Modern Urban Life as a Spectator Sport

Pollice Verso, an 1872 painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme depicting gladiators in the ancient Roman Colosseum

At the height of the Roman Empire, one of the central institutions was the circus. It is hard to describe what it might have been like – a complex, heterogeneous blend of carnival, spectacle, festivity, sexuality, ritual and gruesome violence. The central premise of the circus was the bloody spectacle – a veritable orgy of violence and bloodsport in the arena. “Bread and circuses,” as described by the Roman poet Juvenal, was how the Roman public was kept pacified and preoccupied – in their place.

In his classic autobiographical work, The Confessions, the celebrated Christian theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo, eloquently describes visiting the circuses at Rome and the effect he perceived on human psychology. This is one of the most profound descriptions of mob bloodlust infecting the spectators at the gladiatorial games in Rome:

For, directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness; nor did he turn away, but fixed his eye, drinking in madness unconsciously, and was delighted with the guilty contest, and drunken with the bloody pastime. Nor was he now the same he came in, but was one of the throng he came unto, and a true companion of those who had brought him there. Why need I say more? He looked, shouted, was excited, carried away with him the madness which would stimulate him to return, not only with those who first enticed him, but also before them, yea, and to draw in others.

St. Augustine of Hippo, THE Confessions, Book VI, Chapter 8

Another brilliant depiction of the Roman gladiatorial games, in science fiction, is in an episode from the classic television show Star Trek, entitled Bread and Circuses. The show depicts the crew of the starship Enterprise trapped on a planet where, apparently, Rome never fell, but went on to become a modern, 20th century empire. The fascinating aspect of the depiction of the Roman gladiatorial games in this show is how it explicitly analogizes the games with modern mass media – specifically, television. In this Star Trek episode, gladiatorial mortal combat is televised by the Empire TV corporation, complete with a camera crew, director and a recorded applause track.

The Star Trek episode Bread and Circuses depicts the gladiatorial games as a televised event in a modernized version of the ancient Roman empire

In a brightly colored carnivalesque and festive atmosphere, massive crowds would gather at such locations as the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum in ancient Rome, and at other venues across the empire. They would then sit as passive spectators to a veritable orgy of violence and horror – everything from mortal combat, to wild animals devouring hapless victims (often Christians), to obscene rituals involving arcane ceremonies and sacrifices, as well as carnal activity of every description – in addition to acrobatics, dance, drama, costumes and pageantry.

The cumulative effect of the spectacle on the public imagination invariably was, as described by St. Augustine, to inspire and feed into a collective mob frenzy and bloodlust. Being constantly bombarded by this bloody, violent spectacle kept the public in a certain frame of mind – it kept them trapped in what may be decribed as a “low vibrational” reactive state of consciousness. This state of mind may be characterized as one of being perpetually “on edge” and having a low focus or attention span – one of being in perpetual “fight-or-flight” mode. It is a state of being that is, ultimately, draining – physically as well as psychologically. In the long term, it has been proven to have profound negative effects on one’s health and state of mind.

Essentially, what was happening at the Roman circuses, I would suggest, was the ritualized traumatization of the Roman public. An exposure to violent spectacle such as the one at the circus induced trauma in the mind of the spectator to varying degrees. This, I would argue, is similar to the trauma experienced by a military combatant, though to a lesser degree. The end result is the same, however – PTSD or “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Arguably, anyone who experiences any form of trauma, experiences PTSD as a result. Only the degree differs, which depends on the degree of the trauma and the degree of impressionability of the traumatized victim.

A retired Naval officer leads meditation groups for veterans to treat symptoms of PTSD

I would suggest that PTSD occurs when the stress experienced due to trauma – the raised cortisol and adrenaline levels in the bloodstream and the activation of the body’s sympathetic nervous system in “fight-or-flight” mode – becomes entrapped in the body’s nervous and mucular systems for an extended duration. One replays the traumatic experience in one’s memory and dreams – one is haunted by it – and one continues to experience cortisol and adrenaline spikes in one’s bloodstream along with the unconscious activation of the sympathetic “fight-or-flight” response.

Symptoms [of PTSD] may include disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams related to the events, mental or physical distress to trauma-related cues, attempts to avoid trauma-related cues, alterations in how a person thinks and feels, and an increase in the fight-or-flight response.

Wikipedia entry on “Post-traumatic stress disorder”

Meditation practices – especially TM (Transcendental Meditation), but also Mindfulness Meditation and other meditative techniques, have been scientifically proven, through clinical studies, effectively to alleviate the symptoms as well as root causes of PTSD – often making medications unnecessary. What is more, the simple meditation techniques, once learned and practiced regularly, produce lasting, long-term benefits. Sound healing or therapy is another effective method to alleviate chronic stress. This is especially true with the use of tuning forks, crystalline “singing bowls,” pan drums, windchimes, harps as well as other musical instruments – tuned to Solfeggio frequencies, which have demonstrable stress-alleviating effects.

The founder of the international school of Transcendental Meditation, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, once gathered a group of his most dedicated students and instructed them to travel to various crime-infested neighborhoods across the world – locations having a great deal of violence and negativity in the atmosphere – and collectively to meditate using the TM techniques for several days on end. The end result of their efforts came to be known as the “Maharishi Effect” or the “Meditation Effect” – namely, the elevation of the “vibration” or “frequency” in the atmosphere of a neighborhood, resulting in a tangible, measurable reduction in the rates of crime and violence occurring in the neighborhood during the time periods in question, and a corresponding elevation in the mindset of the population.

Group meditation sessions have a demonstrable influence in reducing rates of violent crime in the surrounding neighborhood

People apparently became more high-minded as a result – more inclined to education and personal development, less inclined to negative emotions such as rage and hostility, and less prone to physical and verbal violence. This, apparently, suggests that the practice of Transcendental Meditation – especially in a collective or group setting – is not only able to alleviate stress and even PTSD symptoms in the individual, but is also able to raise the collective vibration experienced by everybody – even non-practitioners – in the surrounding vicinity. It is as if the effect of Transcendental Meditation has a larger influence than simply the individual practitioner – influencing what psychologist Carl Jung might term the “collective unconscious” – and elevating the general atmosphere or “vibe” of a locality well beyond any individual practitioner of the technique.

Nowadays, even though we no longer have ritualized orgies of violence and bloodsport, such as at the circuses of the Roman empire, we are, nevertheless, perpetually exposed to violent spectacle in mass media. The modern media thrives on violent spectacle in everything – ranging from newspaper headlines and front pages (in the tradition of “yellow journalism,” popularized by media magnates William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer), television crime shows, horror/crime/gangster/western movies (the most popular movie genres), video games, and social media internet sites. All of these media vehicles are invariably peppered with generous doses of (often gratuitous) sex and violence.

Although the effect of media violence in the 21st Century is probably nowhere near as traumatizing or mind-numbing as witnessing live mortal combat in the Roman gladiatorial arena, the cumulative trauma, especially over time, is potentially quite severe. This is why the practice of stress-relieving techniques like meditation, yoga, qigong, breathwork, sound therapy, stretching exercises, long walks, lap swimming, etc. are no less relevant today in relieving the PTSD resulting from modern urban life, than they would have been in the times of ancient Rome – to alleviate the symptoms of the ritualized collective traumatization of the masses as a means of crowd control and social organization – the bloodsport of the Roman arena.

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