Positive Asceticism

I am a very distractible person. I tend to huff at the general overuse of ADHD, but if you know me IRL then you know I am a constantly shifting tide, physically and mentally. So in my draft blog writing I’ve been hopping around, because I don’t have an established writing practice (working on it). So, I’m once again jumping topics, because this one happened to be what I finished first. Apologies for being abrupt and out of sequence.

A theme I’m going to explore, probably regularly, is the concept of “polytheist monasticism”. I am part of a loose network of pagans (etc) with this interest, and I am certainly not the first. (More on the concept and on established groups in another post.) This post is somewhat of a an off-shoot of that topic.

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For reasons I only half understand, there is an active undercurrent against “asceticism” withing pagan and polytheist discussion. Typically verbalized as “paganism is about embracing life!”, it is a reaction generally to what practices are perceived as toxic leftovers of Christianity. Asceticism is viewed as a denial of reality, a rejection of the natural body, and therefore of the natural spiritual body and one’s place on Earth — a foolish, often elitist self-view born of the idea that humans are superior to “animals”. This goes against what is arguably the core tenet of (neo-)paganism, which is the reverence for “Nature”. Additionally, this Christian-based image of ascetic practice-as-denial smacks of servitude and slavery, self-flagellation, and shame-filled suffering, done in order to punish oneself as commanded by the superior Deity for one’s Sin. Sin has a greater weight to it than simply a failure, mistake, or inferiority; it has a connotation of disease, malignancy, a deformity of one’s very soul. Applying a moral toxicity to the natural body and natural world goes against what is considered healthy and “right” to most everyone in the pagan-umbrella, and often plays a part in those who “leave” Christianity, and certainly is anathema to most people raised in pagan families.

The view of asceticism as a negative ideology/practice seems to me to stem partly from a lack of understanding or experience with ascetic practices, and partly from an internalization of our Western culture’s materialistic values, which are so ubiquitously promoted. Indeed in the US, consumerism is considered a “national trait”, in a positive sense, and even those who verbally deride it actively participate in its mores without awareness. We are taught that our possessions speak for us, represent us, reflect our core selves – and so materialism is no just the norm, it is almost a necessity. For pagans, it seems to be an overwhelming idea that asceticism is always an expression of the Christian self-abuse seen above, an extreme — or even essential — practice of denial of the natural body.

What is asceticism? Here’s a general description from Wikipedia:

Asceticism…is a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from worldly pleasures, often for the purpose of pursuing spiritual goals. Ascetics may withdraw from the world for their practices or continue to be part of their society, but typically adopt a frugal lifestyle, characterised by the renunciation of material possessions and physical pleasures, and time spent fasting while concentrating on the practice of religion or reflection upon spiritual matters.

It goes on to quote Wimbush and Valantasis, who describe ascetic practices in two categories “natural” and “unnatural”. The former is a “lifestyle” based on a minimalization of materialism. The latter “is defined as a practice that involves body mortification and self infliction of pain”. I think this distinction is interesting, because it reveals a flaw in the thinking of the “embrace life!” pagans of the first paragraph; clearly their intent is not necessarily to promote hedonism, and in fact a brief glance at pagan lives will clearly show that many practices in the “natural asceticism” category are frequent. These include things like morally-guided dietary restrictions, meditation, and a rejection of many materialist aspects of modern-day life which non-pagans, including the majority of Christians, consider “necessities”. While I do think there is a pagan push against minimalism in the general idealistic sense (part of natural asceticism here defined), it’s very clear that the rejection of “asceticism” is targeted to those practices loosely defined as “unnatural”.

What are some “unnatural” ascetic practices? I am not so sure this line between natural/unnatural is so easily drawn. I doubt that the average pagan (if there is an average) would consider meditation or occasional fasting to be extreme or unnatural, however I’d presume they think hours-long meditation/prayer and lengthy starvation-level fasting certainly is. (Note that I’ve also seen people say that any sort of fasting perused for the purpose of spirituality, rather than health, is unacceptably unnatural.) Chastity and celibacy are usually denounced outright by pagan, as they are believed to be prudishly antiquated, or morally anti-sex. While many pagans wear symbols of their faith, few have religious-based restrictions on their clothing like modesty or even theme (1). (Discounting those folks who are also vegan and avoid animal products, which is sometimes morally driven but not religious per se.) Other practices are “self-imposed poverty, sleep deprivation, and secluding oneself in the wilderness”, and also taboos or commitments such as nonviolence, standing while eating, avoiding medical procedures, sleeping uncomfortably, exposing oneself to the elements, and so on.

