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Ataraxia: The Practice of Creating Calm

In the 16th century, artist Petrarca Meister depicted Greek skeptic philosopher Pyrrho through a painting. Have a look:

In the painting, Pyrrho dressed in blue is leaning against the main mast while his ship and crew experience rough waters at sea. You’ll notice that while his crew panics and begins to worry about what is happening, Pyrrho remains unphased and uses his right hand to point towards a small animal, in this case a pig. Some people consider a different scenario, in which case Pyrrho points to one of his crew members dressed in white holding ham in his hand. This story, as retold by Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius goes something like:

“When some people who were sailing with him were looking gloomy because of a storm, he kept a calm countenance, and comforted their minds, exhibiting himself on deck eating a pig, and saying that it became a wise man to preserve an untroubled spirit in that manner.”

On the side of the ship, there’s a sign written in Greek, that translates to:

It is right wisdom then, that all imitate this security.’

Pyrrho was known to be the founding fathers of his own philosophy known as Pyrrhonism, one of the early forms of ancient skepticism. I’ve written about skepticism and referenced it a few times in my previous blog posts. According to Pyrrho and his followers, the secret to achieving true tranquility, also known as Ataraxia, is to suspend all judgment concerning matters of opinion. In other words, Ataraxia can be described as a state of absolute calmness and serenity. A state of mind where one is able to remain unaffected by events happening around, specifically those that are out of said individual’s control, which you’ll find is a large majority of all events occurring in day to day life. Everything else is simply a cluster of thoughts and experiences that we see appear in consciousness.

Now, Ataraxia like most valuable states in the mind is not something that we can flick on with a switch. Ancient philosophers described the process of achieving Ataraxia as a form of emotional homeostasis that comes not by avoiding chaos, but rather, through experiencing chaos. It does require practice and a certain degree of open-mindedness in life. So now that we’ve established in somewhat fashion what this state represents, let’s explore why moving towards this state can be beneficial for each of us. Moving towards a state of Ataraxia has helped me in my life, and I hope to share some of this valuable insight with you.


Power in Tranquility

When we’re calm, we tend to be less likely to react impulsively, less likely to combust or burst out emotion with little or no control. Naturally, if we’re more calm and tranquil, we’ll be less likely to do or think in a way that could ruin our day, not to mention ruin other people’s day too. A state unmoved by emotional impulses can also help us make better decisions, one that accounts for the consequences.

Consider a situation in life when we’re faced with someone who is annoying or frustrating us. It doesn’t matter who this is, it could be a random stranger or even someone close to us like a friend, partner or a family member. It’s easy to get angry, it’s easy to get upset and end up saying something sharp and hateful towards them, something that cannot be taken back. It’s easy to lash out and scream, even become violent, regardless of what had happened. The consequences of anger are, almost always way more serious than the events that caused them in the first place. Being tranquil allows us to approach every situation with a neutral stance, it allows us to see through what it’s front of us and not let anger drive our decisions. Think of it like, taking a deep breath before reacting to something. Conflict is inevitable, we will always face situations that have the potential to frustrate us.

How we respond to this frustration can profoundly affect not only our state of minds, but also our relationships with the people around us.

This leads me on to talk about skepticism, and how that plays a part when it comes to this idea of being calm and tranquil. We often find ourselves in situations where we’re exposed to some form of stimuli, usually it’s some kind of information. It could be through social media, a person, anything. Depending on how we like the information, we’re often presented with two choices. Either to take the information on face value and make a subsequent judgment about it; or, take it with a grain of salt and pause before making any judgments whatsoever. In most cases, many of us end up following through with the first case. Ataraxia isn’t just limited to just physically remaining calm, it’s also about keeping your mind open to all possibilities, which in a way ties into the idea of skepticism. The idea that not only can the information we’re presented be incomplete, but our own ideas and beliefs can also be incomplete, that nothing is for certain. Having this perception towards everything happening around us makes us more in tune with the unpredictability of life, and sets up a form of protection against anything with the potential to manipulate or mislead us.

Freedom from Opinion

So many of us get affected by opinions and biases, and often in a way that does us more harm than good. Opinions about people, about experiences, about socio-political issues, global events, the list can go on. If left unattended for too long, these opinions often become attached to our identity, to the point where we find it difficult to disassociate our personality with a particular opinion. When confronted with someone holding the opposite opinion, we feel attacked. We feel it necessary to argue with them, or debate them to establish a sense of authority in holding strong to our beliefs.

