“A sacrifice to be real must cost, must hurt, and must empty ourselves,” Mother Theresa taught. My view is different. I agree with Mother Theresa that through sacrifice, and with the help of God (we might use a different name — Odin, Buddha, the Tao, etc.), the individual will be able to “accomplish great things.” But is pain an essential aspect of, or even helpful to, making the act sacred or spiritual? I don’t believe it is.
We hear a more neutral take on sacrifice from Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, who, in regard to the Islamic injunction against eating pork says that, “it’s a partial fast… We fast from some kinds of food throughout our lives [as a religious act of resisting some temptations].” He points out, in essence, that to refrain from enjoying certain things is a spiritual act.
Within Islam what must be given up, or what is prohibited (haram) is clearly understood — pork, bacon, and alcohol being among the better-known examples. But we, too, may need to give up certain things that have become habits — especially destructive habits, which can take root — in our lives.
Identifying With the Lower Self:
All of us wrestle with temptations or addictions, large or small. It is easy to slip into eating junk food, or food that is filled with sugar, or to depend on coffee for energy, or to become dependent on alcohol for socializing. Peculiarly, we often come to associate ourselves with our cravings and addictions — we begin to see ourselves as the person who loves sugary food more than others, or that needs coffee more than anyone else to get going in the morning, or that gets more drunk than our friends. We can even take pride in the addictions that are hurting us.
It’s hard to quit things that we enjoy, even if they are bad for us. But it’s even harder if our addictions have become the basis of our identity.
Becoming part of our routine — drinking coffee in the morning to wake up, getting drunk at night or on the weekends, etc. — our addictions tell us who we are, and make sense of the mundane and mediocre in our lives. Our addictions justify all the monotony. (How many times have you heard someone say that they “live for the weekends”?)
Addictions give us something to look forward to, and, as such, they give us an orientation in life. But that orientation is always downward, toward the mundane. Addictions are, in effect, sparkling, golden, shackles that keep us bound to the lower self and the lifestyle of the lower self.
A New Orientation:
Quitting an addiction is far easier when we see it as part of our own self-development or spiritual path — when we see it, in other words, as a sacrifice to something higher.
To give up what is bad for us we have to find a different, higher orientation. We have to have a vision of ourselves as something more than we are now — healthier (and, with that, more attractive), stronger, more intelligent or learned on a particular subject of interest, an artist, a creator, a better speaker, as someone who can inspire and who is in some way heroic (and that goes for men and women).
We have to start now. You almost certainly won’t be able to give up all or any of your addictions on day one. But if you start working toward becoming all you can be, and if you persist, eventually you will want to give them up. Start small, but persist, refining your processes, cutting out more of what is bad for you as you go.
For those who are working on self-improvement, there is a simple technique to quitting the unhealthy and the negative in our lives. Simply, recall the higher Self that you are working toward becoming. When you are faced with one of your addictions or temptations, think about how it will affect your journey toward the higher Self. Will it set you back? Is this an opportunity to show your resolve (if only to yourself), to show that you have what it takes, by refusing it?
Put the lower self in its place and take the position of the higher Self. Instead of enjoying the momentary pleasure of junk food, remind yourself that if you cut it out you will enjoy the longer-lasting pleasure of a healthier body, and that it will enable you to do things that are more important, such as work out, run, hike, practice a martial art, or do Yoga, etc.
If you’re quitting alcohol, you can think of how, with a clear head, you will be able to go home to meditate, lift weights, read, create music, make love, etc. Instead of enjoying lightheadedness or loss of control (if the latter is actually enjoyable at all) from alcohol, you will enjoy being fully conscious and practicing your routine, disciplines, or “Way.”
With every temptation, we can remind ourselves that by giving up the addictive, the damaging, the materialistic, etc., we are getting something better. We are setting ourselves on ever high paths, and, whether intended or not, moving ever-nearer to the Divine — the gods, the Tao, etc. — both within us and outside of us. If we keep doing this, soon what seemed irresistible will appear as unappealing, and what seemed impossible will appear achievable.
Sacrificing to The Higher Self:
When Mother Theresa says that a sacrifice must “empty ourselves,” she is talking of subduing or destroying the ego (the “I” or sense of “self”). I don’t want to contradict this age-old teaching, necessarily, but, just as focusing on what we are giving up (coffee, junk food, alcohol, etc.) makes those things more tempting, and gives those things more power over us, so focusing on getting rid of the ego only makes it more unmanageable.
We need to get rid of arrogance, yes. (Arrogance is the facade of confidence used by those who don’t believe they can really do what they say.) But we need a certain amount of “ego” just to get up in the morning.
Like food, the ego has to be kept within proper limits. We want to eat healthy food, and, even then, not so much or so little that we become sick. Likewise, we don’t want such a big ego that we cannot learn anything new, or cannot admit when we are wrong, etc. Nor do we want such a tiny ego that people can walk all over us — this is not a spiritual attitude; indeed, since it encourages anti-spiritual behavior (if only towards us), it is anti-spiritual.
As with the smaller sacrifices we’ve mentioned, in order to subdue the ego we have to focus on something else, especially on learning something new, where we are forced to put our own opinions aside temporarily and respect the teacher and the art or skill we are learning. This, too, should be seen as part of one’s overall development.
Sacrifices don’t have to hurt. And at a certain level, they probably shouldn’t. Indeed, to make the necessary changes we have to cease thinking of what we are giving up and focus on what we are gaining. We have to choose, and realize that we are choosing, health over sickness, attractiveness over ugliness, strength over weakness, intelligence and wisdom over stupidity.
True sacrifice isn’t about wallowing in spiritual masochism. It isn’t about obediently accepting whatever happens to us. It is about disobedience to a world, and to temptations, that would drag us down. It is saying no to mediocrity and yes to the Divine, to the gods, to the heroic, to strength and beauty. It is about sacrificing to our higher Self — to our image of the higher Self; to the higher Self that we are making ourselves into and becoming.