Asceticism

Pursuing enlightenment, Buddha first practiced severe asceticism before recommending a non-ascetic middle way.[1] In Christianity, Francis of Assisi and his followers practiced extreme acts of asceticism.[2]

Asceticism (əm/; from the Greek: ἄσκησις áskesis, "exercise, training") is a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from sensual pleasures, often for the purpose of pursuing spiritual goals. Ascetics may withdraw from the world for their practices or continue to be part of their society, but typically adopt a frugal lifestyle, characterised by the renunciation of material possessions and physical pleasures, and time spent fasting while concentrating on the practice of religion or reflection upon spiritual matters.[3]

Asceticism has been historically observed in many religious traditions, including Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism, and contemporary practises continue amongst some religious followers.

The practitioners of this philosophy abandon sensual pleasures and lead an abstinent lifestyle, in the pursuit of redemption,[4] salvation or spirituality.[5] Asceticism is seen in the ancient theologies as a journey towards spiritual transformation, where the simple is sufficient, the bliss is within, the frugal is plenty.[3] Inversely, several ancient religious traditions, such as Zoroastrianism, Ancient Egyptian Religion[6] and the Dionysian Mysteries, as well as more modern Left Hand traditions, openly reject ascetic practices and focus on various types of hedonism.

Etymology and meaning

The adjective "ascetic" derives from the ancient Greek term askēsis, which means "training" or "exercise". The original usage did not refer to self-denial, but to the physical training required for athletic events. Its usage later extended to rigorous practices used in many major religious traditions, in varying degrees, to attain redemption and higher spirituality.[7]

Dom Cuthbert Butler classified asceticism into natural and unnatural forms:[8]

  • "Natural asceticism" involves a lifestyle which reduces material aspects of life to the utmost simplicity and to a minimum. This may include minimal, simple clothing, sleeping on a floor or in caves, and eating a simple minimal amount of food.[8] Natural asceticism, state Wimbush and Valantasis, does not include maiming the body or harsher austerities that make the body suffer.[8]
  • "Unnatural asceticism", in contrast, covers practices that go further, and involves body mortification, punishing one's own flesh, and habitual self-infliction of pain, such as by sleeping on a bed of nails.[8]