by Marta Czajkowska
“The more you schedule and practice discomfort deliberately, the less unplanned discomfort will throw you off center and control your life.” – Seneca
Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman and writer, suggested that anyone wealthy – like himself – benefits from practicing poverty. He walked his talk. Each month he set aside a few days to get away from the luxury of his comfortable bed, ate very little food and wore his shabbiest clothes.
The reason for this uncomfortable task? Completing it, he realized it wasn’t as bad as he had dreaded, and he felt much readier to face anything that life might have in store for him.
We can summarize the logic of voluntary poverty this way: Having comfort means having something we can lose. Fear of losing comfort enslaves us. However, when we deliberately practice discomfort, we diminish our fear of losing it. Merely thinking about misfortune won’t do the trick – for those of us who live comfortable lives most of the time, Seneca recommends that we create a situation of deprivation to prove to ourselves that we can do without, that neither comfort nor discomfort can master us.
We commonly fret and worry about the unknown. Our fears often have no basis in reality. Once we face an empirical experience of poverty, we know it, we’ve lived it. By consciously creating a worst-case scenario that frightens us, then going through it, we free ourselves of fearing it.
Seneca wisely taught: “Poverty is good for at least one thing: It’s an opportunity to practice forbearance and discipline, a chance to see that you would not be crushed by fate.”
How to practice poverty?
Deprive yourself of something that feels scary to lose. You can start small, giving up something comfortable to your body, your image of yourself, or your style of living. If you love your hot showers, how about trying a cold shower? Letting your hair go gray? Skipping dinner? Cleaning the toilet at work? Going a full day without spending any money? Taking a bus? Putting on no makeup? Sleeping outside on the ground?
Dig a little deeper. How about stepping down from a role that gives you status? Apologizing publicly for a misdeed? Spending a night on the street? The more threatening a poverty practice sounds to your ego, the more it may loosen your attachment to comfort and free you from fears of losing it.