Jul 1, 2010

Asceticism in a Modern Setting

For millenia individuals and groups of people have chosen to forego pleasures and comforts in order to obtain physical, psychological, and/or emotional benefits.

Learning to cope with physical hardships and deprivations has been a key aspect of entering manhood in many indigenous cultures. In learning to deal with pain and hardships, a young man developed valuable masculine qualities such as stoicism, willpower, and the ability to make sacrifices for the greater good.

In many religious communities, initiates have been taught to forego sensual pleasures -- sex, physical comforts, wine, and good food -- in order to direct all their emotional excitement towards worship or meditation.

It seems that asceticism has existed primarily as a cultural undercurrent; only rarely has it become a dominant cultural feature -- for instance, in ancient Sparta. Typically, mass culture is quite hedonistic (enjoyment and comfort oriented), and ascesticism is practiced among individuals and small groups out of the public eye. Even when some variety of asceticism becomes the official ideology -- for instance, in a highly militarized and/or fundamentalist state -- most people maintain a lackadaisical attitude towards the ideology and practice a milder form of it in their personal lives.

This suggests that self-discipline and abstention from indulgence is not for everyone, or that people are capable of it to different degrees. It could be a useful tool for people suffering from addictions, but the power of their addiction may be stronger than their ability to exercise self-discipline.

Self-discipline and some form of asceticism are common themes in the life histories of famous people today and in the past. It typically (but not always) requires discipline and concentration to achieve fame, and with fame come additional temptations that can lead to one's downfall if one relaxes one's vigilance (Elvis Presley comes to mind as a typical example).

Is asceticism relevant in modern society?

I would say yes, more than ever. Thanks to the immense and cheap energy of fossil fuels, industrial society was able to release most people from the inconvenience of hard labor and provide them with all sorts of comforts and pleasures at very little cost or effort.

This disruption of the human "power process" (the process by which people gain a sense of personal power or empowerment) was well described by Theodore Kaczynski in his treatise "Industrial Society and Its Future." Industrialization made the innately empowering vital activities (direct provision for one's needs) unnecessary and replaced them with surrogate activities ("jobs") that people pretend are vitally important but deep down feel that they are not.

Given the abundant cheap energy of modern industrial society, diverse forms of need satisfaction have been developed that an easily generate dependencies and addictions. This is an ideal way of making money for producers of goods and services. I'll start with things that are not traditionally associated with addictions.

1. Food. Food producers play on our natural biological impulses to generate addictions to their products, which contain sweeteners, fats, and excitotoxins that make us eat more of something than we really need, and also generate cravings. Since super energy-dense food was a relatively rare treat in our evolutionary past, we seem to be programmed to eat as much of it as we can when we come across it. Now this trait is kicking us in the butt, so to speak.

2. Comforts. In this category are all kinds of appliances and comforts that reduce one's expenditure of effort, and, of course, the automobile. On the surface they appear to make life easier, but beneath the surface they make us less resourceful, weaker (physically and psychologically), and more isolated. Once one is in this state, continued use of these "comforts" is almost inevitable.

3. Entertainment. In the electronic age it is now possible to spend many hours a day stimulating one's entertainment needs while putting forth very little physical and social effort. Myriad computer games, movie and TV program viewing, virtual social networking, information browsing, and virtual sexual stimulation are all easily addicting activities that can gobble up mental and physical resources. Since empowerment occurs via the achievement of results through the exertion of effort, entertainment activities produce little or no empowerment and actually tend to make one less physically and socially robust.

4. Traditional addictions. Drugs, booze, gambling, compulsive behaviors such as shopaholism, etc.

The typical member of a modern affluent society has mild to severe addictions in one or more, or even all of these areas: food, comforts, entertainment, and traditional addictions. In general, modern society provides decent mental development, is rather weak in emotional development, and is utterly pathetic at developing the body's physical capabilities.

It is all too easy to fall into the trap of idealizing pre-industrial society, which may have been far from ideal. Contact with rural communities in Ukraine and elsewhere suggests that such societies are prone to a different set of addictions, for instance alcoholism, domestic violence, and gossip.

Sometimes I wonder if most people in pretty much any society are basically doomed to spend their lives trapped by various addictions in an act of voluntary self-suppression that indirectly enables the self-realization of a few, more empowered individuals.

Addictions are a major obstacle to self-realization. Self-realization requires focus, dedication, passion, and, of course, concerted effort over a long period of time. Food addictions sap our physical strength, willpower, and self-esteem. Comforts remove us from the natural world and make us more helpless and dependent. Easy entertainment distracts us from personal goals that require effort and focus. Traditional addictions can rob us of our willpower and eventually of our friends, work, and families.

