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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Essay: Is self-denial good for you?

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Is self-denial good for you?

From the book: Chum for Thought: Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters by David Satterlee

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Chum For Thought:
Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters


Is self-denial good for you?


Asceticism is the voluntary and deliberate self-denial of personal comforts and possessions. It is usually undertaken to distance oneself from the distractions of material or interpersonal responsibilities. This is often with the explicit purpose of devoting time and attention to transcendental spiritual pursuits.

Asceticism is relatively common among the most devout adherents of many religions. Mormon missionaries temporarily defer marriage, career, and family associations for at least two years during their missions. Missionaries of other religions, usually live according to the impoverished standards of the community to which they are sent.

Religions with special orders of devotion may distinguish individuals who take vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. They may live cloistered lives of isolation or give exclusive attention to assigned duties. Volunteer workers at the branch offices of Jehovah’s Witnesses take such vows as do many priests, monks, and nuns.

Individuals such as Hindu and Jain ascetics usually have reached a point of spiritual development that
they feel requires the renunciation of personal comforts in order to continue their undistracted spiritual progress. They hope to master physiological and mental processes with the end of achieving discriminating knowledge, transformation, and eventual liberation.

All Jains adhere to special constraints on life that would amount to asceticism to many observers. They hold strictly to non-violence, in fact, not harming any living thing. Even farming makes it difficult to avoid doing harm to worms, for instance. As strict as these constraints are for laymen, mendicants adhere to an even more severe path of self-denial.

Jain ascetics often undertake the most severe forms of self-denial.  Monks and nuns usually keep small brooms to sweep bugs away from areas where they intend to sit; they may strain the water they drink and the air they breathe. Their vow of truthfulness may prevent them from speaking rather than being deceptive, even to prevent harm. The vow against stealing can prevent gaining anything at the expense of others. The vow of sexual restraint can extend to avoiding all sexual feelings. The vow of nonattachment has been interpreted by some to include the use of clothing by monks.

For Jains, this special attention to principle is intended to perfect the soul and spirit. It helps to shed the accumulation of karmic matter and brings blessings, bliss, and, ultimately, enlightenment and liberation. Liberation proceeds along a path of purification.

This progressive purification is like rungs on a ladder: from ignorance, to awakening to one’s true nature, increasing vitality of body and soul, true insight, the shedding of accumulated karma, abandoning attachment to things of the world, advanced disciplines of meditation and self-denial, and, finally, the voluntary suspension of mind and body functions immediately before death.

The ascetic principals and vows of Jains are seen as a positive influence that extends beyond themselves as individuals within their religion. They are concerned with the welfare of all forms of life. Seeing that their way of life is incompatible with many parts of modern societies and the progress of modern science, one might ask a Jain, “What would the world be like if everyone were like you?” The Jain would likely answer, “Wouldn’t that be wonderful!”

I agree that the fears and gratifications of life can consume one’s entire attention and that we should become masters, rather than slaves, of our emotions and impulses.  Toward that end, it is best to accept the constant arising of circumstance without fear of the future and avoid a strong reliance on an expected outcome. It is best to live a life that simple enough to manage while allowing the pursuit of purposes that give meaning to existence. Possessions tend to possess their owners, rather than the other way around.

For most people, a life of modesty and moderation would be a marvelous, if not miraculous, achievement. For some people, a life of extreme simplicity may be important to the pursuit of their higher purposes. However, it seems the path to personal liberation, as practiced in Jain asceticism, misses the better impulses of some systems of faith to serve by committing oneself as the vessel or mirror of divine goodness and love.

I suspect that the ultimate end involves our contributing intentionally and significantly to the overall welfare of sentient life, orderliness, and creative expression. That is, that our development in life makes it easier for all other life to develop more effectively in the future.

Thus the extreme asceticism of individuals serves no greater purpose than to vainly demonstrate the pursuit of an individual liberation that does not exist. Extreme asceticism is a paradoxical self-gratification clothed in self-denial.