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.

10 Comments

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

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  1. the big Not Me-aning
    Third, while it is true that mysticism accepts and functions according to a progressive principle like teaching, it has a completely different principle of progress, since teaching follows a regular progression from ignorance to knowledge through the successive acquisition of cumulative elements, whereas the mystical path passes through a play of alternations—night/day, dark/light, loss/ return, absence/presence—which are continually reversed. Better still, mysticism develops on the basis of, and in the form of, absolutely ambiguous experiences, in a sort of equivocation, since the secret of the night is that it is an illumination. The secret, the force of illumination, is precisely that it blinds. In mysticism ignorance is a knowing, and knowledge has the very form of ignorance. To that extent you can see how far we are from the typical form of pastoral teaching. In the pastorate, the pastor’s direction of the individual soul was necessary, and no communication between the soul and God could take place that was not either ruled out or controlled by the pastor. The pastorate was the channel between the faithful and God. In mysticism there is an immediate communication that may take the form of a dialogue between God and the soul, of appeal and response, of the declaration of God’s love of the soul, and of the soul’s love of God. There is the mechanism of perceptible and immediate inspiration that makes the soul recognize God’s presence. There is also communication through silence. There is communication through the physical clinch, when the mystic’s body really feels the presence, the urgent presence of the body of Christ Himself.
    —Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population

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      • that generation of french folks was so hyper aware of how deeply we are shaped by our contexts and always looking for an out, see:

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  2. Al puts his usual Romantic spin on it:

    following Deleuze out the window
    “Nietzsche “gets up to all sorts of things behind your back…a perverse taste … for saying simple things in [his] own way, in affects, intensities, experiences, experiments” (N: 6). Through Nietzsche, Deleuze opened himself to “the multiplicities everywhere within [individuals], the intensities running through them”, that is, a depersonalization “opposite [that] effected by the history of philosophy; it’s a depersonalization through love, rather than subjection”

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