Socionics and addictions

We could take a brief socionics detour and discuss which types are more prone to different types of addictions. I'm not sure the correlations are great enough to warrant a separate discourse on the subject.

Certainly there are predominately "male" and "female" addictions. Males tend to gravitate to traditional bad habits (alcohol, gambling, drugs), to competitive games, sex, and food. Women seem to accumulate addictions to entertainment with social and emotional content, physical comforts, food, and drugs.

I'm sure there are also type-related patterns. I've seen a few SEI hedonists with dependencies on drugs and unhealthy food. ILEs and IEEs seem to easily get attached to online information gathering and dissemination, which can quickly become a meaningless activity if overengaged in. I'll bet there are plenty of ethical extraverts with Facebook addictions, as well as SLE alchoholics. I haven't peeked enough into the private lives of different people to recognize unequivocal patterns, though.

Asceticism as an empowering force

Addictive tendencies and unhealthy behaviors can be managed to a large degree by removing or altering the facilitating factors and adopting a more austere regimen in trouble areas.

This requires honesty to be objective about yourself, self-reflection to identify facilitating factors in your environment, courage to take steps that other people may perceive (at first) as strange and unnecessary, and a good dose of self-love to even care about it all in the first place.

Let me share what my wife and I have done to nip some problems in the bud. You may find our solutions unconventional and eccentric, but they have improved our quality of life and personal power.

1. Food. We keep no unhealthy foods in the home and consume no sugar (sometimes we use honey). We've replaced sources of saturated fat with olive oil and adhere to a Mediterranean diet whose health benefits are amply supported by scientific research. Sometimes when we are with other people or need to buy something to justify our use of wi-fi in a public cafe, we'll buy some food that we wouldn't consume at home, but we never buy this food at the store to bring it home. Any tendency towards unhealthy compulsive eating is kept out of the home. We've come to really enjoy our choice of healthy, largely unprocessed foods, and find that we never feel like pigging out because it lacks the substances and combinations that stimulate this behavior. We are also experimenting with growing food in our own apartment.

2. Comforts. We do not have a car and get around by public transportation. We've chosen a place to live where it is convenient to do so. We don't have a washing machine or dishwasher and have learned to do these tasks quickly (just as quickly, actually) by hand, which saves resources and makes us more flexible as travelers. Our attitudes towards comfort and cleanliness have become more natural as we've foregone expensive appliances and technology and learned how to do things effectively ourselves. We feel more capable and resourceful as a result.

3. Entertainment. We have no TV, radio, or Internet at home. This is perhaps the most radical lifestyle choice with the most unexpectedly positive consequences. Living without mass media promotes independent thought and the ability to engage in self-directed activities for longer periods of time. We spend more time talking and doing things together as opposed to being passive recipients of entertainment. No Internet at home means no compulsive Internet use, a better sleep schedule and sounder sleep, more time together, less chaos in the home, conditions more conducive to writing, a more physically and socially active lifestyle, and greater frequency of face-to-face meetings with friends and groups of people with common interests.

To deal with her dissatisfaction with superficial online interaction, my wife has chosen to go back to writing paper letters and mailing them to people who are important to her. She's removed much of her information on Facebook and no longer uses it to socialize. This hasn't been a problem for me, so I continue to use Facebook as I see fit, but not at home.

Whenever I get a new computer, I immediately remove all the built-in games to avoid compulsively wasting time on them. I have no games to play in the home. This isn't a problem for my wife, so she doesn't worry about it.

To get online, we go to one of several places in town or at friends' houses. This, I feel, puts the Internet in its proper place. If you have unlimited Internet access at home, as the years go by you will almost inevitably find that its role in your life has become too large and that in some ways you have become a slave to it. Of course, different personalities have different susceptibilities.

4. Traditional addictions. These have not been a problem, so we haven't needed to take any steps to fix it.

As you can see, our life is pretty austere in several ways. I believe that austerity is often needed to keep one's natural strengths from turning into compulsions that control your life. As I have probably written elsewhere, one's strengths are often related to involuntary behaviors -- things that you "can't help doing."

For instance, I can't help gathering and sharing information. When there are no barriers to this activity, I can engage in this compulsively and excessively online to the detriment of other areas of my life. I also can't help concentrating on something for long periods of time. This means that I can end up spending too much time on one activity past the point of exhaustion. Improving my basic habits and keeping the Internet out of the home reduces the likelihood that I'll have episodes where I have wasted many hours of time and end up feeling wasted myself.

