Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Buddha, left a world of wealth and comfort as a young man and entered the life of an ascetic. This means he renounced material possessions and physical pleasures to focus on spiritual goals. Eventually, Buddha decided that asceticism was not right for him and he later discovered The Middle Way which was essentially a both/and balance between the physical and spiritual worlds.
The idea behind asceticism sounds awful to most of us, particularly in western culture, as it means giving up so many of the things we consider necessary for happiness, namely food, drink, material wealth/possessions and sex. Why would and should we want to give these things up completely? Without the pleasures of the world, what’s the point of life? Now, I want to be clear that I’m not about to promote asceticism here nor do I feel any desire to become one myself. But I do think there is something to learn from the lessons that the Buddha experienced directly.
Aside from also sounding like no fun, most people think of asceticism as something that would be really hard to do. After years of personal experience with goal setting and working to create better habits, I actually think asceticism might be a whole lot easier than the way we operate in modern Western society. Essentially, an ascetic gives up so-called pleasurable (bad) habits and learns to live without them by forming new habits. It takes about 30 days or so to lock in a new habit, so once the ascetic has gotten through that first 30 days, life becomes easy as long as he sticks with it. Like anything, you get used to a certain way of life and you basically stop thinking about your old ways. However, if you can convince an ascetic to eat a snickers bar, he might start craving it again for a little while. When you break a good habit, you often have to go back to the drawing board and start over again.
Over the course of my adult lifetime, I’ve been a mostly responsible and disciplined person. I’ve set goals to work towards becoming better in all areas of my life including personal, family, financial, business, and personal. For me, the personal category includes physical and mental health, as well as fun and adventure. In the areas of physical health there is exercise, diet, and sleep. Let’s take a closer look at sleep.
I love to read. But I have found that the only way I can find the time is to wake up early and read before anyone else is up. So, years ago I started getting up at 6:00 AM. Soon I added meditation and journaling to my morning routine but quickly discovered that I couldn’t do all these things before the kids got up. I changed the alarm to 5:30, then 5:00, and finally settled on 4:30 AM. (Note: I actually tried 4:00 for a while, but my wife started getting annoyed because I would fall asleep on the couch by 8PM every night!) Waking up at 4:30 AM was really hard at first. No question about it. But what I discovered is that, if I got up at that time every single day, I could lock in a habit. My body adjusted and it eventually became easy. After years of getting up at 4:30 AM, I actually enjoy and look forward to it.
I’ve learned through experience that sleeping in feels great, but the next day, my body adjusts backwards a little bit and discipline is required to get up early again. Willpower is hard! So, I choose to get up early everyday so that I can maintain the habit and eliminate the need to exercise willpower. People will say I’m disciplined because I get up at 4:30 every day. I would say I’m NOT disciplined and that’s WHY I get up at 4:30 every day.
Ascetics have essentially taken the same stance, but instead of just sleep, they’ve applied this principle to much of their physical existence. You can do this too. Exercise, diet, time management, you name it. It sounds really hard, but after 30 days or so, once the habits are formed, the need for willpower goes away. It has been said that discipline equals freedom. Being an ascetic today, a western consumer/indulger tomorrow, and then back to an ascetic the day after…now THAT would be hard! This back and forth type of lifestyle would feel like a constant push/pull of willpower, then guilt, then willpower. Exhausting!
Muscling through life by the force of sheer willpower is hard. Maybe we can simply take some cues from ascetics by forming habits that best serve us and sticking with them. We don’t have to become ascetic in the process. Buddha found The Middle Way. What do you think?
Photo by Julian Hochgesang on Unsplash