Ascesis

Screenshot anime Sakurasou

I have no interest in most things in this world.” There is a particular detachment that is necessary to install a new operating system to the brain.

Wikipedia is helpful again. Here’s some words from its article on Asceticism: “The founders and earliest practitioners of these religions lived extremely austere lifestyles, refraining from sensual pleasures and the accumulation of material wealth. They practiced asceticism not as a rejection of the enjoyment of life, or because the practices themselves are virtuous, but as an aid in the pursuit of physical and metaphysical health.

Mostly metaphysical, I think. Let us go back to the metaphor of downloading a new operating system for our computer. We are talking about something really massive here, and there is a limited bandwidth. Now while you are downloading this, you also want to stream a movie, then play an online game, then download a folder full of music. All on the same trickle of a bandwidth that you use for downloading the new operating system. It’s going to take its sweet time, isn’t it? And unless you constantly set that big download on pause or at least low priority, it is going to make a hassle of the other things you want to do, so you don’t get the satisfaction you expected from them either.

It is like this with the new Human Operating System. Life is disturbingly short (despite what you may have thought as a teenager) and our capacity is limited. To first download and then implement the New Mind, replacing part by part of the Old Mind, we always have two alternatives from which to choose: Prioritize the Old, or prioritize the New.

There are two aspects in particular: Time and attention. These are always limited and they give strength to whatever you invest time and attention in. As the saying goes: “Which one will win? The one you feed.”

It is in this perspective we must also see the puzzling practice of celibacy. There are men who are born to sleep alone, there are men who are made to sleep alone, and there are men who have chosen to sleep alone for the sake of the New Mind. It is exceedingly difficult to download and install the New Mind, even in part, while you maintain a mutually interdependent intimate relationship. Of course, it is also difficult to be celibate. If your spouse is as interested in personal transformation as you are, they may even be a help. But then there are your children, if any. Children are an amazing and wonderful project to undertake. But they drain your time and attention like whoosh. Children are not pets. (And even pets are not toys.)

Food is a lot like sex (at least for men) except you actually can actually die from lack of food. So you can’t simply quit. You have to maintain a balance for the rest of your life. If you are too attached to food, you will think about it a lot, spend a lot of time on it, and possibly eat a lot of it and so ruin your health. (Somewhat depending on how physically active you are.) If you eat too little, hunger will keep hammering on the doors of the psyche, disturbing you at all times of the day. So to free up bandwidth, it is best to eat simple food and in moderation.

The ancient practice of fasting is still recommended from time to time. Think of it as a test on how attached we are to our personal body. We may think we have free will, but fasting will tell us something about the matter. Instead of waiting for unexpected tests to jump us, we may take the fight to the enemy, so to speak, testing ourselves under controlled conditions. Or not – unless this is a required part of a Tradition you have chosen to follow, it is voluntary, and it should not be done to excess.

In days of yore, food was scarce. (At the time of writing, the Earth produces enough food for the average person to get just a little chubby, but this has not always been so.) So there was also the element that if you ate less, someone else could eat more. And if you subsisted on gifts (as many monks did) it was just common decency to not fatten yourself.

Entertainment is a bit different from this again. On one hand, it is not really an urgent need. On the other hand, it is not something you bind yourself to with iron chains. Even if you watch a movie tonight, you don’t need to watch one tomorrow, or ever again really. Each case stands alone. Or that is how it looks like. But this also means that you can always, as game reviewers say, “just play five minutes more and then suddenly it is morning”.

There are a lot of things of which we can say: “But it is not a bad thing!” Asceticisms – from the Greek word askesis, meaning training or exercise – basically refers to abstaining from good things for the benefit of something better. It does not refer to abstaining from vices, much less outright evil. To abstain from evil is a necessity even in the current version of the Human Operating System, because evil is corrosive. Evil destroys our harmony with others and within ourselves and comes back to bite us for sure. It is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die, or like picking up burning coals with your bare hands to throw at others. It is utterly insane, but even this is hard to accept when we are excited by our emotions, on the verge of falling back into Human Operating System version 1 (“all problems can be solved with a hand axe.”)

Next to destroying the soul by hate and envy and such straight out poisonous thoughts, there are the lesser vices that erode our health and our relationships, typically greed in its many, many forms. Lust as a vice can be called “sexual greed”, for instance. Gluttony is “food greed”. Greed is a wish to have something that does not belong to us, or to control something (or someone) that is not ours to control. Evils and vices are bad for us in and of themselves, so it is not ascesis to drop those. (And even then it is hard for most of us.)

But the things that are good and praiseworthy in normal life for normal people, but have to be cut out to make room for an even greater good – making that sacrifice is ascesis.  It is not a coincidence that an expression from sports has been chosen, for even humans with no goal beyond the life of their own body still can make such sacrifices to win a sports competition or become a professional.

It is not that the practices themselves are virtuous, as Wikipedia points out. In fact, overdoing them can cause a surge of pride in the old Ego: I am holier than thou, better show me respect or all hell is loose! The Buddha recommended the middle way, and he was not the only one. Modern Judaism frowns on ascetic practices of any sort, encouraging instead the pious to remember the Creator whenever they enjoy anything created.

But if there is no ascesis at all, the Old Mind will happily expand to fill all available time, and all available attention, and the New Mind will never be downloaded, much less installed.

I am obviously not a god or an angel, I am pretty sure I am not even a saint. So if your religion tells you that there is a Higher Being that enjoys to see you suffer, I will not tell you otherwise. I am not a teacher of religion, I think. I just want to share a new branch of psychology, which has been hidden inside of religious and philosophical traditions for thousands of years and has only recently taken on a life of its own, now that many different cultures meet and people can compare their similarities (and their differences).

But if you want to download and install the Human Operating System version 3 beta, it will be necessary to make space for it by reducing the time and attention that goes into the Old Mind, the way of living according to this age which is about to end.

It will be necessary, but not enough. Even a very ascetic life will take you nowhere (in this context) unless you have a reliable source of the New Mind, and it resonates with you inside, and you meditate (or do some other corresponding practice).  “Meditation brings wisdom, lack of meditation leaves ignorance” to quote the Buddha.

You have to download the New Mind (from fellow disciples, Scriptures, or a living Master if you live in an age that has one). Then you have to install it, which requires slowing down the old mind through meditative practice. Then you have to test it in practice and see if the installation has worked, or if the Old Mind still runs the show. This is a process that is repeated over and over, leading to growth over time. If we stop, our progress stops as well. I know this too from experience.

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