Monday, May 10, 2010

The Body's Wisdom III

These temptations are always with us: to treat ekstasis, the disappearance of self-consciousness, as an end instead of an incidental; to use asceticism to show off, watch ourselves be so-called mystics (there was never a more useless word), gain ascendancy, create a brand; to find short cuts—there are none—in an attempt to avoid the patient effort required for the work of silence. Sloth is perennial: it is the tendency that wrecks religions, which appear to have a trajectory that leads inexorably to technologizing and reification to avoid the costly effort of practice.

As we already noted, the roots of asceticism are linked in part to the fear of death. The superficial mind is terrified of letting go of its self-consciousness; it regards its construct of "self" as the actual person, and its interpretations, what we call experience, as both objective and self-authenticating, attitudes which are, of course, absurd. Teenagers who are afflicted with hyper-self-consciousness are always being told, "be yourself;" in other words, turn your attention to the task at hand and don't worry about how you may appear to others. Only when self-consciousness does let go can the unfolding truth of the person emerge.
It sounds so simple, even banal, yet this truth is reflected in the passage from the New Testament that is the most fundamental to Christianity, Philippians 2:1-13: "Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross." We will hear about this "emptying" repeatedly during Lent and Holy Week: the essence of the message, which Sylvestris put in classical terms, is that humility—the mind's letting go—is divinity.

While the mind instinctively seeks to grasp, the body already knows that "less is more" in the sense that when it is neither too fat nor too thin, it will both feel and function better—and modern studies have shown that eating less leads to greater longevity. Take the example of the famous Anthony of Egypt, the most renowned hermit of all time: in an age when the average life expectancy was under 30 years of age, he lived to be 105. He sequestered himself for twenty years. When his would-be disciples finally tore down the wall of his refuge, Anthony emerged, in the words of his biographer, Athanasius, "as though from some sanctuary, a[n. . .] initiate, mystery-taught and God inspired. . . . When they saw him, they were amazed to see that his body had kept its same condition, neither fat from lack of physical exercise, nor emaciated from fasting. . . but was just as they had known him before his withdrawal. [Harmless, Desert Christians, p. 64]

It is through the body's wisdom of moderation that we might arrive at a modern understanding of the formidable-sounding word "asceticism." It can be understood as a way the body teaches the mind not to be afraid, showing it by example that letting-go, far from being death-dealing, is life-enhancing.


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