The musings of a trilingual writer, blogger, Epicurean philosopher, sci-fi enthusiast, and leftie Chi-Towner
Sunday, January 20, 2013
Ataraxia and the Visceral
vis·cer·al 1. of or pertaining to the viscera. ….
4. characterized by or proceeding from instinct rather than intellect: a visceral reaction.
5. characterized by or dealing with coarse or base emotions; earthy; crude: a visceral literary style
- from Dictionary.com
Hunger and thirst are the two most fundamental metaphors and experiences of desire. In Buddhist poetic language, thirst and hunger are associated with desires and with need. Buddhist folklore depicts and designates lost souls that are consumed by the misery of uncontrollable cravings as hungry ghosts.
The English word naughty is, furthermore, tied semantically to need, to being needy (poor), and originally both words were one and the same. It is often the condition of need that brings people to act in an evil manner. It is often in the poorest areas that we see the most crimes. Among great apes, conventional chimpanzees are the most violent sub-species whereas bonobo chimps, having evolved amid far less scarcity than their cousins, learned to resolve conflict easily through lovemaking multiples times per day.
Hunger and thirst produce suffering, violence, and evil. Plenty and satisfaction produce joy and good. In view of this, the Epicurean theory on happiness lucidly suggests:
If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.
In philosophical materialism (the view maintained by Epicurus, by Marx, by Sartre, and many others), all things that appear to be metaphysical or spiritual (the mind, the soul, even the gods when they were believed to exist) are physical, material, made of atoms as if to say that without a physical form of expression, things are not, and therefore there is nothing to speak of.
Whatever soul there is, would require an atom or group of atoms. Whatever god there is, would require divine atoms, etc. In this manner the ancients attempted to reconcile with the intensity of existential, emotional and mental experience in light of no evidence for supernatural or non-physical reality, whereas now we know that joy, bliss, well-being, fear, anger, etc. assume bodily expression as serotonin (the feel-good chemical), cortisone (the stress chemical), etc.
All of these materialist philosophers also remarked that humans have basic needs that arise out of our facticity, our physicality and materiality, that cannot be escaped: shelter, food, water, etc. Marx’s materialism led him to a theory on how to build a society where these basic needs are met whereas Epicurus’ materialist theory led him to a philosophy of personal happiness that lists being fed as one of the preconditions for its practice. The Garden, in addition to being a place for meditation and for discovering simple pleasures, doubles as a source of sustenance.
When Sartre wrote about the psychosomatic effects of existentialist angst and sought to dramatize it, he specifically wrote a novel titled Nausea, ergo recognizing that the physical repercussions of angst are manifested in the stomach. Perhaps he did this in acknowledgement of the knot that we get in our bellies when we get bad news about a family member passing, when we fall in or out of love, or when we have relational difficulties that leave us emotionally blocked.
One study says that about 85 % of hospital visits ultimately are the result of mental and emotional problems. Many eating disorders (diabetes, anorexia, etc.) are known to have emotional roots. We are in the midst of numerous societal health crises linked to psychosomatic disorders.
However, rather than focus on the pathology, on the disease, I’d like to focus now on the mind in its healthy state, a trend that is prevalent in the burgeoning positive psychology movement. This takes me to a very interesting insight that Epicurus gave us, which raises many interesting questions and hypotheses now that we have the science to explore the depths of its meaning.
The beginning and root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach.
- Epicurus’ epistle to Menoeceus
How true is this? And in what ways is this true? It seems, from the survey of observations made above, that the stomach not only serves to help us consume nutrients but also has evolved to serve as a type of warning system that advises us that we are not surviving properly, a type of emergency communication system. This primitive neural system evolved into our current neural super-highway: the brain and nerves.
Let’s ponder the case of the helpless baby, since this is a metaphor used by Epicurus in his exploration of pleasure as a fundamental human experience, the one thing that humans are born knowing instinctively to seek. When hungry, the baby will cry and demand the attention of a nurturer. We’ve also evolved an instinctive empathy and desire to help nurture and protect an infant: babies evoke tenderness, love.
My own theory on ataraxia, has to do with our primal memories of infancy that are hidden in the deepest layers of our unconscious. Soon after we were born and when we knew only pleasure and pain, we were satisfied when nestled in the arms of the mother and we were fed and nurtured by her breasts. This constitutes a major part of our earliest layer of memory. We felt entirely safe, warm, happy, even ecstatic. Pure pleasure. We first learned to bond with another member of our species through this primal blissful experience. No one had to teach us to suckle or bond with our mother: we knew instinctively, that is, we inherited the instinct to do this. It’s archetypal, universal, it is part of what it means to be human.
This primal state of pleasure that all religions speak of and that all humans intuit, which in philosophy is known as ataraxia, is known as the state of nirvana by Buddhists, and in many traditions is compared to gardens. Not only is this primal state set as our ultimate goal and destiny in many religions, but the authors of our myths also have expressed that we once lived in this state: there’s an intuitive recognition of its primality. We read about Eden in the Bible, the garden that was the cradle of humanity. Epicurus sought to create a space conducive to ataraxia in the form of a garden. My theory on ataraxia is that it’s possible that in these first days of our lives as members of the human species, we learned to associate the experience of being nurtured, being loved, and being fed as one and the same. That the primal pleasure of breast-feeding and forming a bond with our mother linked our stomachs forever to our sense of safety and well-being, or neglect and suffering if that was the case. It is in light of this insight that we can begin to make sense of Epicurus’ teaching that the beginning and root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach.
If this theory is correct, then one who was not nurtured, or not nurtured properly as an infant, may exhibit considerable emotional difficulties in later life. If the neglect is chronic, there is research that suggests that the damage consists of a permanent inability to bond with others.
