Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 2: Overview of Practices Involved > Chapter 7: Discipline Desires
To deny himself is to refuse to accept himself as he is at present. It is to become keenly aware that he is spiritually blind, deaf, and dumb and to be intensely eager to gain sight, hearing, and speech. It is to realize that nearly all men complacently mistake this inner paralysis for active existence. It is restlessly to seek the higher state, the nobler character, a more concentrated mind: it is to be willing to withdraw from all that accumulation of memories and desires which ordinarily constitute the ego.
The heart should be kept free. For that, too, is a desire that binds, a longing that torments, like all longings, unnecessarily. Being bound brings disappointment, brings pain. Renounce the desire to live in any particular place, as you have renounced other cherished desires. Then happiness will not depend on its satisfaction. Nor will inner peace be lost at its nonrealization.
Disgust with life, recognition of the futility of all human exertions, is one common precondition of inwardly turning away from the world. The aspirant who feels this dies to the world and consequently to the personal self which was active in that world. After that, he is attracted only to that which is deep within him--to the utter Void of the Overself.
With simpler homes and fewer pleasures, with physical bonds and emotional attachments reduced to a minimum, it is easier for a man to fortify his life and cultivate his soul. When he denies satisfaction to his various desires, he eventually exhausts the desire to live itself. With this sterility the cycle of reincarnation comes to an end and the peace of Nirvana is his.
Prof. T.M.P. Mahadevan said: "The truest Renunciation is to renounce belief in the world's reality." P.B.'s comment on above: This is the interpretation of Sankara given most commonly. Perhaps by altering the word "reality" to "materiality" we may help the Western mind.
This is not the fierce, tough, ruthless, forcible use of the personal will to gain some desired worldly thing or position, but the calm, mental-emotional letting go of captivity to it.
A single revolutionary act of renunciation rooting out the ego will take care of all the lesser ones. That done, they will adjust themselves in time. Some things he will not be required to give up.
It is not always and absolutely essential to remove from one's existence any thing, person, or habit to become detached from it. What is essential is to keep it at a distance emotionally.
The ideal may require sacrifice, in its name, of possession, love, ambition, desire. But unless he be a monk, this purifying experience may be an internal one. He may stay in the world yet not be of it.
If the inner reality of holiness or renunciation is missing, then the wearing of priestly robes or yogic loincloth merely camouflages hypocrisy and hides humbug.
If, on the inward journey from ego to Overself, a man has to give up everything, on the outward journey he may pick up everything again. If he has to become a little child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, he will return from that kingdom and become a man again, yet without losing all that was worthy in the childlike faith. Whatever the aspirant has sacrificed for the sake of finding God, God may restore to him afterwards.
The theory of detachment may seem cold and heartless if applied to human relationships also, and its practice positively cruel. Yet life itself enforces it upon us in the end. There is no avoidance.
In the elderly man, desires are gradually outlived and dropped, ambitions begin to come to a natural death. But in the philosophic man they pass through the same process through his own deliberate choice and at an earlier age.
The man who embraces philosophy is not called upon to renounce the pleasures and comforts of this world, but he is called upon to re-evaluate his time, discipline his body, and train his will. This is not done out of a harsh and narrow austerity but in the need and name of the body's health and the will's strength.
Prince Rama wanted to withdraw from his position, title, duties, and family in pursuit of God. But the wise Vashistha, the great teacher of Mentalism, asked him: "Is He apart from the world that you wish to renounce it?"
Whether we acquire or renounce possessions is not really the main point. Renunciation is a dramatic and symbolic gesture whereby a man announces his change of course. No longer satisfied with worldly life, he will seek the kingdom of heaven in his heart. The physical manifestation will depend on circumstances, situation, family, country, and outer or inner guidance.
It is an inner emptiness gained by casting out desires and attachments, habits and tendencies, so that the heart is wide open to receive life's greatest gift--Grace. The craving to acquire personal possessions is a hard thing to still but once done we are rewarded a hundredfold.
It cannot be bought cheaply. Relinquishments of distracting activity must be made, disciplines must be brought in, the work on oneself must be done, the hands which want to hold others unclasped and solitude embraced.
It is not enough to renounce something by excluding it from your physical life. You ought also to exclude it from memory and imagination.
There comes a time when he has to turn his back on the past, for the old man is becoming a stranger and a new man is coming to birth. Memories would obstruct this process.
First let go of attachment, then let go of the ego itself. First let go of all things--physical and mental, all creatures, all that is past--in the end nothing is really yours. This inner separation, this detachment, is the true freedom.
The counsel about not being attached to results was never intended to mean being blind to results. It means that we should rise emotionally above them; it does not mean that we should not study their nature and take appropriate action accordingly. If we are to be blown emotionally hither and thither by favourable and unfavourable results, it will never be possible to attain any peace. On the other hand, if we are not to use our critical judgement about people in situations, we cannot deal successfully with the world.
It is better to realize that transiency is in the very nature of things. Man constantly deludes himself with the hope that some transient possession will become a permanent one. It never does, and the self-deception merely robs him of a peace he might otherwise keep. And this is true whether he wants to possess another human being or another hundred dollars, whether he wants to chain someone's love to himself or to chain more things to his home. Hence the student who is oppressed by the rapidity with which his years are waning away will seek all the more intensely and aspire all the more earnestly for that which is itself eternal and above the years.
We have come into incarnation for a purpose: life is our business here, not running away from it. When certain renunciations are called for, they are part of this preparation for life, because they are needed in the fulfilment of this purpose.
He who claims to have renounced the world and to own nothing must then beg, accept, or take from other people the things he needs to survive--food, clothes, shelter, and so on. While he has these things he is back in the world again, making use of it, in some kind of relationship with it.
This inner detachment from the world comes but slowly, so deep are the roots of desire. The young who value freedom to the point of rejecting home, parents, family, society, education, and tradition should enquire more deeply into what freedom is.
A double work goes on: the man slowly withdraws from the things which hold him, which make him theirs, while his higher aspirations attract the higher self to slowly take over the place in his heart which they filled.
