I was talking to a friend of mine and suggested that he try giving up sugar for a year. Or maybe give up alcohol for a year. Or coffee. Or maybe he should try some mental deprivation for a year. Like giving up movies for a year. Or giving up reading books for a year. He was less enthusiastic than I had hoped.
I call that kind of self-imposed deprivation “practicing for the cave”. What comforts and pleasures do you have in your life that you would not have if meditating in a cave for an extended period of time? Yup. Pretty much everything. That puts things into perspective.
First of all, incorporating such forms of discipline into your life lets you remain in the modern world and still gain the strength and confidence of a cave experience. You know that you could thrive in extreme circumstances either voluntarily as a spiritual practice or if they were thrust upon you through a natural disaster or some other twist of fate.
In addition, there is joy in discipline: the joy of mastery and testing oneself and gaining inner strength. There is power in knowing that you can be happy without one or many of the things that you look to externally on a regular basis. It is freedom from the fear of being without. And freedom from fear is joy!
Next question: Why a year? Many spiritual traditions advocate shorter periods like the forty days of Lent. However, a year may yield much greater benefits. A year may be long enough to gain freedom from lifelong attachments. Sometimes we use things that may seem to be positive pleasures like books and movies to distract ourselves from deep emotional pain or other issues.
It could take a significant period of time for those things to surface if your defenses are strong. Personally, I’ve gotten through months and years and even decades without allowing painful memories or feelings to surface. But if you take away my constant habit of reading books and keeping my mind focused on the next exciting field of knowledge to master, it’s a different story.
I’ve had to stop putting things into my mind-body system for long enough to discover what needs to come OUT! That is terrifying. Without my intellectual endeavors, who am I? Just a scared kid hanging onto the idea that I can think my way to safety and protection and love.
So I have ventured into this strange realm again and again and again. Beginning in my twenties, I practiced for the cave constantly, playing with different variables one at a time. No books. No movies. No meat. No sugar. No alcohol. No sex. Then multiples at once. I watched myself. At what point would I get angry? At what point would I rebel against my self-imposed disciplines? At what point would I fail?
Obviously depriving yourself to the point of serious depression is unwise. If you become dangerously depressed over relatively mild or moderate forms of deprivation, then there are likely deeper issues that warrant professional counseling or other support. But if it’s only a mild level of aggravation or you just feel sorry for yourself or whine out loud or bitch under your breath, then practicing for the cave may be a fantastic opportunity for you.
My friend said he’d get depressed if he had to give up sugar or alcohol for a year. EXACTLY! That’s perfect. That’s the point. Create an opportunity in your life to look at why you’d be depressed without a beer after work or donuts to eat on your coffee break or without an action movie to watch on the weekend.
What are your values? What are your priorities? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Do these things serve your goals? What do you want to accomplish in life? What do you do regularly to comfort yourself or placate yourself?
Most of these activities are relatively harmless for most people. Some are even beneficial. Exercise, for example, can be quite addictive. Can you keep your emotional balance for a period of time if deprived of exercise? It’s not the deprivation versus participation or indulgence that matters. It’s the CHOICE that matters.
I wouldn’t recommend going without exercise for a year. However, going through the experience of forsaking things for a long enough period allows you to adapt to life without them. And then you can choose the things that enhance your life in a way that allows you to retain your newly gained self-mastery. Or indulge yourself without making it a habit. Whatever it is, you can take it or leave it.
Clearly the point is not to live in a cave. The point is to master yourself. If you have practiced enough to be ready for a cave, you are ready for an extraordinary life.