WHAT IS ASCETICISM?

Asceticism is a lifestyle that’s often characterized by the practice of self-control, self-discipline, and the denial of things believed to be excessive or immoral. It includes the avoidance of some or all forms of indulgence and worldly pleasures, typically for religious reasons.

This practice is often associated with a simple way of living, minimalism, and the rejection of material possessions and physical pleasures.

The practice is embraced by a number of religious and philosophical traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Stoicism, and Jainism, each with their own take on perspectives and ascetic traditions.

The ascetic life and rejection of pleasure or comforts are often done for the purposes of spiritual growth and to be a better servant or practitioner of a specific way of life.

This is often seen in religions where people live a simple way of life to show dedication to a higher power and refrain from sinful activity, or activity that compromises our morals.

Some on an ascetic path may take vows of celibacy, devoting themselves to an ideal or a god. Others may reject worldly possessions and live in voluntary poverty. Others may fast or undergo voluntary hardship or physical pain.

The Stoics, for example, would deliberately expose themselves to cold water, eat bland food, and even sleep on the floor so that they could practice their Stoic beliefs and exercise temperance.

More extreme asceticism can be seen in ascetic religious life, with a lifestyle characterized by speaking only at certain times of the day and living a monastic lifestyle with other people who share the same beliefs. Christian monasticism is an example of this.

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WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF ASCETICISM?

The goal of asceticism can vary across different belief systems. This means that the benefits can also vary.

In some, it’s seen as a path to spiritual enlightenment or a way to get to a closer connection with the divine.

In others, ascetic practice is viewed as a method to gain control over our human desires and impulses, developing a deeper sense of inner peace, discipline, and self-mastery.

This practice often involves rigorous routines like fasting, sexual abstinence, living in isolation, and engaging in repetitive physical tasks.

It’s worth mentioning that ascetic lifestyles and self-denial are not always about denying oneself pleasures. It can also be about finding a deeper meaning or connection beyond the physical world.

So why would someone do this in our modern day-to-day lives? Here are a few benefits of an ascetic way of life:

  1. Improvements in self-control and discipline: The first time I came across an ascetic movement was reading the works of Seneca and his practice of swimming in the cold waters of a river. The practice of denial is one of the best ways to develop our own self-discipline. This, in turn, can lead to a greater sense of wellbeing as we learn that we can decide how we will act at any given moment.

  2. Better focus and clarity: Ascetism can be used to cut out distractions like TV, computer time, drinking, social media, porn, and a host of other things that take up our time and energy. When these kinds of things are eliminated, we naturally reduce the noise in our lives and are better able to see what’s important to us.

  3. Personal growth: when we learn what we can do without, the limits of our discipline, and our desires, we get a better understanding of who we are as a person. This insight into who we are helps us to grow as people.

  4. Physical health: when our ascetic practices are directed towards things like food, drink, sleep, and exercise, we will naturally improve the state of the body (given that none of this is taken to far and we starve ourselves). The elimination of things that damage our health improves our lives as a result.

These benefits will depend entirely on the practice of asceticism that you decide to follow. However, many of the areas above are achievable with small changes to our lives. What works for one person may not work for another, so it’s worth experimenting to see what works for you.

WHY ARE PEOPLE ASCETIC?

There are a number of reasons someone might choose to live an ascetic life.

Some will do it for spiritual growth, believing that the rejection of things like money and possessions will allow them to get closer to a life of spirituality and peace.

Others will do it for religious reasons, devoting themselves to God.

In our modern world, more and more people use a milder form of ascetism to practice self-discipline, self-control, and self-improvement.

This can be seen through the use of ice baths, cold showers, no-nut-November, hard workouts, fasting, cutting out certain food, alcohol, social media, etc.

However we use it, ascetism can be many things to many people, and the rejection of some of life’s comforts and temptations can provide a great deal of benefit for those that seek it.

The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius used to reject his comfortable bed in favour of sleeping like a solider.

The Stoic statesman Seneca used to swim in the cold rivers of winter to practice voluntary hardship. Throughout history, men and women have found a number of ways to practice this same philosophy for their own personal development.

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Types of religious asceticism

Religious traditions and religious practices vary massively all over the world. However, ascetic practice is common in many of them.

Here are some examples of ascetic groups from world religions:

Christian Asceticism

  • Monasticism: Involves monks and nuns living in monasteries, dedicating their lives to prayer, work, and spiritual pursuits. They often take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

  • Hermitic Asceticism: Practiced by hermits who live in solitude, often in remote locations, to focus on spiritual growth and prayer.