He will discover that renouncing the world is only a stage on the way, that renouncing oneself is an even longer and much more austere stage.
If we are called by the Quest to give up everything for a time or for all time it is only that we may receive something infinitely better in exchange. The Quest calls us to renunciation of earthly desires not to make us miserable but to make us happy.
How to translate these philosophic ideas and spiritual ideals into terms of actual life is our problem. Here is the answer, from an Indian text: "One who relinquishes the fruit of action, is from the spiritual point of view, a true Sanyassi," says the Gita. This is plain enough. "One who remains unaffected by the fruit of action done in discharge of duty, is not entangled in the meshes of births and rebirths by such action!"
There is much confusion about this reiterated counsel to practise self-surrender, to give up the ego, and to become unselfish. Its primary meaning is not that we are at once to run out in the street and transfer all our possessions to other men. Indeed, it is not concerned with society at all. It is that we are to effect in consciousness a displacement of the lower by the higher self. Such a displacement cannot happen so long as there is any inner resistance on the ego's part. Hence the counsel warns us to avoid such resistance, encourages us to offer the ego willingly as a sacrifice to the Overself, stimulates us to let go of the animal and human complexes which retard the consummation of such a sacrifice. Each struggle passed through successfully builds up our higher will.
He finds in the end that he does not need to divorce himself from ordinary civilized society except for periodical and, perhaps, short daily retreats; that the work to which he is called is, primarily, an inner one; that the only asceticism he is called to is a simple self-mastery gotten in either the worldly order or the monastic order; and that his spiritual quest is in the end a personal, not an institutional, one.
Perhaps most people find it easier to graduate their renunciations but some find the oppositive way of drastic renunciation the simplest solution.
He may keep his likes and preferences, his attachments, if he must, but he should be prepared to drop them at the shortest notice.
Whatever purifying renunciations and ascetic disciplines are to be effected should be effected naturally, inevitably, and without strain from within.
"One is not to be called a renunciate for having merely given up his possessions. Unattached at heart even though attached in outward show, standing aloof from the world, having broken all his bonds, and regarding friend and foe equally, such a man, O king, is to be regarded as emancipate."--The Mahabharata
If he really wants to renounce them by doing without them, he ought to do without some of the things he loves. Only then will he understand the Oriental phrase, "God only is rich."
It is not by becoming a pauper that one demonstrates spirituality, as so many yogis think, or by becoming well-to-do, as so many "Right Thinkers" and Christian Scientists think.
The mind's detachment from the world will bring the body into line with it in time: this takes longer than the ascetic's way of forcibly imposing rigid renunciations, but it is more natural and less harsh--easier and philosophic. It softens the rigour of inescapable controls. What is more important, perhaps, is that it works in a deeper ground, so its result is more durable than the other way.
He may have to adopt a penitential way of living for a time, purificatory and reformative. It may even be required for several years. But fanatical extremes and foolish self-torments are not required.
He who is owned by things and no longer owns them should turn to asceticism and practise the virtue of renunciation. But he who is so enamoured of asceticism that he shrinks from comfort and shudders at the sight of pleasure should turn away from renunciation. Balance is required.
This search for the road to God has been turned by many in the past into an impoverishment of human existence, a denial of human joy. Yet if the greatest rapture exists in the finding of God, why should the way to it be so cloudy and gloomy?
How is he to achieve this inner freedom? Should the method include outer acts? Should he make the Herculean gesture of parting with all his possessions? Should he embrace voluntary poverty like a monk and henceforth live without receiving any regular income and consequently without paying any further income tax? This ascetic idea of not being fettered by any external thing is good as far as it goes. But it fails to take note of the fact that one may be just as fettered by an internal thought. The ascetic gives up the vices and allurements of the world in order to become free, renounces earthly desires and futilities in order to become happy, shuns pleasures because he associates them with guilt. But if he has not grasped the truth of mentalism, if he does not comprehend that thought is the next battlefield, he remains as tied as before, albeit by new chains.
His feet will have to tread the painful path of asceticism for a while. But whether it will be for a short or a long while, whether the pain will be little or great, whether the asceticism will be slight or extreme, will depend on the circumstances of each individual case.
The drastic means used by some forms of asceticism are not suited to nor willingly accepted by most modern seekers. It is preferable to lead them by gentler and more gradual means.
Have these men found peace in their world-rejecting hearts, won harmony in their womanless lives?
The logic of Buddhist asceticism is as relentless as it is comfortless.
Even Muhammed could not stop the arisal of ascetic ideas and practices, however plainly he banned them.
Science justifies itself insofar as it helps to make life on this planet more bearable and more pleasant. We are here to live. Fools make the rigours of renunciation the end of living.
Ascetic regimes, just like other spiritual practices, may become a source of spiritual pride. It is needful for him to watch out for the subtle desire to indulge them as glorifications of the ego. Instead, the proper desire is to submit to them as steps to the true consciousness.
Those who can only learn self-discipline by leading the restricted life of asceticism may do so. The wise, however, will rule themselves by reason--which is not something one suddenly calls up for the first time in one's life, but is the matured fruit of a gradually growing habit of thinking.
If we need not follow an extreme asceticism, we must obey a moral discipline that seeks to purify thought, feeling, and conduct. If we are not asked to become martyrs and heroes in the battle against lower impulses and calculating worldliness, we are called to the battle itself.
Ascetic panegyrics on the simple life find their logical conclusion in grinding poverty and utter destitution.
The notion that a woman cannot have a husband, bear children, and wear fine dresses if she wants to and still enter the kingdom of heaven, is as stupid as it is barbaric. Yet this is the constricted teaching which is propagated in the name of "higher" spirituality. But its proponents are usually monks themselves, men who, having found what suits the taste, temperament, or circumstances of their particular personality, would proceed to impose such taste on all mankind by raising it to the dignity of a universal law. My plaint against ascetics therefore is that they turn their very limitations into vaunted virtues.
