Tag Archives: Epicurus

The Garden Lives

I’m very pleased to learn from Hiram Crespo that Epicureanism, which I still also like, is experiencing some surge of interest. The International Society of Friends of Epicurus has been formed, in his words, “to ignite a much-needed full revival of the ancient philosophical school.” We learn too that there are Gardens in Athens and Thessaloniki which attract hundreds at annual events, and one in Sydney that is rather smaller.

I suppose I will have to remain a fellow traveller. If I were to establish a Garden of my own here, it would likely have a similar vibe, but I would want to hypnotise people occasionally too. :)

Since Epicureanism has so often been used in modernity to dismiss the nonphysical (Locke, Jefferson), and always had strong materialist leanings, why use it as a spiritual person?

I was always looking for something that didn’t have a spiritual element, so it would be more neutral and allow me to discover spirituality without reference to a particular dogma.

The main difference between a spiritual and a non-spiritual philosophy overtly is the basing of one’s actions and identity in the non-physical. One finds the soul, and it must be the basis and guide.

When I look at what I actually took from Epicurus, it emphatically does help with this.

– the contentment with the simple, the ability to distinguish natural and unnatural desires, an excellent idea not least since we know simplicity and maturity helps to ignite spirit (more on that in the upcoming series);

– the ability to come to terms with death and pain, not to fear them — the example of Epicurus being someone who was cheerful under any pain; you need some way to interfere with its power to affect the thought and disposition;

– the enjoyment of the state that results.

Epicurus himself maintains that with these you are no longer a “mere mortal animal”. These particular emphases are useful in a society that constantly projects violence and pain and hypes appetite. Yes these profoundly interfere with the workings of the soul. When I am in contact with my soul, I don’t necessarily need words. But I think the value of a simple philosophy like this is that it can give the conscious mind somewhere useful and positive to focus. The thought of Epicurus (and Democritus too actually) is fresh and friendly. It has no hierarchicalism. So it suits me.

But of course I focus on plenty of other things that many Epicureans wouldn’t like, especially not now…


Ataraxia: The Steamboat Principle

I think it’s a truly extraordinary moment in SBNR writing…

… SBNR: Spiritual But Not Religious. Writing the Webster rebuttal has made me realise I identify with that term and its history… it’s proving a useful opportunity to crystallise the concept’s importance, the culture associated with it that we can and should be proud of, but aren’t, I think as a result of commercialism and easy answers… and we may be neglecting important stuff… this is what allows Webster to and claim in what looks to the uneducated like a coherent fashion that we need to ‘scrap spirit altogether’… I think it is time for a reappraisal of SBNR and a reminder of what it is and has been, apart from 2012 nonsense…

… pursuing his OBE activities, Robert Monroe (Far Journeys, 1985), who invented the term “OBE”, wants to reach the nonphysical space where some beings he is in touch with reside. They tell him he couldn’t tolerate the atmosphere. He will need to undergo a set of experiences first, which will change him. He agrees… following is one of the experiences.

Monroe was a totally SBNR individual, a man with an engineering background who one day found himself floating on the ceiling. He invented a vocabulary and set of techniques for nonphysical exploration (still very much in use at the Monroe Institute he founded) that is entirely independent of all religious culture and has some degree of technicality in its vocab and feel. As a result, some thought he was a little ropey on human emotions. The truth is he had great understanding of them and repeatedly wrote far more interestingly about them than many supposedly more right-brained people.

Judge for yourself:

