Most of us probably do not realize that when we meditate or fast for a spiritual reason we are partaking in asceticism, one of the oldest known spiritual disciplines. Asceticism is the practice of rigorous self-denial and active self-restraint performed as a spiritual discipline. The origins of asceticism are traced to prehistory, to primitive and archaic society.

In all faiths, religious ascetics, such as saints and holy figures, have engaged in ascetic practices as a means to spiritual perfection. Hindu yogis, Greek priests, and Christian martyrs were all ascetics who took part in fasting and other physical mortifications. Many of the founders of the world’s great religions practiced extreme asceticism. For example, the Buddha was severely emaciated after undergoing a variety of severe ascetic practices, including prolonged fasting.

From a historical perspective, asceticism has been studied from different systems of psychology—both East and West. Scholars have examined ascetical behaviors in an attempt to better understand its relationship with the self and ego, the psyche and mind, and states of consciousness and liberation.

Asceticism has a special relationship with psychology, as experts continually attempt to ascertain the extent to which ascetic behavior is pathological, both historically and contemporarily.

It may be easiest to define asceticism by its activities rather than its motive. Ascetic practices include sexual continence, self-imposed poverty and begging, and various other physical and mental activities. Self-inflicted physical acts tend to be more extreme and can include whipping, burning, and lacerating.

Mental ascetic activities, such as meditation, are considered mild to moderate and are generally less painful. Fasting can be a mild, moderate, or severe ascetic activity. For example, the mildest form of fasting would be skipping a meal and most extreme would be fasting to death as is often done in Jainism.

Many ascetics believe the action of purifying the body also purifies the soul, facilitating inner peace and a greater connection with divinity. The ascetic act itself may take the form of rituals, the renunciation of pleasure, or self-mortification. Ascetics maintain that self-imposed constraints provide them with a greater freedom and the ability to resist potentially destructive temptations.

Asceticism can be a self-potentiating act, laying a foundation for personal and professional endeavors.
Certain branches of Christian monasticism and Indian religions have taught that salvation and liberation are the result of a process of mind-body transformation affected by exercising restraint with respect to actions of body, speech, and mind. To this end, it is believed that ascetic activities assist in achievement of these goals.

The founders and earliest religious practitioners—most notably the Buddha, Mahavira, and the Christian desert fathers—lived extremely austere lifestyles, fasting extensively, and refraining from sexual gratification and the accumulation of material wealth. However, it is worth noting that asceticism is not so much a renunciation of the enjoyments of life as it is the recognition that spiritual and religious goals can be impeded by such indulgences. Those who practice ascetic lifestyles typically perceive their practices as virtuous and pursue them in order to attain greater spirituality.

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Author's Bio: 

Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D. is the author of Healing and Wholeness: Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Mental Health and Fasting: An Exceptional Human Experience. She has a Ph.D. in Psychology, a Doctorate in Naturopathy and accreditations as a Nutritionist, Herbalist, Hypnotherapist, and Registered Addiction Specialist. She provides counseling and psychotherapy in San Jose, California. To learn about her private practice, visit her website