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Asceticism

By - Oct 5, 2011 - Category Conceptbox - Print Print - Version française

Asceticism

It appears that asceticism has always played a role in societies where spiritual life was organised and ritualised, to different degrees and in various ways depending on civilisations and times.

Etymologically, the term “asceticism” comes from the Greek askesis, which simply means “exercise”. In Ancient Greece, it applied to the exercises and discipline required of athletes. This is precisely what all forms of asceticism have in common: to impose a discipline onto oneself and thus exert one’s willpower against certain natural bodily tendencies. In India, for example, the practice of asceticism includes bodily exercises designed to control the body, breathing exercises to control both the body and the mind, as well as various fasting and meditation techniques.

Every religion (as well as most ancient philosophical schools) includes some highly regulated forms of asceticism such as fasting (abstaining from either food or sexual relations), ritual prayer, all-night vigils and the like. The purpose of such exercises is to strengthen the will of believers by getting them to control their most basic bodily instincts (hunger, thirst, fatigue, etc.). As part of the exoteric framework that codifies it, asceticism remains an exercise of willpower: it sets a lifestyle of discipline that maintains moderation and balance. However, many mystics, wishing to go beyond simple religious prescriptions, have established asceticism as a rule of life, making it the central element of their spiritual practice. It is generally this variety of asceticism that comes to mind when the words “asceticism” or “ascetic” are used nowadays. An ascetic, in that sense, is a “person who, out of piety, imposes on him or herself exercises of repentance, deprivation, and mortification”. The idea of piety is essential here, because it shows that these exercises of bodily mortification are performed with a moral and spiritual objective. They are based on the idea that in order to ensure the victory of the spirit, one must fight against the demands of the flesh. In the mystical approaches found in Christianity and Islam, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism, practices of bodily mortification (whether through deprivation or aggression) are valued, to the extent that they seek to give primacy to the spirit by weakening the body. Similarly, withdrawing from the world to live in isolation, whether in the desert or a monastery, is viewed as a way to cut oneself off from the temptations inherent to living in society, hence as a form of psychological mortification.

Whatever the method, asceticism carried out in this spirit is very different from a mere exercise in willpower, because its ultimate goal (as suggested by the very word “mortification”) is the outright elimination of the bodily dimension and its associated instincts, or at least their reduction to a minimum level, that which is necessary for survival. This violent reduction of the terrestrial part of the self is supposed to enable the connection of the spirit with the spiritual worlds. As a matter of fact, it is instrumental in causing so-called altered states of consciousness such as ecstasy, visions, etc. The truth is that such a conception of asceticism amounts to eliminating bodily pleasures in favour of pleasures of a new kind: spiritual pleasures.

For Ostad Elahi, these forms of asceticism associated with “classic spirituality” are an obstacle in the process of perfection in view of which human souls have descended to Earth in the first place. The main reason for that is quite obvious: perfection implies balance, but extreme asceticism constitutes an imbalance that—even if this is meant to benefit the celestial soul—can only have a destructive effect on the harmonious process of perfection of the human being conceived as a whole. Furthermore, the pursuit of spiritual pleasures is not fundamentally different from the pursuit of material pleasures, in the sense that it implies submitting one’s will to the pleasure principle. Finally, according to Ostad Elahi (by Fogard), who himself practised all of these methods throughout his childhood and youth, mortifying the body does not lead to true self-mastery. Indeed, when the body is weakened, the will is not confronted with the task of controlling bodily impulses—these have simply been put to sleep. As soon as the body becomes slightly stronger or is faced with temptations that had been artificially kept at bay, it regains the upper hand. According to Ostad Elahi, the soul needs a strong yet educated mount that obeys the orders of the celestial soul in the name of ethics. In this sense, true ethics can only be practised in society, by confronting temptations rather than avoiding them through artificial self-isolation. The terrestrial and celestial parts are complementary; they nourish and support one another, and must both be controlled by reason.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that the body has rights of its own, like any other creature—most importantly, the right to be respected, nourished, and entertained, within the limits of what is licit. Submitting the body to excessive and damaging asceticism is not only spiritually unnecessary, it also violates the “rights of the body” and thereby stands in the way of self-perfection. For Ostad Elahi, the purpose of genuine asceticism is not to mortify the body, but rather, in the line of the philosophical wisdom of ancient Greece, to exercise willpower over impulses, to achieve temperance, but most importantly, to maintain an inner distance within oneself, between the surface conscious self and the deep conscious self. This form of inner asceticism, while no doubt less spectacular than the “feats” of the mystics, is in fact more demanding because it strives for the kind of dynamic balance that characterises perfection.


