Asceticism and Applied Behavior Analysis


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

According to Google, asceticism refers to “severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.”  Nearly every religion has ascetic sects, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, among others.  Ascetic practices seek to go beyond a purely intellectual pursuit of religion to achieve experiential states such as inner peace, enlightenment, or the direct experience of God.  

The BBC series Extreme Pilgrim chronicles the journey of an Anglican vicar (Church of England) to China, India, and Egypt.  In his travels, the vicar spends weeks living with ascetic groups such as the Shaolin in China, Hindu Sadhus in India, and Coptic Christian hermits in Egypt.  Across all the groups, one striking commonality exists: isolation of oneself to remove distractions from worldly affairs to achieve a state of deep calm.  In Egypt, for instance, the vicar lives alone in a desert cave for three weeks.  During this time, he experiences something akin to an alcoholic going through withdrawal — denial of his need to be in the cave, followed by a period resembling depression, ending in detachment and a feeling of closeness to God.

As behavior analysts, what are we to make of these experiences?  The philosophy of functional contextualism states that behavior analysts are a-ontological.  This means that since our subject matter is the act-in-context, and the behavior of scientists themselves are acts-in-context, then we cannot make definitive statements on the nature of the “real” world since our verbal constructions about the world are a function of our history in it.  In fact, trying to figure out what the “real” world is like misses the point of behavior analysis — to predict and influence behavior.

Thus, the main question of interest to behavior analysts concerns how to predict and influence ascetic practices.  This can take at least two forms.  First, one can address the question from a broad cultural perspective to examine the societal factors of which ascetic behavior is a function, or the particular life histories that contribute to one joining a monastic order.  Secondly, one can address the question from a therapeutic perspective.  Behavior analysts can aid in the development of programs that help people along their ascetic path.  After all, if asceticism is a class of behavior, then it can be taught, and it seems to have psychological benefits.  Meditation and prayer for instance, have psychological benefits, and are practiced in an extreme form by ascetics.

Linda Hayes’ (1997) article in The Psychological Record titled “Understanding Mysticism” addresses many pertinent issues for behavior analysts venturing into this area.  One particular point concerns behavioral processes in the mystical experience itself (e.g., directly experiencing God, or an experience of “Oneness”).  Essential here is the role of language.  As mentioned above, many ascetic practices across religions involve isolating the practitioner from worldly distractions coupled with meditation, prayer, and other rituals.  A critical element in such experiences, according to Hayes, is removing the barrier of language itself.  Language, by its very nature, parses the world into many parts and our role in those parts (e.g., issues at work, school, with family, etc…).  Repetitive practices, coupled with isolation, serves to decrease this effect of language, to go beyond what language can describe — the direct experience of God, Oneness, etc…

If you find this topic interesting, please check out a previous bSci21 article titled How Prayer Changes Behavior, which contains many other behavior analytic works on religion.

Do you have experience with ascetic practices?  Let us know in the comments below!  Also, don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox.


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