There is a word in ancient Greek philosophy that describes a state of mind in which we remain mentally undisturbed regardless of the hardships and stresses that would otherwise cause us worry and stress.

Today we’re going to discuss exactly what that state of mind is, and hopefully you’ll learn how you can develop it for yourself and how it can be applied to different areas of life.

So, what exactly is ataraxia?

What is Ataraxia?

The word ‘Ataraxia‘ comes from the ancient Greeks, literally translating to ‘unperturbed’ or ‘without disturbance’.

Historically, this state of mental calm was considered the ultimate goal by the Epicureans and later by the Stoics, though each philosophy approached it a little differently.

Where the Epicureans saw it as the pinnacle of pleasure – a life free from pain or fear – the Stoics viewed it as a product of virtue, a by-product of living in accordance with nature and reason.

For the Greeks, it was also considered the ideal mental state of a soldier before they entered battle. Not to be excessively worried about the fight ahead, but clear-headed and able to remain effective despite the threat.

To experience ataraxia for ourselves, we can practice mindfulness, act with virtue, accept what is outside our control, develop healthy relationships, and embrace simplicity in our lives (or at least not make them needlessly complicated).

Ultimately, ataraxia is about finding harmony in the way we think and act and allowing that harmony to make us resilient against stress.

It’s important to remember that this is not about being emotionless or indifferent. It’s about finding a state of calmness and acceptance that comes from learning to be resilient to the drama and chaos of life and the world around us.

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The History and Origins of Ataraxia

Ataraxia was first introduced by the philosopher Epicurus. However, the Epicureans and the Stoics looked at the principle in two very different ways.

I believe that the Stoic view of ataraxia is the more beneficial of the two and the one that is most applicable to daily life, but I’ll describe both for context.

Stoic Ataraxia:

The Stoics believed that the ultimate goal of life is to live with virtue, to display courage, wisdom, justice, and temperance in everything we do.

They also believed in living in alignment with nature and learning to accept the world around us for what it is rather than suffer as we resist the world and the events around us because things aren’t happening the way we want them to (more on managing expectations here).

Through a life of virtue and living in accordance with nature, we naturally develop our character to a point where we have mastery over our impulses, desires, and passions.

To the Stoics, this is known as apatheia—the absence of unhealthy passions.

Given that a person in a state of apatheia has learned to accept the world around them and focus on their own thoughts and actions, they naturally achieve the tranquility of ataraxia—freedom from anxiety and distress.

The reason I think the Stoic path to ataraxia is more practical for day-to-day life is because Stoic philosophy clearly outlines the principles needed to achieve it, which we’ll get onto later.

On the Stoic mindset, Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“Our rational nature moves freely forward in its impressions when it:

1) accepts nothing false or uncertain;

2) directs its impulses only to acts for the common good;

3) limits its desires and aversions only to what’s in its own power;

4) embraces everything nature assigns it.”

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.7”

Epicurean Ataraxia

Unlike the Stoics, who believed ataraxia to be a byproduct of living a life of virtue, the Epicureans believed ataraxia to be the ultimate goal of life.

In the Epicurean philosophy, ataraxia is a core ingredient in the path to pleasure (hedone) and, contrary to other philosophies, pleasure was considered the highest good.

This pleasure can be split into two categories:

  1. Physical

  2. Mental

To Epicurus, physical pleasure is fleeting and momentary, existing only in the here and now.

However, mental pleasure can exist in the past, present, and future, making it the more superior of the two.

When one was free from physical discomfort, they were said to be in a state of aponia

When one was free from mental discomfort, they were said to be in a state of ataraxia.

It’s easy to see how the Epicureans thought ataraxia to be a core ingredient in a person’s happiness, but, unlike the Stoics, they’re less specific about how to get there (so we’ll focus more on Stoicism).

Comparison with Similar Concepts:

Ataraxia also has cousins in other philosophical and religious traditions.

