The famous dictionary publisher, Merriam-Websterassessed the mood of 2010 by announcing their word of the year—Austerity. Determined by the frequency of searches on Merriam-Webster.com and by the numinous instincts of a million online queries, the “A” word with the 14th century pedigree triumphed over the less dramatic but practical number two word— pragmatic.
Meditate on anything long enough and an amazing dimension of truth and meaning opens beneath the surface of the object, and so it goes with the word austerity.
Emerging in common parlance during the time of The Black Death, when the word was no doubt put to efficient use, austerity merges its ancient Latin roots austerus, meaning dry, harsh, sour and tart with the Greek austeros with its similar meaning of bitter and harsh. Austerity is also related to auos, meaning “to dry.”
In ancient times, austerus and austeros described the drying process in food preservation, the preparation, dehydration and processing of fruit necessary for olives and wine making. The ancient roots of the word austerity reflect a time before, canning, refrigerators and freezers where important preparations were necessary to survive winter with your wits intact (thus, the wine making). Austerity reflects the sophisticated application of human wisdom in the form of science and chemistry, to the often-tricky challenge of survival.
Around the time of the plague, the use of austerity in everyday language became figurative, as the principles of food preservation were applied to human nature, culture and law. Austerity came to mean enforced or extreme economy, both emotional and physical, stern and severe simplicity and extreme asceticism. Austerity could be foisted on an individual or population through external circumstances or taken on as a personal discipline.
Austerity has come to mean living frugally, minimally without the trappings of luxury.
In yoga, the term Tapas is related to the principle of Austerity. The Sanskrit root of Tapas (tápasya) literally means “heat,” similar to the concept of “drying,” to break something down to its essence. In practicing Tapas, we take on heat and discomfort in order to cleanse the mind and spirit, drying up physical impurities. Tapas is a form of austerity and asceticism to prepare the soul for enlightenment. Great teachers like Jesus of Nazareth and Siddhartha Gautama used Tapas to gain spiritual insight. Both of these teachers went into the wilderness without food or water to meditate and were gifted with extraordinary visions that changed the world.
One of the ironic wonders of Tapas is that as we build up tolerance for heat and discomfort, patience, peace and balance expand within the body and mind. As we strip away unnecessary food, entertainment and distractions, we come back to our true roots, a sense of unity with all beings. What we actually need, verses transitory desires becomes apparent; we need spiritual nourishment, a generous heart, strength of intellect, freedom, space, simplicity, and devotion to a cause that benefits all living beings. Through this process of stripping ourselves down to the essentials, we discover what is truly nourishing and find the strength to speak truth to power.
Another more obscure thread in the etymology of austerity is Aurora, the ancient Roman goddess of the dawn who shares a similar Greek root Auein, which means to “dry kindle,” and is related to the Indo-European root Aus, “to shine.” Aurora was the herald of the light, associated with heat, igniting dawn and awakening. The heat and austerity of Tapas purifies the soul, burning away that which is unnecessary so we can enter into a perfected state.
In Yoga we practice Tapas breath by breath, holding Asanas slightly longer until we build the strength needed for our transformation. Austerity in our lives can be a spiritual practice. As we apply strength and patience, we find that true abundance resides in the open space of the mind— the ground of all creation, pure potential and endless possibilities.