WORLD VIEW - The Spiritual Side of Austerity

The best joy emanates from austerity. Agni Yoga series

History shows that austere times can have the capacity to transform people and nations. For example Sparta, the city-state of ancient Greece, became famous for the military prowess of its citizens through their austere way of life. From this city’s name, the word “spartan” evolved and is still used today to connote frugality and self-denial. Ironically, it is modern day Greece that is experiencing some of the most severe economic difficulties and being subjected to “austerity packages”, but so too are many other debt-ridden countries.

As this economic stringency is bringing hardship to so many, austerity is probably a word that few would see in a positive light, associating it mainly with economic gloom, the loss of an accustomed standard of living, and all without any compensating goal in sight. But there is another kind of austerity that, willingly implemented, is of invaluable assistance in the pursuit of a spiritual goal. Of course, this is of little consolation to those who are currently deprived of a decent livelihood, but the important difference is that spiritual austerity is implemented out of free choice – it is not, in this latter instance, an unwelcome imposition. This is not to advocate the way of the ascetic or raja yoga practitioner for all those suffering from the current world economic crisis, but it is interesting to reflect on the practice of austerity in spirituality to see if there may be at least some compensating spiritual reward for those affected.

“Practising austerity” is called “Tapasya” in Sanskrit and through it the yogi works to free his mind from worldly desires, clearing a space within where the age-long accumulation of forces that hold him enthralled to the physical world are “burned off”, allowing the consciousness to rise unimpeded towards an envisioned spiritual goal. Tapasya literally means to burn or heat up, to become as a spiritual affirmation states ”a point of sacrificial fire focused within the fiery will of God”. While the path of the yogi may be too extreme for most people, a certain control or restraint of the material senses and appetites is essential in providing the inner space needed to explore one’s true identity. Spiritual retreats are becoming ever more popular forms of developing Tapasya, often involving silence and fasting as part of their regime. Practising austerity involves a conscious choice to withstand some deprivation without complaint, attachment or aversion. The state of mind when deciding to undertake this observance is paramount.

While the so-called Western world is entering a period of austerity, financially at least, in truth many nations, particularly developing and low income nations, have been living in far worse conditions of poverty and deprivation for years. The realisation must finally dawn that financial instability and economic “boom and bust” will always feature in the world as long as nations advocate a “greed based” economic structure over one of beneficent organisation for the good of the whole. Some economists thought that “boom and bust” had been eradicated from modern day economics, however this polarity reflects the dualism of humanity’s collective psychological condition and like all other pairs of opposites cannot be escaped until the spiritual path that lies between them is trodden.

Until this path of spiritual austerity is consciously embraced and joyfully trodden, the pairs of opposites will continue to hand out their harsh but fair lessons. For social change and ultimately evolution, occurs through calamities and crises if not through conscious choice. So better to learn the lessons of duality and choose the middle way sooner rather than later, and then, when consciously chosen, joy can accompany the action of release from the burden of material things. The current austerity measures therefore have some positive potential to reduce excessive consumerism and lead people to think more creatively about the future. There are many examples of people and groups who are leading the way in this area. The Voluntary Simplicity Movement founded by Duane Elgin for example calls humanity to stop living on auto-pilot and deliberately make life-changing choices. This entails releasing ourselves from the non-essential activities that permeate modern life so that it becomes possible to live in accordance with our most important goals and values. The priorities of our consumer and work-oriented culture often run counter to that which enriches and inspires us. “Simplifiers” lives, they say, are often enhanced by choices to reduce consumption, and turning to activities which have a positive effect on relationships, family life, service and the environment.

It is not too idealistic to say that many people today are deeply concerned about the welfare of others across the globe in a way which has never occurred before. To meet the demands which this newly evolving recognition of living in “one world” entails it is essential that spiritual values and qualities such as fairness, compassion, and brotherhood are no longer just abstractions but become woven into the fabric of everyday life. The inner and the outer, the subjective and objective worlds need to be linked together to form a whole – human relationships, economic, social and ecological systems – so that all that manifests in the outer world of daily living is directed consciously from a subjective appreciation of wholeness, of the oneness of the human spirit and of sharing in One Life.

From this it is possible to understand that benevolence and spiritual austerity are one and the same. For the wealthier people of the world, those who possess education, vocations and skills, benevolent actions are becoming increasingly common, as witnessed in the many acts of magnanimous giving and service, and which sow the seeds for a more disciplined, selfless and fulfilling way of life to emerge. For some of these donors and philanthropists, such giving may involve no personal sacrifice and is perhaps just a percentage of income not really affecting the quality of living. Nevertheless, the current trend shows that many givers are becoming personally involved in the distribution of their money or skills and discovering the first flickers of fiery joy that characterises the path of true austerity.

As this attitude intensifies into a life governed by the energy of goodwill and compassion, suffering in terms of personal loss and denial automatically falls away to be replaced by a positive engagement with the world and identification with the soul of all. The goal to be attained outweighs all else, and a refining and simplifying of the personal life in order to live for the good of others and all that lives upon the planet characterises the consciousness. The consciousness of such a person of goodwill is then steadily transformed in the fire of Tapasya for he has set foot upon the path, even if unwittingly, of the true yogi.

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