Chastity vs Hedonism

A few weeks ago (months maybe?) a reader asked me via Facebook if I’d write about chastity vs hedonism. Sure, I said. I like reader prompts…

Chastity is related to abstaining from sexual activities of all kinds. Hedonism implies a rampant indulgence in all lustful desires. Hedonism conjures up images of luxurious excesses of all kinds of fleshly pleasures, not just sexual ones. I think the real issue in these words is what role does austerity play in our lives? Should it have one? If so, why and what does that look like?

This subject is tricky because it is completely subjective! What is one man’s hedonistic splurge is another man’s boring ol’ routine. Most of the traditions that emphasize austerities (fasting, celibacy, extreme physical practices, emotional suppression, for some quick examples) usually, but not always, have strict rules for personal and communal behaviour and turn these into issues of morality. This can be very tricky because often issues of morality, particularly in conservative Christian America, intertwine with standards of economic class, as well as race and gender. What screams Good Christian for one group will be unacceptable for another kind of Christian elsewhere.

The first question that needs to be answered is quite personal, what role does austerity play in our lives? Once we can come to grips with this question the other ones will fall into place. If we’ve grown up with extraordinary strictness and control, indulgence might very well be what the soul needs for a time. For some people, strict austerities can be very beneficial, for others they might be damaging.

Fasting. By Jean Fortunet via Wikimedia Commons

I have a mixed relationship with fasting and austerity. I do not respond well to hard and fast rules. Before my years of breeding I used to observe Lenten fasts semi-Orthodox style (vegan, no alcohol, and so on). I would fast without food on the Equinoxes. I may get back to these practices. However, I now find that these practices aren’t always very healthy for me. I struggle even with my gentle Monday ‘fasts’ in honor of Shiva. See, in my teens and early 20s I struggled, like so many young women do, with issues of perfectionism, control, and body image. I had been an athlete so I knew enough about nutrition and self-esteem not to fall into the traps of anorexia or bulimia (I was never able to make myself throw up on cue, anyway). However, I ate the same thing for breakfast and lunch for years. I would never eat seconds. I pulled the skin off chicken, rarely ate sweets, had the smallest serving of things, and so on. Basically I was hungry all the time and I equated this with positive self-control, being slim, and all kinds of other ‘virtues.’ For me, going without in the name of virtue is a mental mind field. I have to be very clear about why I am doing what I’m doing and what my boundaries are.

While my Monday austerities involve some food related things, I have a small social media component in there too. I’m also thinking of adding in more electronics fasting to free up more of my own brain space. Eventually I’d like to add in fasting from the written word, and, when the kids do not need me as much (we’re talking at least 5 or 6 years down the road), I’d like to have a day where I do not speak. All of these practices are aimed at being able to hear more clearly my own Godsoul and to communicate with Others (and other humans, too) in a more focused way.

The flip side of austerity is indulgence. This is also something I struggle with! In my world indulgent is about the worst word you could call me. In my upbringing you pulled your own weight, you did not ask for help, you solved your own problems. My parents are absurdly competent. They rarely get sick. I’m pretty sure that if one of them ever comes down with cancer they won’t tell anyone until they have two weeks to live and can’t row out from the island they live on. Resting? Not doing? Not working? Utterly indulgent.

My indulgence has nothing to do with sex, drugs and rock n roll. In fact, it might be healthy for me if it did!

What’s your goal? I don’t think austerities are virtuous in and of themselves. They can be abused too easily. So too can hedonism. Plenty of people think they’re being rebellious and shocking and wild when really they’re just being irresponsible and avoiding showing up for their lives. Are your austerities an escape mechanism? Do you think that you have to be extreme in some way to worship a particular deity? You might want to check in with others who honor that deity, or a therapist, or a good friend, or spiritual mentor. Sometimes extremes are beneficial, but sometimes they are ways that keep us punishing ourselves.

What is your goal? I can’t speak for every god, but it seems to me, from my experience with my gods and from what others show me by their examples, that the gods aren’t out to hurt us; they’re too busy. However, when extremes are asked of us it is usually for a purpose: our strengthening or discipline (in the positive sense), as a mark of devotion, or for some other end.

I don’t think the issue is chastity over/against hedonism. I don’t think the question is austerity or hedonism. If it is, the answer is Yes. I say yes to both austerity and to hedonism, because both are necessary to my spiritual growth.

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  • yewtree

    This interests me.

    I am very bad at self-control in relation to food.

    As far as sex goes though, I would never want to be celibate. But chastity and celibacy are not the same thing.

