The art of self-denial in a in a world of gratification

David Dixon

Self-denial is out of fashion.

Ever seen a young person waiting for a train, in a queue, or having a break from work? Smart-phone eagerly cradled in their hand, texting here, instagramming there, laughing at a short YouTube video, “distract me, distract me, distract me…”

In a world where instant gratification is seen to be a human right along with free association and universal suffrage; the thought of giving-up some pleasure for a period of time, is seen to be futile, if not outright odd.

Even in this season of Lent starting on Ash Wednesday, (February 26 this year), things have changed. Where Catholics and other Christians were often encouraged to “give-up” a normal pleasure to represent Christ’s 40 days in the desert; this is now being replaced with a new theme. Catholics can now “take-up” something for Lent, exercise, healthy eating, a charitable cause.

In the past though, abstinence was a way of nurturing the soul by the removal of earthly temptations, a way of tapping-into the spiritual well that was believed to flow through all of us

Self-denial was always associated with spirituality. From tribal societies where young initiates would not eat so as to attain a mystical euphoria, to sweat lodges in native American society, to young initiands being excluded from the tribal area to survive for weeks before they could return to the society as full warriors.

Fasting and self-denial all have a serious and long-tradition in the Christian churches, these-so-called “haircloth”, formerly worn by penitents and ascetics, sackcloth, made of coarse cloth or animal hair (a hairshirt) worn close to the skin as a self-imposed means of repentance and mortification of the flesh; it is often worn during the Christian penitential season of Lent, especially on Ash WednesdayGood Friday, and other Fridays of the Lenten season.

The monk rising at 4am to tend the gardens on a breakfast of thin gruel, the swami in the cave supposedly living on nothing but air; the Buddhist monk giving-up all worldly possessions, they are all part of the same religious tradition.

The denial of earthly pleasures brings one closer to the spiritual other life of God, the Dreamtime, the great Spirit in the Sky…

In Christianity, Christ’s 40 days and 40 nights in the desert tempted by Satan is the ultimate representation of this ideal. This event is represented in the Christian calendar by the season of Lent leading-up to Easter. The period oddly-enough starts though with a feast. The day before Lent is known as “Shrove” Tuesday (“Mardi Gras” and “Carnevale” in Latin countries). Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day traditionally involved communities feasting on left-over gourmet meats and sweets before the start of the six-week Lenten period of self-denial leading up to Easter, this year on April 12.

What can people give-up? Anything they enjoy, basically – food, sex, television, the internet… Americans with their love of statistics, have even produced a map of the United States showing what Christians in each State deny themselves.

Food items — such as meat, dairy, sweets, alcohol and chocolate — proved to be the most popular items that Christians and other Lent-observers have decided to sacrifice for the six-week period. Eight states, including Ohio, Wisconsin, and Vermont, opted to give up eating meat during Lent, while five states chose to sacrifice eating chocolate, including Indiana, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Meanwhile, alcohol was given up in seven states, including New Jersey, Texas, and South Carolina, while two states — Maryland and South Dakota — relinquished coffee during Lent. Other states, including Georgia and Tennessee, gave-up various forms of social media, while still others gave up negative emotions, such as fear and self-criticism.

It is no coincidence that denial of food is one of the most popular forms of self-denial. This is because the health benefits of fasting are undeniable. The body goes into a “famine” state, lowering metabolism and burning-up fat reserves to sustain the organs. Blood pressure is lower, and advocates report a sense of light-headed well-being and calmness.

Psychologically, self-denial forms a test of will-power and self-image. The ability to refuse something that gives pleasure has a double-effect; it offers a sense of power and self-control that empowers one’s sense of self-worth, and it removes the mixed senses of guilt and pleasure that one gets from indulging yearnings that one cannot control or forgo.

The emotional benefits of self-denial are well-understood. One knows that if they have done without coffee for some days or weeks the first coffee back is more enjoyable than the 15th. Psychologists call this effect “hedonic adaptation,” whereby individuals get used to certain pleasures which they come to think of as necessities. But denying these pleasures for a period of time can lead people to focus on enjoying an experience more deeply, which increases happiness and self of well-being.

Self-denial also offers a range of obvious financial benefits. The ability to say “no” to what is in effect a luxury, a “want” rather than a “need” lessens the immediate economic impact of that purchase. If one puts off buying that new car until the following financial year or purchases it once it is last-years model, the effect compounds the saving over time. Because you have waited a year for the purchase, the purchase of the next car is likely to be two years hence, and so on. Soon the need for new cars becomes less urgent, one receives the pleasure from the savings one has made by driving older cars.

The personal impact of self-denial is often to reduce stresses on one’s relationships. If someone has a constant need to be on their smart phone seeing what is going on, their stress levels increase each time they are not “connected.” Being constantly in need of the stimulation and artificial high from this form of social interaction places high-levels of stress on meaningful relationships which also become harder to form.

So, while self-denial is out of fashion in our inter-connected world where “Kardashian culture” predominates, the positive effects of self-denial have not changed over the centuries. Because, in the end, emotionally, physically, and psychologically, we are still the same people as the Ascetes, the school of philosophy in ancient Greece whose followers so-famously denied themselves all sensual pleasures. Believe it or not, even the iPhone!

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