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13 comments

  1. k Oct 05, 2011 3:40 pm 1

    Thank you for this article. The section with the etymology of the word asceticism was very interesting too.
    But I don’t understand this sentence:
    “…to maintain an inner distance within oneself, between the surface conscious self and the deep conscious self.”

    From the last lecture by Prof. Elahi we learned what the “conscious self” is. But it seems that in this article there is also distinction between a *deep conscious self* and a *surface conscious self*.
    Can anyone elaborate? What is for example the “deep conscious self”?

  2. Toronto Oct 05, 2011 8:49 pm 2

    I enjoyed the article very much. I think being in society and being around so many temptations and yet constantly remembering our goal and our process of perfection is the hardest kind of “ascetisim” if you will. It refers back to that deep level of consciousness that Ostad Elahi refers to—that is, a place inside of us where we are constantly doing natural meditation even while being amongst thousands and thousands of people, noise, etc.

  3. wire Oct 06, 2011 1:35 pm 3

    I think of my superficial/surface conscious self as my immediate or instinctive response to my environment; the part of my self that is directly linked to my imperious self and is responsible for my anger, etc. My deep conscious self is that part which is a secondary reaction to my instinct, whose voice says to struggle against that natural instinct to be angry; the part of my self that is directly linked to my transcendent and sound reasons. Once I understood this distinction, I became more aware of these 2 voices during the normal course of my day.

  4. A. Oct 13, 2011 2:32 pm 4

    Thank you for this article. One sentence that really has really struck me is “Furthermore, the pursuit of spiritual pleasures is not fundamentally different from the pursuit of material pleasures, in the sense that it implies submitting one’s will to the pleasure principle.”

    As I remember my first experiences, almost twenty years ago, I also clearly see some of the mistakes that characterized my spiritual practice at the time, namely my unconscious search for spiritual emotions.

    In other words, in my mind I would agree with the fact that one should strive to accomplish his duty for God’s satisfaction, without expecting anything in return, but in practice if I often did things in the hope of experiencing emotions. Also, the belief that experiencing frequent spiritual emotions was positive and also that they were some kind of divine signature, or divine messages to confirm the “spiritual” value of my deeds, did not die away easily. It took several years for this to sink in. The reason for this was that the emotions were sometimes very intense and thus my erroneous (subconscious) belief was reinforced. This is very important and I would like to stress again how erroneous beliefs are hard to die away if they are associated with strong emotions (see also “Decoding the spiritual messages of everyday life” by Dr Paul Debell – chapter 7).

    And all of this happened despite the fact that my experiences proved me wrong many, many times. In other words, I was very slow at correcting my beliefs despite negative feedback from reality. The strong emotions associated with my beliefs prevented me from correcting myself as quickly as it should have been the case.

  5. A. Oct 13, 2011 2:34 pm 5

    It is interesting to read this article after reading “A practical approach to altruism” (also in this web site) for in this last article it is clearly said that : “Those who care about their process of perfection should include the practice of altruism in their spiritual program”.

    In view of this, the obvious conclusion is that the forms of asceticism associated with “classic spirituality” are an obstacle in the process of perfection also because they create artificial self-isolation. In fact, how could one possibly practice altruism if one has nobody to practice it with?

  6. Noel Oct 15, 2011 2:06 pm 6

    I find the pictures associated with this article intriguing. However, I am unclear about what the different figures in the last two pictures represent. Does anyone have any thoughts on what they signify?

  7. maxfarsh Oct 17, 2011 4:47 pm 7

    Thank you for this article. I am remined of what Ostad Elahi said about his life: ”
    The whole of the twelve years of asceticism that I endured prior to joining government service had less spiritual value than just one year spent in the office. ”

    I am sorry for the incoherent writing but I am just sharing some random thoughts .
    Naturally, due to imbalance in the spiritual atmosphere, I think that modern society creates a strong attraction to asceticism in order for person to feel a escape. 100 years ago, as a whole, the place of God was more present in society. Consequently, even without ascetism, it might have been easy to feel the divine presence.
    Sometimes we want spiritual results fast and that could be a reason why a soul is naturally attracted(super-id) to asceticism. It is very hard to fight against this drive. At the same, it is also very hard to fight against the drive of being plunged into mundane and wordly settings which distracts a person from his spiritual life and actually causes them to move backwards. I have problems with both feelings.