It is to the extent that a desire stands in the way of pursuing this quest that it is to be negated, but only to this extent. This means that a total asceticism is usually unnecessary as it is often undesirable.
The true place of asceticism is at the beginning and in the middle of this quest, when a man becomes conscious of his weakness of will and slavery to sensuousness. In order to strengthen the one and neutralize the other, it is a part of yoga to practise hard austerity and painful self-denial. But this is done only for a time; it is a means not an end, a path to detachment and deliverance but not a goal for human life.
A proper asceticism is concerned with the curbing of desire, the practice of self-denial, the overcoming of weaknesses, and the control of body, mind, and speech.
An intelligent asceticism is proper, even praiseworthy, for certain periods at certain times. It gives a man power over himself, his body, his passions, his appetites. It disciplines whereas the mad asceticism merely destroys.
The asceticism has its place, just like the Long Path, of which it is a component, but when it is stressed to an unnatural point, fanaticism is born, equilibrium is lost, and tolerance is destroyed.
The practice of a wise and philosophic asceticism enables him to separate himself from a widespread illusion--identification with the body. When its self-denials are directed against fleshly appetites, passions, and desires for the purpose of compelling them to submit to intuition and reason, greater health for the body and greater truth for the mind are secured.
Proper asceticism ought to be not a torment or a punishment, but a purifier; it gets rid of bad habits and clears the way for good ones. It trains feeling, disciplines body, prepares a temple for "the Holy Ghost."
The stringent rules of some monastic institutions may discipline the body and defy its senses, but the consequences may show in a harsher character and a colder heart.
Gautama found that imposing harsh denials on the body, ascetic pains and rigorous torments, gave certain valuable fruits--such as strengthening of the will--but did not give enlightenment.
But this said, it must also be said that philosophical mysticism does not desire to nullify our human joys with a lugubrious and somber asceticism. There is an unfortunate tendency among ordinary mystics to become so enthused about the way of asceticism as to regard it not as it should be, that is, only as a means to an end, but as a complete end in itself. The original purpose of ascetic discipline was threefold: First, the victory of mind over body as a preliminary to the victory of mind over itself. This involved taming passions and disciplining appetites. Second, the solar plexus, the spinal nerve ganglions, and the brain nerve-centres were not only recharged with essential life-force but both the cerebro-spinal and sympathetic nervous systems were stopped from obstructing, and made to promote, the new and high ideals implanted in the subconscious mind by the conscious one. Third, the stimulation of the pituitary and pineal glands. Fourth, to straighten and strengthen the spinal column. This gave a clear unhindered path for and helped to evoke the currents of a mystically illuminating force fully evoked by special meditation exercises. Asceticism was like a remedy taken to cure a sickness. But in their unbalanced reaction against worldly life, its followers turned it into a permanent way of life. Medicine is most valuable as medicine, but not as food. Because quinine has cured someone of fever, he does not incorporate it in his diet for the remainder of his lifetime. Yet this is just what most ascetics did. They succumbed to intolerant manias with fanatical exaggeration and without understood purpose, and thus lost the balance of their psyche.
Clearly, the way of sanity lies between the two extremes of self-indulgent worldliness and of body-crushing mortification. Philosophy highly values asceticism when used with adequate reason, when sane, temperate, and balanced. It knows how necessary such a regime is to cleanse the body of poisonous toxins and keep it strong and healthy. But it despises the unnecessary misery and useless struggles with which the ordinary ascetic obsesses himself. It sympathizes with the modern seeker when he is not as attracted by the rigours of a forbidding asceticism as his medieval forebear was. It respects, indeed includes and advocates, an occasional and limited asceticism, but it rejects a permanent and excessive asceticism. It very definitely makes use of abstinence at a certain stage of the aspirant's career but then only as far as necessary, and for a limited time, and with the knowledge got from experience. It certainly bids its votary to practise some austerities, submit to some disciplines, but not to make a fetish of them, to use them only so far and so long as they are helpful to achieve self-mastery and bodily health and thus treat them as means, not ends. Lastly, it affirms that self-restraint and sense-discipline are always necessary, even though harsh asceticism is not.
The limitation of a merely physical asceticism is demonstrated by the fact that bodily habits are really mental habits. Desire, being but a strong thought, can be effaced only by an equally powerful thought, that is, by a mental process. No merely external discipline or physical renunciation can have the same effect, although it does help to bring about that effect and therefore should be used. Asceticism pronounces the pleasure we take in the experience of the senses to be evil in itself. Philosophy replies that it is the being carried away from reason and intuition by the pleasures, the being attached to them to the point of utter dependence upon them, that is evil. The fanatical and dogmatical kind of asceticism declares the physical things we touch and taste to be evil, but philosophy says touch and taste are really mental experiences and that their mental discipline will be more effective than abstaining altogether from their physical exercise. Hence, it leaves us free to enjoy the good things of this world, so long as we do not get too attached to them nor inwardly enslaved by them. Living in inward detachment from the world is much more important than practising outward contempt for the world.
The ascetic who retires from the sordid struggles, gnawing insecurities, and dangerous discontents of our time, like a rabbit into its hole, gains ease at the cost of conscience. The philosopher must think of others as well as himself. If the message to the world of this ancient wisdom were only a call to its inmates to desert it, then would the outlook for mankind be a sorry one indeed.
The ascetics who seek to kill out desire are themselves inflamed with the desire to kill it out. They may lull, refine, purify, or exalt desire--but its root always remains.
In so far as ascetic regimes clip our worldly desires, they also clip the illusions and deceptions which are bred by those desires.
The wise and well-disciplined man will be able to put on asceticism or take off luxury like a suit of clothes, that is, at will, at any moment and in any place.
A temperate asceticism hardens the will, fortifies against temptation, and profits character. Such self-imposed discipline of animal desires and earthly aggrandizement pays high dividends.
We need not a fussy asceticism but an inspired humanism.
The ascetic who wants to dodge experience in the belief that it is either valueless or vile is the unfortunate victim of a widespread inability to distinguish between means and ends in these matters of yoga, renunciation, and the like.
