The ascetic ideal essentially suggests that less is more. The less you have physically, the more you have emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Such is the truth lived by Jesus, Gandhi, the Buddha, Mother Teresa, Emerson, Thoreau, and many more. They lived the truth that the best things in life are free, in particular, the best things in life were bestowed upon us at birth and are within us. The people mentioned above chose to live with little to no material possessions, and with their freedom from attachment to the material world followed with them tremendous impact and benefit to all humanity and to All that Is.
So, living without any material possessions, does that appeal to you? My guess is probably not. It doesn’t appeal too much to me either, although I do think it’d be fun for a while. And actually, on my week-long homeless adventure in the streets of New York, I experienced incredible peace, power, and freedom, which largely might have been because there was nothing material for me to think about. All I had, physically, were the clothes on my back, but I soon realized that spiritually, I had an abundance of riches within.
The key, I believe, to experiencing a similar quality of peace, power, and freedom as one might experienced when living the ascetic ideal is not so much having no material possessions, but all the while being completely comfortable with the idea of not having anything physical. The peace, power, and freedom comes when you realize that your most valuable asset is your mind and the treasures you’ve stored up in Heaven. Your most valuable assets are non-physical, and in so much as you may enjoy sitting on a comfortable sofa or reading a good book, you ultimately maintain the attitude of detachment towards physical objects. When you are detached, you are free.
Attachment is essentially the same as enslavement. When you are attached to something, you are bonded to it. It’s like being chained down to a boulder. If you’re attached to the boulder, you cannot move without that boulder moving too, and that means that you have to carry the burden of that boulder with you wherever you go. However, if you are detached, then you are free to move, and suddenly moving becomes much easier. You become lighter. As it’s been said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Being detached from the physical allows us to live by our values and hold true to our beliefs, regardless of whatever external consequences may occur.
A danger of attachment occurs when that which we are attached to is compromised in safety. For example, if you are attached to your car, and someone threatens the safety of your car with a bat, then you might utter all kinds of vicious words towards that person or even physically assault that person to protect your car. Now you might be asking,”What’s the problem with this scenario?” Well, if you are to attack the attacker, as Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Moreover, the great danger with attachment to material possessions is that it inherently implies that the safety and security of that physical object overrides your core principles for living (or rather that it is your core principle for living). So, when you are attached, as much as you might say that one of your core values is to love and care for people, so much as they threaten your physical possessions, you might compromise your principle to protect that physical object.
Answer the question, “What is more important to me: material objects or my core values?” One is physical, one non-physical. One seen, one unseen. One is on earth, the other in Heaven. Where do you store your treasures?
The ascetic ideal is all about storing your treasures in Heaven. How you interpret that is up to you. I generally consider the “Treasures in Heaven” to be those of the mind and spirit. As a result, I value my education and conscious growth above most everything. Thankfully, because I see myself as connected with everything, serving to people and sharing my gifts is an integrate part of my conscious growth. This means that the things I love to do most, such as practicing meditation, mindfulness, prayer, and thinking are available to me every waking moment.
Finally, as Victor Frankl once said, let’s remember how truly powerful and wonderful our mind is, and that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” What greater treasure could we ask for?