Asceticism frightens and repels modern humanity. Yet the original definition of asceticism is simply “self-discipline,” as in the ancient Greek sense of physical exercise and endurance, pursued for the sake of athletic achievement. To transfer this intensity of practice to psychological and spiritual pursuits is what repels moderns. Physical feats are much admired as sports and warfare. Physical self-discipline is far less of interest to most. Even more so is asceticism as rightly understood today.
The modern connotation of asceticism originates in Edward Gibbon’s sarcastic portrayal of the desert hermits of early Christianity. Gibbon’s portrait of deprivation, self-destruction and morbid fanaticism intended to contrast with refined and comfortable Enlightenment sophistication — his own, a corpulent, gouty, smug ease, disdainful of labor and physical exertion, apology for a civilization built on slavery and empire. The effect has lingered in an explosion of obesity, degenerative diseases, consumer technology, and the destruction of nature rampant today.
An asceticism that scorns modern values is therefore, by this understanding, disruptive, subversive, and revolutionary. Historical asceticism was a blatant rejection of the world and its values, but especially a rejection of Gibbon’s world (as it existed contemporaneously in the Roman Empire), and those who continually recreate and maintain it even today. Hair-shirts, sleep deprivation, and self-flagellation represent an extreme of asceticism. But so do specialized military training, sports doping, or even extreme sports endangering life and health. In contrast, fasting and abstaining from animal products is entirely therapeutic and highly ethical and serve as an antidonte to modern food habits.
The excesses of asceticism, East or West, were checked not by the religious orders or clergy but by the mystics, who knew that true ascetisicm lies in the mind, not the body. The young Shakyamuni went from worldliness to the extreme asceticism that he believed would purge the worldliness and its accretions lingering in him — a logical process if it concerned only the body. But his realization that the mind and not simply the body is the true objet of self-discipline led the Buddha to the middle way. The middle way is only “middle” in its assumption of mechanisms and disciplines, a conjunction of rigor and peace, of effort and simplicity, of balance — not in the Western sense of middle as compromise, vacillation, and mediocrity.
Asceticism is renunciation without loss of value, simplicity without loss of grace, solitude without loss of identity. It empties out the vessel as its content withers or evaporates. We do not cling to the disappearing content but retain the bowl itself, which is the vessel of self. The rest is that which others, including culture, have used to fill the vessel.
Historical asceticism is not a Greek form of self-discipline where reason is invoked as an arbitrator between warring factions. Eastern asceticism shifted from the priestly caste to the sadhus, whose emphasis on austerities was clearly more efficacious than prayer and ritual. In the West, Christianity’s historical focus on the turmoil of the body was due to the rationalism embedded in externals: liturgy, recitations, the absence of physical labor, fresh air, and the commication with nature that the medieval hermits restored. No rationalism is needed for the soul finely honed by meditation, nature, observation of self, and sloughing off of the ego.
Asceticism does not juggle the worldly and the transcendent, as if it had to leave the body in order to seek out the divine, as if the divine were not embedded in nature itself, which is the world without us. The mystic (and the solitary) never leave this seatedness, this grounding in temporality and the evanescent. They simply become part of it, do not fight it as the Greek connotation of asceticism suggests. Instead, they abide right through it, in the process discarding the pleasures and temptations of the world that make him or her appear to be practicing techniques, practicing asceticism. The practice simply becomes living itself.