The modern man is predisposed to want too much of the comforts and too many of the pleasures of the world. A little asceticism will therefore do him no harm and may bring him much benefit.
A self-tormenting frustration, imposed from without, is not the same as and not to be mistaken for a self-improving asceticism, imposed from within.
There is an asceticism which blights life and exhausts man, which shrivels his sympathies and freezes his humour. This he ought never be willing to accept, nor does true philosophy ever ask him to accept it. There is another asceticism which expands life and renews man, which confers the benediction of good health and tends towards a warm, cordial, and cheerful disposition.
Men with energy crushed it by ascetic practices until the state of a hibernating toad became their highest goal. Men with good will denied it by withdrawing from society and leaving the fields of activity, guidance, and leadership free for more selfish men, so that the general welfare inevitably suffered!
We do not honour the soul by imposing tortures on its tabernacles.
The weakling who is incapable of resisting whatever can bring him pleasure, who has never learnt discipline from the results of his weaknesses, has no other way to harden his will than the way of ascetic withdrawal.
Contemporary society is apt to laugh at and even to hinder these aspirations. We are not likely to become saints. All the likelihood runs in the opposite way. So let us not hesitate to practise a little self-denial, a little self-discipline, yes! even a little asceticism.
The Jain yogis even make the severest asceticism the chief feature of their path to the spiritual goal.
The discipline of the will must be practised against one's weaknesses and passions. This is where the ascetic finds his proper justification. But he need not push his effort into absurdities, for then he becomes a fool, or to extremes, for then he becomes a masochist.
Nobody need be frightened away from the quest by unnecessary fears and imaginary obstacles. Complete asceticism and full retirement are not asked for by philosophy. It asks instead for a spiritualizing of life in the world. It is realistic even when being idealistic. It leads men on from where they already are, not from where they find it impossible to be.
To withdraw ascetically from worldly affairs and let go one's grip on worldly things quite deliberately, and not through old age or chronic illness or repeated failure, is something that many active-bodied or keenly intellectual people find difficult to understand.
It is not fully helpful to us, creatures of modern civilization and metropolitan cities as we are, that most of the information which has come down to us about this subject has come from monks, nuns, abbots, and hermits too often given over to excesses of asceticism. This has given us their point of view, but we ourselves are not placed at the same point as they are.
We dislike the idea of becoming saints and fear the idea of becoming martyrs, just as we are averse to the idea of becoming ascetics. The spirituality of an antique period is not for us. We agree to learn a subject only when it is made easy, or to become spiritual only when the disciplines and dangers are first removed. We want the Quest but without the cross, the Overself without forsaking the ego.
It is not suggested that he become the kind of mystic who remains on the outside of life, unattached and rootless, a mere onlooker while others act and work and move and love.
Philosophy does not encourage the escapist in his evasion of morally obligatory responsibilities or in his illusion of merely external asceticism.
The notion that, in order to live a spiritual life or to attain spiritual salvation, a man must always flee from the world arises from several different causes, as well as from certain understandable confusions. It is not baseless although in a number of cases it is useless. One of the causes is disgust with the evil that surrounds us. One of the confusions is failure to perceive that mental flight is far more important than physical flight.
The Hindu-Buddhist monastic sects which consider life in this world to be an evil, and the world itself to be an inexplicable mistake to be endured until we can escape from it by a transcendental attainment, are not supported by all their own sages. Some, and they are of the best, reject such statements.
It is sinful to throw away or destroy what Nature or man has taken the trouble to produce, and what some other person can use. Life attaches a penalty to such a sin, the penalty of loss or privation in the thing concerned. It is not generally known or recognized as a sin but then not all of the higher laws are known or recognized.
Like the celebrated Abbess of Port-Royal, some thought that by living in squalor they were actually living in poverty, to which they were vowed. But this was a ghastly mistake, a confusion of definitions which brought about lamentable results.
To accept such values and to act in accordance with them would lead society back to a primitive stage and deprive it of the benefits of invention, the progress of civilization, and of the inspirations of literature and art.
Such temporary ascetic practices are an unmistakable gesture to the Overself that he is willing to make some sacrifices in return for dominion over his animal nature, that he is prepared to pay with the coin of self-discipline for liberation from slavery to his lower appetites, that, in short, he really has elevated his values.
Among Orientals the popular association of poverty with holiness is undeniable. The fakir begged his way as he wandered, the dervish begged at the door--both had given their lives to religion.
A reasonable ascetic abnegation may well become necessary at some stage, but it is he who must judge and test himself.
You are to hate nobody but to extend to everybody the sincere hand of goodwill, to bless all because in your own heart the conscious presence of the Overself has itself blessed you. Hence to purify your personal feelings from hate, resentment, anger, or malice, it is always needful to lift the problem of your enemy or your critic onto that plane where divine love and forgiveness can be felt and bestowed. But to discharge the social duties of the world in which we live, it is also needful to deal with him according to reason. The two attitudes are not conflicting ones. For whatever practical action you will then take will be taken calmly, nobly, and justly.
There are certain vital differences between the harsh asceticism of ordinary mysticism and the balanced discipline of philosophy. The first is an effort to arrive at a spiritual state by physical means, by forcible suppression and by mechanical obedience. The second is an effort to arrive at the same state by mental means, by gradual self-training, and by intelligent response. That is, the philosophical aspirant waits for the inner call to impose a bodily renunciation upon himself. He does not impose it arbitrarily merely because some external authority commands him to do so or because he seeks blindly to imitate the saints.
An occasional and limited austerity, intended to help and strengthen the growing will, is valuable to everyone. It is even more valuable to the spiritual aspirant because it teaches him to dissociate the self from the body.
Our objection is against that kind of asceticism which on the one hand merely expands vanity and increases egotism and on the other is only outward, formal, and physical.
Ascetic self-discipline must precede spiritual self-realization. We must let go of the lesser things of earth if we would find the greater ones of heaven.
