Modern asceticism

The Archbishop of Canterbury used his Easter address to call for a renaissance of Monasticism in the West, as an antidote to the borrow-consume model of industrial capitalism.

"The present financial crisis has dealt a heavy blow to the idea that human fulfilment can be thought about just in terms of material growth and possession," he told the congregation at Canterbury Cathedral.

"Accepting voluntary limitation to your acquisitiveness, your sexual appetite, your freedom of choice doesn't look so absurd after all as a path to some sort of stability and mutual care. We should be challenging ourselves and our church to a new willingness to help this witness to flourish and develop."

I think he has a point.

The dominant economic model all around the world is based on promoting consumption, which means both governments and corporates trying to increase consumer demand - trying to make us want more, in other words. More goods, more, food, more housing, more travel.

This is unsustainable environmentally. We're fast using up our natural resources, and heading for a food crisis. As a species, we will have to learn to limit our desires - to travel less, to eat less (and particularly to waste less), to learn to live according to the limits of natural law.

We should also ask ourselves why we are on this planet? Is it purely to maximize our own pleasure-seeking? Or is human consciousness really the unique aspect of human existence, the unique difference with the rest of the animal world?

Perhaps the reason the Earth has seen fit to produce us is precisely because of our consciousness, our capacity for self-awareness and awareness of our environment.

If that is the case, as I believe it is, then our task as humans is to develop our consciousness to its highest level, which is exactly what monasticism was intended to do. Monks were (and are) spiritual athletes, the flower of human consciousness, who use spiritual exercises (or askesis, in ancient Greek) to develop their minds and train their self-awareness and self-control, just as modern athletes train their bodies in the gym.

Asceticism came to be a dirty word during the 18th century Enlightenment attack on monasticism, where it came to have connotations of sexual repression, ignorance and fanaticism.

It can certainly be warped into this. But at its heart, at its origin, it is simply the idea of training the mind to its greatest capacity for self-awareness and self-control, which also means making it as aware as possible of its obligations to and interdependence with the rest of the world.

That is what asceticism literally means: exercise.

As a culture, we are increasingly absorbed in exercising our bodies, in making the 'body beautiful'.

But we are also beginning to learn that we can train our minds, and make ourselves happier, in part by wanting less.

The modern psychotherapy and self-help movements are now full of such mental exercises. 'Seven steps to happiness', 'Training in the Mind Gym', 'How to Change Your Thoughts' and so on, are really asceticism, in the sense of spiritual exercises, for the masses.

The cognitive exercises they teach invariably come from Stoicism, which developed the idea of askesis, before the Christian Church picked up the idea, and housed it in monasteries.

Is there not, then, an argument for having centres that train virtuosos, top athletes, in these spiritual exercises, in part so that they can then teach them to the rest of us?