. . . Our little dog with the funny name, Steamboat, he is walking with
me along the road in early morning . . . he is such a friend . . . his
bright gladness at seeing me . . . he actually grins when he wants you to
know what a nice guy he is, just because that’s what his human close-by
god does . . . his seeming need to be with you, enthusiastically do what
you want to do . . . just a word from me, and he comes running to me
joyfully . . . it’s much more than the fact that I feed him, most of what
we do has no relationship to such . . . we have a bond that might be
called friendship, he’s succeeded in making friends with his god, doing
things together, that’s pretty good stuff, making friends with your
god . . . now he’s been diverted into the wooded bank alongside the
road, eagerly seeking an ever-elusive rabbit, but after a short search, he
will return, bounding across the road to walk just in front of me again .
. . then I hear a vehicle, a car or truck, approaching behind the blind
curve and I call to Steamboat to come to me, stand and be where it is
safe . . . it is a truck, and it comes around the curve quickly, too quickly
. . . just ten feet away from passing me, Steamboat leaps down the bank
from the woods and directly under the wheel of the truck . . . there is a
rending scream as the wheel grinds over the lower half of his body,
flattening it completely . . . the truck moves away and stops, and the
driver gets down from his cab, sadly apologetic . . . I get to where
Steamboat is still trying to come to me, his front legs trying to drag the
crushed half across the road to where I am . . . I sit down on the road
in front of him, and he stops trying to move as I reach out and rub his
head, tears forming in my eyes as minuscule evidence of the deep
sorrow within me . . . through my hand, I feel the heavy tremors
moving through his body from the pain, and he licks my hand and looks up
at me, asking, hoping his god will take care of the pain . . . I look at his
body, the damage so irreparable there is no hope . . . he licks my hand again . . . and I accept the responsibility . . . I get up and move to the waiting truck driver, removing
my pullover shirt as I go . . . a look passes between us and he knows
that I do not blame him, that he should harbor no guilt . . . sadness
shared, yes . . . but no guilt . . . I was responsible, not he . . . I move
to the truck, remove the cap from the gas tank, and push the shirt into the
tank, soaking it with fluid . . . then I remove the dripping cloth and
move back to Steamboat, who has watched me expectantly, too weak to
do more . . . I sit down, and his head drops into my lap, eyes looking up
to me, asking, asking . . . gently, I move the cloth over his nose with one
hand and place the other on his head . . . his eyes look at me deeply and
the tremors in his neck subside slowly and are gone . . . I see and know
the closeness we share is eternal, and he somehow knows this, too . . .
the conscious awareness in his eyes dims and is gone . . . and they are only eyes with my tears in them . . .

Suddenly he exits this reality –

– which has been set up by these beings as an environment in which to learn a specific lesson. All of this has been taking place out of body.

Instantly he knows Steamboat is fine — “somewhere near my physical body”.

Yes, Steamboat is fine. The designers of the experience explain that this was a reliving of an earlier similar event in which a different dog died, and that in the earlier event, Monroe himself was helpless:

You did nothing to fulfill your responsibility. In your present state of awareness, you exercised the control that is so important […] The paradox attached to such vital energy, emotion as you call it, is the opportunity for growth it provides and the simultaneous possibility of stasis and retrogression. Control and direction thereof thus becomes a prime purpose in the evolving human experience. Understanding and comprehension is the resultant and flows without effort…

I relate this to what I’ve been thinking in the last couple of weeks — ataraxia involves the ability to be peaceful amid any flow. Neither to stop the flow, nor to lose the peace amidst the flow, that is the conundrum. ‘Control’ is ‘so important’, a ‘prime purpose’. “Control of” means “maintenance of awareness (implied: parasympathetic) amidst the change of”.

Monroe’s aesthetic is that of an engineer (“understanding and comprehension is the resultant…”) but know the meaning of emotion? I think he did. Very well. ‘Negative emotion’ means something to us humans. Dumbed down into ‘the chance to grow’, Monroe’s thought pegs suffering as a precisely targeted attempt to get us to reach and hold the underlying truth beneath surface entrainments.

After he got through all those environments, he did get to visit the place he wanted to visit. I remember Epicurus: “We believe many pains to be better than pleasures when a greater pleasure follows for a long while if we endure the pains.”


In praise of Cross-Cultural Pleasure, Health and Immortality

Lü Dongbin painted by Sesson Shukei, one of my favourite images of immortality. The dragon upon which Lü stands (what a great depiction!) symbolises his immortality. He has an elixir in his left hand, which he has just uncorked — the cork is in his right hand. This has called or formed another dragon in the air above him.
CLICK TO ENLARGE

This is set off by the usefulness of Epicureanism again…“Pleasure, health, and immortality” sounds too good to be true, but read on.

