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  • Writer's pictureJ. Randall Ory

28 - The Practice of Stillness - Part 2: Asceticism

It can be said that stillness is the art of 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 is the impulses of the ego-driven, autonomous self. What we are trying to move into is the energy flow 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, desires, and goals, it cannot then also be filled with the thoughts, desires, and goals of God. Though it may not be readily obvious, these two things constitute competing energies. In science, we put it this way; two things cannot occupy the same space. Jesus once said; you cannot serve two masters. I framed it earlier as the opposing flow of energy. The energy of self-autonomy is negative, because it attempts to create a flow of 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 also puts God at the center of all things instead of us. The ego-self always makes everything about its own importance, preference, rules, and petty desires. The empty-self is able to let all of that 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 and buffeted 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, which it cannot let go. 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. That’s why the process can be described as emptying the self of itself until nothing of itself is left. It can also be described as getting ourselves out of the way until we can see the world as it truly is with no reference to ourselves. It’s hard for us to see that our ego is the problem, because the ego is often all we know of ourselves. But it is what we can call 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. The ego will never willingly accept that. The very engine of the ego is built around me getting what I want, no matter what, which means that the process of coming back to our true self means no longer putting any fuel in that old ego-driven tank. 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 big religious word not used much anymore, but we might be more familiar with things like Lent and fasting, auxiliary practices which came from the idea of asceticism. Jesus described it in this way, “if you want to be my disciples you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Jesus is saying that, if we want to live in the energy flow of God, as he did, we must deny our false self by putting it to death in order to follow in his steps, which lead back to God. The process of putting that false, ego-driven self to death is asceticism. Asceticism operates under the idea that we cannot satisfy our desires by feeding them, but only by starving them. That may seem counter intuitive. In a physical sense, we experience this all the time. When we are hungry, we eat, and we may feel temporarily satisfied. But, if we pay attention, we will also notice that the more we indulge in the pleasure of eating something, the more we want it, and the more we hunger for it, even when we are full of it. This is the essence of addiction, which always needs more of what it craves in order to be satisfied. The irony is that the more we get, the less it satisfies, and so we constantly need more but enjoy 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. In other words, if feeding the ego’s appetites increases them, then only by starving them will they go away. Asceticism is that process of starvation. Think of it this way. You can do this experiment yourself. The more flavor additives you use, like salt and sugar, the more you need those bold flavors to taste anything. But the less you use, the less you need. And, the less you use, the more you taste the flavor of the foods themselves. The more you use flavor additives, the less you taste anything but those, and so the variety of your flavor pallet decreases. But the less you use them, the variety of what you can taste increases, because the widest experience of flavor is the most subtle. It is the quiet nuance of flavor that brings the most sensitivity and widest experience of all the flavors of food. The more we chase the few bright, bold flavors the more we miss the many more subtle flavors that are there to experience. There are actually thousands of different flavors we can taste, as aided by our sense of smell, but only four bold flavor categories we can taste with our tongue – sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. The tongue taste is minimal and stark. Add in our sense of smell and the possibilities are limitless. The tongue of our being is the ego, the sense of smell our whole person with all its parts fully engaged. Asceticism is the process of reducing the souls desire for the taste of our ego-self in order for the more full, subtle flavors of our true self to come alive.

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. Remember, 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. That’s why Christ also contrasted these two as the love of self (ego) and the love of God (connection). 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 pure entropy. Ego is always fighting to hold its center together, which is always in the process of falling apart. Ego is self-created and must be self-sustained. It will literally die if we do not keep feeding it. The challenge of spiritual progress is to be brave enough to stop feeding it, and strong enough to endure it’s passing when it feels like we are dying with it. Remember, our ego-self is the identity we have created to cope with a broken world. It is the only way we have figured out how to survive, protect, and get our needs met in this world. We often don’t have any other conscious identity but the ego-self. To let it die feels like we are dying, because it is all we’ve ever know ourselves to be. To rise above the ego requires a vision of higher things, of a broader self that could exist, if we could only let our small self die. The problem and the delicate dance is that two things cannot occupy the same space, at the same time. What that means is that we have to let go of the ego first, without an immediate replacement. Death must come first, then a burial, and only after that a resurrection. Can we endure that death? Can we let the ego fall and endure the emptiness in between as we wait for a new life to take its place? That is why this process can be called self-emptying, but it is not for the purpose of remaining empty, but of being filled with the energy of God. The energy of God is love, and love will never push its way in. Love, by definition, must be given the space to enter and grow. Death is a consuming energy, taking what does not belong to it and destroying it by that action. Love is a giving energy which waits patiently to be received by the object of its desire. That is why we often don’t perceive the energy of God’s presence, because the energy of love is passive, never pushing its way in unwanted, while the ego-energy of death is aggressive, always pushing for its own way at the cost of others. If we are to reverse the flow and begin to let this God energy into our lives, we’re going to have to stop the flow of this negative ego-energy which is always resisting that process. We must start letting our wants die, in order to get what God wants for us, hence the Christian idea of letting our will go in order for God’s will to enter in. Letting our will die is the process of asceticism.

