Asceticism is a spiritual journey of a person that has disconnected from worldly affairs. But can ascetics really isolate themselves from the physical world they live in? Do they worry about world news and events in the outside world? If so, how do they combine asceticism and worldly concerns?
In this article, we will try to answer in simple terms what asceticism is and how the decision to let go of the material aspects of one’s life affects a person in the modern world.
What Is Asceticism?
Asceticism in philosophy is the practice of renouncing physical or psychological desires and adherence to a strict abstinence from different pleasures as a measure of personal and spiritual discipline. It is a tight control over the mind, body, and feelings caused by the desire to get away from the overabundance of consumption.
Asceticism has always been an integral part of Christian spirituality. The word “asceticism” comes from the Greek word askesis, meaning “exercise” or “training.” This term applies to some practices of the Stoics, Cynics, and Eastern religions, including Buddhism.
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Ascetic practices are used for many purposes. For example, many religious traditions encourage the voluntary renunciation of habitual blessings at periodic or specific times in the religious calendar, usually to purify a person’s soul or prepare for a significant ritual event.
Perhaps there is not a single religion in the world that would do without ascetic practices. Asceticism’s value in strengthening people’s will and deepening spiritual powers have been part of many philosophical and religious movements throughout history.
For example, the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer advocated a type of asceticism that aims at destroying the will to live. His compatriot and earlier contemporary, philosopher Immanuel Kant, adhered to moral asceticism for the development of virtue.
The Main Types of Asceticism
Asceticism can be divided into two types:
- Natural asceticism – a way of life in which the material aspects are reduced to the utmost simplicity and minimum, but without the mutilation and severe austerities from which the human body suffers.
- Unnatural asceticism – a practice that involves self-infliction of pain, such as sleeping on nails or self-mutilation.
Asceticism also includes the development of moral qualities that require self-restraint and discipline, such as patience and forbearance. It is regarded as an important component of spiritual growth, which includes a wide range of practices aimed at identifying vices and cultivating virtue.
How Does Asceticism Manifest in Ordinary Life?
Previously, the rejection of worldly things was associated only with hermit monks, who voluntarily deprived themselves of all material goods and pleasures. The essence of asceticism in its classical sense is reduced to the exaltation of chastity and a life full of hardships and rejections, as well as the rejection of any pleasures.
Asceticism was once a flourishing practice. The monastic law governed the ecclesiastical peoples with astonishing rigidity, and even the laity were exposed to the complex world of feasts and fasts. But with the beginning of the era of the Reformation in society, asceticism has declined in popularity.
However, believing that the Reformation buried the ascetic life forever would be a mistake. In fact, it can be argued that voluntary abandonment of pleasures is thriving in ways never before seen.
Ascetic instincts have morphed into secular counterparts with the decline of religious beliefs and practices. Food for the soul has ceased to be relevant, and a focus on the body has replaced it. The desire to serve the higher powers is rapidly diminishing. Instead, there is a desire to seek materialistic means of salvation through strict control of the body.
Asceticism has not disappeared. For many people, contemporary forms of discipline are centered around things like keeping fit, including rigorous workouts or going to the gym, and controlling one’s diet. The rest of this article will focus on various forms of asceticism as it presents itself in the modern world.
Clean eating is usually defined as the practice of avoiding refined sugar and processed foods. Adherents of this increasingly popular diet prefer to eat whole foods, preferably farm-based and organic, and refuse to consume fast food and junk food, processed foods, canned food, industrial sweets and pastries, and even juices from the package. They try to cook at home to know the exact composition of the dishes and eat only freshly prepared food.
Another offshoot of clean eating is the raw food diet. In this case, all products are consumed without heat treatment, the basis of such a diet is vegetables, fruits, herbs, and nuts.
However, doctors advise a careful approach to such changes in the diet. Ascetics must thoughtfully plan the menu to cover all the body’s needs for nutrients, vitamins, and minerals and regularly take tests for deficiencies.
Media Asceticism and Digital Detoxes
Media asceticism is an attempt to control the flow of information we consume through digital channels. People can completely reject social networks or limit the time spent on them. Media asceticism also includes the filtering of news and the development of personal rules for consuming news.
For example, you can read some news only in the morning or listen to them on the radio while going home.
Another practice that falls under the umbrella of “digital detox” is giving up gadgets and not going online only for a limited time. Such a “digital detox” can be arranged when an emotional overload has occurred or combined with a vacation to avoid wasting time on social networks and chatting in comments while traveling.
One can practice turning off the Internet regularly. For example, many have avoided reading messages a couple of hours before bedtime, and do not open social networks on weekends.
Or vice versa, some have chosen to avoid being distracted by social media during the working week, but choose to engage in social media during the weekends.
Social asceticism is somewhat related to media asceticism since contemporary communication often occurs on the Internet. The point is to filter social connections and revise social circles, removing unnecessary people – for example, those who one finds ideologically incompatible, or simply those whose company is not as pleasant as it once was.
Based on the logic of social asceticism, one should not accept all invitations, and it is best to avoid meeting toxic relatives. It’s okay to not go to lunch with colleagues every day. Quality of communication is more important than quantity alone.
The mass market has made fashion more accessible than ever. Every couple of months, brands release new collections, encouraging the public to buy new things. In addition, affordable prices and physical accessibility (there are many stores in all major cities) allow people to update their wardrobe at an incredibly fast pace.
But “fast fashion” tends to lead to the production of low-quality items. Such clothes quickly become unusable and must be thrown away – and usually end up in a landfill – and must be replaced by new clothes; the cycle continues.
Every year, stores sell about 80 billion items of clothing. Each item is worn only seven times on average. In China, this figure is even lower, where one thing is put on an average of three times and thrown away. At the same time, clothing is poorly recyclable and mainly sent to landfills or incinerators. It is no wonder that some people choose to avoid this type of conspicuous consumption and abstain from buying fast fashion and engaging in fleeting online trends.
Famous Contemporary Ascetics
One of the most famous ascetics of our age was Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. His no-nonsense look went down in history: a black turtleneck designed by Issey Miyake, blue Levi’s jeans, and New Balance sneakers. It was essentially his uniform, appropriate for any day and any circumstance.
Jobs had a lot of identical turtlenecks made to order. The ready-made set prevented him from being distracted by the daily choice of clothes and, over time, even became Jobs’ signature style.
Colleagues also noted the minimalist interior of Jobs’ house and careful consumer habits. For example, Jobs did not buy an expensive coat when it was raining in New York just because, in California, where he lived, he did not need it.
IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad called a waste of resources a “mortal sin”. He strove for rationality and economy not only in business but also in his personal life.
In addition to shopping at flea markets, Kamprad took advantage of cheap haircuts while he was visiting developing countries. He also flied economy class and drove the same car for approximately 20 years.
So, What Are the Advantages of Asceticism?
Today, there are a thousand ways to make yourself feel comfortable with the help of material and “mundane” things: eat a treat, scroll through social networks, watch a movie, buy new things or play a computer game.
There is nothing wrong with any of these actions. However, if people constantly do these things to feel better, they can become slaves to their own desires. They get sucked into a form of addiction, looking for material comforts every time they are sad or ill. This can be upsetting as consumption does not solve deeper problems.
Given this background, it is clear that a reasonable amount of asceticism can help a person to gain proper power over oneself. Minimalism in food, reasonable consumption, a measured lifestyle – all this can be a manifestation of asceticism.
Of course, such a minimalist lifestyle may not benefit an economy based solely on commodity-money relations. Still, it certainly makes a lot of sense from both a personal and an environmental point of view.