Always think of Me, be devoted to Me, worship Me, and bow down to Me. Thus uniting yourself with Me by setting Me as the supreme goal and the sole refuge, you shall certainly come to Me. [Bhagavad Gita 9.34].
“Asceticism” derives from the Greek asketikos “laborious” and askein “to exercise, work.” An ascetic is a person who renounces material comforts and leads an austere life, especially as an act of religious devotion and penance.
Jewish Essenes and early Christian hermits and monks were dedicated to spiritual, intellectual and physical exercises they cultivated piety and spiritual awareness. They sought God by engaging in fasting, long prayers and other acts of worship that emphasized governing the body and stilling the mind. By subduing physical desires, they sought to free the spirit from cravings of the body, thereby attaining an elevated consciousness.To them, exercise of the spirit, the mind and the body were one.
“This is the way of the Torah,” says the Mishnah. “Bread with salt shall you eat, water by measure shall you drink, on the ground shall you sleep, a life of discomfort shall you live, and in the Torah shall you toil. If you do this, ‘You will be happy and prosperous’ (Psalms 128:2) – happy in this world, and prosperous in the World to Come.” [Avos 6:4]
One’s cell is an area for complete silence. The cell is sacred space, more holy even than the chapel. For it is there that you are utterly alone with God; it is for the two of you alone, and should not be compromised. [A Monk].
By removing ourselves from social interaction, we, too, can attempt to abandon the influences and stimuli that produce undesirable behavior. Many of us respond to our environment with habituated processes. We develop and adopt personalities to fit our particular surroundings. Often these adopted facades reflect delusive, defensive or hypocritical conduct.
We have our work facade, our domestic facade, our playful facade, our somber facade and many other aspects of our personality that we display when appropriate. Stimulated by the need to behave in the most acceptable, expedient and admirable manner, we often find ourselves on automatic pilot; we do not even think about the particular facade we have donned.
Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. [William James, The Principles of Psychology, ch.4, Habit]
An ascetic pursues a course that restricts influences and stimuli so she/he can discern and cultivate the one and true personality. This means that a person seeking spiritual consciousness understands that much of life is spent acting and role playing. To the extent that we can reduce or eliminate such behavior, we stand a better chance of developing awareness of the essential nature of the human experience. Our thoughts, words and deeds can then come into clearer focus.
For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. [Romans 8:5-8]
We can seek to remove destructive practices long enough to free ourselves from adopted detrimental habits. Ideally, after sufficient seclusion, we can return to social interaction equipped with a single and true perspective. Having eliminated false and self-deceptive practices, we move toward selfless service, and to comfort and guide others along the path.
“Revile not, harm not, live by rule restrained; Of food take little; sleep and sit alone; Keep thy mind bent upon the higher thought.” Such is the message of awakened ones. [Udana (Buddhism) 43, Meghiya]