modeling simple, decent human behavior
Ascetics exist in many walks of life.
You’re likely walking right past them. What about the person who gives up comfort or a steady job for the sake of their art, or their dance, music, or a simpler form of living? Young techies adopt the lifestyle, even if many of them have little choice. College students may crash on someone’s sofa for the summer because they can’t afford a place. That’s a form of asceticism.
Expanding the definition of an ascetic
We generally define an ascetic as someone who has taken vows of poverty or a worldly renunciation on behalf of a spiritual calling. And that’s true. But from my point of view, ascetics are everywhere.
I know a guy who’s a successful businessman. But years ago, while he was still a one-man operation, he saved up enough money to pilgrimage on foot through the Himalayas for a year or so. That’s an ascetic. I know another man who renounced everything to live out of a beat-up van, just so he could climb cliffs and peaks. He was dirt poor, eating beans out of a can. It’s the same with many surfers.
I don’t think it’s entirely inappropriate to hijack the term a bit, and conceive that we could even consider the poor and destitute as being ascetics.
Within that context, some ascetics immigrate alone to a foreign country, and live many years in deep poverty, as they struggle to save enough money to bring family in from the old country, vigorously denying themselves in order to have more money to send back home. In this light we see such a person in their own way quite devoted to loneliness, isolation, and humble work. These aspects of denial and poverty are undoubtedly similar to the religious ascetic.
Here’s the point: ascetics are rarely judgmental. And ascetics rarely judge other ascetics. It’s a rather startling morality lesson.
Ascetics tend to be actual human beings
When an ascetic sees another ascetic struggling, they try to lend a hand or an encouraging word. Think of the surfer who needs a warm blanket. It shows up without asking. An ascetic will open up their meager dwelling, or hand over half a sandwich.
If an ascetic has a five dollar bill in their pocket and they come upon a fellow ascetic or a homeless woman, the odds are fairly high she’s going to be handed the money. But if a wealthier person walks by and feels that same five dollar bill folded in their pocket, they will tend not to give it because they would habitually only hand over loose change or a dollar at most. Can’t be supporting the poor, tsk tsk. They’re all failures. And drug addicts.
Ascetics see beyond the failures
When an ascetic sees another ascetic messing up or failing, they nod with a gentleness that only comes from having walked the walk. And, if it’s appropriate, they’ll reach out a hand to help. It’s tragic, though. Because the things we tend to most frequently judge people over often disappear in the presence of money. The concept being that if you give a man more money, he will tend to be judged less harshly.
Ascetics are among the least judgmental of humanity
If someone has money, or a successful book, or some kind of fame — then we give them far more weight in terms of authority. They are somehow more important, more worthy, and wiser. And when they make mistakes, they are usually more easily forgiven. If they commit a crime, they get off easier. Our judgment is less harsh and frequent. An ascetic would see that as not being genuine, as not being true to yourself. An ascetic would spot crappy phony behavior like that from a mile away, whether they clued you in or not.
Meanwhile the financially destitute family is heavily judged. The poor minimum wage worker is held to the highest standards. The more poor the worker, the higher society’s expectations. They get thrown in jail for being homeless, but the rich can rape a nation and walk free. If you are poor, you’re repudiated if you get sick. If you have menstrual bleeding, you get fired. If you earn minimum wage, you are docked an hour’s pay for punching in five minutes late. Meanwhile, the wealthier man or woman can take a two-hour lunch or go visit the dentist with virtually no repercussions.
Ascetics are innately noble
I find that the ascetic is far more likely to throw themselves on the sword. They’ll take the blame. But is it the same with the kind of people who are quick to judge others? Not so much.
Ascetics remind me of Emerson’s Transcendentalists
A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of people and nature…Transcendentalists desire to ground their religion and philosophy in principles…Transcendentalism emphasizes subjective intuition over objective empiricism. Adherents believe that individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with as little attention and deference to past masters as possible…Transcendentalists believe that society and its institutions — particularly organized religion and political parties — corrupt the purity of the individual. They have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community can form. Even with this necessary individuality, transcendentalists also believe that all people possess a piece of the “Over-soul” (God). Because the Over-soul is one, this unites all people as one being. — Wikipedia
Shinrin-Yoku bows to Nature
In Japan there is an art called shinrin-yoku (森林浴, which means Forest Bathing. Similar to aspects of the Transcendentalists, or perhaps what we call nature lovers, Japan has recognized that nature restores health and equilibrium.
The Transcendentalist is ever present, hidden in plain view — just like the ascetic
For the Transcendentalists, nature is the place where we not only find ourselves, but where we can be ourselves. Unlike mean ole society, nature doesn’t put any pressure on us to behave in a certain way or conform to social standards. If we run naked through a field, the grass isn’t going to tell us “Put on some clothes!” Whereas our neighbors in the city would probably say that. Even if you’re going streaking through the quad Old School style.
Nature doesn’t judge us the way people do. And for that reason it’s where we can be most free. — Source
So yes, Mr. Emerson, nature doesn’t judge me, or any of us. Nor does music, art or dance. Not even God judges us.
But people? Well, what can I say? We’re deeply flawed. We judge. And then we pretend like we’re not judgemental. And we imply we’re perfect.
Which reminds me. I need to add in a bit more forest bathing.
UPDATE 11/24/17: Here’s a story that exemplifies the generosity of an ascetic.