Sunday, January 27, 2013


I've been thinking a lot about two issues that have enormous bearing on environmental sustainability.  The more I think about them, the more I think that we can learn a lot about them by considering two old religious ideals that have pretty much died out as parts of our shared cultural inheritance.  This blog post will be about "asceticism", the next one "surrender".

My wife and I obsess about why it is that so many people we know simply will not, indeed seem incapable of comprehending the possibility of, "doing without".  I know people who are very aware of climate change, the necessity of everyone cutting their carbon footprint, who would be considered by most other people to be "radical environmentalists"---yet still jump on a jet plane for a vacation in Paris, Thailand or Iceland.  It's as if the whole idea that someone should try to "live their values" is beyond their ability to comprehend.  In order to understand this problem, I would suggest that it would be useful to consider a religious value that seems to have died out in modern society.

" Asceticism" is very similar to the Daoist principle of "kung fu", or, intense training to develop mastery of some ability.  But the emphasis isn't on learning a particular skill so much as learning to control one's mind or passions through either doing without some normal want or need, or, insisting on doing some particular arduous task.  

Simon Stylites
The first ascetic that I ever heard of was a fellow by the name of Simon Stylites.   This was an early Christian monastic who retreated to the deserts of the Middle East (ie:  he was a "desert father") in order to live a life of contemplation.   He is famous for residing for many years on a pillar.   I remember that the school teacher who mentioned him absolutely dripped condescension.  Obviously, this guy was a poor, foolish person who threw away his life in pursuit of some silly superstition.  (Or at least that was the lesson I learned in my childhood.)

An Anchor Hold
There were other Christian ascetics.  For example, in medieval England it was not unknown for a church to have a resident "anchorite".   These were people---both men and women---who had applied for and been granted the privilege to live in a cell (or "anchor hold") that was attached to the side of the church.  There would be a hole in the wall near the altar called a "hagioscope" or "squint", through which the priest would be able to hand the bread and wine of the Eucharist to the anchorite.  Often, there would also be a window or grate on the outside of the hold, through which the Anchorite would be able to give advice to members of the community who were seeking words of wisdom.  Food and water would be passed in, a chamber pot out, but the anchorite was not supposed to ever leave the anchor hold.  Anchorites took this vow seriously, sometimes to the point of remaining in a burning church or one that was being looted by pirates.

OK.  So what has this got to do with flying to Thailand on a vacation?

The point I want to make is that at one time it was considered---very broadly speaking---a good thing to tame our desires in order to live in accordance with our values.  In itself, living on top of a stone pillar or in a room attached to a church is absurd.  But if you do it as a way of showing your contempt for the things "of this world", it is a heroic statement about the depth of your religious faith.  It was inspiring to other people.  Indeed, Simon initially started living on top of his pillar in order to avoid the mobs of people that went out to see and meet him.  These people found his example to be inspiring, if not perhaps, something that they would emulate themselves.

In contrast, people in our society are taught (just like I was as a child) that this is weird, strange behaviour.  We are taught to "enjoy" our creature comforts.  That "doing without---just because" is weird, strange and even somewhat subversive.  (When I was in university I lived without a television set.  My family thought that this was so strange that they made a point of bringing me one----and ordering me not to give it away.)

Even more so, in some instances, doing without is seen as bad, immoral behaviour.  When I was a teenager I was pretty much indifferent to my personal attire.  I can remember applying for a position with a service club where I would be an exchange student in the USA.  I found out that the reason I didn't get selected was because I didn't wear a set of "good shoes".  As a matter of fact, what I wore---some Adidas sneakers---were the only shoes I owned.  I can also remember my parents complaining about the people who lived on the local Indian reserve.  They said that they knew many of the people made very good money working in the USA building skyscrapers, but they still lived in crappy houses.  I wondered about this for years until it finally dawned on me the the Iroquois weren't materialistic like my parents----they just didn't care what their houses looked like.

Just another bad day in the Middle Ages
I think that it is easier for societies that were less materialistically "advanced" or "rich" than ours to understand that there is more to life than creature comfort.   Indeed, I think that they had their noses rubbed into the fact on a very regular basis.  They knew that famine, disease, war and God only knew what else were always around the corner conspiring to take away everything you owned and loved on a moment's notice.  If the crops failed, you would watch your children starve.  If the Viking's showed up, you could see your parents murdered and yourself sold into slavery.   The plague could arrive and kill off  most of your friends and family within a week.

Pretty brave guys, no?
Ultimately, all you could really call your own was your interior life.  For the Six Nations people I grew up near, their courage was valued much more than their homes.  This is why they make such good warriors before and ironworkers now.  It was also why people of Middle Ages were inspired by Anchorites and Ascetics of all sorts.  They saw in their example a way to transcend the horror that lurked behind everyday life through developing control over the appetites and passions of existence.

Of course, modern people only see kooks who were voluntarily living wretched lives. But I think it only looks that way from the vantage point of someone who has central heating, nice clothes and good food.  If you were living with the livestock, had lice, and had to live on porridge most of the year---and worry about all Hell breaking loose at any moment---you might value the ascetics ability to "rise above" the material elements of life.

I think in a similar way people who really care about the fate of the earth and humanity because of things like climate change should be willing to manifest a little asceticism in their lives.  If you really do care, then you should be willing to avoid unnecessary flying.  If it means taking a few days to travel by train, then so be it.  The discomfort of sleeping in a coach seat or waiting hours for a connection is not nearly as bad as being walled up in a cell or living on a stone pillar for the rest of your life.  But it is showing the people around you that you really do care about Mother Nature, and you have enough control over your body that you can suffer a little bit for it.


Paul Sunstone said...

Quite an interesting post! I'm intrigued at how you seem to take asceticism, which is so often associated with a rejection of -- or even a contempt for -- the world, and turn it on it's head to become an affirmation of the world, or at least a means of valuing the world enough to want to save it. If I understand you, the link between the two is our willingness to sacrifice material goods and comforts for the sake of our values. I think that surely has merit.

Thank you for a thought provoking post!

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

When I was a student at university it struck me over and over again that most academics had built their careers by choosing to attack other points of view by making arguments that were little more than subtle "straw men". Straw man arguments are when you don't choose to refute the strongest possible interpretation of a person's point of view but instead another one that is less defensible.

In the case of asceticism, the public school teacher was assuming that the only reason why someone would pursue an ascetic lifestyle was because of superstition. If, on the other hand, you start with the assumption that Simon's behaviour made sense to him and try to figure out what it could be, I think you end up with my suggestion.

I see this problem time and time again with the proud proponents of "skepticism" or the "new Atheism". When you try to suggest that there is a dynamic at work in religious faith that could possibly serve a purpose in the lives of some people, you usually get not much more than a "frat boy pile on" on non sequiturs and willful ignorance.

Flora said...

I stumbled across this blog, read the first three posts (through the one about skepticism), and just wanted to let you know that I am delighted to have found you and will be back. I was particularly impressed by your expression of the connection between Buddhist and ecological ways of viewing the world. I am also deeply appreciative of your willingness to look critically at bad science, even when it's being used to support something you believe in. Thanks.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Thanks Flora. I'm always happy to see positive feedback. It sustains me.