In Buddhism, there’s a concept called ‘Upekkha‘, often translated as equanimity, which is all about maintaining a balanced mind in different situations.

Then there’s the Hindu idea of ‘Santosha‘, a sense of contentment that comes from within, regardless of external circumstances.

And there’s ‘Serenity’, a concept central to many Christian prayers and meditations, seeking peace through faith and surrender.

The Role of Ataraxia in Personal Development:

So, how does this ancient Greek principle fit into our modern pursuit of personal growth?

Think of ataraxia as the foundation of a building.

When you have that inner peace, it’s like having a concrete base on which to build.

Stress and anxiety can often be a noise that drowns out our ability to self-reflect, plan, and act with deliberate intent. With ataraxia, we’re basically turning down the volume of the world and turning up the volume of our own inner voice.

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Three Characteristics of Ataraxia:

As we’ve discussed, ataraxia is achieved by cultivating a state of mental and emotional calmness and the absence of anxiety or fear.

In this section, I’ll go over three elements of ataraxia that can help us understand the concept a little more deeply.

These will be:

  1. Freedom from external disturbance

  2. The development of inner peace

  3. The acceptance of life’s uncertainties

When we understand these three elements in more detail, we can not only get a deeper understanding of ataraxia but also how we can start to develop it more easily in our own lives and apply it to our daily routines.

1. Freedom from External Disturbance

Freedom from disturbance is the cornerstone of the entire concept—a state of tranquility and inner peace that allows us to maintain our composure and wellbeing despite external pressure.

In other words, resilience.

Marcus Aurelius once said:

“When you are distressed by an external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only your judgment of it. And you can wipe this out at a moment’s notice.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.47

Achieving freedom from disturbance involves adopting certain practices and perspectives. These perspectives can be developed through the following:

  1. Practice mindfulness and meditation to quieten the mind, see things more clearly, and emotionally detach from external stimuli.

  2. Embrace Stoic philosophy by accepting that some things are beyond our control.

  3. Let go of material desires and focus on character and our inner dialogue rather than external possessions.

Through detachment, we can see the hardships and stresses around us more clearly and objectively, and we lessen our emotional reaction as a result.

Through acceptance and the focus on internal wealth over external wealth, we limit the leverage that externals have on our peace of mind.

These, in combination, develop our freedom from disturbance.

The Stoic philosophy we’re going to discuss in the section about achieving ataraxia continues to be relevant today, and many people still use it to find ways to improve their inner peace and reduce the disturbances that can cause stress and anxiety.

2. Inner Peace and Tranquility

Our ability to develop our inner peace is essential for the state of ataraxia.

While there are many different ways to get the same result, here are some that are easy to apply and incorporate into daily life:

  1. Developing our mindfulness through meditation (similar to the action we looked at above for external disturbance)

  2. Embrace self-reflection and introspection to find insight into your thoughts and emotions.

  3. Practice gratitude and focus on the things you have rather than what you don’t have.

  4. Simplify your life by decluttering and prioritizing what truly matters to you and your values.

  5. Get comfortable spending some time alone and create an environment conducive to relaxation. This helps us become less reliant on other people or things around us for comfort and distraction.

History shows us that ancient philosophers, like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, emphasized the importance of inner peace in finding a fulfilling life.

They believed that when we develop our inner world and master our thoughts and emotions, we could achieve a state of ataraxia and find true happiness.

3. Acceptance of Life’s Uncertainties

Acceptance, specifically accepting the things that happen around us and to us, is our final condition for finding ataraxia.

Through acceptance, we learn to be OK with the areas of life we cannot control.

Through acceptance, we avoid the negative emotions that come with resistance and the battle between what life is and what we want it to be.

Here are steps to help with acceptance:

  1. Embrace the concept of impermanence and acknowledge that life is inherently unpredictable.

  2. Cultivate gratitude (again) – in this context we look at what we have and understand that things come and go, so we should be appreciative of what we have while we have it. Tomorrow we might not be able to enjoy the things we take for granted today.

