Sunday, November 30, 2008

Asceticism - A dieter's approach

Asceticism is the practice of forgoing physical pleasure in order to advance another goal.  The general notion in most religious or philosophical belief systems is that hedonism, or excessive enjoyment, is a pretty pointless goal and therefore at best can be said to distract a person from their spiritual or mental development or even just practical day to day tasks.

There are exceptions to this rule - some people pursue a life of hedonism under the understanding that if they don't hurt anyone then they deserve to enjoy the fruits of their labours in any way they decide is appropriate.  Wicca says "an harm ye none do what ye will" which seems like a license to hedonism if the person decides it's appropriate - however many traditions teach that better control over the spiritual realm is facilitated by restricting alcohol, drugs, meat.  Similarly the Wikipedia article on asceticism notes that the Talmud instructs Jews that they have been given the opportunity for pleasure by a God that wants them to experience it - and that anyone who turns down the opportunity to enjoy a new fruit will have to answer for it in the next life! Again, there is an understanding amongst Jews that intellectual pursuits will prove more enjoyable in the long term than say getting drunk and falling over! The day of rest is put aside as a day of worship!

In other religions there is a strong emphasis on asceticism as a way of reaching spiritual enlightenment.  The argument goes that focusing on this world only tells us about this world - whereas by ignoring or overcoming the demands on our bodies we can focus more on the spiritual realm.  Early Christians were said to have whipped themselves (self-flaggelation) with whips made from birch so that they would stop thinking about their body and start thinking about God.  Weird, huh? Similarly some Hindus and Jains will go out of their way to lead a life of suffering - becoming hermits, meditating in uncomfortable yoga positions and so on.

The Buddha understood luxury because he was a Prince.  His father didn't want him to know of suffering, old age, illness and poverty but the young Prince Guatama accidentally saw suffering and decided to leave the palace and learn more.  His first step was to experiment with asceticism, eating nothing and meditating.  History says he ate just one seed each day and Buddhist art depicts the ascetic buddha with jutting out ribs and hollow cheeks.  But Buddha did not become enlightened through asceticism - instead he realised it simply provided an unnatural emphasis on the physical world and an opportunity for extremism.

So Buddha created the most difficult religious practice of all: the Middle Path.  This path emphasises healthy eating over gluttony.  To many it appears that Buddhist monks and nuns do practice asceticism because they renounce luxury but actually they never go to the extent of aiming to make themselves sick or injured - they simply remove the physical distractions from their life.

Renouncing luxury is a consistent theme in modern religious asceticism.  It's not about extremes,  just removing the distractions.  Amish and other conservative Christian groups do not have television and computer games to distract them from reading about God but many groups are happy to use a modern car or electric stove (depending on their location and what services are available) if an alternative is impractical or unavailable.  They wear simple, modest clothing in muted colours so that clothing does not distract them.

Buddha wants us to by physically healthy and to pursue meditation - this means a certain amount of restriction.  He does not give commandments however he identifies  key suggestions for a person seeking to decrease or end suffering: 

1. Refrain From Killing
2. Refrain from Stealing
3. Refrain from Lying, Slandering, Gossiping and Spreading Rumours
4. Refrain from Sexual Misconduct
5. Refrain from Taking Intoxicants

That's the beginner's guide to Buddhist practice.  Those wishing to pursue meditation also:

6. Abstain from Taking meals at inappropriate time.
7. Abstain from Entertaining, Dancing, Singing, Use of beauty products & perfumes.
8. Abstain from Seating on high and luxurious chairs and beds.

Asceticism is a way to focus on the things that really matter! It's a way to pay attention to one's real goals rather than transient pleasures. And finally it is not to become a refuge for those wishing to avoid the world - it's a way to help us understand and engage with the entire world more fully!

My own goal is to embrace the five precepts more fully, to make merit through my acts and to gain some psychological strength through meditation.  I needn't think about dieting if I am compelled to take intoxicating substances.  Alcohol is more than just high calorie for low reward - it's poison to the body and mind, two things I'm trying to improve! Instead of filling my idle time I need to focus more on being industrious and contributing positively to the world!

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