    In my mind, chastity is best defined in the words of Robertson Davies, “having the body in the soul’s keeping”. Chastity does not necessarily mean abstaining from sex in this definition; it means abstaining from sex with people who do not nurture your soul.

    I am in a monogamous relationship and very deliberately choose to be monogamous. I prefer it that way because the energies are more intense. And with my partner, my soul is nurtured.

    (According to Wikipedia, “Chastity is sexual behavior of a man or woman that is acceptable to the moral standards and guidelines of their culture, civilization or religion.” So for Christians, that could mean fidelity in marriage, for example; for Pagans, it might include all consensual sex. Pagan mores around sex are still in flux, it seems to me.)

  • An Elder Apprentice

    Niki, I very much resonate with the the following at the end of your post, “Sometimes extremes are beneficial, but sometimes they are ways that keep us punishing ourselves.
    What is your goal? I can’t speak for every god, . . . However, when extremes are asked of us it is usually for a purpose: our strengthening or discipline (in the positive sense), as a mark of devotion, or for some other end.”

    In a certain sense aren’t both my most hedonic experiences and my most austere almost identical. Even my most deeply meaningless yet intense sexual experiences did change my consciousness. Ah, the ecstasy of such moments, and oh, did I and still do I crave that rush of sensations, hormones, neurotransmitters, and connection given the names ‘sex’ and ‘lust’. And those experiences did and do change me.

    In the past I had a strict, even militaristic, Renzai Zen practice. A searing ache in my knees and back, struggle and then surrender to pain and thus release results in the emergence of a reformed will in that surrender. I am changed. And I did and I do carve that feeling and that type of austere ecstasy also.

    Last night during my practices I had moments of an electric ecstatic connection. Yet, I am also currently trying to lose some weight with what is known as intermittent fasting and that involves a certain sacrifice of pleasure and a release each day when I end the days period of a rather ascetic food deprivation.

    When I examine the felt sense in my body of my reactions to both these most intensely lustful or ascetic past memories and also these very recent ones they are so similar, be they austere or hedonic. By ‘felt sense’ I mean not my thoughts or even my emotions but awareness of my bodily sensations, in my gut, breath, and muscle, in reaction to the events. These are the root perceptions of myself and the the foundation on which I build both my emotions and thoughts. I am not sure this should surprise me, after all I feel pleasure at sex and the memories of sex and the joy in the changes wrought by ascetic Zen practice feels like a similar joy. After all change of feelings about myself during those practices silent deprivation were ecstatic. How else would I know I changed? Even my success in sticking to a diet, a daily 18 hour fast, each day results in pleasure and the surprise electric ecstasy of last nights practice felt like sex, maybe it was sex. The felt senses of all of these are so similar for me, almost identical. I would guess the physiology is nearly identical too, that is the same neuronal circuits are activated, and the same neurotransmitters and hormones released, endorphins, dopamine, and canibinoids, in similar amounts and places in my brain and body in all these events.

    Yet, I did all of these to change my consciousness and to feel this particular wonderful felt sense that lets me know that I have changed my consciousness. Zen, today’s diet, daily practice, even intense sex that is entirely of the moment were all done, with greater or lesser levels of focused intent to cause such change.

    I agree so strongly with you Nikki, that “. . . If it is, the answer is Yes”, as consciously or unconsciously, and I hope more consciously then not, I will work on myself. I have to if I am alive and human. I do crave such change in consciousness, and this change requires some difference in action and such a difference implies some level of intensity so that I am aware of the difference and its effects. I am not sure that it really maters all that much for the purposes of such change if the difference is hedonic or chaste, the body see them as a so similar. Are my inner hedonist and my inner monk really all that different? Perhaps the birth of wisdom occurs as I begin to know why I seek to change my consciousness and I begin to know when to use any particular tool as there are so many.

    • Thank you for sharing this. You hit the nail on the head, I think: “Are my inner hedonist and my inner monk really all that different?” For some denial and austerities are sweet sufferings, while for others indulgences are work.

      I look forward to intermittent fasts once I quit breastfeeding (so another 2 years or so). I have found it a very good practice, for health, discipline, focus, et al.

  • I’ve never understood why my gods would want me to go without things, but then again I worship Pan and Dionysus. I wonder if it’s different with different gods?

    • Heh. Well, Shiva is known for being so absorbed in his own practices that it takes years of austerities for a mortal to get his attention. I also think that some gods may use austerities as tests or to prepare some one for future works or hardships. Again, to what end? A god that just wants me to suffer is cruel. There is enough suffering in the world as it is!

