There is in every enduring spiritual legacy, an emphasis on ascetic practice. Why this occurs has been subject to much investigation. And while the investigations themselves may interesting, no single study will sufficiently describe all aspects of asceticism. Nor should we expect one to. For practical purposes, as it is experienced, the subject must be considered on a number of different planes. We will limit ourselves to three examples, along with some further considerations on the subject.
A Final Break with Attachment
Defined as the act of breaking an attachment, this view of asceticism may be the easiest to understand as that it can be easily translated into terms that require no consideration of its more transcendent features. Although a ‘break’ with some aspect of the material world often is often done in order to look beyond, this need not always be the case. The motivation can be more secular. Many students know well the feeling of what was intended to be five-minute break going on for an hour. More severely, for a recovering alcoholic, there is no such thing as knocking back a few and taking it easy. What we see then is the rejection of ‘indulgence’. The object of attachment may not be taboo, but there is a deeper understanding that it cannot be partaken in without further consequences. Consider the number of times your own intents and plans have collapsed after the phrase, “just this once,” was uttered.
With greater consideration to higher ideals, ascetic practices may also be viewed through the lens of risk management, specifically by removing leverage. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has referred this part of asceticism as part of putting ‘soul in the game,’ which means to take on extreme risks for the benefit of others. Predictably, it is often spurred on by a higher cause such as a religious or ethnic identity. When integrated with the first definition, it becomes understood that this level of devotion is non-negotiable. That is, no aberrations or modifications against the core tenets will even be considered. In its most extreme forms, some orders of warriors, saints, or immensely dedicated individuals may even break with their families or forgo beginning new ones in order to eliminate the chance that loved ones will be threatened in order to coerce submission. Such is the fervency with which the ideal is held.
As a Statement on Matter
In a higher, metaphysical lens, asceticism can be viewed as indicative of how matter is viewed. Here there is a frequent distinction made between the Eastern and Western traditions. In the East, matter as an illusion, and in the west, matter as a prison. The significance of this division is thought to lay in whether it should be assumed that the material world merely obscures transcendence or whether it is working in active opposition to it. But the analyses of this question frequently fall into the trap of endless debates over which practices should be considered legitimate (or ‘enlightening’) versus what should be considered gross self-flagellation. Ironically, these debates are often informed by political assumptions that are themselves representative of the worst materialism has to offer. Since the actual practices vary widely, even within a single culture, they are best considered individually. However, in light of the second definition of asceticism, we may do well to also consider whether our mere opinions on one practice or another ultimately amounts to anything meaningful.
Clearing the Way for New Virtues
What is often lost in the spectacle of highly visible ascetic practices (particularly the gruesome) is that the end goal of is not to mortify, but to overcome. Short of that true realization, the easiest coping method is to at least confirm having the upper hand in the fight. The object of attachment in beaten down again and again. Extinction is assured to be imminent. But the final blow never lands. Many strains of modern psychology complicate this further by insisting the failure to execute the break is the result of deep seated obsession with the object.It is true that such complexes exist. But the same people who relish in these observations may question what it is in the affliction of others that they themselves are so held by.
A wide variety of people in the arts, athletics, and entrepreneurship regularly deny themselves attachment to common things in order to achieve success in the future. The purpose here is obvious. Certain habits are cleared out of the way in order to make room for new virtues. It’s only becomes more difficult to understand when success is measured in something beyond the material plane. In either case, it seems then that the most assured way of knowing that attachment has truly been broken is when grand gestures of renunciation begin to feel superfluous. The unwanted desire simply fades on its own.
A Final Thought
In his lecture entitled Ascent of the Soul through the Planetary Spheres, Manly P. Hall speaks of how even those gifts which are given to the diligent seeker must someday also be returned to their origins. It’s become very easy to speak of giving up on material wealth for the sake of a pursuit like art or travel. How would we react if we were asked to ultimately renounce one of those activities as well?