    From what I gather from Ostad Elahi’s teaching, it is extremly important to know your duties and responsibilities. The main duty is to spiritually improve yourself and this can be done through interactions with society. Consequently asceticism despite its strong attractions is a much longer path towards spiritual improvement. Basically the person has not completed his duty and is trying to accomplish what is not his duty.

  8. wire Oct 17, 2011 10:20 pm 8

    I believe that the figure in blue (who is worshipping the ascetic) is berating the monkey he believes to have stolen the figs–which is instead being eaten by the ascetic himself!

    In my opinion, it means that we should re-think the value we place on retreating from society and that at its surface, ascetic practice only punishes the body, and does not lead to lasting changes in our self (as evidenced from the ascetic succumbing to eating these figs 30 years later!)…

  9. MaryS Oct 18, 2011 8:13 am 9

    I believe the picture is showing exactly what the article is talking about: Practice practice practice. This “Ascetic” person has been meditating for 30 years. People like the person in blue respect and worship him for that sort of conduct. But the Ascetic is not fighting his imperious self and does not seem to have entered society. In one moment of weakness, the so called “ascetic” gives in and takes the fruit. He even stays silent as his student chases around the monkey who is presumed to have taken the fruit. The lesson in the illustration for me is that we as human beings have to enter society and test ourselves in the moments our imperious self kicks in. We have to fight it by practicing the education we have received. Sitting somewhere and meditating for 30 years is not the answer. The person in the illustration did such a thing, but at the end he was weak just like anyone else.

  10. k Oct 18, 2011 4:18 pm 10

    I didn’t even know that one could click on the picture and enlarge it. Before these last comments I actually didn’t pay any attention to the picture for this article! But it is actually quite funny and says a lot. Perhaps in the 3rd picture the ascetic is only pretending to be practicing asceticism.
    And thank you for your responses wire!

  11. Noel Oct 23, 2011 1:36 pm 11

    Thank you for the helpful comments. I didn’t realize that the pictures could be enlarged either. Now that I can see the details, it appears that the ascetic became more attached to material things during the course of his 30 years of asceticism… the opposite of what he was trying to achieve.

    For example, in my opinion, he needs the disciple’s worship and approval as well as the figs (which I presume have been brought to him by his disciple.) So he keeps the disciple under the illusion that he, the ascetic, has reached a high spiritual level, when in fact his ethical behavior is lacking, which is demonstrated by the fact that he stands by and watches his disciple wrongly attack the monkey for eating the figs!

  12. chat31 Oct 30, 2011 7:36 pm 12

    Thank you for this interesting article.

    I think all the comments have pointed out the importance of pratice in the process of spiritual perfection.

    However, I think that asceticism should not be rejected, it should be thought about and adapted in such a way that it corresponds to our modern lifestyles in society:
    to develop this inner discipline, we do not need to isolate ourselves in a remote mountain. The real challenge is to be an ascetic ‘inside’, but still act normally amongst our peers in society; therefore, develop a real ethical discipline by confronting everyday temptation.
    Moreover, asceticism and the notion of discipline and willpower that goes with it show that, apart from ‘pure’ practice, we need some sort of ‘rituals’ that reinforce this willpower and help us be more efficient in our practice. Amongst others, prayers and reading books that talk about ethics and spirituality can perpetually remind us of our ethical duties.

  13. 7 Mar 29, 2013 4:09 pm 13

    I am at the point in my career where I can work from home, and do my own work independently, w/o anybody bothering me, after 30 years of working hard, changing jobs and many years of traveling to different countries in order to survive and work.
    The concept of working from home was very appealing to me, I found it very relaxing and I was happy for a while. However, days passed and I felt that I did not have enough human contacts. So how about being in society? I know i have to develop ethical discipline by confronting myself with every day temptation with human contact.
    I found this opportunity at my office—there was an assignment for three months where I could teach people and share my knowledge. But I would have to go to work 8-5. So I decided to take it.

    Now one month has passed of having to go to work, every day be on time and interact with people constantly. Now I have a new boss, I have to answer to him, and every day different stressful situations arise. I hated it, it is really stressful compare to the easy life of working from home.

    It is amazing to see that every day God tests my different weak points. I feel that, spiritually speaking, every day there is a new scenario, but i would come home exhausted and complaining!

    Yesterday, finally, I realized!! Why am I complaining so much? this is the opportunity I was looking for, God is working on me, what is the matter with me?! I keep forgetting! This is the reason why i am here on earth, and it is great to be stressed up. I can watch and analyze, how my weak points get activated.

    Now it feels like i am just start to understand a bit what Ostad Elahi said regarding the value of one year of working in society compared to his twelve years of asceticism.

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