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28 - The Practice of Stillness - Part 2: Asceticism

Updated: Aug 18

Stillness is learning how to stop paying attention to one thing, in order to start paying attention to something else.

What we are trying to leave behind are the impulses of the ego-driven, autonomous self. What we are trying to move into is the energy of God which draws all things together in love. Stillness entails creating space for the one by clearing out the other.

If the container of self is full of its own thoughts and desires, then it cannot be filled with the thoughts and desires of God. Though it may not be readily obvious, these two things constitute competing energies.

Two things cannot occupy the same space.

Jesus once said; you cannot serve two masters.

The energy of selfishness is negative, because it attempts to flow things to us by making us the center of all things. The energy of self-denial is positive, because it allows the flow of God to come to us, and through us, which puts God at the center. The ego-self always makes everything about its own importance, preference, rules, and desires. The empty-self is able to let go and see the world as it is, with no reference point but God. The empty-self has the inner space to feel the energy flow of the universe unfiltered by its own desire and will. It is like a mesh screen which can register the movement of the wind, but is not pushed around by it.

The ego-self is like a sail, pushed around by every wind that comes along. It cannot be still. Everything seems to be attacking and disturbing it. Every opposing idea and value is a challenge to its ego. Stillness is the process of becoming more like a mesh screen than a sail by removing the all the patchwork cloth of the ego until all that is left is pure being.

It’s hard for us to see that our ego is the problem, because the ego is all we know of ourselves. But it is a false self, created in order to cope with a distorted world. It is the identity we create in order to get our needs met in a world where nothing comes to us without taking, even friendship and love. Stillness is the process of letting all that go in order to come back to the truth that all is given by God, and always has been. It is a hard, painful process, because the ego that is driven by getting everything for itself must be allowed to starve to death in order to see the true self underneath it. To do that we must begin to identify what fuels the ego, and begin to stop the flow of that fuel. This action is what mystics and monks called asceticism.

Asceticism is a word used to describe things like Lent and fasting. The basic idea of asceticism is giving up on thing to get another. Jesus described it in this way, “if you want to be my disciples you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Asceticism operates under the idea that we cannot satisfy our desires by feeding them, but only by starving them.

This idea may not make sense at first, but think about it in terms of addiction. The essence of addiction is always needing more of what you crave in order to be satisfied. The irony is that the more you get, the less it satisfies, and so you're constantly needing more but enjoying less. This illustrates well the appetites of the ego, which are fueled by an increasing indulgence and a decreasing satisfaction. The more we get, the less it means, which is also why the ego can only be truly satiated by denial.

Asceticism is the process of starving self-centeredness in order to come back to God-centeredness.

The Christian religion speaks of all this in terms of will, our and God’s. It lays out the reality that only one will can dominate our lives, hence Jesus statement that we cannot serve two masters. The will is a way to help us think about what is mastering us, the energy of ego or the energy of God.

God’s energy is giving, ego energy is taking. God’s energy is positive, ego energy is negative. Ego energy seeks to draw all things to itself as the center, like a black hole sucking everything into its field, and growing larger as it does. Ego is an all-consuming energy which destroys everything by taking. God energy is all-connecting by drawing everything together in the giving flow of love.

The ego is a disconnecting energy. It separates and divides. It lives within the tension of a conflict between all things competing for a world of limited and depleting resources. It is the energy of death and dying, which sees all things in terms of entropy. Our ego-driven self is always fighting to hold things together, because it thinks things will fall apart if it doesn't.

The challenge of spiritual progress is to be brave enough to stop feeding the ego, and strong enough to endure it’s passing when it feels like we are dying with it.

Two things cannot occupy the same space.

The struggle in this dying is that we must lose what we have before we gain what is better. This takes tremendous trust. This is the process of death, burial, and resurrection. The great difficult in all this is letting God be in control instead of us. Letting go of our control is hard. This God-trust-fall isn't going to feel good or make sense, especially at first.

Asceticism is something you do before it makes sense. It's a challenge to simple steps. Start with something you think you can't live without. Take a short break from something and see what happens, and what that reveals. What we find, in giving something up, is that what we thought we controlled is often controlling us. As Tyler Durden once said “the things you own end up owning you” (Fight Club). We need to see how much we have been enslaved in our attempt to live life independent from God.

We are controlled by an ego which is out of control, by its very attempt to be in control. Most of the negative energy in the universe comes from this. Why do we fight, argue, get angry or depressed? Because we are faced with something or someone out of our control, and we cannot accept that. The ego will lead us to try and control what we cannot, and never what we can. What we can learn to control is ourselves. That is the process of asceticism, which seeks not only to reveal the problem of the ego’s control-illusion, but to also remedy it through surrender.

At the heart of asceticism is giving up control. When we do, what we find is that we were never in control to begin with, and that we need God’s help to begin to control even the smallest things in our lives.

The upside-down truth is that dependence leads to freedom and death to life as we are empowered in surrender to God.

Everything is a gift, and every gift is for a time, but what we really need we always have, because we always have the loving presence of God.

The point of asceticism is to free us from temporary things in order to connect us to an eternal God.

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