Very, very few pagans pursue “body mortification” and intentionally self-inflicted pain, and those that do are considered fringe whack-jobs by the mainstream pagan community; the word “cult” has been seen applied here. However, lesser forms of asceticism are still regarded as “fringe”, particularly the idea that one would spend the majority of one’s daily life focused on one’s spirituality. For the majority of pagans (and witches and polytheists and heathens, et al), spirituality is only one aspect of their lives, and while it may be an important part, it is not the dominant focus of their lives.

310px-EmaciatedBuddha[Image: Gautama Buddha during his ascetic period,
emaciated from starvation. Would you like a sandwich?]

Religion is used by most people as an enhancement on life, not as the driving force of their lifestyle. In the United States, and basically most of the Western world, the idea of dedication of one’s life to religious pursuit is, frankly, sneered at. You don’t want to be too religious: that means you’re either old-fashioned and “backwards”, unenlightened by superior modern civilization — or you’re just nuts. We have a view of über-religious types as generally goofballs, and conjure up images of certain antisocial Baptist protesters, nefarious megachurch televangelists, starry-eyed New Age hippies waiting for the Space Brothers….and of course the weeping self-tortured monk whipping his own back with thorns. (To be extreme is considered pathetic and scornful in our society; the same reaction is given to other counter-cultural practices, too.) Religion, somewhat rightfully, is associated with the shittiest parts of human behavior, and in the US it is intrinsically linked with bigotry and violence of all kinds, as well as individual psychological repression.

And so as pagans in general are reactionary against this effect that Abrahamic Monotheism and religious essentialism has had on our culture (we can note that pagans almost to a one will tell you there is no One Right Way or One True Religion), while still recognizing the need for a spiritual dimension in human life. But again I ask: where is the line drawn? How much meditation or fasting is “right”? How much religion is “too much”? Perhaps it is more important to analyze how we draw the line between natural/unnatural, because in general I do not think most people do so with a critical eye; after all, it’s already seen that some ascetic practices are perfectly accepted by pagans, their benefits recognized. I think this paradoxical rejection of some ascetic practices as “unnatural” stems directly from a push-back against (toxic) Christianity, and indirectly from our cultural socialization to be anti-religious.

A brief interlude….I confess that asceticism has always interested me. I am a type of person who desires to have some “goal” in life, some sort of guiding philosophy which encompasses all of my daily actions. As such monasticism and asceticism are attractive to me, because I perceive them as specific work done to achieve concrete result, as opposed to just “life”, which is a meandering aimlessly. This is clearly just a personal part of my psychology, and I expect some others with interest in such thinks feel similarly. I do find it frustrating that this life-view, which I don’t impose on anyone else, is so derided and sneered at. But separate from my personal feelings, I think the automatic assumption of asceticism as negative is false and ill-informed. 

maxresdefault[Image: Hotei, the Laughing Buddha. This fellow seems much
more level-headed. But he wandered around with an empty bag.]

Perhaps it is because I’m more aware of Eastern philosophies, but I think ascetic practices can be applicable to us (speaking as a polytheist). Properly used (de-Christianized) asceticism is not self-punishment or self-denial. These acts are intended to increase spiritual awareness and strengthen one’s connection to the Powers.  They can be a means of showing devotion and dedication. They can be methods of putting oneself into “headspace” or trance, to open oneself to Divine communication. They can be a way to disconnect from the toxic aspects of material culture, at least temporarily, so one can shift their viewpoint towards better spiritual understanding. Asceticism, even much of the painful bits, is not some way to create a suffering believed to be deserved, but a way to create an experience that enhances.

Almost every very devoted person engages in some of this: purity rituals, exhausting prayers, excruciating writing projects (ahem), and so on. I suggest that for people who feel they are “missing something” in their paganism/polytheism, one option to explore is the use of ascetic practices. Positive Asceticism can be seen if one steps away from the stereotyped images of flagellating friars. For complex reasons, self-discipline is much maligned in the West recently, confusingly totally backwards to the ideal of “American Independence”, I think…but it probably stems from the “speed” of our society, the fact that almost everything it a click away. Self-discipline isn’t self-punishment. It is skill building. Specifically, self-discipline is a form of repetitious practice to build the emotional skill of handling frustration, which is what makes accomplishing long-term goals possible. It is the same for spirituality: the only way to reach the depths and heights are long-term dedicated practice. Some (most?) people will not get there by merely baking on Yule and wearing a necklace.