The philosophic discipline makes use of physical austerity at certain periods and in a limited way. But it does not prescribe it arbitrarily. The prescription must come from within the aspirant himself. This ensures the right time, the mental readiness for imposing whatever outward discipline may be required.
The simple life advocated quite understandably by saints and mystics as a means of detaching people from too much worldliness is to be welcomed. But two points should be made and then kept clear. It should not be confused with the monastic life, with vows of poverty imposed on laymen. It should not be opposed to the cultural life and deprive us of the gifts of art, beauty, colour, and replace them by utter bareness or drabness. It should not be fanatical and push its dislike for the products of man's invention to the extreme. The cave is the simplest habitation. Are we to stop only there? And scratch on the walls instead of printing on paper?
Since they are so irrelevant to our times, why should we not soften the harsh rules of asceticism, so long as such softening does not minify the ultimate purpose itself, does not prevent a man from attaining the highest self-fulfilment?
When asceticism becomes a form of ill-treating the body, it renders no useful service--neither to religious aspiration in the best sense, nor certainly to the body itself, its health or well-being.
Buddha drew attention to the unpleasant parts and functions of the body and the unpleasantnesses associated with it, in order to get people disgusted with the body so that they might become less attached to the desires associated with it. The Hindu teachers instructed their seeking pupils to live near cremation grounds and burial grounds with a somewhat similar purpose in view, except that here there was emphasis upon the brevity of incarnation. But for those whose minds can function on a higher level, there is no need for such a one-sided outlook. Neither fanatical asceticism nor an utterly bare, so-called simple life should obscure the fact that the body also brings satisfactions. The pleasures of eating need not be disparaged; appreciation of beautiful song need not be missed.
Buddha tried the fanatic's way of asceticism but in the end gave it up for the Middle Way.
The body, passions, and undesirable emotions must be perseveringly disciplined. Whilst ungoverned and running wild, they constitute the lower nature that is symbolized in so many myths as a dragon, lion, or serpent which has to be slain before the guardians of the divine gate permit entrance. Such purification is a necessary preliminary to and prerequisite of the higher training, which opens the individual mind to spiritual consciousness. This does not mean that total asceticism is demanded, and, indeed, in the present era, such a demand would often be an impractical one. What is demanded is inner asceticism, that is, inner purification of thought and feeling. External measures may be adjusted later, according to the individual circumstances and personal inclinations.
Asceticism is not identified with philosophy but only with mysticism. Nevertheless there comes a period in his life when he has to go through the battles of Hercules, fight and overcome his lower nature before he may be initiated into higher realizations. Sex must and can be conquered. Only when this is done can rapid spiritual advancement be in order.
To take a single instance, the asceticism which marked those two Oriental messages (Buddhism and Hinduism), will not be a suitable feature of the new message. The new one says that we are to live in the world but not to become worldly, and that we may enjoy the good things of this world so long as we do not forget also to enjoy the good things of the Spiritual Quest.
He is here to understand life; and it can be understood just as well in business as in a cave. Moreover if he stays in the world he will have a far better opportunity to serve mankind than if he runs away. The time for withdrawing from business in order to have more time for meditation and study will come when it is right later on. He will gain little by withdrawal unless he does so under the orders of a competent teacher, whereas he will be able to benefit by the invaluable lessons and practical experience that business affords him. It is not a matter of finding time, this business of self-realization, but of finding the right tuition.
The ascetic physical regimes such as strict celibacy, total abstention from alcoholic liquor, living apart from worldly people, and not engaging in worldly business, were planned to keep the novice away from distracting environments and obstructing temptations. To concentrate successfully in meditation the mind must first become moderately settled. If it is excited with any passion, or agitated by any anger, then the aspirant finds it impossible to meditate properly. What he loves, longs for, or desires may come first before him when he sits down to meditate. The picture of that thing appears before him and makes his effort to concentrate more difficult. He may remove this unequal emphasis by strengthening his will through the deliberate renunciation of that thing for a time. This quietens the mind before he begins and thus there is a gradual, if temporary, dropping-away of the desire which might otherwise intrude and interfere. This is the theory of asceticism. Its defect is that the result is too often either a temporary repression or a total failure.
It is not at all necessary to emulate the emaciated self-hypnotized anchorite or the sombre intense ascetic.
If the Chinese ideal of the Harmonious Whole enters deeply into his thought, a one-sided attitude toward life seems too restricted. He can see no reason why a temporary and narrowing ascetic concentration, necessary though it was for most persons, should become a permanent imposition of austerity.
To reject a fanatical asceticism is not to plead for a free self-indulgence. The sybarite has no place on this quest. Moral, mental, and physical health needs the support of will and discipline.
Some practise asceticism, others merely pretend to do so.
Neither penance nor asceticism need be permanent. They are but stages, after all. The aspirant will receive an inner prompting when to bring them to an end. If, however, he is unintelligent, excessively obstinate, or emotionally unbalanced, he may disregard the prompting and turn what should be a means into an end.
If we want to understand why so many men have pursued ascetic ideals in a large part of the world and since before the Christian era, we have only to glance at those who have not pursued these ideals but rather the very opposite ones. What have ambition, wealth, power, pleasure and fame done to the character of those who placed the highest possible value upon them? How often have they weakened finer feelings, strengthened ignoble selfishness, or kept the mind on shallower levels?
A man may quite properly seek his material welfare without in any way being a materialist. The kind of ascetic mysticism which confuses the two is based on mere surface readings, not inner realities. The modern Westerner quite rightly has no use for that medieval outlook, that spurious holiness which praises the spiritual man only when he is also a starved man. He will prefer to follow Jesus' injunction to be in the world, but not of it.
They commit the mistake of going too far when they combat asceticism. They rightly object to its fanaticism, but this does not justify its total denunciation. It has a place, however limited, and a very necessary place, however temporary, in the life of all those who seek to rise above a merely animal existence. Because so many ascetics have been ignorant and extremist and unbalanced, this is no reason for refusing to honor the need of a prudent, sensible, and balanced restraint of the lower nature.
