“Hunger hurts, but starving works.” It’s an old Fiona Apple lyric, and I’ve always admired the naked truth of it. More often than not, truth and comfort are at odds with one another, and we have to make an individual decision about which we’ll pursue more earnestly.
I’m admittedly new to the study of gnosticism, dualism, and even minimalism, although I’d like to think each appeals to my inherent nature. I’ve always needed very little and wanted even less. I’ve never been focused on my own appearance, health, or physical comfort, and I’ve always considered my mind/spirit a more accurate reflection of myself than my body. I’ve also always considered the individual pursuit of enlightenment more valid than proselytizing.
I’ve long believed that growing up with adversity tends to either make a person more comfortable with it or vehemently bent on escaping it. My family always struggled financially, and minimalism has always come easily and naturally to me, presumably as a result. So, without making a conscious decision to do so, that’s where I started.
I have very few possessions, and holiday gift ideas can be maddeningly elusive to those who love me. They’re best off focusing on things I need for survival or on experiences with the potential to broaden my perspective. I appreciate the second more than the first.
Since my youth, I’ve been accused of spending too much time inside my own head, being too self-focused (but never selfish), and caring too little about the way others think and feel about me. I have very few opinions that aren’t directly based in logic and reason, and I rarely push my preferences on (or even make them apparent to) others.
Such natural tendencies make it easy, obviously, for me to appreciate the stark existence of the ascetic and the solitary, internal journeys of the gnostic. The more I learn, though, of the associated philosophies and practices, the more I realize that I am only either able or willing to commit to a certain level of adherence. And I’m not sure that’s categorically wrong.
I can accept anti-materialism nearly wholesale. I definitely subscribe to the notion that the pursuit of material items or monetary wealth should not be one of the primary motivating factors in our lives. I’m comfortable with downsizing, waste reduction, and a consciousness of avoiding material extravagance. I’d be happy to wear a burlap sack if the extremity of it didn’t outwardly smack of a ploy for outside attention.
I do, however, appreciate physical circumstances that I feel add to and facilitate my ability to focus spiritually and mentally. The upscale apartment building in which my partner and I live provides me access to a scenic, downtown, riverside area that I enjoy daily. As I write this, I’m sitting on our apartment’s corner balcony, overlooking the Fox River and Green Bay to the north and the main downtown avenue on the east side of Green Bay to the east.
There’s a point, I’m sure, where guilty indulgence and valid justification overlap. Surely, no one needs such an enjoyable environment to reach spiritual enlightenment. Is it standing in my way, though? Should we begrudge a yogi a scenic mountain peak at which to practice his meditation or the zen masters their tranquil gardens? Is refusing to seek or to prioritize material possessions and comfort enough, or is the only path to enlightenment through starved and labored breaths in a dank hovel?
A similar question raises it ugly head in matters of intimacy and procreation. Sexual ecstasy is, without a doubt, a primarily physically gratifying experience. Some gnostics, I’ve read, believe that it actively works against spiritual freedom by trapping divine light inside a physical body through procreation. Meanwhile, various strict Christian sects and denominations have for centuries argued that sexual enjoyment outside of the purposes of procreation is unacceptably indulgent. Complicating the matter further, a case could certainly be made for the extension of consciousness through “sex magick” or the achievement of ecstatic erotic states.
Finally, there’s the matter of diet and exercise. I choose to walk or ride a bicycle rather than to drive, but that, again, is a convenience afforded by my location. A dedication to healthy living or routine, intentional exercise could be seen as a preoccupation with the body and with physical existence. However, the idea of life without a motorized vehicle appeals to my minimalist leanings.
Diet can be a tricky subject as well. I can’t deny that the temporary abstinence of intermittent fasting is what first drew me to it as a dietary option, although there has been a weight-loss result. The hook of intermittent fasting for me, though, has been the transcendent feeling I begin to experience after my 30th hour or so without caloric intake. We don’t really notice the amazing amount of time we dedicate to thinking about, preparing, purchasing, and consuming food until we minimize all of those things.
It has long been a conundrum of asceticism, I’ve read, that complete abstinence from food and liquid means physical death, which effectively limits the time one has to achieve gnosis. The continuation of the practice paradoxically requires an incomplete effort. This proves to be a continual challenge of my understanding of and approach to asceticism and gnosticism. Is my consumption of sparkling water still too decadent if it’s the only thing I consume for nearly two days?
How do I set aside food and drink without dying? If everyone swears off sex and the species dies out, have we really all achieved enlightenment? Is there really nothing to be gained from alternative mental states reached via chemical or sexual means? Can my physical environment aid in my meditation if my goal is to ignore and reach beyond the physical plane.
These are the questions I face in my attempts to espouse asceticism, minimalism, and gnosticism. I feel comfortable abandoning material possessions and pursuits, and I embrace a philosophy centered around the separation of spirit and body. I’m unsure, though, of exactly how to reach the most effective balance of practicality and ideological commitment.
For now, I’ll continue to fast as much as I feel able, drinking my sparkling water to remain hydrated. I’ll meditate on my balcony while the sights, sounds, and smells of my physical environment surround me. When and if I eventually achieve gnosis, I imagine none of these things will any longer be necessary, but until then, I need to maintain the strength to continue the effort.