In short, one's weaknesses are often outgrowths of one's strengths. If some asceticism is introduced to create some obstacles for these weaknesses to develop, you can enjoy and benefit from the strengths without overdoing it.

If you're a natural connoisseur of good foods, you may find you'll need to limit yourself to a strict diet where you may experiment only with natural, wholesome foods or where you are only "allowed" a gourmet meal once a week.

If you are wasting your life on computer games, you might remedy the situation by getting yourself an old computer that is too slow to run any interesting games.

If you have a habit of running up credit card debt, you might want to close all your bank accounts and adopt a cash-only policy.

Some people may think you're strange, but don't listen to them. The benefits to be gained from freeing yourself from dependencies are well worth any minor inconveniences.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

If you have no internet how do you educate yourself? Read books?

And what do you mean by you can't help gathering and sharing information? And how exactly is that detrimental?

Anonymous said...

funny article, I have been doing very much the same things the past few years: getting rid of all kinds of addictions and distractions. But I have also noticed I have gone a bit too far, but that's a good thing, because now I know where the midpoint of things are ;-)

CA

Rick said...

>> If you have no internet how do you educate yourself? Read books?

I find information online when I'm away from home, then generally read stuff on my own time at home.

>> And what do you mean by you can't help gathering and sharing information? And how exactly is that detrimental?

I mean that no matter what type of setting I'm in, whether online or offline, what I tend to do is gather general information and convey it to other people as it becomes useful.

However, it makes no sense to spend more than a certain percentage of my waking hours doing this. Spending too much time exchanging information means too little time materializing opportunities and actually doing useful things.

Anonymous said...

What if the content is interactive? Like say a tutorial with many chapters, or you are educating yourself using wikipedia. I don't see how you can fetch all the content you need or delegate the time needed to learn things in advance, how that can work.

Interesting I am an opposite to you. I tend to spend far too much time reading people's gathered and shared information. Often I get so caught up in researching and reassessing, educating myself that I "forget" to actually start applying the knowledge I sought out to gained.

I would say that what you do is useful work. And efficient as well as it saves me and a lot of other people the effort and trouble of doing it ourselves. IMO a good tutorial, properly digested information is a very valuable commodity. To me at least.

Anonymous said...

insightful and instructive. thanks.

I find ascetism empowering too. I don't have TV for almost a year, and I am very happy about that.

Few months ago, I started to go to work and back to home only on foot, which is very relaxing and removes stress.

I have also dramatically reduced the quantity of alcohol consumed, which helps me remain fresh and productive another day.

However, I still have an Internet at home. Your proposed approach is really radical, but it might be worth to consider it ;)

Regards, Liutauras

Monarc said...

Strange, that's true. Long ago in my youth, I found the monks, Buddhist, Christian, etc, and the samurai, to be quite fascinating characters. They represented 'the human' to me; so independent, despite theirs bordered on denial which I think is undesirable. In general, I attach myself to interesting characters that will stimulate my growth while I help them too in form of personal growth (some people can be quite conceited however). Interesting has two meanings actually sort of opposites, an example will be between a nerd and a tramp. I'm with the nerd mostly to exercise my intellect but I'll compulsively help him be more complete, for instance, learning feeling while I'll be with the tramp to teach her restraint and the fruits of genuine love (only if she doesn't fall for me, I'm quite a magnet in the first place) while I'll also get that wide sensual knowledge that is characteristic of them.

Your methods are exactly like mine and you were wrong, I didn't find them eccentric :). I'm said to be quite the weird character, hahaStrange, that's true. Long ago in my youth, I found the monks, Buddhist, Christian, etc, and the samurai, to be quite fascinating characters. They represented 'the human' to me; so independent, despite theirs bordered on denial which I think is undesirable. In general, I attach myself to interesting characters that will stimulate my growth while I help them too in form of personal growth (some people can be quite conceited however). Interesting has two meanings actually sort of opposites, an example will be between a nerd and a tramp. I'm with the nerd mostly to exercise my intellect but I'll compulsively help him be more complete, for instance, learning feeling while I'll be with the tramp to teach her restraint and the fruits of genuine love (only if she doesn't fall for me, I'm quite a magnet in the first place) while I'll also get that wide sensual knowledge that is characteristic of them.

Your methods are exactly like mine and you were wrong, I didn't find them eccentric :). I'm said to be quite the weird character, haha