As all the great mystical traditions of the world have affirmed, ascetic discipline is the means by which internal equanimity is established: a contented state of being that abides without regard for external conditions or circumstances. However, it must be said that equanimity, in itself, is not the supreme object of the mystical ascetic as he subjects himself to renunciate discipline. Rather, as he approaches his goal with ever-increasing profundity, unconditional contentment becomes indicative of his progress. As we proceed it will be prudent to discuss the method by which the ascetic approaches his goal, and the nature of the goal itself.
According to its inherent nature, the human “will”, lacking ascetic discipline, becomes shackled to various pleasures, sensations, and (above all) the fantasy of personal possession. Henceforth, we shall refer to this phenomenon of self-will as the “ego”. So long as it is able to gratify its conditioned desire for pleasure and extract validity from those aspects of the external world it perceives itself to be in possession of (property, status, esteem, etc.), the ego can remain contented after a fashion. If once these external conditions are removed, however, the egoistic mind will become frantic. And no wonder, for it had made its peace and happiness contingent upon circumstances, sensations, and illusions. Apart from its ability to gratify conditioned need, the ego is without rest or sanity. Desiring liberation, the ascetic seeks to detach himself from this bondage of conditioning; but in doing so he must renounce his attachment to all pleasures of sense and every pride that life has to offer. What then shall we conclude? Does the ascetic, by virtue of his asceticism, take refuge in a void, an oblivion of all passion? By no means.
To quote Thomas Merton, the entire work of asceticism is undertaken in an effort to “direct all the strength of the soul to God”. This is no less true of the Hindu ascetic as he meditates on the all-pervasive reality, Brahman. This Brahman may be described as the supreme Soul, the divine support residing within each and every creature. Having severed all desire to squander vital energy (the strength of the soul) in pursuit of egoistic gratification, the ascetic is enabled to take delight in those things that refer to the Soul, pursuing instead the bliss of final liberation. In other words, he is consumed by the only passion that can be said to harbor permanent significance. Through his discipline, the ascetic disposes himself to receive the divine knowledge upon which equanimity is established; and the unseen nature of equanimity is described by no one better than Sri Krishna: “The Lord dwells in the hearts of all creatures and whirls them round upon the wheel of maya. Run to him for refuge with all your strength, and peace profound will be yours through his grace…” (The Bhagavad Gita 18:61-62, Easwaran translation).
As the ascetic, full of faith, matures into the realization of the changeless, eternal Lord within himself, he rests his spirit in that intimate knowledge alone. The Gita states persistently, such a one is alike in pleasure and pain, honor and dishonor, being completely fulfilled. Ascetic renunciation, far from obliterating one’s capacity for joy and passion, places completely at man’s disposal the profound strength of his unencumbered faculties. With the clear, spiritual vision born of his renunciate freedom, the ascetic devotee launches this strength at the glorious, cosmic quasar of divine bliss: the primordial singularity (God) that reaches out to penetrate the entirety of creation with unfathomable Love; but the spiritual maturity entertained herein is largely inconceivable. All the exalted spiritual masters who have graced the Earth with their footsteps have insisted that the path to freedom is a harrowing journey trodden only by a few. To attain the fullness of God, of Nirvana, of the everlasting Self, the most radical form of surrender is required. As Jesus proclaimed to his disciples, the one who desires liberation must seek the Kingdom first. It seems as if we are called to a task of nearly impossible magnitude. How will even the most ardent faith persevere with the cosmic invitation? We must look to the noble ones who have gone before us: to those who consummated the purpose of life and heralded the joy of their attainment to all with ears to hear and eyes to see. To them was given the inheritance, the immortal bliss, the resurrection and the life.