What Is Askēsis?

IMG_8746For those of you interested in transformative exercise, psychotechnologies, ecologies of practice, and so on, here’s a short thread on askēsis, a word I think you’ll find useful.

Askēsis is exercise or training aimed at a transformation or overcoming of the self by the self — examples include contemplative prayer, meditation, fasting, examinations of conscience, dialectics, discursive reasoning, physical training, aesthetics, and visionary experience.

Askēsis is a practice of self-discipline, and includes training the body, athletic exercise, training the senses, and communing with the divine. Terms like ascetic and ascetism are also linked to notions of self-discipline but carry a greater emphasis on abstinence and austerity.

The etymology suggests connections to asketikos, “rigorously self-disciplined, laborious,” which is connected to the “skilled worker, one who practices an art or trade,” as well as askein “to exercise, train” with reference “to fashion material, embellish or refine material.”

Thomas Merton offers this, “It [ascetisim] comes from the Greek askein: to adorn, to prepare by labor, to make someone adept by exercises. . . . It was applied to physical culture, moral culture, and finally religious training. It means, in short, training — spiritual training.”

Along these lines, many ascetic practices have been concerned with the development of the inner and outer senses, in other words, with the development of perceptual ability, seen both as the introspective quality of attention to oneself and as the refinement of the body’s senses.

Askēsis, then, may often involve renunciation of some kind, and in that sense it does point to a kind of rejection, but this act should be understood as a productive rejection. In other words, something new is acquired through the deployment of renunciation.

You can find further references, discussion, and examples in longer form here.

6 Comments

    • I’m not sure it is different. I should probably take up Dewey more seriously at some point.

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      • I think one way to characterize the project is by saying that learning and individuation go hand in hand.

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      • ah so individuation is part of the project I thought it was but that would be something more than say sitting in lectures or even learning how to dance or collecting mushrooms so where/how does that something more come in and how is it different for you than for say Jung for whom it took active imagination and a kind of Self-ish disciplining (with Jung as the psychopomp and judge of what counts as Self images).

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