The kind of asceticism which turns its votaries into human cabbages or living corpses is unattractive in theory and uncomfortable in practice.
The ascetic belief that comfort is a spiritual hindrance, luxury a spiritual sin, and art a spiritual tempter is not entirely groundless. Much depends on the definitions made, the standards set, but more especially on the circumstances fixed by destiny.
The denial of comfort is not necessary to a simpler life, although grim ascetics may think so. Sitting on soft cushions need not make anyone more materialistic as squatting on bare earth, cemented or tiled floor has not made any Western visitor to Indian ashram more spiritual, if he dares to ignore his discomfort and think a little for himself.
Excessive surrender to the physical senses, instincts, desires, and appetites has created the need in most religions of codes, systems, and schools of the opposite, that is, asceticism. This is why more stress has been laid upon asceticism in a system like yoga than is really required, and why fanaticism so often accompanies it when it is excessive.
Those who wish to respond to the quest's silent invitation must begin by repentance, continue by self-discipline, and end by surrender.
If a sceptic asks, "Why should I be detached from the things and creatures which make me happy?" the answer is a multiple one. First, their transiency--all and everyone are subject to change, thus making possible a change in the happiness you get from them. Second, their brevity--next year they may not be present for your enjoyment, whether through death, accident, illness, or ill-fortune. Third, life is like a dream; its solid reality is a borrowed feeling not really there but in the deeper being of yourself. Fourth, and final--to discover this being is why you are here anyway, what you have to do in the end, even if you put it off for many a reincarnation. Nor will you miss out on happiness if you do respond to the idea of detachment. It does not mean living like a caveman. It does not mean denying life, art, comfort, humanity.
The same possessions which enslave one man may set another free. For where the first uses them to strengthen desires, nourish passions, increase selfishness, and exploit humanity, the second may use them to build character, improve intelligence, foster meditation, and serve humanity. The very things which captivate the first man help to liberate the second one.
The belief supported by Rousseau that living simply and on a low income improves character or promotes spirituality is correct only in the case of those who have renounced the world, that is, of monks and nuns. In the case of the others, who constitute the mass of mankind, it is correct only for exceptional persons who know how to live in the world and yet not be of it. But most people are in the grade of life's school where they need to acquire experience and develop the faculties of human individuality. The spurs to that are first, responsibility, and second, ambition. These and the need to discharge family obligation must in the end force them to improve themselves and to improve their position.
It is possible happily to enjoy the pleasures of life in the world, the sense of power which position gives in the world, the securities afforded by properties and possessions in the world, without clinging inordinately to their ownership in the mind. It is possible to hold them without uncontrolled attachment, to take or leave them as fate or inclination dictates. This is not to say that human feelings are to be expunged and human nature crushed, but only that they are to be freed from avoidable and unnecessary miseries by the practice of philosophy.
We hear much counsel from the Orient bidding us relinquish career, fortune, and family. Is the pauper to be an aspirant's ideal type? Even Tiruvalluvar, a man whom South Indians revere as one of their greatest saints and poets, in his most celebrated classic, The Kural, rated poverty not only as painful but as a great evil. He abhorred begging.
When he lets himself get cluttered up with an excess of possessions, each demanding his attention, interest, and care, not to speak of his time, his needs get confused with wants, reality with illusions.
Possessions should not become prisons. The aspirant's mental attitude toward them must be vigilant lest he lose his deeply hidden independence. The ideal is to move through life with inward detachment. The thought of the impermanence of all things is one which should spontaneously arise in his mind whenever he comes into good fortune.
The way of decreasing possessions as a means of increasing spirituality is necessary at certain times to certain persons, but not to all persons at all times.
It may be a help to some in the attainment of inner freedom if they stop using the possessive pronoun "my" in reference to anything that belongs to them except their weaknesses.
If we could learn to hold things less possessively and people less adhesively, we would enjoy the things and give joy to the people much more than we do now.
The more he brings himself to let go inwardly of his possessiveness, the less he will suffer. It is easier to do so at first in abstract meditation and later in actual everyday life.
Yang Chu who was a Taoist, but such a strongly individual one that he did not hesitate to modify the teachings where necessary, thought that neither being poor nor being wealthy was desirable, that a better condition was the middle one between the two. The sage argued that they brought their own special kind of anxieties with them and so were not conducive to peace of mind.
If the religionist declares that man cannot live by bread alone, the materialist retorts that he cannot even survive unless he seeks, obtains, and eats bread. Moreover if too little money may bring a lot of misery, a lot of money may still accompany a lot of misery. But on the other hand if, as it is often said, money does not bring happiness, neither does poverty. The reasonable man is not tricked by such generalizations. He looks deeper and longer and more into those individual circumstances that are not so obvious.
The fifth of the yama restraints laid down in yoga discipline is variously translated as avoidance of "avarice," avoidance of "abundance of worldly goods," avoidance or non-taking of "gifts." The original word is parigraha (in Jaina texts). The philosophical view is that it means both "miserly hoarding of possessions," and "non-taking of gifts conducive to luxury."
If a man will not get this inner attitude toward possessions while he owns them, he may still fail to do so if destiny snatches them away.
Freedom means being able to make money without contracting into the sense of anxious possession which goes with it.
Although decried by the yogic and Vedantic texts, what is wrong with eating tasty food? Does not its enjoyment promote secretion of digestive juices? And although decried by the same texts, how is character harmed by comfortable surroundings or by artistic and intellectual culture? And finally, in what way could any of these things be discreditable to truth or the quest?
Wittgenstein gave away a large inheritance because he believed that money is a nuisance to a philosopher! The result was that he had to take a job, working among people who made him miserable.
To suggest, as philosophy does, a standard of living that rejects equally the exaggerated narrowing down to primitive and monastic conditions or the exaggerated expanding up to incessant acquirement of possessions is simply to suggest a healthily balanced life.
The simple life is rightly advocated as an accompaniment of the spiritual life. But the purpose of this advocacy should not be forgotten--to save time and thought from becoming too preoccupied with physical things. Yet those who draw help from beauty in art or nature, who are affected by colour and form, should not throw aside this cultural heritage in favour of bare, dull, dreary, and sometimes squalid surroundings in the name of simplicity.
