Forget flagellating oneself with birch twigs, maintaining yogic contortions for hours in the midday heat or even going without sex – asceticism 21st century-style is more of a trendy lifestyle choice than any hardcore spiritual endeavour.
From forgoing your morning latte to staycationing, there has never been a better moment to smugly declare your freedom from worldly indulgences. Beyond abstaining from such experiential treats, however, the greatest source of moral superiority for the modern ascetic is the ability to do without too many things.
You simply don't need all that stuff in your life, I'm often told. Decluttering your home is the first step on the path to liberating your mind. The fewer your physical possessions, the richer your spiritual life. It does sound good.
My own attachment to things has always been accompanied, though in no way eroded, by guilt. I am an inexcusably terrible hoarder. Binning or losing anything distresses me to the extent that I once spent the best part of a weekend break retracing my steps in a labyrinthine Madrid neighbourhood looking for a necklace I had lost there on the first night, to the disdain of my more phlegmatic companion. I barely saw Madrid but I found it in the end, so who had the last laugh there, eh?
At best, this might be considered over-sentimentality. At worst, proof of my materialism – now a dirtier word than ever. Our obsession with buying, owning, accumulating, is bemoaned as one of the great social ills of the day. But while there is nothing obviously good about mindless consumerism (or my hoarding of junk, for that matter), is it really so bad to care about the objects we choose to live with?
Last weekend, I visited my grandmother's flat for the last time. When she moved into a residential home recently, she took with her as many of her things as she was allowed – which turned out to be not much, beyond some framed photos.
I have cleared out homes of late relatives before, but there was something much sadder about dispersing the possessions of someone who is still around to enjoy them. I'm not convinced that her characterless new accommodation is better for her soul than a home full of lovingly collected objects and furniture.
When we die, the things we own and cherish return to being just things. But while we maintain that relationship with them, they are something else entirely, that can add to the emotional quality of our lives. No, you can't take them with you, but that's precisely why you should enjoy them wholeheartedly while you're here.