Into the Far Wilderness of Sanity.
On Defending Hypocritical Asceticism.
First, for context, I want to point anyone interested to my original post, Fuge, Tace, Quies where I propose the Arsenios Option. Which can be summarized as, “flee, be silent, and dwell in stillness.” More importantly for the context of the post at hand, is the response to the Arsenios Option from the Flat Caps and Fatalism substack, entitled Joy and Laughter. It is excellent and I highly recommend it. I am grateful for the conversation and hope to move towards greater clarity.
Those who seek learning gain everyday those who seek the Way lose everyday they lose and they lose until they find nothing to do nothing to do means nothing not done who rules the world is not busy if someone is busy he can't rule the world --Tao Te Ching. Chapter 48. Red Pine Translation.
I lived in my apartment in Boulder for twenty-two years. In an apartment complex that a friend, himself a longtime occupant, dubbed, “the people kennel”. Sadly, this description was entirely apt. It had a stunning view of the parking lot. It was also right above the laundry room, so I was treated to a sickly-sweet detergent smell on a regular basis. Otherwise, I made do. At least it was cheap.
For the first half of my tenure there I was in a highly active phase of my life, a very worldly life. I wasn’t in-kennel all that often. It worked well enough because I was involved in many things--many projects, and endeavors. I had a social life, however kaleidoscopic and unstable—alas, people don’t like to stay put for very long. It seemed like life was going well enough. I had the hope that I was moving towards something good.
The second half of my time in the people kennel, starting around 2010, was very different. I can’t say exactly why. Something shifted in me. I don’t know whether this shift was solely psychological—it surely was that—or part of a greater social change. Either way, nearly everything I had previously pursued became meaningless to me. Not just meaningless, but destructively so. I felt that my life was not only a lie but that I had been lied to since birth in the most cynical way. I did what I was told and followed my bliss. Okay, so then why was I so empty and unhappy1? Why were so many people I knew who had done likewise anything but blissful?
The Atrophy of Man.
Technology is the instantiation of the human will-to-power. It is the extension of natural human capabilities to an often unimagined and artificial level. Instead of walking, we can drive—and cover vast distances in a fraction of the time. Instead of muscle-power, we can harness fossil fuels and manufacture giant machinery—and build cities in the desert so quickly and unnaturally that it staggers the mind. Instead of talking to our neighbors, we can carry a smartphone and be in touch with people—many, if not most of whom we’ve never actually met—all around the world. We can all cite many more examples of this. It is this ability that defines the modern world. What we are told is that, at this rate, we will be liberated and utopia beckons!
As many of us are beginning to suspect2, this expansion of the will comes at a cost. Often at cost great cost to the core of what it means to be human. To extend our wills so deeply into the nature of things persuades us to relinquish a natural ability in return. It actually requires it. In short, it must increase and we must decrease.
The car isolates us and we get stuck in traffic. It creates the modern suburbs of housing units and shopping malls that alienate us from natural rhythms and interaction. We walk less. Our friends are no longer our neighbors, and neighbors no longer friends. We often don’t know who it is that’s living right next door. Our sprawling metropolises become indistinguishable from one another as any local flavor is rooted out and replaced by the same shiny chain stores. Our social lives get transferred online and we spend our days obsessing over the news—aka propaganda—or cycling through a pointless Babel of information and an ever-proliferating confusion of commentary. Heck, even a simple and inert technology like a chair3—our lives increasingly sedentary— is now seen as highly detrimental to our physical health. Sit too long in a chair and it can cause type 2 Diabetes, among other ailments4. Again, the list could go on and on.
The PR apparatus keeps telling us that this is a good bargain, and besides is there any real alternative? Do we want really want to live without our technology? Can we so live? That is a very real question and I don’t have a simple answer5. When I talk about fleeing our degrading civilization, for most of us that may be only a symbolic flight, as real flight is largely impossible. The truth is that most of us are stuck. The only way to survive outside the infinite shopping mall is to own land and be able to support oneself, preferably in a community of others doing the same. I have neither the social nor financial capital to make that happen. Only the rich can now afford the simple life6. The first flight from the world, and maybe the only one possible for us will be removing ourselves from its false promises and to stop buying what it is selling7.
As I see it the conclusion is inescapable: the more we enter into the technological world the less we become. The more we try to extend our will-to-power into the world of ambition the less human we are, and the more we atrophy. Getting and spending we lay waste our powers8. It is simply a devil’s bargain9.
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Asceticism during the Illogic of Late Capitalism.
Asceticism comes from the Greek word, askesis (ἄσκησις), meaning to train. Most of us are familiar with the idea of training for something. Especially if we have played organized sports or have learned a musical instrument, etc. It takes discipline and a good amount of self-sacrifice. Anyone not willing to sacrifice and experience pain to achieve a goal will not get very far at all. In fact, one will get nowhere fast.
But the word as it is meant here is not that of training just for anything at all but very particularly towards a spiritual goal. St. Paul clarifies the difference, telling us that, “everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.” (1 Cor 9:25). Askesis, in this sense, means something more and other than simply going to the gym10, or learning the guitar. It means training and developing our capabilities, physical and otherwise, for the true goal of human life. Ascesis is not a goal in itself, but a means to a much greater end.
I say this knowing that we are increasingly in a situation where we are unable to provide for ourselves and that this has been true for quite some time. We depend on vast supply chains and mind-boggling forms of global organization for our food, our housing, our entertainment, for pretty much everything. Thus, despite the constant PR campaign trying to convince us we are free and independent, instead we are increasingly told what to do and what to think11. Even when we are free to move about as we please, buy what we please we get trapped on the hedonic treadmill. Less happy than when we started.. You can never get enough of what you don’t really want. We atrophy.