It is easy to fall into the error that spirituality means stagnation, that transcending the worldly life means abandoning it. This error arises because it is not clearly comprehended that the operative principle is what one does with his thoughts, not with his things. For the second activity is always a result of the first.
The attitude taken up in preaching or writing that material things are worthless and on no account to be sought for, is not only nonsensical but often hypocritical. It is seldom put into practice by its advocates.
It is common for religious preachers and mystical authors to condemn the effort to acquire money. It is uncommon to find one who defends it. But the correct attitude toward money ought to be determined by the way in which it is gained and by the use to which it is put. The young man who nourishes honest ambitions and puts them to work without injury to other men but rather in service of them, until he is able to command sufficient wealth, and who then retires and puts his wealth to work in a way which enables him to command the kind of surroundings and life conducive to spiritual ideals, has attained true balance. The processes of money-making can destroy those ideals or promote them. Ignorance and greed bring about the first result, but wisdom and balance the second.
Inner security can be gained by anyone anywhere, but in Europe and America it can be gained with less difficulty and more speed if the seeker has just enough outer security to enable him to do the things he needs to do to foster spiritual growth. Money will corrupt him and delay or even stop his quest only if in its acquisition he does not know when to stop.
Must I add this new possession to the others? Is it a help toward living or really an encumbrance? If it can replace an existing one by being more efficient, better for health, comfort, work, or elegance, it may be permissible. But if it merely multiplies the number of objects needing care or using up attention, I will do better without it. Acquisition run to excess is the modern disease.
The gospel of the simple life, as preached by the Tolstoyans, the Gandhians, the Yogis, and the Fakirs, rejects every beautiful thing because, in its view, all art is distracting, unnecessary luxury. It rejects most of the inventions, developments, and creations brought about by modern science and industry because man can live without them and did, until recently, do so. It demands that he acquire the barest minimum of goods, food, clothing, and shelter which he can manage to maintain existence. Philosophy, while appreciative of the virtue of being unpossessed by possessions, of the advantage of some simplification of our pattern, sees no need why we should go so far as these ascetic extremists go. It rejects their rejections and turns away from their demands. In short, it accepts the reasonable enjoyment of life, art, possessions, and the physical world, so long as we do not forget the quest while we are enjoying them.
The attempt to cling to possessions or persons after they have been lost is the craving for what is past and the refusal to live in what is already here. It can only lead to frustration and dissatisfaction.
When a thing, a position, or a person is no longer an obstacle to his interior work of purification or meditation, then he has achieved the detachment from it which philosophy seeks. The possession of it will then be acceptable and harmless.
When the spirit of inner detachment has really been gained, whatever things were discarded during the struggle to attain it may again be taken up and used if they are needed.
In the end the things he appreciates are more his own than those he possesses.
It has yet to be shown that any wealth beyond what is needed for decency of living makes anyone any happier, or that owning more possessions and property than others have makes him really better off in the end than they are.
My true wealth lies not in the extent to which I possess things but in the extent to which I can cheerfully dispossess myself of them.
Those who complain of the burden of having too many possessions should remember the misery of having too few possessions.
The best of all possessions is to have this inward and secret possessionlessness.
It is not in the actual owning of things that the wrong lies; it is in such blind attachment to them that their ephemeral character and hidden penalties are left unrecognized. The beautiful and the useful have their proper place in home and life. Their offering may be accepted if it is kept within our understanding of truth and does not displace it and if our sense of values is not smothered by it.
If he lacks the material things and possessions to provide for essential requirements, his mind will constantly recur to them. In that sense he finds that poverty does not let him attain peace of mind.
With money one can disdain the inferior and purchase the best, cultivate the art of beautiful living, raise the quality of this human existence above the merely animal one, improve and refine surroundings. But without money, the only satisfactory alternative is the simple desireless life of a yogi.
The purification of the heart from worldly attachments is not easily achieved. A simpler life, setting a limit on the number of possessions, is a proven help to such an achievement.
The money he earns or possesses and the material benefits which he desires, pardonably occupy his mind. There is nothing wrong in this from the philosophical standpoint although there may be from the fanatical ascetic-mystic standpoint. But when they preoccupy his mind to the exclusion of all higher things, then the imbalance is certainly wrong.
The more possessions the more time we have to give to them, and therefore the more energy. There is then proportionately less of both available for higher studies, meditation practice, and metaphysical reflection.
Many of those things which we eagerly collect or gratefully accept as possessions in the beginning, we ruefully recognize as encumbrances in the end. For the responsibilities and consequences which follow in their train are often not to our liking.
The monk who takes the vow of personal poverty and renounces the possession of worldly goods is not superior to, but only on a parallel plane with, the householder who decides to simplify his life and discard superfluities or inessentials.
Earthly things are to be regarded as possessing a secondary value and offering a limited satisfaction. Where they have such a grip on the heart that this attitude cannot be taken up, then they are to be deliberately renounced to the extent and for the period necessary to set the heart free. Thus philosophy is somewhat ascetical but not wholly ascetical.
The simple life opposes itself to the abundant life: philosophy reconciles these opposites. Its full development of human faculty passes through an alternating rhythm, using both of them. But enlightenment itself is independent of either condition. It comes from grace, not from poverty and austerity nor from possessions and elegance. The austerity draws out self-control. The possessions, which include mental and artistic ones, enlarge the outlook. Both are merely for training the human entity. They are means, not ends.
