Dogma-free meditation for calming your mind

How to stay present and stop your mind from fixating.

Damien Echols: You don't have to believe in it. There's no dogma. Even like I said it uses iconography and symbolism from things like gnostic Christianity and esoteric Judaism, things like that. But it doesn't require you to believe in these things. The reason it uses this symbolism is, for example, in the part of the country that I grew up in there are literally places where you come to a four way stop and there are churches on all four corners. So even if you're completely atheist, even if you're repelled by these things, they are still part of your psyche, still part of our culture. So we on some level respond to those things in some way. That doesn't mean we necessarily have to believe in them for magick to work.

Like I said the people who devise these techniques wanted to know what works, why it works, how it works, and how we can make it work better. You don't have to believe in any of this any more than you have to believe that your muscles are going to get bigger by going to the gym.

The way that I guess one of the things that was so hard about Eastern traditions like Zen was you focus almost entirely on staying in the present moment all the time. That is really, really hard. Once you actually start trying to do that you realize how out of control your thoughts are. Our thoughts chase themselves around like a dog chasing its own tail all the time from the time we get up until the time we go to sleep. And a lot of the Eastern traditions deal with almost wrestling against that. Every time you realize you're doing it, bringing yourself back to the present moment, back to the present moment over and over and over. For me I didn't get a lot of results out of that. I never found myself in the present moment m ore than I was whenever I started the practices. Ceremonial magick on the other hand what it does is it doesn't really address that at all. Instead you're dealing like, for example, on energy circulation practices where you're circulating chi through different parts of your body, you're trying to energize different energy centers. It runs down through your spine. Doing that as a side effect you become more and more present. And I didn't even realize a lot of these practices say, for example, the lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram, when you would learn these things traditionally the organization, the Order, would give you these exercises and they would not tell you what they're going to do. They would not tell you what they're for. They would say "go practice this for a year, come back and talk to us then. And if you're interested in learning more and going forward we'll talk about it then." Whenever you came back they would say "okay, well what did you experience?" That's how they would know if you had actually been practicing them or not. So I would practice these techniques, the middle pillar, the lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram, and one day while I was in prison I bent over to tie my shoes and I realized, without even trying to do so, I was in the present moment. And it was almost like an atomic bomb going off because it was for the very first time in my life I realized "oh my god, I'm completely in the present moment!" Of course the second you think that it's shattered, and you're back to thinking or whatever. But it was even after years of Zen practice it was the first time that I had truly experienced that, and it was due to ceremonial magick.

One of the techniques that I use, you know, the analogy I used earlier about flushing yourself out like a cup of water, this is a technique that flushes our thoughts out. If you have a song going through your head over and over or if you're reliving an argument you had with someone a year ago, if you're obsessed over something that you can't get out of your head, this technique is good for that as well as just general meditation purposes. It doesn't have a name. I usually just refer to it as the prison cell meditation. But if you're interested I'll do that. Is that okay? All right. You start by closing your eyes and then you envision yourself in a prison cell. Standing in the center of a cell, everything is white. The walls are white. The ceiling is white. The floors are white. The only thing there is in the cell other than you on the back wall is a slit of a window. And it's up so high that the only way that you can reach it, the only way you can see out of it is by gripping the window ledge high above your head and hoisting yourself up by sheer, brute, physical upper body strength. Almost like you're doing a pull up or a chin up. So you want to bring as much tactile sensation to the visualization as you possibly can. You want to feel it as much as you can. So picture yourself walking to the back of this wall, pressing yourself against it, reaching up with your hands and gripping the edge of that windowsill with your fingertips. Try to feel what the back wall of that prison cell would feel like pressed against the side of your face, pressed against your torso. Feel the coldness of it, the grittiness of it. And as you start to lift yourself up off the floor using just your arms try to feel what that would actually feel like. Feel the muscles in your shoulders. Feel the muscles in your chest, in your abdomen firing, tensing as you're pulling yourself up.

Try to feel what the wall would feel like as you scrape against it lifting yourself slowly by sheer strength. As your eyes crest over the rim of the window white light bursts through the window, floods through the window, and obliterates everything: The cell, you, everything, until there's only white light remaining.

Do it again. Press yourself against the back of the wall, reach up with both hands, and grip the edge of the windowsill. Feel the muscles in your chest, in your abdomen, in your shoulders tensing as you start to lift yourself up. Feel the wall scrape against the front of your thighs, against the side of your face as you hoist yourself until your eyes come over the edge of the window frame, and then white light comes flooding in through the window obliterating everything – you, the cell, until there's only white light.

Once more. Feel yourself pressed against the wall, raise your arms, hook your fingertips over the window ledge. Begin to raise yourself slowly up by sheer strength, feeling the muscles in your shoulders, your chest, your torso straining as you lift your body weight. Feel the wall of the prison cell as you scrub against it; and as your eyes go over the edge of the window frame, white light comes flooding in, obliterating everything.

And this is one of those things you can do for as long as you have time. You can do it five times, you can do it ten times. The longer you do it the more effective it is. And it gives you something to work with in your visualization instead of just trying to stay in the present moment, which is really, really hard.

Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

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Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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