A Truly Transformative Ascesis

The main reason for fasting and other forms of ascesis is, ideally, to break our attachments, or else, when that proves too difficult, at least to make us more keenly aware of them than we ordinarily are. So the first question we have to ask ourselves is: To what am I most strongly attached? It may or may not be to meat and other animal products, or to food in general. In which case, keeping the dietary rules of Lent is, I agree, not really the point.

More important is an inward ascesis. What I have in mind, in part, is the wresting we’re obliged to engage in whenever we confront, not our attachments to what the body prefers (as for example food and sleep), but our wish to be right, to be thought well of, to get our own way, and so forth. Whenever we catch ourselves inwardly judging others, growing impatient at the person running the cash register at the grocery store, relishing praise, nursing the feelings of self-pity and resentment, we have an opportunity to “fast”, to take a step back from our inward state.

Given this, I would say: No, doing “what I can”, contrary to what you wrote in your message, is not the best answer. The best answer is to try to do what I probably can’t, and then to watch myself, openly and honestly and without flinching, as I fail; and then—here’s the key—not to allow myself to “feel bad about it”, for that’s just the ego in yet another disguise. Watching, thus understood, is very, very hard work, but it’s key to a genuine and truly transformative ascesis.

One Response to “A Truly Transformative Ascesis”

  1. Steven White says:

    I wonder why it should be necessary to do anything other than notice and watch our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When we see what is going on with us, we are already free from it. At that point, the Buddhist teachings I have received say it is not necessary to do anything or to look for something more. Doesn’t life provide enough opportunities for most of us without going out of our way to oppose our tendencies? Perhaps it depends on the person how one approaches this issue. Perhaps some need this ascetic approach.

    I wonder whether you would mind writing something more about not allowing oneself to “feel bad about it”. I don’t remember your striking this note before. For me, learning not to feel bad about my failures was a very difficult lesson to learn. I have evidence in the form of feedback from hundreds or thousands of people that feeling wrong or bad about oneself is very widespread among people interested in and practicing spirituality. I do think very definitely that what you said about failure needs to be emphasized because the conditioning to feel bad about shortcomings is very strong in many people.

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