The self-denial of asceticism is not going to make sense until you start to do it, but once you do, what you realize is that what you thought you controlled is really controlling you, and the only way to gain back control is to let it go. It doesn’t really matter where you start, but the best place to start is usually the most obvious. What is it in your life, right now, that you think you can’t live without? The truth is, we often imagine that we are in control of our choices, and nothing is controlling us. But trying giving up Facebook, coffee, or soda and see whether you are truly choosing those things, or controlled by them. Asceticism helps us see just how little control we have in our lives by revealing the things that are controlling us. Of course, most religious people think of asceticism mostly in terms of food and fasting from it, but there is really nothing we can’t put through this test. Food is usually a good one, because there are many foods which are addicting, but there is so much that controls us without us realizing it, and external things are usually the lest of our problems. In the end, what we find we are addicted to the most isn’t feeding the stomach, but feeding the ego. As much as you may find coffee or candy hard to give up, trying giving up negative thoughts, consuming emotions, or petty self-interest. What we find, through the practice of asceticism, is that we really don’t have the ability to control much, and that we need the help of a greater power in order to find freedom from these things. At first, the practice of asceticism simply reveals our inability to be still, to not do the things we though we were doing, but which are really doing things to us. As Brad Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden said in the movie “Fight Club,” “the things you own end up owning you.” We really need to see how much we have been defeated and enslaved in our attempt to live life in the small self, independent from God and everyone else. We think we are in control, self-made, and separate. We think we can manage life on our own, make good choices and direct our own path. What we don’t realize is that all our choices have only led us further from the freedom we imagine we still have to choose whatever we want. Even when faced with the truth, we will still tell ourselves we’re choosing things that are clearly controlling us. It is only through the loss of those things that we realize how independent they were from us. The problem is the illusion of independence. We think we are self-autonomous actors, separate and distinct, making our own choices and directing our own lives. We see everything as separate from us, objects which we can control. We do not realize that everything was made to live in a cohesive reality. Everything was made for connection. We are controlled by things because we don’t realize how interdependent everything is, and how dependent we are on everything else. It is the illusion of our separate self which traps us, which cannot see how things are connected in ways which require a different interaction. We cannot truly use anything in the disconnected, controlling ways we think. The more we use anything, the more connected we become to it. But if we cannot see that, what we think we are controlling ends up controlling us. It’s actually quite humiliating to see just how little we control. What we find, when faced with this possibility, is the reinforcing of the illusion. The ego self does not want to admit that it is not in control. I had this defeating experience yesterday. I decided to give up coffee. Some of my teeth are irritated at the gum-line, and I had the idea to pause from more acidic food for a bit. So, I’d decided the day before to stop drinking coffee until it was healed. But when I woke up yesterday, went into the kitchen, and saw the coffee maker just sitting there on the counter calling my name, I thought, “do I really need to give up coffee today?” Even more, I began to question my logic. Was it really the coffee that was exacerbating my gums? I could feel the tug-of-war inside me. Part of me was saying, “what’s the harm, give it up for a day or two and see what happens.” Another part of me was saying, “I WANT COFFEE!!!” That tug-of-war is always evidence of my lack of control. And yet, we often still do the things that are controlling us while thinking, “I’m choosing to do this,” and “I could really stop any time I wanted.” I even got up this morning to write, and wanted coffee again. I knew my mouth was still a little sore but I could feel that thought rising in me, saying, “it's probably healed enough to have some coffee!” The truth is, we want what we want, but we don’t realize that we’re not even wanting it anymore, addiction is demanding that we have it, and nothing is more addicting than the ego.