In my acquaintance with the Hare Krishnas, who sing, dance, find ecstatic exuberant bliss through Krishna consciousness, and feed people vegetarian foods, I learned that the motherly, nurturing qualities one cultivates when feeding the poor have positive emotional benefits. Both the act of feeding another person and the act of being fed evokes ataraxia.
This insight also helps to elucidate another one of Epicurus’ teachings which insinuates that as important as what we eat, is who we eat with and the manner in which we eat; that the entire psychological experience of consumption is fundamental when we consider our well-being:
Only wolves and lions eat alone. You should not eat, not even a snack, on your own.
I believe that by building or studying Epicurean cultures of communal and empathetic feeding (not just of the poor and homeless but of people in general), these issues can be explored, observed, and subjected to the necessary research in order to produce an updated, empirical Epicurean theory related to the primal brain in our gut and its relation to ataraxia.
Some of the questions we should seek to answer revolve around how much quantifiable emotional well-being can be observed in these interactions. Members of a community who know that they will be lovingly fed should be less inclined to theft, violence, and hostility. They should feel safe and perceive less threats to their survival. And they should perceive the site of their feeding as a nurturing, cozy place of refuge. They may even, like the bonobos, be inclined to create an entire environment and culture of affection and safety.
What if they’re fed in a manner which is angry or indifferent? What if children are fed in such a way in their infancy and early childhood? Does this have emotional repercussions in the child or adult? These might be some of the other questions to ponder in further research.
Another possibility is the development of a diet for ataraxia: one that produces a blissful condition. We know that raw cacao has anandamide, the chemical of bliss, and that there are certain foods that provide our brains with the tryptophan needed to produce serotonin, the feel-good chemical. And so we have the beginnings of an Epicurean diet (that is, a diet conducive to happiness by fulfilling our most basic needs and desires).
But in addition to these dietary sources of well-being, perhaps there are other comfort foods that (either because of their flavor, warmth or ingredients) remind us of mother’s milk and awaken our memory of primal ataraxia. The Romans, after all, decided to name cereals after the Mother Goddess of the Earth and its fruits, Ceres–or was it the other way around? Did they name the Goddess after their experience of consuming cereal, which is traditionally consumed with milk?
Most humans stop producing the enzymes needed to digest human milk after a certain age, and many are understandably lactose intolerant as adults. It might be interesting to research whether there are non-milk-derived foods that are particularly good at re-awakening our primal memories of safety and pleasure, and whether these culinary instincts are recognizably universal or highly personalized. My hunch is that we should look at foods rich in probiotics, the “good” bacteria that populates our guts.
Recent studies show that the gut has neurons –100 million brain cells, in fact. We literally think with our gut. The human stomach has a brain of its own the size of a cat’s brain, it has its own agenda, and acts somewhat independently from the other brain.
What neuroscientists are calling the second brain, I am more tempted to call the first brain, having evolved earlier. Our main brain could have only grown out of a less complex, more primal organ. This article published in Scientific American concludes:
Cutting-edge research is currently investigating how the second brain mediates the body’s immune response; after all, at least 70 percent of our immune system is aimed at the gut to expel and kill foreign invaders.
UCLA’s Mayer is doing work on how the trillions of bacteria in the gut “communicate” with enteric nervous system cells (which they greatly outnumber). His work with the gut’s nervous system has led him to think that in coming years psychiatry will need to expand to treat the second brain in addition to the one atop the shoulders.
As a result of this research, many of the medicinal solutions to depression, anxiety, and other psycho-emotional problems actually already target the gut. John Cryan’s research on the bacteria found in cheese, yoghurt, kim chee, kombucha, and other milk by-products and fermented foods suggests that some of the bacteria in milk and fermented foods reduces anxiety. Earlier research done by Max Gerson, proponent of the Gerson therapy, suggests the possibility that a dietary regime (his live foods lifestyle) might work just as well as pharmacology to treat almost every known disease.
The fact that our gut brain has a basic cognitive function and is constantly in communication with the main brain has enormous philosophical and spiritual implications. It implies that our understanding of the neural complex has to evolve to include diet as a manner of becoming, of communicating with our own selves at the neural and cellular level in order to elicit certain states of mind and being. Consumption can be understood as an act of willful becoming. We choose existence, but also we choose our state of mind and of existence through the physical and psychological act of eating.
Thus, a whole new scientific understanding of Epicurean existentialist spirituality emerges: one that places our society’s dietary and health crisis within the context of a spiritual crisis. I believe it is no less than that.
Hippocrates said Let food be your medicine and let medicine be your food. In ancient societies in our own hemisphere, the word for spiritual energy was medicine. Like the classical sameness between the words sanity and sanctity suggests, to be sane means to be wholesome in body and spirit.
We exist by consumption.
We therefore existentialize matter via the act of eating.
Conscious consumption is then the same as conscious being, conscious living.
In all mammals, the primal bond with one’s mother is also highly olfactory. One of the first things most mammals do when they give birth or when they’re born is to seek each other’s smell. When we fall in love, one of the things that happens in the brain is that we get addicted to the chemical signal in our mate, the pheromone, which we inhale. Might there be an unconscious olfactory cognitive function that relates certain odors to a sense of primal safety, familiarity, and pleasure? Studies suggest a strong link between our sense of smell and our memory banks. Can we smell ataraxia, and therefore even reproduce it via certain aromas? Further research is needed.
Discovering these truths would lead to a science of ataraxia that would have been impossible to fully develop in the days of Epicurus, but that we now have the means to begin to explore, not just in a lab but in our daily experiments with feeding and relating to others.
The fact that Epicurus had an insight into the stomach as the seat of our emotions demonstrates that he was a humanist and philosopher in the fullest sense of the words, recognizing the importance of not just the rational, obvious brain but the earlier, primal one as well.