The simplicity which is advocated in the name of asceticism, taking the original definition of the words as "training," is unobjectionable. It is part of the work of bringing the body and the physical senses under control, making them obey mind and will. It is an attempt to rule the acquisitive instinct which demands more and more belongings, more and more possessions, and in the end more and more luxuries: this leads into attachments to them and dependence on them for one's happiness. Buddha pointed out that cravings and desires were insatiable and block the way to durable satisfaction. These facts have been used as part of the justification for monastic existence. The monk does not have to take care of more objects than he can pack into a single small suitcase. This leaves his mind and time freer for its religious pursuits. But for those who have elected to stay in the world and follow the layman's supposedly lower and certainly less harsh way of life a wider view is permissible, and a little latitude may be given to the need of comfort and the sense of beauty. Bleak, shabby, or ugly surroundings do not promote spirituality. Cheerless and comfortless furnishings may dull sensitivity. It is not far from these things to regard art, music, poetry, colour, fine literature, and general culture as hindrances to the spirit at best, or enemies to the seeker after God at worst. But in the enlargement of life, mind, thought, feeling, and intuition for which philosophy becomes the agent, there is space for all these things. They are turned into helps on the way, feeding and promoting the spiritual life.
The Hindu sadhu and the Franciscan monk would applaud Roman Seneca's assertion that "property (is) . . . the greatest cause of human troubles." But would it not be juster to counterbalance this with the comment that the lack of property is one of the great causes of human troubles and crimes? Can there be contentment before basic human needs are met? Can we return to the caveman's propertyless and primitive way of life? Are not physical well-being and healthy surroundings necessary to satisfactory existence, and living decently necessary to the transition from the merely animal to the properly human order? Did not Epictetus put it in a phrase: "There is a difference between living well and living profusely"? Ought we not learn something from the sadhu's attitude of non-attachment without falling into his extremism? Should we not esteem control of thoughts and command of desires and passions for the inner peace they give to a man? In short, it is not only things but not less the mental attitude which matters.
How can he escape? There are but two ways. The first is to gather sufficient wealth into his bins to enable him to snap his fingers at conventional society, or at least to stand aside and laugh at the world whenever he likes. But by the time he has succeeded in this purpose, he is unlikely to want to free himself. The grip of routine will be greater than ever before. This method of liberation is a problematical one, after all. The second and certain way is to cut down his wants and needs so that his call on this world's goods is small.
A minimum of possessions must be set unless a man is to go about completely naked. A minimum of shelter must also be set, otherwise he may lose his health or soon die off. A minimum of food and drink likewise has to be set, or the body will perish even quicker. Where then is this minimum to be placed? Is it to be the same for every man? Is it to be the same for men in utterly different climates--such as the tropics and the arctic? The higher individuality is one, and unchanging, whereas the personal self may take different forms at different times, and certainly changes.
"Blessed are the poor," said Jesus. Jesus could not have meant that there is spiritual advantage in living in a slum. It is more likely to breed discontent, or why do those who increase their income move to a better neighbourhood? The phrase is not to be taken literally but metaphorically, as were so many utterances by Orientals. To live inwardly ever detached from things--whether they are owned and used or not--is a blessed state, giving peace of mind.
The disadvantage of having possessions is that they dissipate our energies and use up our time, either in making use of them or in taking care of them. These energies and this time and especially the attention involved in them, make it more difficult for beginners, I repeat--for beginners--to reorient their mind towards the Overself.
There is nothing wrong, but, rather, everything right in aspiring to a certain amount of success in worldly life along with one's spiritual development. But one must make sure that the worldly attainments are not gained at the expense of neglecting his inward development, and that they do not infringe upon the ethical principles which govern discipleship.
After an active, aggressive business life one does reach the time when more emphasis should be placed on inner development. Outer acquisition can become largely a distraction as that period emerges.
This is also true as respects personal attainments, whether intellectual, scientific, or otherwise. When the time has come for more intensive inner seeking it may be wise to consider if one's further activities in these other fields should not be left to others.
Money can be regarded as a symbol which represents, among other things, two which are quite important although unequally so. They are power and privacy.
It is usually the moneyless aspirants who decry wealth and praise poverty (calling it simplicity). If money can chain a man more tightly to materialism, it can also give him the conditions whereby he can set to work freeing himself from materialism.
If he feels the urge to discard superfluous personal possessions, he ought to obey it!
It is doubtless quite pardonable for a man to regard as permanently his own what he has possessed for a long time and to believe that life not only will let him have it always but ought to do so. To him, the idea of detachment must be an irritant.
How many of our possessions are, in reflective analysis, mere toys for adults! We expend so much effort and desire to get them, we cling so desperately to them, and we make ourselves so unhappy to lose them--when they are really toys, playthings. We take their arrivals and departures too seriously, hence we are overmuch elated or overmuch depressed quite needlessly.
Why must it be assumed that only the beggar, moneyless and homeless, can acquire this knowledge, this truth? Surely the privacy needed for meditation is easier got by the wealthier man? Getty, oil millionaire, summed up the chief benefit of his wealth as "privacy." Again, why must it be assumed that because most seekers in the past as in the present join a religious order, or mystical organization, all should become followers of some guru or leader? Has not history told us of those who found their own way after having passed beyond the beginning stages of joining or following?
To use possessions while being inwardly detached from them, to work as actively as if one had the ambition to succeed while all the time as indifferent toward success as toward failure--this is part of the freedom he seeks and gains.
If a little extra comfort leaves one's thoughts untroubled, one's feelings undisturbed, why not indulge in it?
It is not for everyone to accept the rule that to be civilized is to be sinful, that to make the furnishing of a house comfortable, tasteful, and agreeable is to betray spiritual standards. Does spirituality vanish if we go beyond making the house humanly habitable and make it aesthetically pleasing also?
It is true that every unnecessary possession may become a hindering fetter, obstructing the inner life. But what is unnecessary to a man in one set of circumstances or in one position of life may be quite necessary to a man in a different one.
The attachment to worldly goods and family life must be delicately balanced by the consciousness of their impermanence. It is impossible to get such a balance when the attachment is excessive.
Lao Tzu: "Which is the most to you, your person or your goods? Much hoarding must be followed by great ruin. He who knows when he has enough suffers no disgrace."
When we consider the care, the anxiety, the distraction, the time and energy associated with possessions, it may be a relief to shed some of them, and not a grief.
The Notebooks are copyright © 1984-1989, The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.