A failed ascetic awakes

I was strangely drawn at a young age to the concept of asceticism.  Perhaps it was the collocation of living as a child in a country at war, where people survived against the odds in an environment of economic sanctions, and those ridiculous cotton dresses which passed for school uniforms, over which we were permitted to put one or two cardigans in winter. I grew quickly, so my dresses were invariably on the short side.  Thank God it was the Seventies, and no-one knew any better.  It would never do now.

Whatever the cause, a life of self-denial in order to aspire more readily to being a receptacle for spiritual truth held a certain appeal, but did not lead me to a nunnery, and I have no regrets about that, especially not since the realisation that spiritual truth can be found without the cloisters too. My childhood daily ritual of leaping out of bed and making it with hospital precision early in the morning possibly had more to do with pleasing my mother than any ideas of thus creating a time for solemn devotion prior to the start of another glorious day in a cotton dress.

Ah, early mornings! I realise now that rising at 04:30 at least twice a week in my senior years at school was because I liked the intense study the absolute silence of the hour afforded. Monastic discipline it was not – as evidenced by my oversized mug of tea or coffee which accompanied such sessions. The habit of rising early stood me in good stead all those years working a full-time job as well as translating freelance. An hour and a half of work before going to work was valuable indeed. I still rise ridiculously early quite often, and I cannot ascribe it to a return to the ideals of asceticism.  No, it is based on calculated productivity.  At night, when I see that the number of words translated per hour has dropped to the level of the pathetic, I pack it in, set the alarm, and rejoice the next day at a fresh mind, and fast fingers.

I do remember fasting for extended periods at one point, and some of these experiences were based on religious beliefs combined with a certain acquired asceticism.  Some, however, were not, and the objectives were quite contrary to what an aspiring ascetic might wish to achieve.  There is a stage, somewhere between 48 and 72 hours of abstinence from food, at which the body truly does induce one into believing that the self has been liberated and has achieved a higher plane. This, of course, is mere illusion, which I shall describe rather deceptively as a “natural high”.  Illusions can be achieved with far less discipline, and with less danger of being tangled up in eating disorders of diverse natures, and, need it be said, with a higher rating on the pleasure scale.

I was glad when it became fashionable not to have to kneel whilst praying.  My preferred attitude was not prostrate, but supine, on freshly-mown summer lawn looking skywards through dappled leaves of the trees above. I learned last year that the only sensible thing to do with a wooden chair is put a cushion on it before sitting down. I shall always remember the one and only time I swallowed an oyster from another’s plate, and how the waves of that libidinous excess reverberate in unison with all delight in sensual pleasure since.

Confronting cold windy weather with stoicism and determination is a fine thing indeed -especially when followed immediately by long hours curled up under a mountain of blankets until all that exists is warmth and sleep, interrupted only by brief stray thoughts about how hibernation, like all things, must need practice.

Allison

Note: the word or phrase in bold appeared in my previous blog.

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