Those of us living in the United States have enshrined in our founding documents the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, a concept that has older roots in European philosophers such as John Locke. These documents, of course, provide not the slightest bit of instruction about how to embark upon this pursuit, wisely leaving this conundrum to the individual and the communities to which he or she belongs.
There are two ways to pursue happiness. One is external and one is internal. They do not necessarily lie in conflict with each other, but I believe one of them deserves preeminence if the other is to succeed.
I say “gently” fasting because removing a crutch forcefully can cause great harm. I know a wonderful older man with an injured knee who needs to use a walker. He loves to swim, but now he walks in the pool because it's the one place he can walk without his walker, and because doing this is the closest he can come to swimming. This is a wise approach wherein he gently, but not forcefully, removes the crutch he relies on.
We might help someone recovering from an injury walk by removing her crutch and letting her hold onto us for support, but if we walked up to a cripple, knocked his crutch to the ground and said “I now command thee, walk, ye of little will,” we certainly wouldn't be helping anyone.
I say “temporarily,” because if we were never to take any joy out of the world around us, living in it would be pointless.
Humans have realized this for thousands of years, and this realization has spawned many ascetic traditions. Quite frequently, ascetics of these traditions have foolhardily sought extreme forms of self-denial and then realized that a “middle road” proved superior. We find this theme in the life of Buddha, for example, and we find it in the lives of the Fathers of the Christian Church.
John Cassian, venerated as a saint in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal churches, studied under the Fathers of the Egyptian desert in the fourth century, and brought the wisdom he learned there to the West. His spiritual pursuits also took him to Bethlehem and Constantinople. His writings were especially commended in the Rule of St. Benedict.
In the Institutes, which he composed at the request of Saint Castor of France, he described the futility of seeking external peace without first cultivating internal peace.
Fleeing to the desert, his new-found solitude brought him only the illusion of peace. There he not only deprived himself of many external crutches, but he also removed all his external challenges. If any of us were to flee to a cabin in the mountains to find peace, we might forgo our televisions, but we would also remove all of the painful noise, expectations, and burdens that other people place on us. This may be therapeutic, but the peace it brings us may be illusory.
It was not too long before he found himself getting angry at the desert grasses for being too thick or too thin, with pieces of wood when he wished to cut them quickly and could not, and with flint, when he was in a hurry to light a fire but failed. “So all-embracing was my anger,” he wrote, “that it was aroused even against inanimate objects.”
He thus realized that other people were not the cause of his anger, nor leaves, nor pieces of wood. He was the cause of his own anger. In realizing this, he realized that he needed to turn inward to eradicate that anger in order to obtain true peace.
One can debate whether those who have retreated to the deserts or forests to find solitude have ever learned anything about God, as they claimed. In fact, these men and women had claimed that theology was exactly what they were practicing, a term that would much later be redefined as the logical exposition of things related to God.
But I do not think one can deny that they at least learned something about the human condition. Indeed, while the world's spiritual traditions have many distinguishing features, they also have many similarities, and I believe many of the commonalities reflect the simple fact all of these traditions had the same raw material to work with — human beings.
The anthropologists of today study the breadth of human cultures and in some rare cases may penetrate into the depths of these cultures. The ancient anthropologists penetrated into the depths of deserts and forests so they could penetrate more deeply into their own human person. In doing so, they learned a thing or two about psychology.
These insights are important for any of us seeking health, because anger and unhappiness will both bring bad health as quickly as any bad diet will. As Chris Kresser has written, we all need to work on our weakest link.