Glenn reversed serious lifelong arthritis mostly by qigong. It’s not hard to imagine the pleasure that goes with the health there. (Certainly not for me, I have had and am having the same, and more.) At 38 he dropped his baby daughter because of arthritis pain, but at 48 had no pain at all. Pleasure was a big part of the healing, in the form of the Smile technique COMPLETE TEXT FREE . Mantak Chia’s Smile is just as useful COMPLETE TEXT FREE (PAGE 43). You can combine them. I have old CDs of Glenn chuckling at how odd it must seem to some, reaching into their own organs with happiness, but have those beginners read Plato? (Of course not!) : –

When the mind wants to cause fear, it makes use of the liver’s native bitterness and plays a stern and threatening role… By contrast, gentle thoughts from the mind produce images of the opposite kind… and so bring relief from bitterness… making the part of the soul that lives in the region of the liver cheerful and gentle…

– Plato, Timaeus 71, tr. Desmond Lee COMPLETE TEXT FREE (DIFFERENT TRANSLATION)

“The part of the soul that lives in the liver” — this really is pretty Taoist considering it’s Plato. But the spirit of the Western organ is still separate from its physicality to a greater extent than in China. (Taoist priests actually conjure deities out of their bodies to officiate at the rites, which would cause most Platonists to do a double-take or three.)

That brings us to immortality, which does not mean literal physical bodies that last forever. Even the most mundane kind of immortality is interesting. Epicurus stated that the removal of fear and anxiety allowed one to live ‘like a god among men’. He felt self-sufficiency and serenity were godlike and he found them in the gods when he looked at them:

…there are perceptions in our mind — so, at least, Epicurus affirms — of beings brighter and better than man. These images visit us when the mind is no longer besieged by the objects of sense. In the night season, and in quiet reflection, we have visions of the gods, as beings beyond the reach of trouble or of death — beings endowed with immortality and supreme felicity…

– Wallace, Epicureanism COMPLETE TEXT FREE

It’s no secret that immortality has been offered as everything from a kitsch fairytale to a serious result of spiritual practice. Either way, it certainly seems very enjoyable if you manage to attain it. We met before the Chinese god Wenchang, with his autobiography — when he first (re-) attains his own immortality he goes on a holiday which, says Kleeman, is ‘totally Daoist… delighting in nature without a care in the world’:

I happened to find myself atop Mount Monarch in Grotto-courtyard Lake. I loved the magnificent scenery, and so stayed there a while… Transcending the profane inferior world, I came and went alone. The lights on the water and the colors on the mountains were delightful all year round. Humming with the wind and whistling at the moon, what limit was there to this joy?

He has to tone it down eventually, since euphoria is not peace. But here we have a pretty clear confluence of immortality with sheer pleasure.

Empedocles of Acragas

Wenchang actually began as a god before becoming entangled in earthly life, just like our Western Empedocles, for example, whom Peter Kingsley made a little famous. He is another god writing an autobiography — and offering deifying methods too, that is, methods of recovering your own innate divinity. Not that he was recognised as a god in his time, but then neither was Wenchang whilst incarnated. Empedocles is walking around as a “god amongst men”, he does say, and he means it literally. What awaits him after his mortality is renounced but joy at the immortal table, free of human woe? Just so, those achieving immortality or deliverance from the corpse in China lived in celestial paradises with Laojun, Huangdi the Yellow Emperor, or Xiwang mu, Queen Mother of the West.

All the stuff about “going to heaven if you’re good” is a dumbing down of this in many ways, and I include Plato in that. The systems I’ve studied tend to say you won’t actually last in the otherworld without juice and eutonia — the Taoists say, without having become a true ‘yang spirit’, which apparently can take physical form at any time but is not limited to any form.

