ataraxy, ataractic

The world is a noisy place – machines, traffic, barking dogs, crazy neighbours, and other rackets. But nothing is as disturbing to one’s peace as the noise in one’s own head: the worries, attachments, anxiety attacks, concern for the future, concern about the past, the mental screeching and yelping that arise from the collision of karma and dogma.

What a racket indeed! But what are the tactics one may use to calm it? How does one achieve the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind in the asphyxiating galaxy of scattering asterisms, how does one leave the noisy tropics of mental cancer and encounter the desert antarctic?

Well, psychotropics have been tried, but they don’t always leave the psychos in the tropics. Modern medicine recommends ataractics. But are tactics like that an appropriate orthodoxy for practical, acceptable ataraxy? Ought we not to move from xy to z – be it Zen or ZZZZ?

Perhaps I should back up slightly. Ataraxy and ataractic are noisy words for calm things. They tick and clack, the one with its cross brackets and the other with its paired magnets, and the eyes almost lose place by the third a, but they own their existence to the Greek word ἀταραξία ataraxia, which means “undisturbedness” or “impassiveness”. The Epicureans and Pyrrhonians of ancient Greece espoused their versions of ataraxy. The Epicureans said, “Stop worrying about gods and an afterlife and just focus on virtue and friends.” The Pyrrhonians said, “Stop trying to decide about dogmas; you can’t know the truth. Just keep inquiring.” In both cases the aim was a calmness of mind, a freedom from worry or preoccupation – the unattached state that is the aim of Buddhist meditation too.

But the ancient Greeks didn’t go for such meditation. Nor, for that matter, do the modern masters of medicine, carriers of the caduceus in the tradition of Hippocrates; they tend to prefer medication, and ataractic – an adjective derived from ataraxy – is, as a noun, a synonym for tranquillizer. Or, perhaps, given the taste of Antarctic, we should say a chill pill.

Still, I can’t help but think that there are better ways to bring calm clarity to the cataracts of the cortex than simply to drown out – or just drown – one’s troubles. Actually, I prefer a little run-off – lace up the shoes and go, whether at a race or something less climactic. And an added benefit is that after you’ve gone from x to y, you do indeed get better ZZZZ’s. I find that quite attractive!

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