With renunciation, life begins.
—Amelia Barr, All the Days of My Life
Where compassion is the wish that others not suffer, renunciation is the wish that I not suffer. What causes me to suffer? Wanting. Renunciation, then, means not so much giving up things, desires, or a way of life, but giving up desiring itself. But to do so is not so easy.
One way is to live with few wants or needs. When the pattern of wanting is not constantly stimulated by life circumstances, the mind becomes calm and clear, and in that clarity you find freedom from wanting. Such, in essence, is the monastic way: external renunciation creates an internal environment that leads to freedom.
Most of us, however, live in circumstances that constantly stimulate desire: desire for security, desire for emotional fulfillment, and desire for identity. We need an internal approach to renunciation, and for that we need to understand the nature of these desires.
One way we seek to satisfy the desire for security is by having—having a job, a bank account, a house, good looks, and so on. Yet a violent storm, a car accident, or an upheaval in the financial markets can eliminate in a moment what we regard as “mine.” The fact of death shows us that even our life isn’t ours.
As for emotional fulfillment, who hasn’t felt a sense of disappointment, perhaps betrayal, in a close relationship when we see that our partner does not (and cannot) give us what we yearn for so deeply? The themes of love and disappointment that have inspired art, from Greek tragedies to modern pop songs, give eloquent testimony to the difficulty of satisfying emotional needs.
Identity, too, is an ephemeral goal. Our star-studded culture pushes each of us to find out who we are and to take pride in being a unique entity. The sense of self, however, is a shaky ship. The more solid the identity, the more we feel a need to defend it. Even at the height of success, many of us experience a restlessness, a dissatisfaction, a need to do more, earn more, own more, or receive more recognition. It’s as if a small voice still whispers, “I don’t know who I am,” and drives us relentlessly on.
Why do we pursue these desires if they cannot be satisfied? The mechanism of desire is based on a belief: I am incomplete as I am now. Desire is misdirected yearning that tries to correct the imbalance created by that belief. The belief, in turn, is based on a misperception: I am separate from what I experience. We reach out to the world of experience, identify objects that sing the siren song of completion, and strive to get them.
Renunciation begins with the recognition that these ventures cannot succeed: we are going to die, our emotional needs will never be met, and being “somebody” separates us from the world. Such recognition may be painful initially, yet it contains three keys that open the doors to freedom.
The first key is to stop seeking security. Time and again I have seen students relax and open to the fullness of life when they understand and accept that there is no security and that they are going to die. They stop being obsessed with the look and feel of their bodies, the size of their bank accounts, or how they are going to survive. They let go of accepted criteria for success and failure and do what really interests them.
Everything in life comes and goes like apparitions in a dream. Right now, take any object you “own”: a flower, a book, a jacket, or a car. Look at it and know that you will experience this object for only a limited time, for a few hours, days, months, or years. Either it or you will fade, crumble, or die. When you forget this and take the object as something that is yours, you can’t enjoy it for what it is. When you remember that you don’t really own it, you are free to enjoy it while it is part of your life.
The second key is to let go of expectations for emotional fulfillment. Personal relationships are always a challenge, and I have consistently found that when I stop wanting other people—friends, family members, or colleagues—to be who I want them to be for me, and accept them for who they are, things just go more easily, and relationships are clearer and richer.
For most of us, emotional needs are laid down early in life. They are solidified reactions to the disappointments encountered in growing up. And as adults, we spend our lives trying to get what we never got as children. But the past is past. You cannot go back. When you accept the resonance of these disappointments moment by moment and don’t try to avoid them, you discover a freedom to enjoy love, affection, and companionship, even though it doesn’t correspond precisely to what you (mistakenly) feel you need.
The third key is to know the groundlessness of experience itself: no one to be, nowhere to go. One student, who manages the legal department in a company, was concerned with how his employees perceived him and whether they were loyal to him. When he let go of those concerns and directed his energy into providing them with the resources they needed to work effectively, his department became a happier place to work, for everyone. Instead of trying to be someone, whether in your own eyes or in the eyes of another, recognize that you are not a thing, not an entity. What you are is a field of open, empty awareness and experience, like the sky and rainbows that appear in it. Without the burden of identity, you are free to respond naturally and appropriately to any situation you encounter.
“Well. That’s all fine,” you may say, “but how do I actually move from desire to renunciation?” You practice internal renunciation by moving into the experience of desire, instead of trying to fulfill or suppress it.
Pick something you want: a physical object, a relationship, or some form of recognition. Let the feeling of desire arise. Experience how it arises in your body, feel all the emotions it triggers, and let all the stories it tells just be there. Don’t be distracted. Don’t try to control the experience. Don’t work at anything. If you discover another level of yearning, move into that. When you move into the desire completely, a shift takes place and you know it as just an arising in experience. Now look at the object of your desire again. What has changed?
By going into the experience of desire itself, rather than acting on it, you let go of the belief that you are incomplete. The energy of desire ceases to dictate behavior and, instead, fuels presence: being completely in the experience of what is, internally and externally.
The chains of desire pull us into a life of frustration and suffering, while renunciation cuts those chains. Renunciation, though often understood to mean “giving up,” is, more accurately, the willingness to experience things as they are, not as we want them to be. Here you discover true freedom, the deep, quiet joy that has always been present in you.
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