And yes – some people don’t want that depth. There are lots of ways of worship and they are all valid. But if you do want depth, as people interested in monasticism presumably are, then you might consider re-thinking your view on asceticism.

As mentioned, there will be concrete evidence that such acts as self-imposed poverty or strict “rules” are actually beneficial to the individual, in terms of their psychological health. We do not picture the chanting Japanese priest standing under the frigid waterfall to afterward return to the monastery in a depressed, self-hating state. Rather, he is improved, strengthened, more open to compassion for the world, more connected to nature and to his own body, and more connected to his Gods. Isn’t that what we, as pagans and polytheists, aim to achieve?

Misogi[Image: a man praying and chanting beneath a
winter waterfall. I think I need a warm shower now.]

While all this is probably rhetorical for folks with no interest in monasticism, for those of us interested in creating and maintaining polytheistic Orders, I think the understanding of ascetic value is essential. In fact, I would argue it’s the entire point of monasticism. You’re right, self-punishment and denial of the body have no place in a pagan space. But the reason a person creates/joins a monastery or becomes clergy is because they want to dedicate the majority of their time and energy to religious practice. This will automatically mean a reduction of “worldly” things — they take up too much time. As a group, following the same rules and schedules and modes of dress are to create a sense of group identity, which in turn enhances the ability to stay in a spiritually-focused state. When your life is devoted to simplicity, it removes the need to spend huge amounts of personal energy into material-based decision making (what to wear, what to eat, what to buy, etc). It helps self-identity too, because there is no worrying about fashion trends, social standing, body-image, and so on. You are solidly who you are: a Dedicant.

Similarly, I think the awareness of what more seemingly-hard practices can do should be examined and put to use for monastic-minded polytheists. Experiencing harshness and pain does not have to be a denial of Nature. Tattoos hurt – are you “suffering” when you get one? Are you denying nature or your body? Unlikely. Spirituality is no different. In fact, am of the personal view that asceticism, and excess, are flip sides of the same coin. You can be obsessively excessively ascetic, which will result in unhealthy pathology (there is a clear difference between religious fasting and Anorexia Nervosa). I believe that some ascetic practices can actually be an embracing of the body and of Nature, that testing the limits of the body, and experiencing extreme conditions of Nature, creates a greater understanding of one’s place as a part of the natural world.

Overall I think the false and unnecessary rejection of ascetic practices is a knee-jerk reaction against Christianity, not a critical analysis (3). I do not think this rejection holds with history (for those of us who are historically based or inspired) — and I also do not think that any practice is automatically “unnatural”, because the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and it will be apparent in an individual whether “extreme” asceticism is having a positive or negative effect on them. Asceticism is not a rejection of the Natural; rejection of the Natural can take many forms. And so can the embracement of life.

In an up-coming post I delve into polytheistic monasticism, which certainly incorporates some level of (“natural”) ascetic lifestyle. I want to talk on a more personal level about how I practice my own form of “polytheist monk life”. And other topics, including the 15 drafts I have going….

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(1) There are increasing numbers of polytheists practicing religious clothing restrictions. I like this and have been working to include this practice myself; however I watch this behavior with some trepidation because, in my experience, it seems to be predominantly practiced by women. If the practice of, for example, headcovering or hair-wearing is limited only to one gender, it runs the risk of reinforcing systematic sexism which has direct impact on people’s lives. We need to encourage non-gendered and universal forms of polytheistic symbols, particularly among men. (I tend to feel that the Amish, for example, are far less sexist in this specific area, since while the clothing itself is gendered due to tradition, modesty of dress is universal.)

(2) Perhaps you noticed that I used non-Christian and non-pagan images in this post??? The Christo-centric and European focus we have in our discussions is very noticeable, sometimes, and I think it skews our viewpoints, even when the topic is itself ethnocentric. Asceticism has been practiced all over the world, of course. I think we can learn a lot about the practical and healthy applications of some of these practices by comparison to other models besides just Christianity. 

(3) But I’ll also note, there are plenty examples of positive asceticism in Christianity as well. This post isn’t intended as Christian-bashing, merely critical analysis of toxic elements of Christianity.