talk of accomplishment. I get it. Humility is a good quality to have. No one wants to spend a bunch of time drinking beers with the guy who is always spouting off about his most recent enlightenment (just ask my close friends). That is all well and good but I want attainment. What does that mean?

Of late I am on a mission to create more accurate maps of my inner experience. Various meditation systems provide maps of inner experience but here is the thing about those…they are low resolution maps of vague territory. To become a practitioner is to become an explorer of this territory, and part of being this kind of explorer is that you’ve got to map your own terrain. In my experience (and from the reports of fellow explorers reaching back in time thousands of years) ataraxia is discoverable territory. This is part of what I mean when I say I am pursuing practice for pragmatic results. I have experienced the terrain of ataraxia. I have dug my hands into that earth, held it up, inhaled it, sat upon it. I am discovering new routes, short cuts, switch backs, new vistas of the terrain of ataraxia.

The Ancient Greek philosopher and physician Sextus Empiricus gave this definition of ataraxia, “ataraxia is an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul.” Now here is where it gets interesting, here is where the rubber meets the road and bullshit no longer holds. From my own meditation experience I feel complete confidence in saying that what is being talked about with ataraxia is not some sense of creating a peaceful and tranquil life where outside forces are not allowed entry. At least this is not the type of ataraxia that I am interested in. Don’t get me wrong, Like most people I enjoy it when things go smoothly in my life. But it is easy to experience tranquility when things are running smoothly. Imperturbability, equanimity, ataraxia…these are different. Ataraxia as a meditational attainment is inside-out living. It is the quality of unshakeableness in the midst of the storms of life, when everything is up in the air, when it seems the ship is sinking…hell even when the ship is sinking. This is what I mean when I talk about meditation attainment. Other people can bullshit you about whether or not they are living from this position but you cannot bullshit yourself about it. You know what your internal state is when stresses afflict you. Ataraxia is an internal state that is not disturbed by external phenomenon. Ataraxia is inside-out living. Who doesn’t want that?

Stay tuned, there is more to come.

3 thoughts on “Ataraxia

  1. Great post! I particularly like this line “…particularly with much of Buddhism (and other traditions I have experienced) is that most people shy away from talking openly and honestly about what the results are…”

    Ataraxia is actually associated with Epicurus rather than Epictetus. (I know…I know…similar names! 🙂 ) The word associated with Epictetus’ Stoicism is apathea. Stoics believed that there was nothing one could do about one’s fate so best to work on eliminating emotional reactions since they were pointless.

    Interestingly, I found the similarities with the Buddha to be more aligned with Epicurus. I wrote a short blog about the comparison here: http://mindmusing.net/east-west-buddha-epicurus/

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    1. Greetings Eric and thank you for your comment. I enjoyed your linked blog post as well. From what I can tell, both the Epicurians and the Stoics used the term ataraxia though it was more emphasized by the Epicurians with (as you point out) the Stoics writing more about apathea. However, what I am aiming at is the imperturbability piece, and this seems to be a direct translation of ataraxia.

      What is so interesting for me is using these ancient philosophies as a frame work for developing modern approaches. Here I am going to lean on Seneca who said something to the effect of, “I don’t care where the idea comes from, if it is a useful one I will steal it and use it.” Ha Ha!

      I would be interested to hear what you think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love Seneca! And that statement is exactly the way I approach ideas, muse on them (hence the title of my site) and integrate them into a growing philosophy of living. This takes time and lots of evolving ideas. I get things wrong, back up, rethink, start over, move forward, step back.

        I read your previous post on “living inside out” and am touched to read such an honest account of one’s inner and outer life.

        I’ve had a Buddhist phase as well (5 years in a Vipassana group), and a Stoic one. I dove deeply into these traditions and we can certainly talk about these. But at the end of the day I am just me wandering through ideas, teachings and traditions with an open heart and mind ever deepening my peace.

        Liked by 1 person

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