Coming back to the world from the Vipassana Meditation Center it is hard to answer the question: “So how was your retreat?” Rich and complex come to mind, as well as ascetic; Rich in the sense that the 10-day-retreat provided an extraordinary opportunity to temporarily leave behind the roles and responsibilities of a householder and take up the life of a monk. At the center, others provide all of your physical needs. Your only job is to meditate. This is complex due to the psychological nature of the practice. The meditation technique asks you to explore some deeply conditioned habit patterns of the unconscious mind. As difficult and sometimes painful thoughts, feelings, emotions and physical sensations arise you are asked to cultivate equanimity in their wake; and ascetic in a daily routine structure where one leaves behind ways of being in the world that are comfortable, typical and habitual. This was a silent retreat and there was no communication with other meditators verbally, through gesture, or in writing for 9 of the 10 days. There is no access to cell phones, computers, radios, books or journals. Each day starts at 4-4:30AM and ends at 9-9:30 PM. Except for short breaks for meals and personal cleaning, you are asked to work continuously as if in isolation for the entire period either in the meditation hall, or if you wish in one of the center’s pagoda cells, places designed for deep concentration.
At retreats end, feeling a bit lighter and like I had scaled a mighty mountain I have been thinking about asceticism and its relevance in a world where 24/7 connectivity and immediate gratification are highly valued. For many asceticism may seem like an antique pursuit, the exclusive province of mendicants and pessimists like the enigmatic Ajivika meditators depicted in the picture above. The 5th century terra-cotta panel from Harwan, India shows meditators practicing intense austerities. Their boney forms make a striking contrast to the hardy bejeweled householders depicted above them.
Asceticism is relevant today. Its practices of withdrawal, simplification and discipline for purposes of making change need not be confined to the cave, the retreat center or the forest hut. As my teacher Donald Moyer has pointed out, we can take up ascetic practice each time we turn to our yoga mat and face our home practice of yoga. “By restricting our intake of food for two hours beforehand by choosing a clean bare floor and a quiet space, we create what William James has called a simplified world to live in, away from the burdens and responsibilities of the normal routine. For most of us this type of discipline is not a hardship, but a refuge. The things we renounce are the things we no longer need: the clutter and complications the things that distract us for discovering our true nature. Ultimately the real purpose of asceticism is not to punish ourselves but to nourish ourselves.”