Asceticism for Everyone
Asceticism is not abstinence from pleasure; it's abstinence from the types of pleasure that weaken willpower and cause the mind to lose control over its reasoning skills. It's a tool for happiness; a medium, not an aim. To be ascetic is to give more space to other forms of happiness to flourish, and eternalize every second of one's life.
Asceticism is not only for monks, recluses, loners or nerds. Nor is it just to fulfill a religious commandment, or to follow a tradition, or to subject oneself to voluntary punishment. It is to fulfill a commandment by our common sense, to obey the voice of Reason. It's for the recluse in the mountain, as it is for a city mother of five, or a middle-class employee who lives a 24x7 hectic, buzzing lifestyle. We are in dire need for asceticism, because we have higher aspirations in life, that our body senses not only fail to satisfy, but also interfere with pursuing such aspirations. Some call those higher needs spiritual, divine or mystic; but recently we found that they only take place, not too far from where we are sitting now, in the higher brain, primarily its frontal cortex—a part of the physical body you and I have.
The tractable nature of asceticism allows it best to control all man's needs and pleasures, fears and desires, playing the role of judge among his endless conflicting urges. A man cannot know what he loves unless he distances himself from it first. It's the animal survival strategy of retreat and attack, fight or flight from what we desire, that we apply till we win that we love and need most. It's a mind valve constantly opening and closing to filter such desires: some to keep, some to do without.
Secular Asceticism vs. Religious Asceticism
The secular ascetic is different from the religious one; and so is the rational from the spiritual. Many well-known ascetics throughout the ages treated the human body as their enemy, an obstacle on the road of spiritual salvation they had to overcome. Hence they tortured that evil body, irrationally.
1. A wise, rational ascetic, who appreciates the fruits of civilization and understands the nature of our continuous evolution, wouldn't choose to live in a mountain or desert, hundreds of miles away from all forms of civilization: no transport, no hospitals, no medicine, no stores, no banks, no police, no private or public services ... His wisdom dictates to him that he cannot be self-sufficient without the assistance of other humans: doctors, lawyers, scientists, carpenters, plumbers, etc. Even when he lives in an organized community of other ascetics (cenobites), they still cannot separate themselves from the outside world and live independently of other communities.
2. A rational ascetic wouldn't give away all his possessions and savings to the poor and charity organizations (which is only an analgesic to the universal problem of poverty), making a beggar of himself and living on charity himself, by subjecting himself to future risks when he would need the very money he had wasted, for unexpected surgeries, unaffordable medicine, housing requirements ... or for buying objects he alone needs or he alone enjoys. (Irrational communism and gluttonous capitalism are both insidious.)
Rather, he lives on little, only keeping what he vitally needs to be secure. Like his possessions, so is his ego: he has self-respect but not an inflated ego; he seeks self-sufficiency, yet he accepts charity when offered, by those who do it willfully, having a surplus of resources they want to share with others. His self-worth derives from what he gives, making the world a better place, not from what he takes/collects/hoards ...
3. A religious ascetic tortures or ignores his body, even when this obviously leads to an illness or sends him to an early grave (which is actually an irreligious thing to do, i.e. a sin, because he abuses life, the gift given to him by whomever deity he worships). Many religious ascetics choose a lifestyle of less eating, in quality and quantity, and less sleep, ignoring the health advice they take and scientific facts they might learn; they choose less interaction with other humans, men or women, even when cooperation is a must for their survival. They only care about survival, not here, but in an invisible world thereafter.
4. Above all this, which is the cause of all this, the religious ascetic ignores his mind as much as he ignores his body, depriving himself of what his mind needs and enjoys. He cannot freely argue about what he believes, because to him his beliefs are absolutes, beyond all arguing or reasoning, for that is what he was taught early in his life, and what was imprinted into his child's malleable brain. Sadly his desire for learning was discouraged each time it had sought a forbidden intellectual fruit, and the signals in his brain's neural pathways were always blocked, by such rigid absolutes who patrolled borders with other lobes of his brain, where oppressed signals were kept at bay: ridiculed thoughts, unanswered questions and suppressed desires. His curiosity about the real world had been brutally murdered by his elders at the age it should have flourished the most, leaving nothing to him but curbed imagination and a bunch of metaphysical speculations on the invisible: theology, eschatology, and apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenarios to endlessly harp on. All vital sciences about the physical world were just secular sciences, unworthy to choose from except that which suited his beliefs and did not disturb his peaceful, blissful ignorance.
