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Asceticism and the Three Scales of Time

Asceticism is the denial of the importance of that which most people fear and strive for, and thereby the denial of the very grounds for anxiety and disappointment. If fear is, ultimately, for oneself, then the denial of the self removes the very grounds of fear.

People in modern societies are more pathologically anxious than people in traditional or historical societies, no doubt because of the strong emphasis that modern societies place on the self as an independent and autonomous agent. In contrast, our ancestors, who had evolved to live in a group, conceived of themselves less as independent, autonomous agents and more as part of a group, subsuming their ego or identity into the collective identity of the group. For them, the long-term survival or flourishing of the group took precedence over their individual survival or flourishing. This meant that they thought of their deaths less as the end of their lives and more as a part of the life of the group, which, unlike their individual selves, kept on enduring. This perspective enabled them to focus more on the present moment and on being, and less on the future and on becoming, which is the ultimate source of all anxiety.

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It seems to me that there are three principal scales of time, the present moment, a human lifetime, and the eternal. The problem with modern man is not so much that he situates himself in the future of a human lifetime, since he fears death far too much to do that, but rather than he does not situate himself in any of these three scales of time. Instead, he is forever stuck somewhere in-between: this evening, tomorrow morning, next week, next Christmas, in five years’ time. As a result, he has neither the joy of the present moment, nor the satisfied accomplishments of a human lifetime, nor the perspective and immortality of the eternal.

In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu "Song of God", the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the battlefield of Kurukshetra (pictured) and tells him not to abandon arms but to do his duty and fight on. Arjuna should not be afraid because, as Krishna says, "There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist…the wise are not deluded by these changes." Similarly, the 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted in his famous philosophical treatise of 1921, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, that, "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." By denying the importance of that which most people fear and strive for, the ascetic not only denies the very grounds for anxiety and disappointment, but also reconnects with, and immerses himself into, the timelessness and universality of the human experience. 

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook 

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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