Higher Living Reflections

Ataraxia: A State of Mind

“Seek, and ye shall find.” Matt. 7:7 (KJV)

The Universe is complicated. Nature is complicated. Trying to grasp their complexities can be daunting, leading one down a rabbit hole.

Occam’s Razor states the simplest explanation for phenomena tends to be the correct one. However, it can be argued that aphorism is an oxymoron in that it attempts to simplify complexity via simplicity, a reductio ad absurdum.

Okay, it’s complicated. Or is it?

As a species, we instinctively incline toward simplicity. Until we abandoned Nature, survival depended solely upon our relationship with her. Life was not complex. No need to fret about your email being hacked or identity stolen.

About 12,000 years ago, give or take a millennium or two, a tribe decided to make life easier by eliminating the arduous task of chasing food, which entailed never-ending packing up, moving to who-knows-where, and finding suitable, seasonal lodging – a cave? Feeling smug, the newly landed created words to look down their noses on their hunter-gatherer cousins who opted to retain the tried-and-true: Nomads. Barbarians.

As life “developed” and evolved into what is called “civilization,” it increasingly took on complexity that taxed even further the innate human proclivity for simplicity. Farmers needed tools that required a certain skillset to craft, so artisans came about. They needed rain, though not too much, on a regular schedule. Hence, they ordained priests to solicit the powers who controlled rain – gods – who must be appeased. They needed soldiers for protection from marauders. Those fueled ever-increasing societal complexities.

In one sense however, nothing changed: We remain haunted by the same Big Three Questions that befuddled our wandering, wondering ancestors as they observed the world and gazed at the heavens, trying to make sense of their relationship with the Universe.

Why are we here? How did we get here? What happens when we die?

Our nomadic ancestors knew not the answers, and their grounded, cultured, educated progeny know no better. We just believe we do. We call it Religion. They preferred art and mythology.

We generally associate religion with the transcendent beyond our ken, but it also has immanent, secular connotations, socially and psychologically. Castes and other social strata became institutionalized when powerful groups, particularly priests and soldiers, insisted their tasks were more critical than the peasants’ menial work, despite food production being the most essential of labors. Got to eat, by golly.

And so on. And we accept it because, as Ol’ Occam suggested, it’s easier.

Denying reality or creating mythical stories to explain the unknown, however, does not negate physical and natural laws. One ignores them at his/her peril.

Few people admit their perspectives and beliefs have arisen from their circumstances and local culture and that they do not make wholly independent, unbiased, objective judgments and decisions. But the truth is otherwise. Voting, for example, is much more an emotional endeavor than rational.

Rarer still is the human who is not only curious and fascinated by the unknown but also is comfortable with spelunking through a rabbit hole, understanding he/she might never find the answer(s).

It might seem ironic, but an inquiring mind tends to be an unworried one. It’s called ataraxia, from Greek meaning “calmness untroubled by mental or emotional disquiet.” (M-W Online)

Pyrrho, the father of skepticism, was the first to include ataraxia as part of his philosophy. Epicurus would soon follow suit.

At the end of Contact, Ellie Arroway (Jodi Foster) asks an inquisitive young mind if he thinks there are “little green men.”

“I dunno,” he shrugs with uncertainty.

“That’s a good answer,” she replies, validating his skepticism.

Keep searching. You’ll sleep better. It’s that simple. Just ask William of Occam.

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  • Dawn
    May 25, 2021 at 3:39 pm

    This completed my thought process today and the hunt to answers to ever flowing questions. Finished watching a movie, The Shack, that was a little plodding, but also presented an interesting way of addressing holding hate and anger inside vs forgiveness, love and joy in life. Then I read your blog. Words are important and I always find that your words lead me down the path of interesting ideas and thoughts.

  • Allynn Riggs
    May 25, 2021 at 4:42 pm

    I like the concept that it is okay to keep searching and being at peace with that concept may indeed enable me to be less stressed. It makes sense. And understanding that I do not necessarily HAVE to find all the answers to all of my questions within a specific timeframe will enable me to sleep better. I have time and the desire to keep searching.

  • mark palko
    May 25, 2021 at 6:30 pm

    I think Jared Diamond said the greatest mistake humans ever made was farming. He may have been right.
    But the earth will be here long after we are gone. Maybe in a state of ataraxia.