Friday, March 02, 2007

More on Renunciation

A friend and I were talking by phone last week. He had read my last post. He asked me if I was getting ready to renounce and abandon my family, move to Tibet, and live in a cave, all in pursuit of greater Truth. (I capitalized it in my mind when he said it.)

I laughed. I restated the point by Maharajji: if we are attached to anything more than to truth, then we compromise truth in favor of our attachment. He remained unpersuaded.

Renunciation has a remarkably bad reputation in 21st century America.

Two or three further thoughts along these lines, the first: I read this, this past weekend, by Lama Surya Das:

Last night across the globe, millions of new parents were awakened by the sound of a crying baby. Around the world, these parents responded by groaning as theystood up and made their way to the baby's crib in order to do what had to be done. All of these parents were renouncing, giving up, or letting go of their much needed sleep because they cared more about the well-being of a little child. The child's needs were more important than their own. Their parental love was stronger than their attachment to their own sleep.

Renunciation, an important and recurring spiritual theme, is not that complicated to understand. Renunciation means sacrificing or giving up something that seems important at that moment in favor of something that we know ultimately has more meaning. Each time we do this, we are making a spiritual choice -- a decision to go withthe bigger picture. ...

A spiritual journey almost inevitably begins with a decision to renounce a certain way of life. But that decision is less about changing your environment or letting go of people and things than it is about transforming your inner being -- learning the inner meaning of letting go and letting be in order to find wise naturalness and authentic simplicity.

I think it's important that we don't make the mistake of thinking that Buddhism or other genuine spiritual paths encourage us to walk away from responsibilities, friends, or families. Spiritual renunciation goes much deeper than any such external symbolic gesture. Kabir, the fifteenth century Indian poet-saint, said that he didn't wish to simply dye his clothes the saffron color of a holy order; he said he wished to dye his heart with divine love.

From Awakening to the Sacred: Creating a Personal Spiritual Life, Broadway Books, NY: 1999, pp. 31-34, passim

Then, along the same lines, Ram Dass, from Be Here Now:

You may think of renunciation in terms of some external act like a New Year's resolution, or leaving family and friends to go off to a cave. But renunciationis much more subtle than that -- and much harder -- and much more continuing. On the spiritual journey, renunciation means nonattachment. To become free of attachment means to break the link identifying you with your desires. The desires continue: They are part of the dance of nature. But a renunciate no longer thinks that he is his desires.

Be Here Now, The Lama Foundation, 1971

Finally, (also) from Ram Dass, and the point I want to explore more deeply:

When I was in India, Maharajji said to me one day, "Nobody does hatha yoga anymore." I was surprised; I said, "No? But it's very big in America, Mahrajji." He said, "No, nobody does it anymore, because hatha yoga assumes that you've already finishsed with the first two practices of yama and niyama, and nobody does any of that now.'"

So there are eight sequential steps in the practice of ashtanga yoga, and we can see that it's the first step, yama, that has to do with the practice of renunciation. Think about it: We imagine we're so spiritually advanced because we're considering becoming renunciates, and we discovery that it's the very first rung on the ladder. We're just beginners!

Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, Harmony Books, NYC: 2004, p. 137.

From this statement, Dass remarks on the different kinds of renunciation associated with the path of yoga as it is articulated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. I chuckled as I read Maharjji's view of yoga. Perhaps because he was hanging out with the likes of Ram Dass in the 1960s, but Maharajji was mistaken. There are those, even in America, even today, who practice in some degree or another the yama-ic renunciations Maharajji looked for in vain: ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (chastity), and aparigraha (letting go).

Devout Mormons do. So, too, do devout Baptists, and devout Adventists, devout Muslims and devout Catholics. At least, they do to with respect to some of them, and to some degree. Those traditions (and others, I'm sure) ask a lot of their followers. Mormonism is the tradition I know best, so I focus on it here.

Within Mormonism, this observation is often repeated: "A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation." Of course, although the idea of renunciation and self-sacrifice is preached in Mormonism, it is seldom followed to the farthest extremes of its internal logic. Still, the teachings are more than just gilded ideals carved into architecture that never penetrate human minds and flesh.

For participation in the Mormon temple rituals, which the LDS Church teaches are essential for living with God after mortality, searching worthiness interviews by an ecclesiastical leader are required. Among the standard questions:

  • Do you abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea?
  • Do you live the law of chastity (for unmarried persons, this is complete chastity, for married people, it's sex only with one's spouse)?
  • Are you honest in your dealings with others?
  • Do you pay a full tithe?
  • Do you fulfill any child support obligations?

The standard questions also include belief elements. Curiously, Mormons are sometimes best known for the strictness of their lifestyles, which, at 45 years of age, I find pretty easy to live by.

It is the belief criteria that disqualify me -- ultimately because of renunciation.

During my life, one of the things that I have held to most tightly, despite the pain that clutching has caused, have been orthodox beliefs.

I held to them when my experience suggested the beliefs were not correct. I held to them when my heart told me they were harming some whom I loved. I held to them when my mind told me that they were improbable. I held to them when every part of my mind and body told me of a world that did not conform to those beliefs. So why do I no longer hold them?

Maybe I'd have arrived at this level of renunciation eventually, anyway, but I got here because as I practiced hatha yoga (including the moral principles, that Mormonism so nicely instilled in me, and even though Maharajji said no one did those things), I began to have the experiences of hatha yoga -- the perception of complete Union with others, the perception of prana (energy), flowing through my body, the discovery of an "inside" to my mind, the discovery of meditation, finding other planes of consciousness.

My orthodox Mormon beliefs taught me (blessedly and paradoxically), that after all the mediation of scripture and leaders and authority, the fundamental way to discover truth is to experience it, and to prefer those experiences to any authoritarian statement to the contrary. My experiences in yoga and meditation were inconsistent with those tightly held orthodox beliefs. So, in the end, I let go of those beliefs.

Was that renunciation? Sure. But it was renunciation of the sort Surya Das describes with parents tending to a crying baby, rather than the, "I need to find a way to suffer, so that cave in Tibet is the right path for me." I hold no illusions about the pain that my renunciation has caused my loved ones. If I could find a way to truth that didn't entail that pain, I like to think I'd have taken it.

From the perspective of having let go, I'm beginning to think that intellectually defending a position that my heart disbelieved required me to look less to my heart for guidance, and that, in turn, made me more emotionally ignorant, less intuitively intelligent, than I have found I can be since I abandoned that effort.

Still, I don't want to suggest that I don't feel the pain of loss from what I have given up.

This past weekend, a confluence of events split open the wounds that I thought had begun to heal. I found myself wanting, desiring, wishing to believe. But when I looked, I found that I still didn't. I was frustrated. Unhappy. It wasn't fair.

Then, in meditation on Tuesday morning, I had a brief perception of the energy of the universe, and that it composed me, and flows through me and is me. And I was fundamentally contingent and a precious and ordinary conscious stage of the energy's flow, and -- therefore -- empty, all without denying my ability to choose and exist and be, for a time. And though I can't articulate a rationale reason why, that perception alleviated all the strife. It didn't make the pain go away, but it stopped the suffering.

And I realized that my desire to return to the belief context that I've stepped away from was the desire of a person who's just awakened and climbed out of a warm bed, looking back and wondering whether being awake is really better than slumber.