We are controlled by an ego which is out of control, by its very attempt to be in control. The ego will grasp for control even for things it obviously can’t. 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. Dissatisfaction and frustration come from the ego smacking the wall of reality, the reality that it is trying to control something it cannot. And the ego will continue beating its head on that wall, because it would rather feel the pain than admit it is not in control. The ego beats us up time and time again, and sets us up for dissatisfaction in a world that will not be controlled by us. We cannot even control ourselves, but we could. The ego will never limit itself. It will always try to limit the world around it in order to conform everything to itself, but it cannot conceive of limiting its own will. The ego will always 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 our 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. This is a complete and utter insult to the ego, which must be defeated in order for us to progress along this path of asceticism towards greater peace. That peace only comes as we surrender control to God, who then gives us the strength to control ourselves. Stillness comes when we are no longer reaching out of the ego-will to get anything, when we are content to be who we are, where we are, resting in the peace that all is directed and given by God for our good. The process of transformation out of the ego and into this broader self will not feel good. We will often fight for control in the process, and struggle for many years through learning to let go. But as we do, we will begin to see the benefit of surrender, which puts us more in control of our lives.

It’s a backwards truth. Surrender leads to control, dependence to freedom, death to life; but it all stems from the reality that we were meant to live in communion with God and the world in ways counter to the ways the ego-identity has self-actualized the world. And it is only the ego self which must surrender and die. When that small self is gone, we realize that we can move quite freely in the world, no longer needing to make anything what we want or do anything at all. We are free through a kind of detachment from our need to control, which then connects us to all things in ways which allow for them to be what they are, and us what we are, completely independent of our control. This independence brings a different kind of dependence on us to be our part of the universe, in order for the whole universe to work properly. It is the ego self which is using and destroying all things for its own purpose, because it sees everything as existing for its own purpose, and cannot understand anything independent of itself. The ego, given enough power, would burn the whole world down just to keep itself warm, and climate change is revealing that, maybe we really are. The ego-self is so disconnected that it cannot see how living for its own benefit isn’t even benefiting itself. We cannot harm the ground we’re standing on without harming ourselves. But the ego is so lost in the illusion of its own control, it imagines that it can just will the whole world to do what ever it wants, even when the world is collapsing around us. Asceticism is the way we come back to reality, to begin to starve the ego and feed our true self, which must be reconnected back to God in order to come alive and thrive. But reconnection to God is humiliating for the ego, because it is the recognition that we need someone stronger than ourselves to do even the smallest of things, even to be ourselves at all. The ego is always shouting, “don’t tell me what to do,” and “don’t tell me I can’t have that.” The surrendered self is always saying, “I have nothing on my own,” and “thank you God for giving me the very life I live, and everything else I have as well.” The ego finds it difficult to be thankful, or grateful. Didn’t it get everything it has, and even earn all the love and respect it so naturally deserves? Self-centeredness rightly describes the ego, selflessness the state of having no ego at all. And don’t we naturally feel the goodness of someone who is selfless. We know that kind of person is the best kind, always giving, never asking for anything in return. Gracious, kind, easy to talk to, and never leaving us feeling like we were judged or condemned for who we are, what we like, or what we believe. The selfless person is the one who has come to understand that nothing is truly theirs, nothing belongs to them, and everything they have is a gift from God. They are connected to God in ways which reveal the fullness of who they are, a human fully alive. And asceticism is the path that gets us there, out of the ego-driven charge to get everything for ourselves, and to the quiet stillness of a person who knows they have already been given all they need, and can thus give to others just as freely. The person freed from the self-centered ego is joyful, content, and happy just being themselves.