Buddhist Asceticism

  • Forest Monasticism: Monks live in forests, away from societal comforts, focusing on meditation and mindfulness.

  • Eight Precepts: Lay Buddhists sometimes follow these precepts for short periods, which include abstaining from entertainment, luxurious beds, and eating after noon.

Hindu Asceticism

  • Sannyasa: Sannyasis renounce material possessions and societal roles to seek spiritual liberation.

  • Yoga and Meditation: While not strictly ascetic, these practices focus on self-control and the transcendence of physical needs.

Jain Asceticism

  • Sky-clad (Digambara) Monks: These monks renounce all possessions, including clothing, to practice non-attachment.

  • Fasting and Penance: Jains and jain nuns often engage in fasting and other forms of penance to purify the soul.

Islamic Asceticism (Sufism)

  • Sufi Practices: Includes zikr (remembrance of God), fasting, and night prayers aimed at achieving spiritual closeness with Allah.

  • Withdrawal from Worldly Life: Some Sufis practice withdrawal from worldly life to focus on the spiritual path.

What are examples of asceticism practices?

Asceticism can vary dramatically, depending on who wants to practice it and why.

Generally, the goals are either for self-discipline or spiritual pursuit, and I’ve listed some examples of practices below.

Some of these can be applied quite easily to modern life; other ascetic practices might be more difficult and are not very compatible with being a functioning member of modern society.

  1. Fasting: A relatively easy one. In many religions and philosophies, fasting simply involves abstaining from food, drink, or both for a specific period. It’s seen as a way to purify the body and mind and enhance spiritual focus. In Islam, for instance, Ramadan is a month of daily fasting from dawn until sunset.

  2. Celibacy: The practice of abstaining from sex is a common practice in religion. Catholic priests and nuns, for example, do this as a means to devote themselves more fully to god.

  3. Solitude and Isolation: A more difficult one (especially if you have a family). Spending time in isolation, away from the distractions of society, is another practice common in religion.

  4. Silence (Mauna): Practicing silence, or ‘mauna’ as it’s known in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, is another form of asceticism. This practice involves not speaking for a period of time to deepen introspection and spiritual connection. Another one that’s a little difficult to do with a modern lifestyle.

  5. Meditation and Prayer: Meditation and prayer are involved in many ascetic practices. For example, traditions like Sufism in Islam and various forms of Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu monasticism practice meditation. We can do this as well, and meditation is a pretty straight-forward practice to add to our day-to-day lives.

  6. Physical Austerities: Some ascetics engage in physical austerities like standing for long periods, extreme yoga positions, or even self-flagellation. These practices are often seen as ways to overcome physical limitations and desires and to purify the body and spirit. This might be a little extreme for a lot of us.

What is Natural Asceticism?

Regarding natural and unnatural asceticism, natural asceticism is a type of ascetic practice that focuses on living in harmony with nature, often involving simplicity, self-sufficiency, and making sure that we have a minimal impact on the environment.

Unlike traditional religious asceticism, which is focused on spiritual or religious grounds, natural asceticism is more about adopting a lifestyle that respects and preserves the natural world.

A natural ascetic lifestyle puts a lot of focus on conscious choice to reduce one’s ecological footprint, rather than extreme forms, and is often inspired by environmental concerns and a desire for a healthier, more sustainable way of living.

Key aspects of natural asceticism include:

  1. Simplicity in Living: Choosing a minimalist lifestyle, reducing material possessions, and focusing on what is essential rather than excessive or luxurious.

  2. Sustainable Practices: Engaging in sustainable living habits such as growing one’s own food, using renewable energy sources, and minimizing waste and consumption.

  3. Connection with Nature: Spending time in natural settings, appreciating the intrinsic value of the natural world, and often living in rural or wilderness areas to foster a deeper connection with nature.

  4. Self-Sufficiency: Striving for independence from modern consumerism and technology by producing one’s own food, making one’s own clothes, and generally reducing reliance on industrialized goods and services.

  5. Mindful Consumption: Being conscious of the environmental impact of one’s choices and opting for eco-friendly and ethical products.

  6. Physical Health and Wellness: Often, natural ascetics place a strong emphasis on physical health, engaging in activities like hiking, yoga, and organic gardening, which are seen as beneficial for both the body and the mind.

Natural ascetic tradition is not typically associated with any specific religious practice but is more of a lifestyle choice influenced by environmental ethics, health consciousness, and a philosophical stance towards living a meaningful life with minimal harm to the planet.

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