According to Merriam-Webster, asceticism is "the practice of strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline : the condition, practice, or mode of life of an ascetic : rigorous abstention from self-indulgence."
That doesn't sound like much fun, does it? It seems crazy, in a modern culture that celebrates the opposite: strict self-indulgence, and a rigorous abstention from self-denial.
And so what's wrong with self-indulgence, and what's so great about self-denial? Well, there's nothing mysterious about that. Overindulgence in food and drink leads to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, addictions, etc. ad nauseum. Inappropriate sexual self-indulgence, lust without love and commitment, is another way to contract nasty diseases, but it's an even better way to wreck relationships, break hearts, and erode self-esteem. Covetousness, as in impulse shopping or "keeping up with the Joneses," can get us into serious financial problems and leave us insecure in the long run, not to mention the degradation of natural resources and the exploitation of "third world" producers of cheap consumer goods. I could keep going through the seven deadly sins, but you get the point. Some amount of ascetical practice is just "being a grown-up," something for all of us to aspire to.
In the modern world, we are blessed and cursed with resources that St. Benedict couldn't have dreamed of. Social media is allowing us to sustain close relationships in a time of pandemic, but it can also be viciously superficial. The availability of seemingly infinite information is a gift to curious minds, but I wonder if it doesn't discourage us from slowing down to absorb and think deeply about one thing at a time. The convenience and variety of online shopping is great, but cheap consumer goods are seldom made to last. Processed and globally-sourced food is easy and affordable, but it's not very nourishing.
There are also deeper benefits to ascesis. Marie Kondo's Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is all about letting go of the excess possessions that weigh us down, so that we can be surrounded only by the things that "spark joy." That's not so much about having less as it is about really valuing all of the things we have, not acquiring or holding onto things that we don't really need or want. It's not so different from St. Benedict's teaching that we should treat all the tools and property of the monastery as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. It is about letting go of the superficial pleasures that clutter up our lives and distract us from the things that really bring us joy.
For monastics and other religious ascetics, there is a still deeper value in asceticism. Communion with the Divine is easily overshadowed by worldly desires, worries, resentment, ambition, etc. Buddhists call it "the monkey mind." The more we follow every whim and satisfy every impulse, the wilder the monkey gets, and the harder it is to hear the still, small voice of God. The voice of God is never raised to shout down the monkey mind. It is we who have to be still, and know God, and that means breaking the cycle of distraction and superficial self-indulgence.
Are you depressed yet? Because the road to hell is paved with good intentions, your diets never last, your resolutions are broken within days or weeks, the wagon seems designed to be fallen off? Yes. All that, and plus I have ADD, which means that I am even more prone to impulsivity and even weaker in self-discipline and will-power than people with typical brains. My brain is chronically starved for dopamine, and since "working memory" is one of the central deficits of the disorder, I literally can't remember my good intentions when I'm distracted by an instant reward.
But I've started to learn the art of monkey-whispering. Here and there, in one area of my life and another, I'm starting to find ways to live a more orderly, disciplined life. I'm still a mess, still a beginner, still backsliding, still figuring it out ... but I've made some progress. So I want to write some things about what I've learned so far, and maybe figure some more out as I go along. Maybe someone reading will find something useful, too.
It's a huge topic, so I have it in mind as a series, not one huge brain-dump. Just a few quick teaser thoughts, that I intend to get back to in more depth later. In no particular order:
- Will power is a limited resource, easily depleted
- Getting motivated is overrated
- Habits, once formed, don't require will power
- Some habits are more fundamental than others (diet, exercise, sleep), because they affect how much energy and focus we have available for the rest
- Dopamine addiction is a thing, worth pushing back against
- Decision fatigue is a thing. Constrain choices, and plan ahead.
- Plan treats -- anticipation extends the pleasure and defuses impulsivity.
- Ditto breaks in routine: Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy -- "give yourself a break" is a commandment
- Mindfulness is powerful stuff: meditate; single-task; acknowledge impulses without indulging them, and they will pass
- Habit and routine do not make a boring life -- they make the boring stuff automatic, so I can stop thinking about it and free up head-space for more creative and interesting stuff
- Pray for help and guidance every morning and when facing a challenge
- Examine conscience with curiosity rather than judgment, to learn from both successes and failures
- Maybe most important of all, for me, is to remember to aim for progress, not perfection. Take it slow, don't try to change everything at once. Good intentions are not magic wands. Rely on the grace of God, ask for human help when I need it, and humbly accept that I can only grow up gradually.