In the tantric Mahasiddha tradition as expounded by Dowman FREE TEXT, “the result of sadhana is pure pleasure”, with enlightenment its ultimate, and ultimately pleasurable goal. Although such paths require endurance, as Epicurus says, “we believe many pains to be better than pleasures when a greater pleasure follows for a long while if we endure the pains.” The right methods bring health to the body meanwhile — Empedocles promises “remedies for ills and help against old age” and Chinese longevity is legendary.

Epicurus’ attitude to death is interesting for Kundalini purposes. When he says that a major pleasure strategy is to: “Get used to believing that death is nothing to us,” (on the principle of decreasing trouble of mind) he is really talking common sense, but is far from meaning, let’s pretend it isn’t going to happen. Seneca, a member of that supposedly rival sect, the Stoics, records his attitude:

In the meantime Epicurus will oblige me, with the following saying: ‘Rehearse death’, or — the idea may come across to us rather more satisfactorily if put in this form — ‘It is a very good thing to familiarise oneself with death.’

– Letter 26 Robin Campbell tr., COMPLETE LETTERS HERE (DIFFERENT TRANSLATION)

That wouldn’t be out of place in Tibet. Epicurus is a very good ‘naturaliser’ of qigong in the West in the absence of anything I can use from a new age standpoint. In Epicurus, a life of peace is usually to be recommended over one involved in political power-seeking — “Quiet life and withdrawal from the many” is the formula. In this connection I remember the story of Zhuangzi:


Chuang Tzu with his bamboo pole
was fishing in the Pu river

The prince of Chu sent two vice-chancellors
with a formal document:
We hereby appoint you prime minister

Chuang Tzu held his bamboo pole still.
Watching the Pu river, he said:
“I am told there is a sacred tortoise offered
and canonized three thousand years ago,
venerated by the prince, wrapped in silk,
in a precious shrine on an altar
in the temple.
What do you think?
Is it better to give up one’s life
and leave a sacred shell
as an object of cult
in a cloud of incense
for three thousand years,
or to live as a plain turtle
dragging its tail in the mud?”

“For the turtle”, said the vice-chancellor,
“better to live and drag its tail in the mud!”

“Go home!”, said Chuang Tzu.
“Leave me here
to drag my tail in the mud.”

COMPLETE TEXT FREE

The attitude verges on what the West would once have called Cynicism, yet another rival Hellenistic philosophy — but more of that later. It’s a mindset that produced many great sages. As Harold Roth puts it in a brilliant essay on the Stanford Philosophy site FREE TEXT, this side of Zhuangzi did become useful for those who “saw within it support for a withdrawal from a life of social and political service into a private life of reclusion and self-cultivation”, no small decision in Chinese literati circles.

For Epicureans that meant retiring, specifically to a garden, usually. The original Garden of Epicurus was outside Athens, a place of quiet pleasure, teaching and contemplation. Many others sprang up later, sometimes turning into Pythagorean-style communities, and gardens remain important to Epicureans now, increasingly so as self-sufficiency becomes crucial to all of us.

This may be a bit of garden in the same place where William Temple was, I can’t quite gather. But it wouldn’t have looked like this anyway, he was big on fruit trees. And there would have been lots more of it.

Sir William Temple wrote an essay on Epicurean gardening in the 17th century COMPLETE TEXT FREE. His garden was rather bigger than most of us will ever access but he was suitably Epicurean in completely ignoring William of Orange’s invasion; he accepted the new regime, refused office, and went back to pruning his fruit trees. (Not all Epicureans are so retiring — Thomas Jefferson was hardly one to lie quietly out of office.) Some Mahasiddhas lived in even greater luxury than Sir William, for example Lilapa who apparently was a King and a hedonistic one at that. There are no rules. ^_^ A lady named Stephanie Mills wrote a book about modern stripped-down living called Epicurean Simplicity — maybe I’ll pick it up sometime.

Just as Epicureans love their gardens, so do qigong players — or parks. Qi flows in exchange with the human energy, and there is always the chance of meeting an interesting tree. A place to be, with a perfume in the air, to notice the deeper changes of the seasons, to protest against the ambitions of the cultural imperialising of the day. Pleasure, health and perhaps just a sniff of immortality…

There’s meat to all this, so more upcoming.


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