Asceticism is the practice of extreme abstinence, primarily in a spiritual context. Think: No sex for the priests and no alcohol for the Muslims. Only, chances are that a true ascetic will abstain from both, as well as perhaps many (if not most) types of food and other physical and sensory pleasures (TV, music, books, games…).
“Now, why would anyone do this?”, you might ask. Surely food, for one, is a good thing? Well, that depends. If we look at the theological and philosophical side of things, it’s easy to see where the practice of asceticism came from.
Humanity tends to think in a dualist way. It’s either right or left, up or down, in or out, off or on. We’re talking good and bad here, heaven and hell, spirit and matter. I blame the Fall for our divisive nature, but even this blame game is a divisive comment, failing to acknowledge that I am the Fall just like everyone else is (and also the Restoration, but we’ll leave that for another topic). It’s this dualistic form of thinking, so natural for us as (seemingly) separate entities from God, that makes us wonder: If we want to be up “there”, doesn’t that mean we have to stop being down “here”?
In a sense, yes. Now, let’s follow this to a logical conclusion. “There” is, perhaps, heaven. It’s God. It’s the Pleroma. It’s spirit. “Here” is earth. It’s matter. It’s physical. The common Gnostic belief is that we (our true spiritual selves [our divine spark]) are trapped here in our physical bodies, in this physical world, on this physical plane of existence. Woe is us. In general terms, it’s pretty easy to be consumed by this world, to be consumed by consumerism and commercialism and the con of “this is all there is” physical existence. We might be striving for the American Dream. We might want a house, a job, a family. And it’s very easy to forget about the spiritual, to let those godly whispers be drowned by the rush-hour noise of our hustle-and-bustle everyday lives. So what do we do? We abstain.
Sex is pretty distracting. I don’t need to back up that comment. We all know that. Humanity is a very horny species, particularly with that blissful realisation that sex feels good, and isn’t, as we currently utilise it, just for procreation. Chances are that if you’re eyeing every passing woman (or man) because you’ve got “the urge”, you’re probably not thinking about God.
Alcohol. Personally speaking, I don’t drink (or shall I say, very rarely [once in a blue moon] do), but I don’t have any religious reasons for doing so. I think it’s safe to say, however, that abuse of alcohol is quite high, especially in modern society. It’s no surprise that many people of a strong religious persuasion (like followers of Islam) refrain from drinking. Not acting like a fool, not throwing up, not having a hangover, and actually remembering what happened tend to be seen as good things. Unlike other drugs that may open you up to spiritual experience (however chaotic or limited those may be), alcohol tends to inhibit the spirit just as much as it releases your earthly inhibitions.
But what about food? Well, we could say that vegetarianism is a form of abstinence. Asceticism goes a bit further than that. In extreme cases it can actually involve the complete refusal of food for extremely long periods of time. Sometimes only basic survival is encouraged. I don’t think that’s healthy at all, and I’m talking spirit-healthy here as much as healthy in a physical sense. Yes, food is a physical thing, and eating will strengthen the physical body, but taking the division of body and soul to such an extreme tends to miss the point entirely. Let me put it simply: if you don’t eat, you will die. I don’t care if your soul still lives, you’re dead and there’s nothing you can do now to set your soul free. Remember, this prison isn’t just your physical body. There’s a whole cosmos here, an entire Matrix to break free from. If you (extreme example) commit suicide in order to escape the physical you’re more than likely going to end up back here in a new body, still trapped in the cycle of Samsara. It’s not that easy. The Gospel of Judas shouldn’t be taken literally.
What happens when a Gnostic “wakes up”? Things can get a little difficult. You see, when you start fighting the chloroform of creation, the universe starts fighting back. The Archons are loosed. Every attempt to break free is met with a brick wall and an Agent in front of it. You simply can’t break free using brute force. Why? Brute force is a physical thing. Try subtlety. Try assimilation. Try persuasion. Because if you keep fighting the physical world you’re going to end up living a miserable life here, and waking up to the truth, however frightening, is not meant to make you miserable. It’s supposed to set you free. Suffering is another prison.
God is here. Yes, he’s “there” too, but he’s here. He’s always been here. This is part of waking up. It’s the realisation that just as you are “here” in the Matrix, you’re also “here” in the real world too. God is flowing through the veins of all creation. It’s a subtle invasion of divinity, permeating all. It’s not enough to elevate yourself from the physical to the spiritual. You have to bring down the spiritual into the physical. It’s a symbiotic process. As Above, So Below.
Thus, for anyone considering asceticism as part of their practice, let me say this: There are good reasons for fasting and abstaining from certain things for certain periods of time. It helps develop your Will. It strengthens you. It highlights your strengths and weaknesses. It can aid your spiritual growth. But don’t do it because a book told you to, or because your spiritual leader told you to. And don’t put your life at risk or think that you need to suffer to grow spiritually. That’s an illusion. It’s a lie that the Demiurge feeds us when he realises he’s losing his grip on us.
All that said, if you are an ascetic or are considering asceticism, there are theological and philosophical justifications for this, and I am in no way dismissing the practice as a whole. However, for the average Gnostic, I think it’s better to nurture your body and mind so that the nurturing of your spirit is made all the easier.
"...if you kill your ego, you might kill what motivates you to embark on the spiritual path and stay on it. Therefore, do not attempt to kill your ego or even to weaken it. What your ego needs is purification, transformation, and guidance."
- Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
P.S. Kudos to Anthony for suggesting this topic.