Lent is best understood as learning to do what we want. What we truly want. Sometimes, it is hard to know what that is. Often we get what we want and discover it is not what we thought and that we allowed ourselves to be deceived by a false want, a wispy desire. Many decades can pass in addictions to things we don’t really want. We are scared just to blow the desire (for example, for security, wealth, status, approval) away.
Knowing what we truly want is best achieved by letting go of all desire, at least for a few breaths during your meditation. In these times we want to want nothing except to say the mantra with pure and generous attention. External Lenten practice also supports this: because Lent invites us, not to punish ourselves for our bad deeds or failures, but, instead, to make an effort to do something we really want to do and to let go (or reduce the influence) of something we really don’t want to do. It’s fairly easy to identify these in some of the small elements of our ordinary lives. We should then take a fairly playful attitude to put these (true) wants into practice.
The problem arises when our dark, self-rejecting side gets hooked on a small ascetical exercise. If religious understanding is involved this can get very unbalanced. It would be like someone who decides to go the gym regularly to keep fit and then becomes manically compulsive about his or her muscle size or weight. In a good Lenten attitude, we do what we truly want (developing good habits) and don’t do what we don’t want to do (reducing bad habits) with a serious but light effort. It is not about paying off debts we have accumulated. Nor is it about trying to be perfect. Or about making up for failures.
Materialistic cultures gets spirituality wrong. They turn it into a commercially conditioned lifestyle choice. Or, they expose spirituality to the contagious mood of compulsive perfectionism and hunger for approval that they call success or sometimes even ‘well-being’. The false asceticism of religion can then mutate, for example, into the self-harming which is growing among the young today. In the past religious perfectionists wore belts that made them bleed. Today many cut or burn themselves. Both aberrations are desperately self-defeating. They are attempts to feel something where we feel only numb or dead or fundamentally disconnected. They are rooted in false ideas about sin and grace and an extreme separation from the wisdom of moderation.
So the small things that ‘we do for Lent’ have a good influence on awakening fundamental values we need to recover. A balanced life, for example, is essential for good human development. But it cannot be sustained without asceticism, the moderate effort we make to stay in touch with our essential goodness and separate true desires from false ones. When John Main, speaking about meditation as ‘pure prayer’, said that the essential asceticism of the Christian life is prayer, he was delivering an insight of great value for modern culture that brings immense relief to those who see what it means.