  • stuchan

    A bit late to the discussion, but here goes. The first thing I find interesting is the juxtaposition of two non-opposites in the original query – chastity would be better opposed to promiscuity than hedonism. Hedonism is a much bigger topic – and that much bigger topic is one I have been mulling over in respect to my experiences with the local Pagan community. To wit: I wonder how much the modern Pagan community suffers from the tendency, from within and without, to equate it with or to see it as intimately intertwined with, hedonism?

    From my own point of view, I have been very disappointed with the focus on, to state it plainly, getting loaded and getting laid at almost every major local Pagan event I have attended. My wife and I have drawn further and further away from local circles for just this reason – particularly since we have begun building a family. I don’t want my children to see a life of excess as “normal”, nor do I want them witnessing the kinds of behaviors which seem endemic to so many Pagan gatherings. Conversely, we have found ourselves very much in the cold because we aren’t polyamorous, don’t really “party”, and prefer on the whole to live life in moderation and with an eye to health.

    I wonder if, like ourselves, most of the reasonably middle-of-the-road people who consider themselves Pagan are squeezed out of the picture by the relentless focus on hedonistic lifestyles. We have found it detrimental to both spirituality and to community, both in the larger group and within our smaller circles – not to mention the wreckage wrought on people’s bodies over the years.

    • I agree that the two original words are not exact opposites – but that was my prompt as given!

      When I first moved to California and then started engaging in Pagan gatherings, I was annoyed at what passed for ‘polyamory’ – I still am! I am quite a fan of polyamory, as a philosophy and way of relating in relationship, both sexual and non. But it seems that most people equate it with casual sex (nothing wrong with that if that’s your bag, just don’t use fancy terms for it!) and the unspoken assumption that being Pagan means swinging or being promiscuous. I am very grateful that I know many polyamorous people with in and without Paganism that give it a good name.

      I share many of your concerns, as a health conscious person and as a parent. I think I am lucky that I got involved in greater Paganism when I was studying with T Thorn Coyle who places a strong emphasis on health -physical, emotional, mental – basically: getting one’s shit together. Because of that experience I know some incredibly sane and healthy people, and so I hang out with them at gatherings. I don’t feel squeezed out – but then I have a personality that relentlessly does my own thing and finds a way to build that into a community.

      • stuchan

        Observation of the polyamorous relationships around us has led us to conclude that it is emphatically not the best choice for most people, despite the prevailing “official” party line. Certainly the big nose pagans who lead the workshops and tout the lifestyle in our area have personal lives which it is no exaggeration to label as disastrous. I am sure there are some who manage such arrangements with aplomb, but haven’t witnessed it personally. But that is really just part of a complex of problems, from my perspective – to wit, the equation of being Pagan with being a hedonist.

        I wonder whether the community would be better served by an emphasis on health and wholeness, as opposed to relentless indulgence in sensual pleasures. While I am certainly no advocate of pointless asceticism, nor am I a Puritan, much of what I see seems exceedingly unhealthy. I wonder whether what my wife and I are witnessing is Paganism which never grew up – founded by the old guard who were attracted to its antinomian qualities, and who wove it together with other elements peculiar to their lifestyles and worldviews. For many, “counterculture” seems inextricable from a range of behaviors best exhibited by irresponsible and often antisocial adolescents. Being “free” from the often arbitrary constraints of traditional Judeo-Christian morality seems to have been misunderstood as meaning carte blanche for mindless licentiousness, rather than requiring a sober assessment of what virtue means from a different perspective than one of simple commandment and obeisance.

        Hedonism seems a poor choice in fellow traveller if the community wants to grow, thrive, and be a continuing stable support for real spiritual work and fulfilling personal lives free from needless drama, addiction, and poor health. Do we want to simply be where the partiers go, or do we want to mature as a movement and attract more folks who are willing and able to do the work of building meaningful community and a viable alternate path for humans to view their relationships with each other and the planet?

        • Have you been eavesdropping on my dinner table conversations?? Because my husband and I have had very similar thoughts! You state more eloquently and kindly many ideas similar to mine.

          • stuchan

            You’re too kind. I promise there has been no astral eavesdropping! But I am pleased to know we aren’t the only ones mulling over these matters. Now if only I could figure out where the locals who agree with us were…

          • May I ask where you live? I promise I’m not a stalker!

          • stuchan

            Ah. Due to the candid nature of some of my comments, it might be best to keep my answer a bit vague, so I’ll just say near Wichita, KS.

          • Understood. My husband has extended family in Hoxie. I’ve been there once!

          • stuchan

            I spent the latter half of my public school years about an hour and a half away from Hoxie. It’s bizarre how often Western Kansans or their kin show up, and where. We are apparently quite the diaspora! Please pass my regards to someone who knows what “western Kansas” *really* means.