Exiting Modernity – 4 – Neo-Asceticism

If when you walk into a supermarket you don’t have a deep feeling of revulsion, terror and absurdity, I have news for you, you’re very much still within the system. In the same way there’s nothing smart about smartphones, there’s nothing super about supermarkets. The word itself implies that it’s a market which is super, in reality of course this is a complete lie. Many of you may have been to an actual market, you get multiple options of the same product usually from people who make the product, you can learn about what it is you’re going to consume. Whereas in a supermarket you’re basically entering a racket. If you don’t buy their products, from their chosen selection you’re shit out of luck. Eat this, or die. That might seem a tad reactionary to those who’ve yet to think about the way the world works for more than a second, but ask yourself, if tomorrow the supermarkets didn’t have food, where would you get it from? There’s two issues here, one on relating to one’s reliance on industry and the other relating to one’s attachment to brands and desires. I wont be extrapolating on the first issue here, the second has been expanded upon in post one, but here I shall add a little more theory and a lot more practice.

The practice I’m about to speak of will seem somewhat extreme, but once you begin it becomes cathartic and you shed the baggage of modernity quite quickly. It’s an idea I’ve roughly hashed out in my mind, written of in one post here, and shall finally write of in some length now. The idea is called Neo-Asceticism. I more often than not detest the ‘neo’ label on almost everything it has attached itself to: Neo-Dada, Neo-Luddite etc. Usually it’s a way of stating that you are something (Dadaist, Luddite) but wish to make it a new, usually because you wish to make some money or become popular. The prefix neo- should, as such, always be of suspicion. However, I must expand upon Neo-Asceticism to justify my claim here.

“Asceticism is a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from sensual pleasures, often for the purpose of pursuing spiritual goals. Ascetics may withdraw from the world for their practices or continue to be part of their society, but typically adopt a frugal lifestyle, characterised by the renunciation of material possessions and physical pleasures, and time spent fasting while concentrating on the practice of religion or reflection upon spiritual matters.” (Wikipedia)

We’ve heard of these ascetics, monks living in the mountains surviving off donations of food and meditating for days on end. That isn’t what I’m getting here. See, if one is to read that Wikipedia article you notice that the large majority of Asceticism took place prior to the 18th century, in a world where sensual and material pleasures had not reached anywhere near the normalcy they have within our current society. Ascetics it seems were commonplace in ancient times, it was understood that there were those who took it upon themselves to exit as thoroughly as possible. What is of importance here is what they were exiting from. Historically ascetics were not leaving anything close to the absolute hellscape we inhabit now (there are exceptions of course, Gandhi, for instance). They were reacting to a life that most people nowadays would consider pretty bare-bones, so the Ascetic’s task was of course spiritual.

So where the Neo- of Neo-Asceticism takes its stand is in the combination of Asceticism and contemporary modes of normalcy. Neo-Ascetics understand that to want less within current times is to covertly state that one wishes to exit the system. For the religion of the system’s entire is Progress, all believe that Progress is good and more Progress is good, and so to state, as the Neo-Ascetic does, that one should question their desires, want for less, consume less and perform a daily critique of production and consumption is to question the great God Progress. In this manner Neo-Ascetics understand the arrow of techno-cultural progression is forever aimed towards more and more progress, and so the Neo-Ascetics task is not an active one in the traditional sense, but an action brought about by contrarian passivity. We cannot physically exit the system – individually – by following the arrow of Progress, nor can we exit by performing some archaic notion of revolution, nostalgically looking back towards some primitive time. What the Neo-Ascetic does is become mindful, especially in relation to habits of desire.

The Neo-Ascetic understands the predicament they are in and does not allow themselves to become frustrated at their situation, but merely stares into the heart of need and sweats of its false desires like a short lived fever. When the Neo-Ascetic walks into a supermarket they do not treat it as the average Joe does, as a form of therapy, a communal ground of interest and intrigue, a place that one wants to be in, no. The Neo-Ascetic perceives the supermarket (and all mass shopping) for what it is, one’s inability to be bored and alone converted into purchase. Needs are not bought out of boredom, desires are. The Neo-Ascetic prepares for the casino-esque mental barrage emanated by the supermarket and stares internally, not allowing themselves to succumb to the pull of – seemingly – random urges.

You may believe that the pursuit of the Neo-Ascetic is overblown, that I am silly for making a simply shopping trip seem like a spiritual hurdle. Well more fool you for disallowing enchantment into your life. Everything is related to one’s path in life, and how you deal with the most simply dilemmas is how you shall deal with the big ones; how you do one thing is how you do all things. As such it is the task of the Neo-Ascetic to both be aware of his habits with regard to consumption, but to also be mindful of the ways in which he is pulled to and fro by the dynamics of consumption itself. To ask oneself why they thought for a second they needed that X, Y or Z.

The Neo-Ascetic doesn’t have to go to great lengths to become sturdy in their frame. They needn’t walk off into the woods or mountains and eat bugs for the rest of their life, however, there are thoughts, patterns and habits they need to become aware of. Quite frankly, all purchases are up for scrutiny. From buying vegetables, to buying petrol. Buying vegetables one might think of where they came from, why do they buy those particular ones, how much they cost and why they want them…who told them they needed them? Buying petrol one might think of why you need to constantly buy it and whether or not that purchase has become a matter of assumption as opposed to what one actually wants. Once the Neo-Ascetic begins to perform this mindfulness a few times it will become quite easy, even fun. You’ll find quite quickly that much of what you own and buy is additional.

The distinction between the Ascetic and the Neo-Ascetic begs further emphasis. The Ascetic adopts an extremely frugal lifestyle as to avoid the distractions of material as a means for spiritual enlightenment. Whereas the Neo-Ascetic adopts an extremely critical attitude towards material as a means to shed the distractions of modernity itself, the Neo-Ascetic doesn’t wish for spiritual enlightenment – in their role as a Neo-Ascetic – but wishes only to use frugality and critique as a means to return to a self which modernity hasn’t tampered with.

It used to be that to deny TV, junk food, mass-medication, drugs, alcohol and the libertine-lifestyle was merely to state that one was not interested in that which the modern had to offer, the quick, the easy, the thoughtless pursuits marketed to empty minds. And maybe this is now simply a matter of repetition, but to deny these comforts is not seen as denying the extra, but it as seen as denying the norm, the standard, the default. If one is to not have a TV, if one sleeps on the floor, wears the same clothes, eats simple meals, does not drink or do drugs, then that person is seen as an outsider. Such a fate is inevitable, and if you don’t wish to become somewhat fringe, then this path isn’t for you – but you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t already doubting all this. Who is your master, comfort and normalcy, or your own will?