Sunday, 25 January 2015

Asceticism is neither the key nor the goal

(Originally posted on Saturday, 28 January 2017)

Several days ago a phrase popped up in my head that made everything clear to me – the best phrase to build the proper picture of asceticism is this: “Asceticism is neither the key nor the goal”.

The sheer fact that there are named many different types of asceticism proves that the concept of asceticism is not so simple after all. Moreover the main definitions of asceticism concentrate on religious reasons and/or avoidance of pleasures, which is a mistake in my opinion (a mistake in definition, not in behaviour).

With the above phrase in my head I imagined an example that shows what asceticism is all about. Let's imagine a person who is “materially” ascetic, but considers it as a way to reach a bigger goal – a way that should make him (or her) calm/happy/good/holy/whatever. He (or she) owns only basic commodities and refuses to get anything more, but in fact he does it against himself – he would like to own more, but he sacrifices himself for “a bigger goal”. Would such a person became calm/happy/good/holy/whatever? I doubt it.

Now let's imagine a person who is “spiritually” ascetic and is free of any kind of desire, except for a desire to own some basic commodities in order to satisfy his (or her) basic needs. If he doesn't desire to own more than some basic commodities then he will own only basic commodities, just like the first person. The difference is the fact that the second person is calm/happy/good/holy/whatever because he doesn't do it against himself. So his “material” asceticism is the RESULT of his “spiritual” asceticism. And what is his “spiritual” asceticism? It is his state of mind. Just a state of mind. It's neither the key nor the goal.

Please notice that this “spiritual” asceticism has nothing to do with a religion or pleasures, but with a simple concept of desire. In the above case it was a desire to own things, but the same example can be used for any KIND of desire. And this is what a true asceticism is all about – being free from desires.

Obviously we can't reject all our desires because we have to eat, breathe, have a place to live, have a family and have a little fun too, but the more desires we reject the more happy we become. “Let's enjoy the little things, for in them the formula for happiness is written.” With a true asceticism the joy from little things comes in a kind of automatic way.

Almost every human activity is based on a desire – without a desire there would be no willful action at all. If there is a desire then we can control it in most cases. There are some obviously “obligatory” desires, like a desire to eat or a desire to drink water, but a desire to eat a lot of foods, a desire to eat sweets or a desire to drink alcohol are the kinds of desire that are NOT “obligatory”.

In my case the sheer fact that I can identify a desire makes this desire much weaker – it's embarrassing to realise that you are a slave to your own desires. And I can identify a desire practically always. In fact it's very easy when you actually think about it.

I must point out that there are also positive desires that turn into something negative when they are too strong. For example reading books. Nowadays fewer and fewer people read books, so it is generally a very positive thing when a person reads books. But if he (or she) reads them all the time and neglects other things then it is clearly a bad thing. Similar examples can be given for anything that is considered positive and in extreme cases it concerns even religion.

I'll give you two more examples. Just two. When I see that somebody, for example my wife or my child, has just done a thing that was illogical, impractical or that it could have been done more efficiently I feel a very strong desire to tell them about it – to explain it to them – to give them an advice. Usually this “advice” is considered as a criticism and makes them angry, no matter if I'm right or not. Over the years I realised that in most cases it is actually better not to say anything to them at all or maybe to turn my advice into a kind of joke. Now when I realise that all my actions are actually based on my desires, in this case it is a desire to make other people “better”, I feel less inclined to do it (to give them an advice), because it is my desire, not theirs.

The second example came to my mind while I was writing this very post. It's about expectations – a particular expectation can be considered as a desire too. In this case my desire was that when I was writing this post my children would understand that I was busy and would leave me alone for some time. This desire was in fact silly and it made me nervous because my children kept coming to me to tell me something or to ask something from me. Without my desire I wouldn't get nervous because of it.

I came up with this idea (asceticism considered as being free from desires) a week ago and I must say that it is rather helpful. It's enough to keep thinking what desires make you do what you actually do. Just thinking about your desires, without trying to change yourself right away.

By the way, here's a great song that makes me calm and peaceful:

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