When I was a kid, I would play make-believe that I was lost in the freezing wilderness. I’d shakily slip Goldfish crackers between my lips and pretend that they were the precious few calories remaining from my rations, then “tape record” my final days with solemn sound-bites like “Day 4: I’m not sure I’m going to make it.” I’d envision what it’d feel like to cling to the hope of rescue and derive a strange, thrilling pleasure out of the daydream. It was captivating - amusing, even - to imagine what it’d be like to undergo and prevail through difficult circumstances, all the while knowing that the fun was dependent on it being fake - a world constructed of my own volition.
In my opinion, that’s the appeal of asceticism - overcoming or enduring personal challenges in service of a greater something.
Asceticism is a dirty word. It calls to mind unconventional practices like hermitage, self-laceration, and renunciation of pleasure. In popular consciousness, ascetics are extremists and outcasts who have chosen to suffer due to dogmatic adherence to religion.
However, at its core, asceticism is a fairly grounded ideology. It is defined as such: “the practice of the denial of physical or psychological desires in order to attain a spiritual ideal or goal.” Essentially, it is the practice of sacrificing something to achieve a larger objective, divine or otherwise. Elements of asceticism crop up in just about every self-improvement endeavor: exercise regimens, time management and prioritization, conflict management, relationship compromise, professional development, all religions since the beginning of human history. It’s quite simple; sometimes you need to turn down what you want to make space for what you need.
I spent March practicing mild non-indulgence under a guiding framework that I am coining “practical asceticism.”
I chose the word “asceticism” because it's more comprehensive than “discipline,” less preachy than “abstinence,” and more devotional than “simple living.” It represents commitment that is so thorough and profound that it becomes transcendental, which appeals to the idealist in me. I want to believe in something so deeply that I’d die for it.
Practical asceticism is pretty much the exact same thing as regular ol’ asceticism, except the “spiritual ideal” being quested after isn’t as lofty as being welcomed into heaven or trying to induce hunger-related hallucinations. Think more down-to-earth, like healthy eating, preventing self-sabotage, and doing things that scare you. Slightly more metaphysical, my “spiritual ideal” includes diminished desire for material possessions, an untroubled mind, and alacritous generosity predicated upon the belief that every person is equal.
As described above, asceticism is a two-step process. One, state your goal. Two, deny any desires that do not serve it.
In practical asceticism, deliverance isn’t going to be God’s hand coming down to gently caress your cheek, but rather, the simple elation of a job well done. Loving yourself, being proud of yourself, knowing yourself - these are salvational acts too. And setting goals and accomplishing them is a tried and true pathway towards positive acquaintanceship with self.
Practical asceticism doesn’t require selling all your possessions, eating with your bare hands, or turning your back on the desire for human connection. It just asks you to conceptualize your best self, and cut out what is not conducive to becoming it. It might be difficult because sacrifice is difficult, but with a little investigation and patience, I believe you will find that whatever you must shed was of no significant value in the first place.
In my life, I struggle with the tension between wanting to be beautiful and accepting the truth that I already am beautiful - and moreover, the truth that there are much better things to strive to be. I want new clothes, a thinner waist, a lovelier face. When I express the desire to lose weight to be more appealing, to learn how to apply makeup in order to gain social approval, to wear the right brands to convey status, I am conveying that the person I want to be is one who derives self-worth from external opinions and subscribes to materialistic and superficial judgements of themselves and others. When I let go of those desires, it feels like a loss - the loss of my potential to be attractive, wanted, coveted, in-group, and an object of jealousy.
But what I am really losing is self-hatred, the irresolvable feeling that I am deficient, unworthy, or in need of improvement. In its place, I make room for the understanding that I am enough as I am, that I am complete, that I am your innate equal - just as you are mine.
The goals that I set for March (which I recap at the end of this blog post) communicate that I want to be well-rested, mindful, moral, grateful, knowledge-seeking, and determined. It’s a good feeling, having intentions and actions that align!
Of course, identity is not prescriptive or absolute. You are not bad because you faltered once. You are not good because you did one kind thing. Your idea of good might not even match my idea of good, and the same goes for bad! Nonetheless, it’s helpful to investigate what our aspirations say about who we are striving to be, so that we can revise them when they lead us off-course.
There are an unending list of reasons why to attempt practical asceticism, but I’ll outline just three:
1. Delayed Gratification
Simply, delayed gratification is the resistance to temptation now in the hope of receiving a larger or more enduring reward later. Delaying gratification is an act of faith - you must believe that you are capable of acting with your long-term interests in mind, you must believe that something better is on the way, and you must believe that you will be here for it. This combination of self-confidence, optimism, and zest for life is empowering. When you trust yourself and trust the Universe to deliver, you begin to adopt a positive outlook on the future. You embody the feeling that everything will be okay, and in fact, maybe already is.
2. Immediate Gratitude
If you choose to forgo certain indulgences and find yourself still content with what remains, you will gain appreciation for the many wonderful things that presently inhabit your life. One step further, if you free yourself from the impetus to acquire more, you allow for the idea that everything you have is enough, and that you don’t need to defer happiness until x, y, or z occurs. Knowing that your needs are fully met, you are able to give more freely and incorporate compassion and charity into your routine. You come to see that you already have a life that is worthy of gratitude. Bliss flows from within.
3. Mastery of the Self
The practice of discipline leads to mastery of the self. Rejecting unhealthy temptations and damaging beliefs ensures that you do not act thoughtlessly, but rather, with reason and purpose. When you lack control of yourself, the whole of life feels chaotic, disorderly, and futile. Conversely, when you respect your agency, free will, and consciousness, you can take ownership of all that arises - good and bad - knowing that how you respond is fully yours to determine. Desires become playthings to toy with and evaluate, rather than consumptive impulses that must be followed. In this way, a new sense of clarity arises. You are able to discern between what you want and what you really want.
Practical asceticism, for me, is a venture to reject inutile indulgence and lean into the abundance of goodness that already exists in my life, so that I may share it more openly with others. These days, I am prioritizing mindful consumption, balanced life, and the expansion of my moral circle. I cannot rid myself of all worldly desires, but I can act on them with rationality and intention. I desire to take good care of my fellow neighbor, to protect and nurture joy, and to give thanks for my capable body and mind. I desire to love and respect you, so that I may love and respect myself.
These are truths that practical asceticism reinforces: I can do hard things, I have and am enough, I am the captain of my own ship. My friends, let’s embrace these realities, then begin living them.
Last month, I wrote a blog post outlining my intentions for March. If you’re curious about how it went, here are my reflections: