Askesis – We Live As We Train

If you search the internet for the Greek word Askesis you’ll find many references to religious asceticism.  Given the role of Greek language in early Christianity this isn’t surprising.  Defining Askesis as just a rigorous form of self-denial for spiritual purposes is limiting and doesn’t totally match how earlier Greeks would have understood it. If we take a look at the Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary we find Askesis defined as “practice, training, trade, profession”. More than just denying the self, it refers to training oneself. The Asketes (one who engages in Askesis) is defined as “athlete, hermit, monk”. That is an interesting combination.

Asceticism evokes images of renunciants chanting under freezing waterfalls or wandering the desert in loincloths. While those disciplines have have a real purpose, for the Agathos (the good and worthy individual) the goal is training to live in the world not apart from it.   For the Greek and Roman Stoics Askesis was an exercise that showed “this life event isn’t as bad as I feared it might be”. Stoics would consciously choose to undergo forms of deprivation or meditate on losses, not as a form of masochism or atonement but to discover what was best in themselves.  Their reason and dignity and character was not dependent on externals. If you slept on the bare ground and went hungry for a day or two your internal virtues remained. The exercise taught that what we fear and think we cannot live without is often a phantasm, an impression that really holds no power. That isn’t to say Askesis is a pleasant experience. It may be pretty miserable at the time. But it will not truly harm you. To use the Stoic term, the pain or discomfort is a rejected (non-preferable) indifferent.

In the martial arts world one often hears the old saying “You fight the way you train”. Under stress you will only rise to the absolute bare bones level of skill and conditioning you have reached in your training. The more realistic the training, the more it teaches you to perform under stress and fatigue and pain.  So, the better you will fight when the proverbial feces hits the fan. I believe this principle can be expanded to include everything in life. It is really what Askesis is about. If you have never experienced adversity you have no frame of reference to refer to in future adversity. If you have not tried living your philosophy, walking the walk, how much use will it be to you when confronted with genuine struggle, loss, change? This is what Askesis teaches us. It wakes us up. It shows us what is inside of us (or not) when the veneer of our comfortable daily lives and identities is somehow stripped away. If Aristotle was correct and Arete (excellence) is a product of habits then Askesis is a tool for getting us there.

Again, Askesis doesn’t mean you have to live in a cave and eat only nuts and berries for years. It is the gradual exposure of mind, body and/or spirit to progressive challenges and hardships. This is both to train and also to build the confidence and belief that, yes, I am a person who can deal with these events in my life.

This all was on my mind today as I went for a short hike. There was a light snowfall and daylight was fading. It occurred to me,  what if I had no home I could return to or I was stranded in some fashion? This all assumed I was someplace far more remote and the cellphone wasn’t an option. What if I had to stay there in the forest for the night? Given that I have a bug out bag and other gear in the trunk of my car I knew I would not only live but be pretty comfortable. What if the car was gone? It would be an uncomfortable night but it would be simple enough to build a shelter with dead limbs against one of the rock outcrops and out of the prevailing winds. With the knife I had with me I could cut evergreen boughs. Pile some dead leaves on top of me and I’d be fine. I’d be a little hungry but one night of hunger never killed anyone.

This was, of course, only a mental exercise and a fairly mellow one at that.  It was still important to remind myself that I didn’t need a roof and a warm bed and a plate of food to be who I am. None of those things were required to be Agathos.

3 Responses to “Askesis – We Live As We Train”

  1. Colonel George H. Bristol USMC (retired) Says:

    Sir –

    This is an outstanding article. I have become an instant fan of this site.

    Retired US Marine Enlisted Man and Officer. 38 years active duty.
    I am going to take some time n this site. Really strikes at the heart of what I hope I am and gives me much reflection.

    Semper Fidelis, Colonel George H. Bristol USMC (retired)

    • Sorry it has taken me a while to reply. Thank you very much for the kind words. Due to a combo of family and business issues I have not been posting lately. Your comment is an inspiration to get back in the saddle!


      Joe Callahan

  2. This is really good. I changed upun this as I have been journalling, reflecting on stuff, as I am about to enter a process of discernment for Christian ministry. I was reading Eugine Peterson’s ‘Under the Under The Unpredictable Plant (looking at Jonah)

    “Another form of involuntary askesis that is conspicuously life-deepening and reality-creating is imprisonment. Some of the best passages in our New Testament were written by Paul in Prison and John on Patmos. John of the Cross in Toledo prison, Martin Luther King in Birmingham jail, and Alexander Solzhenityn in the galung represent an enormous spiritual and creative energies that result from confinement in a cell. Other instances of involuntary askesis that pastors come across in our daily work are unemployment, divorce, bereavement, and the exile of moving to a new place. Non of these acts of limitation or confinement in itself produces a deepened and more authentic life, but they provide the conditions that make it possible” Eugine H Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant An Exploration in Vocational Holliness, pp.89-90.

    I was applying this to some events on my own life… and found your blog which I found very helpful…

    Cheers , from Scotland…

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