Stepping on the Long Path to the Desert beneath our Feet.
There can be no knowledge of the mysteries of God on a full stomach.
—St. Isaac The Syrian. Ascetical Homilies.
What this means first and foremost is the need to remove myself, as best I can and even if for only a time, from the distraction and outrage machine we call the postmodern civilization. We might not be able to fully exit the machine and head for the hills, but that doesn’t mean we are without options. We can withdraw from its false promise to the degree greater than we might suppose. In so doing, we can revive our natural human abilities. We can do so together. We can help each other. We learn we are not helpless.
When I lived in the people kennel I did the best I could. I did retreats after a fashion within my apartment. I turned off the internet. I fasted and prayed, usually over a long holiday weekend. I took long walks. I did what I could. It wasn’t nearly enough, but it was what I was able to muster12. There are many possibilities13, some of which may seem silly or pointless. But even a little bit can go a long way.
In the process of living out a hypocritical asceticism a funny thing happens--we are changed. Fasting gives energy and shows me that I don’t need nearly as much as I thought I did. As I fast, I start to feel alive, that something deeper in me is waking up. That it is good to be uncomfortable. Life simplifies when it is even slightly difficult and gets too complicated when it is easy. Rather than always eating to satiety where the food I eat becomes bland and in need of constant novelty to stimulate, even simple meals become delicious when we are truly hungry. I can truly be thankful rather than complacent and finicky.
If at the same time I am doing this I am otherwise living a life hardly different from the most enthusiastic consumer, then so what? Yes, I still order from Amazon. I still depend on the machine for everything. I am still sitting in a chair and now glued to the internet. Yet, in practicing hypocritical asceticism I am carving out a little zone of freedom within myself. Freedom from the blind dogs of craving that neurotically circle the people kennels we’ve been taught to see as normal. They may be statistically normal, but they aren’t natural. Far from it. The people kennels are killing us inside and out. We still have the ability to free ourselves. We still have the ability to see that we are far, far more than we have been sold, but first, we must accept much, much less14. There is only one way to find out.
Unless we embrace the hypocritical asceticism that is possible for us right now, we will likely get no asceticism at all. That would be only to our own detriment and the benefit of those who sell us lies. The kennels aren’t locked. We are free to leave.
I'm a poor but happy follower of the Way whatever happens takes care of my needs last night the west wind blew down an old tree at daybreak firewood covered the ground windblown white silk wreathe the red scarps dewdrop pearls adorned the green cliffs my survival has always depended on what's present why should I tire myself out making plans --The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse. Translation by Red Pine.
Sell what you have and give alms. --Luke 12:33
“If it feels good, do it” is a recipe for self-destruction and cultural chaos. Stay clear of it.
A few have known this for a long time.
We can’t even get sitting right without killing ourselves. We must be liberated from the chair! Down with the chair! From one article chosen at random:
Here’s what happens to your body when you sit all day.
Up to 90% more pressure is applied to your lower back when you sit versus when you stand. (This may be why back pain is one of American’s most common health problems.)
Hours of sitting can tighten the hip flexor and hamstring muscles and stiffen your joints, too. Your gait and balance can be affected by the tighter muscles, and they can add to lower back pain and knee stiffness.
Your lung capacity is reduced when you’re in a seated position, which means you breathe in less oxygen when you sit than when you stand.
Of course, you engage fewer muscles and use less energy when you sit compared to when you stand or move.
Internally, your metabolism slows down by 90 percent after 30 minutes of sitting. Your body has a harder time breaking down fats. Unhealthy cholesterol levels increase. Blood sugar increases. Blood flow decreases.
Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with increased risk of excess weight, unhealthy blood pressure levels, unhealthy changes in blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and excess body fat around the waist.
One very large study involving 800,000 people found that those who sat 7 to 10 hours a day were 147 percent more likely to have a serious cardiovascular event than people who rarely sat down.
Research also indicates that too much sitting overall and prolonged periods of sitting may increase the risk of death, particularly from heart health issues and unhealthy cellular function.
These are sobering facts, and yet knowing them is key to preventing serious health problems.
Of course, I am sitting in a chair right now. You may be also.
The global system appears pretty shaky. We may very well find out what it’s like to get technologically downgraded sooner than we think. I have been fasting from youtube, with the one exception of Peter Zeihan. The title of his new book—a book I haven’t read—will give you the basic gist of his work, ‘The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalism’. Worth looking into.
Compound interest and property taxes price most of us out of self-reliance.
Again, I mean this literally.
The gym itself is a sign of human atrophy. The gym is where we simulate riding a bicycle, where we simulate running somewhere, and simulate lifting heavy objects, because we lack the opportunity to do so in our daily lives.
You can do anything and believe anything and say anything, as long as you do, believe and say what you are told.
Eventually events kind of overtook me. The fine balance between solitude and isolation tipped over into alienation during the lockdowns. Thanks to the kindness of friends I got out. Without intending I am now at the monastery. Who knows where I go next?
N.B. This is not to say I am leaving the monastery. I love being here. Rather, I am not attaching myself to any particular plans for my future.
For example: take cold showers, fast until noon, turn off the internet for a week, stop buying things from online sellers such as Amazon for a month, tend a garden, don’t watch movies or listen to recorded music.
Less of the world of ambition. We are creatures meant for the depths who swim in the shallows.