  3. Develop a flexible mindset – learn to adapt to change and embrace the new state of the world when change inevitably comes.

  4. Let go of control – recognize that some things are beyond your control and release your attachment to specific outcomes.

On change, Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“Meditate often on the swiftness with which all that exists and is coming into being is swept by us and carried away. For substance is like a river’s unending flow, its activities continually changing and causes infinitely shifting so that almost nothing at all stands still.”

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.23

Embracing uncertainty can lead to greater resilience and a more peaceful mindset in the face of life’s challenges. Epictetus once said:

Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will — then your life will flow well.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 8

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How Can We Achieve Ataraxia?

So, how can we truly achieve ataraxia in today’s fast-paced and chaotic world? A world filled with noise, distrust, and hundreds of different things fighting for our limited attention.

In this section, we will explore three key practices that can help you develop this sense of calm and contentment:

1. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation

First up is the practice of mindfulness meditation, which we touched on in the sections above.

This really is crucial for achieving ataraxia. Not only does it allow us to see our thoughts and feelings (and therefore work on them), it also helps put distance between us and our problems so that we can see them more objectively and become better able to solve them.

Here are steps to incorporate these practices into your daily life:

  1. Find a quiet and comfortable space to sit or lie down.

  2. Breathe deeply, focusing your attention on your breath and where you feel the ins and outs of each breath.

  3. Observe your thoughts and emotions without judgment, allowing them to come and go, like watching cars pass on the road.

  4. While remaining detached from your thoughts and emotions, notice patterns and how different thoughts make you feel. This will give you an indication of how your mind works and your emotional connection to the world around you and other people.

Remember, consistency is key. Make sure to set aside dedicated time each day to practice mindfulness and meditation to fully experience the benefits of ataraxia. It takes time.

2. Embrace Stoic Philosophy

Embracing Stoic philosophy, as we’ve said, is a key step towards achieving ataraxia. Here are some simple steps to help build on what we’ve already discussed so far:

  1. Study Stoic teachings: Read the works of ancient Stoic philosophers like Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.

  2. Practice acceptance: Embrace the idea that some things are beyond your control and focus on accepting them rather than resisting.

  3. Manage desires: develop a mindset of detachment from material possessions and focus on what truly matters.

  4. Practice self-control: find discipline in your thoughts and actions, and resist the urge to be driven by external stimuli and impulses.

  5. Live in the present: practice mindfulness, stay fully present in the moment, and let go of worries about the future or regrets from the past.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is Ataraxia?

Ataraxia is a Greek term that is often translated as “tranquility” or “freedom from worry.” It refers to a state of inner peace and calmness, free from disturbances and anxieties.

Is Ataraxia achievable?

Yes, Ataraxia is a state that can be achieved through various means, such as practicing mindfulness and meditation, finding balance in life, and letting go of attachment to external circumstances.

What are the benefits of Ataraxia?

The benefits of Ataraxia include increased mental clarity, improved emotional well-being, reduced stress and anxiety, and an overall sense of inner peace and contentment.

How can one Achieve Ataraxia?

Ataraxia can be found through practices such as mindfulness, meditation, self-reflection, and letting go of attachment to external circumstances. It is important to find what works best for you in order to achieve this state.

Is Ataraxia the same as apathy?

No, Ataraxia is not the same as apathy. While apathy is a lack of interest or emotion towards something, Ataraxia is a state of inner peace and calmness. A person in a state of Ataraxia is still capable of feeling emotions and has a sense of purpose and motivation.

Can Ataraxia be maintained at all times?

While it may be difficult to maintain Ataraxia at all times, it is possible to get to a point that will allow you to return to this state when faced with challenges. It takes effort and practice to maintain Ataraxia, but it is a worthwhile pursuit for inner peace and well-being.

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