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What's wrong with your...Abstinence?

By Benjamin Fry, The Times, February 19, 2005

Lent is when we give up stuff -and discover the stuff that we really need

London, UK -- I have a friend who taught me something very elegant about giving stuff up. During our university days he lived a life fully engaged in the pleasures of material substances, intimate with most ways of stimulating physical pleasure.

I lost touch with him in his twenties and then heard that he had become a Buddhist monk. Still engaged in worshipping the heights of hedonism myself, I scoffed at this seemingly trendy posture. Then I grew up a bit and one day had the chance to get to know him better again.

I was by now married with a child and had some financial security. We went en famille to his Buddhist centre near the Lake District. I enjoyed exploring the parallels between the Dharma, the Buddha's teachings, and therapy, but was acutely aware that the elements of my life that had helped me to face my own demons were exactly those that he had taken a vow to abstain from; the emotional security of a family and the material security of some money.

Eventually I brought this up with him (particularly the issue of chastity, which I assumed would be the bitterest pill for a man in his prime to swallow). He gave a wry smile. Of course this was what everyone from his former life asked. And he gave a simple answer. He didn't think so much about the stuff that he had given up, but instead about what he had gained.

I'd been so narrowly engaged with my sense of horror at having to forgo familiar emotional and physical crutches that I hadn't looked deeper into the reasons why he'd made these sacrifices, and the attendant benefits that they had brought. He had found peace of mind and a visceral, meaningful purpose in life. He had swapped his rootless urges for a mission of real engagement with his soul. He was released, relieved, renewed. What he had given up was merely the coping strategies of a life lived in a constant state of unrecognised fear. For that is all that desire really is.

If you don't believe me, watch some foreign television (there's plenty on Sky).

Look for the adverts. Watching these without understanding the dialogue gives you a different perspective on wanting; you can observe yourself. The reaction you may have is to wonder why you would want any of this stuff anyway? Adverts without their punch lines playing on your insecurities don't work. It is not the product that you desire, but the relief from your anxiety of not having it/something/everything.

I'm able 24/7 to chase material remedies to life, but rarely get a fresh perspective on where that desire comes from. Lent offers that chance. A space is created in our psychological architecture when we refrain from our usual modes of behaviour. We may have to confront difficult emotions when we give up chocolate/cigarettes/alcohol/ meat -emotions that we habitually ignore, thus keeping them separate and preventing a more integrated self. This is the hinterland between the conscious and unconscious minds. Abstinence is one way to initiate a small expedition into this. By forcing materialism down the list of priorities, we open up the possibility of doing something real -even spiritual - about our existential angst.

That was what my friendly monk was trying to tell me. Setting the stage for his spiritual progress involved giving up things that I felt I could not live without.

But his reward was to feel profoundly safe regardless of who or what he had around him. Truly he had given up nothing (but fear) and had gained far more than my own self-satisfied balance sheet of life.

Small wonder, then, his polite amusement at my pity for his terrible sacrifices.


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