Yet when it was impossible to ignore truth, like every time he fell sick and needed help from science, he would give up some of his rigidity. Thanks to the universal nature of his beliefs, as they always deal with general concepts such as, love, peace, hope, and other layman ethics, he can re-tailor those beliefs to suit any new scientific knowledge whenever he likes. And, thanks to the abysmal, labyrinthine nature of the same beliefs, he can also take and discard whatever he likes, explaining his one-size-fits-all absolutes as much as he pleases. He has ALL the time he needs (he has eternity for God's sake). Why rush then, when life is never too short, and time is always at his command?!
However, let us leave religious asceticism alone, as it concerns some groups of people and is not for everyone. Let us focus instead on rational, secular asceticism, that anyone with any belief can learn; which, though taking time to master, is worth every minute of practicing, deserving the fruits one is to reap from.
Asceticism & Eremitism
Asceticism is superior to eremitism and other forms of monastic life, that are only limited to certain places and humans. The ascetic can live anywhere, adjusting himself to life in any environment with any people. He can be a hermit or a monk, secular or religious, but not necessarily, for he can also be anyone: a king, a servant, a soldier, a scientist …
An ascetic can abstain from all animal pleasures including social pleasures, that are also instinctive, equally shared by humans and animals, who spend much of their life mingling, watching, touching, prattling with each other, for no reason other than the compulsive urge to do so. A hermit, loner or introvert may abstain from the company of people, yet can still fall prey to sensual pleasures disturbing his solitude, to an addictive degree, and become addicted to food, TV, games, porn, or "social" media undermining the meaning of solitude. Asceticism is a broader concept, including eremitism, self-control and other virtues within.
An ascetic, a hermit or not, has the flexibility to live with or without other people, as one cannot avoid interaction with others, and people need people to keep the wheel of civilization turning. The Desert Fathers described the real hermit as one who can retire to himself, wherever he is. An ascetic thus needs prudence to distinguish between people and things he falsely loves and those he really needs. A virtue without prudence/wisdom is a vice.
Since eremitism is a form of asceticism, one cannot diminish the role of hermits in their hermitages, scientists confined in their labs, writers bound to their desks, stay-home mothers raising children, or just students studying for their exams: the benefits of creative solitude are many. But for such creativity to exist, one needs to remove all forms of disturbance, from one's room and mind. The relinquishment of unnecessary "feelings and possessions" is what asceticism is about. It's the adoption of simple living, by which we constantly remember the simplest fact in life: we live to enjoy ourselves.
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Asceticism is attained gradually, not suddenly, for one to take time replacing old pleasures with new ones. It is flexible and never strict; the ascetic mustn't enjoy asceticism for itself, as it's only a tool for happiness, otherwise he ends up with self-abuse and masochism, which undermine the whole meaning of life. No principle, belief or virtue should ever be taken seriously or for itself, except the constant pursuit of pleasure, without which all our actions and endeavors are void of meaning.
History is full of success stories of ascetic people from all walks of life, who managed to live as life-long ascetics while still enjoying life to the full. Inexperienced detractors call it austerity, but to the ascetic it is just simple living:
In ascetic societies people progress faster than those in materialistic ones. Great empires fell when rulers and citizens succumbed to physical obsessions, hampering free thinking and inflicting population with gluttony and greed for "extra" possessions and power, at the expense of fellow humans' "basic" needs, which creates inequality, division and conflicts among themselves as well as with foreign countries. Conversely, countries whose citizens could cope with austerity measures, temporarily implemented to achieve a national goal for a better future for their country, grew faster (than those who have the wish but not the will to realize it).
Some beliefs and philosophies were founded by enlightened ascetics who sought welfare for the entire humanity. Others were spread by force, deception and appeal to instinct. And many were the bitter fruit of "forced" asceticism whose followers eventually "vomited" it, shifting from extreme austerity to extreme materialism—as most Western societies did, unfortunately with millions of followers worldwide infected by their media.
Long before their demise, materialistic civilizations go through stages of decline. The intelligentsia becomes the property of corrupt court and ignorant masses, if not thrown behind bars or locked up in their houses or egos. Scientists design more tools of destruction and consumerism. And even media, arts and literature pander to the whims of the public (comedies, parodies, lifestyle, etc.). Meanwhile, reform, equality, or interest in future planning becomes more and more difficult. Thus resources are gradually wasted and environment damaged, because of Man's ominous abuse of Nature, to which he is superior yet without her he is nonexistent. Humans refine themselves by going "above" their nature (not against it), by rational asceticism.