Ataraxia offers freedom, freedom from attachment and opinions. It allows us to be comfortable with not having an opinion about something, or better yet, being comfortable with not being attached to an opinion we may have about something. So often we find ourselves in the midst of a conversation with someone or a group, finding the urge to say something or the other to ‘fit in’. It’s natural, people love talking about themselves. It’s natural to want to voice our opinions, sometimes even the controversial ones that can spark up a debate. Ataraxia is being comfortable with not being the centre of attention. It doesn’t mean we remain silent and avoid speaking to people, but rather we speak and interact with people, without attachment. Without attachment to our thoughts, valuea and beliefs. We accept that these are impermanent, and open to change. We understand that our identity is more than our set of beliefs, and find better relationships along the way.

The other idea to keep note, is the important of uncertainty in life. Most things in life, are not those we can say, claim or stand by with absolute uncertainty. We don’t know for a 100% when a particular historical event happened, we’re simply trusting and reciting sources of information such as books, videos, literature, or even informed individual. We don’t know 100% why someone behaved in a particular manner. We may have assumptions, we have heard something, or seen something, but nothing to say with absolute certainty. Similarly, we don’t know, 100% why a particular country or a government is invoking certain policies, or why people behave in a certain manner. We’re simply making a judgment based on the information we see presented to us.

It doesn’t matter what subject we pick, we could proclaim ourselves to be an expert on a subject matter, and yet still not know things for absolute certainty. If we’re able to acknowledge that our beliefs and opinions can be wrong, or can be missing a piece of information, we can still stand by them and share them, without holding on to them so tightly that it begins to affect our relationships, both with ourselves, and with others.

Disagreement is a necessary part of a healthy, interesting conversation, but not to the point where it has the potential to affect our relationships. It's possible to disagree with someone, yet acknowledge their opinion and keep mutual respect hanging in the balance.

Practicing Ataraxia

Moving towards the state of Ataraxia, needless to say, requires practice. There’s also no set way of measuring this state, or telling what level of Ataraxia one has reached. It’s one way of looking at life, and one that we have the option of embracing.

So how do we do it?

The first thing we can do, is learn how to truly let go of the past. Cliché, I know, but let’s expand on this a little bit. Past in this sense, refers to any and every event that has happened. It doesn't matter if it was 5 years ago, 5 days ago, or 5 minutes ago. Letting go of the past is important, simply because we have no control over it. The events of the past, have passed and so there’s no point dwelling upon them. Now some events are easier to move on from than others. For example, waking up late in the morning for work is an example of something we find it easy to let go of. Whereas, if someone close to us were to suddenly die of cancer, it’s not quite as easy. Most of the time, we find ourselves in situations where we get affected by trivial events that again, we have no control over. Identifying these events and responding accordingly is a great way to start.

Secondly, everything we do in our day to day lives, is simply us responding to something that’s already happened. It is our judgment of things that add value to them. Things themselves, are just things. A new pair of sneakers is a new pair of sneakers. Whether or not it looks good, is upto us. Naturally, if we’re able to perceive this pair of sneakers as just a pair of sneakers, we would remain unaffected by whether or not we end up buying them. The same notion goes for everything else we have in life. That coffee we taste, is just coffee, good or bad is upto us. The stranger we met today who we thought pissed us off, might have said something that we perceived as rude of hateful. They were just words, sounds if you might want to go as far as to say that. People are what they are, they say what they say, they do what they do. How we choose to respond, is how we end up feeling.

Of course, all this is great in theory, harder to practice, but we can start somewhere. We often see the skill ‘problem-solving’ being passed around these days. In some sense, Ataraxia is all about problem solving, rather than ‘problem-dwelling’. When something happens, we learn from it, move on from it. This allows us to be more empathetic and forgiving towards both ourselves, as well as those around us.

Final Thoughts

One important distinction I must make before concluding this post, is that Ataraxia does not mean being averse to emotions. It does not make us heartless robots who don’t feel anything. This is often a misconception directed towards people who adopt principles of Stoicism. Ataraxia doesn’t eliminate emotions, it helps us respond better to those emotions. Positive emotions such as joy, excitement and love are meant to be felt, and celebrated, both within ourselves and shared with those around us. Negative emotions like pride, envy or anger can be problematic, but are also inevitable and a necessary part of life. Keeping calm in a moment of conflict, is like experiencing a different form of power like none other. Power over our words, our feelings and emotions, in every way we respond to what’s happening around us. When practicing the ability to stay calm, we will make mistakes. We will be faced with situations that lead to us being carried away by these emotions. Situations that put us off track.

All we have to do, is pause, think about what has happened, and ask ourselves this: “Does this really bother me?” A few situations in, and we see ourselves effortlessly finding our way back to our path.

Like a cog in a system. A complex yet beautiful system.


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