There are two ways the ego-self can die, kicking and screaming all the way to the grave – which can literally take us all the way to the grave – or in small steps we choose to take willingly. Those small steps entail asceticism. Though we often picture the extremes, the practice of asceticism doesn’t mean we have to renounce every good thing in the world and go live a monastery. Asceticism isn’t about giving up everything we enjoy, but learning to enjoy everything in the proper way. It gives us the space to truly enjoy all things without possessing and controlling them, or them possessing and controlling us. It is a detachment from the need for them which truly allows us enjoy them. That means we can let things come and go in our lives, as God intends, and not be put out about what we have or don’t have. 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. And that’s the whole point of asceticism, to free us from the love of things which are temporary and passing, in order to reconnect us to the love of God which is eternal. What that looks like, practically, is that we are always testing ourselves, to see if we have become too attached to what we are holding, what we think we “own”. We do that by letting it go for a while, taking a break from it if you will, and seeing how much the ego suffers the loss. This reveals the ego, it’s petty attachments, and also the work we still need to do in learning to become more still. If you can leave something for a time without any fuss, then you know you are becoming more centered in the things that matter, and less attached to the things that don’t. That can mean not drinking coffee for a week, like I’m doing right now. It can mean we get off Facebook for a few days, or a month. That can look like spending some time alone, away from people, and seeing what happens in our hearts and minds. But, when we begin to take it deeper, that can mean we begin to ask God to help us stop judging, critiquing, criticizing, disapproving, disliking, and hating people or things around us for not being what we want. That is the deeper work of asceticism, to rid us of the unhealthiest attachments to our “good” values, preferences and opinions which only serve to put us in conflict with everyone around us. We cannot do this, or see the need for this, on our own. But we do need it. What might begin with giving up soda for a month will eventually lead us to see our deeper addiction to darker attachments like greed, hate, discrimination, sexism, homophobia, all which reveal the self-centered distortion of the ego. And in all things, we will learn what we really need to be happy, and what we are happier living without. Asceticism gives us the ability to see where true happiness comes from, what is blocking it, and the journey of transformation we must take in order to become healthier and more centered in our true self. It allows us the space and strength to see what we must give up, what must become less important, all for the sake of reducing the strength and control of the ego in our lives.

We’ve probably all known someone, or been someone who has practiced some form of religious fasting for a time. And we may have misunderstood the meaning of such a practice as something required by a God who just wants to kill our fun, or exact his/her pound of flesh in order to pay through pain our way to heaven. We may simply see asceticism as a part of a larger, merit-based religion where we must sacrifice to God in order to get his/her attention, favor, and love. Nothing could be further from the truth. Asceticism is not about punishment for “sin” or payment for heaven. It is merely a tool to help us growing out of the destructive and petty habits of the ego. It does this by revealing the ego’s unhealthy attachments. It can actually be quite painful. We must often suffer the surrender of things we really don’t want to leave behind, to see the painful truth that we really are not choosing them, or controlling them, but are controlled by them in ways which are stifling true joy, peace, and contentment. True contentment comes from having everything, but needing nothing. The “everything” we have is inside us through our connection to a God, which can never be lost, taken away, left behind, destroyed or diminished. A happiness and contentment attached to passing things will always be passing. A happiness which comes from God is truly eternal, and the only way we can find Shalom, which brings stillness. Stillness only comes through emptying yourself, of yourself, in order to be filled with the universe. It is literally replacing the “I” of the small self with the “Us” of a much larger self connected to a much larger world. When we are empty, and still, we see the whole world differently, and ourselves differently in it. When we let go of our ego-need to possess, we fall into a larger space where so many things are possible beyond the scope our limited self. We are connected to the limitless, infinite, energy and imagination of God. We see ourselves as a part of a larger reality, where all of history and humanity is moving back to wholeness through a renewed connectedness to God. The small self is the fractured self, only able to see its own needs and desires. The larger self sees all things together, living and moving together in the Divine energy that connects us all. But, as I said in the beginning, two things can’t occupy the same space. We can’t pursue our small self, and larger self at the same time. These two lead in opposite directions, one to connection and one to disconnection. It is the practice of asceticism that reveals our inability to let go, to leave the illusion of control, and step into the flow of Divine energy which pulls us up into our whole self, reconnected to the whole universe. I know that can sound hippy trippy. I promise, I don’t do drugs (except for coffee). I hope that also doesn’t sound too vague. Surrendering control really does deliver us to that greater peace, to Shalom. But what does that look like? We’ll explore that in the next post, as we see how life under the direction of God delivers us to a different way of being in the world, and in ourselves. For now, you have to trust the process, and step out. Or not. You can choose. For now, willing yourself through the world may seem to be working. But I hope you can take those small steps of surrender now, before you hit the wall of reality and fall apart. It took a breakdown for me to get here. I hope it doesn’t take that for you. But if you’re life is already breaking down, or just starting to fall apart, just know you have a better place to fall into, and a better you. That is the path of personal transformation through modern contemplation, which is just another way of saying that what changes us is this reconnection to God. I hope you can believe that enough to keep stepping forward, and learning more about who you are meant to be in light of who God is. It will change your life. So, lets keep moving forward into that space, and out of the ego-driven, false self. And let’s keep moving together. It’s much better than falling apart alone.

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