The Necessity for Renunciation

In our society today renunciation has become almost a dirty word. This is largely because renunciation embodies a spiritual attitude that stands in direct opposition to the egocentric values of the materialist worldview which has dominated our western culture for the last two hundred years. From the beginning, apologists for materialism have been tireless in denouncing spiritual renunciation as "world-denying," "life-negating," and even "pathological." What's more, these condemnations have recently been picked up and parroted by many prophets of the so-called "New Age." While rightly preaching the necessity for a spiritual renewal, these pundits nevertheless warn against reverting to any of the renunciate traditions of the past. Instead, they urge us to "integrate" mystical insights with worldly concerns.

Bombarded by such a barrage of anti-renunciate propaganda, it is no wonder then, that even serious spiritual seekers can be turned off by the mere mention of the word. This, however, is highly unfortunate, because, as one of the great mystics of our own time, Simone Weil, said: "To long for God and to renounce all the rest, that alone can save us." [1]

The fact is, renunciation has always been, and always will be, indispensable to any genuine spiritual quest. Consequently, it is important that we try to clear up some of the confusion and dispel some of the fear that has come to surround this term.

First, in reply to the materialists, renunciation can, indeed, be described as "world-denying," and even "life-negating"—but only if by "world" we mean a universe of independently existing objects; and if by "life," we mean the experience of being a separate, individual I, ego, or self. The reason why such a "world" and such a "life" must be renounced is that, according to the mystics, both are delusions. The great Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote:


We and our existences are non-existences. ...The worldly man imagines that a nonexistent thing possesses splendor. Oh friend, why would a wise man devote his life to the work of non-existence? [2]

Why, indeed? Especially when there is an alternative, attested to by all mystical traditions, which is to Awaken to the Real World and the True Life—called variously "God," "Allah," "Atman," "Tao," "Buddha-Mind," or, as we say, "Consciousness Itself." Thus, what must be renounced on a spiritual path is only an imaginary 'world' inhabited by a fictional 'self'.

Once we clearly understand this, we can also understand why all talk of "integrating" worldly concerns with mystical insights is self-contradictory. The fact is that Gnosis destroys the very 'world' we are supposed to integrate our insights with. Rumi also writes, "when wakefulness...prevails, this world is laid flat." [3] Or, as the Buddhist Lankavatara Sutra puts it: "For the wise all 'things' are wiped away." [4]

What materialists find inconceivable then, (and New Age thinkers fail to comprehend) is that the mystical path calls for something far more radical than a mere revision of our ordinary fragmented way of perceiving things. Rather it calls for a complete revolution in Consciousness—a revolution which abolishes this perception altogether and, in its stead, reveals a Unity that both underlies and transcends all apparent distinctions. And yet, because these two modes of perception—the fragmented and unified-are mutually exclusive, before this revolution can take place our experience of being some separate 'self' existing in a world of individual objects must be thoroughly rejected and abandoned. And this is just what spiritual renunciation is designed to bring about.

The most dramatic way to begin a practice of renunciation is to become what we might call an external renunciate—that is, a monk, nun, or wandering mendicant, who has renounced all worldly possessions and disengaged from all normal social relations. The advantage to undertaking this kind of practice is that it provides a powerful "crash course" in detachment and surrender—two of the most fundamental principles of the path. Yet external renunciation is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for attaining Gnosis. This is why, when asked by his followers whether they should "go into the forest" (i.e., become external renunciates) the contemporary Hindu sage, Ramana Maharshi (himself an extreme external renunciate) responded by saying:


The ego is the source of thought...It is no help to change the environment. The one obstacle is the mind; it must be got over whether in the home or in the forest. If you can do it in the forest, why not in the home? Therefore, why change environments? [5]

In other words, genuine renunciation is an inner operation which must be performed whether one becomes an external renunciate or continues as an ordinary householder. The reason, as Ramana Maharshi indicates, is that our real problem lies not in the outer conditions of our lives, but in the deluded thoughts produced by our own egos. More specifically, it is that we take what our egos tell us about ourselves and the world to be true. Inner renunciation then, begins with a rejection of those internal messages and commands that come from the ego and are predicated on a false perception of 'self' and 'world'. [6]

Before you can renounce such thoughts, however, you must first learn to hear them (i.e., be aware of them). This is more difficult than it sounds because normally our thoughts come so rapidly, and our obedience to them is so habitual, that most of the time we are quite unaware of what is happening. The first step then, is to cultivate an awareness or mindfulness of your own internal thought-processes. The simplest way to do this is to take up a meditation practice.

As you sit down to meditate you issue yourself a single command designed to override all others: "Be still, and concentrate on one object!" In effect, you are "going on strike" against the ego, refusing to obey any of its commands. This causes the ego to become more insistent, which, in turn, gives you a chance to observe its messages more clearly: "Scratch that itch!" "Move that leg!" "Gee, this is boring." "Why don't you sneak a look at the clock." "Oh God, ten more minutes to go!" "Meditation is a waste of time: give it up!" But if you are firm in renouncing such commands, and continue to practice in a disciplined manner, eventually you will learn to hear the ego's thoughts even in the midst of the hustle and bustle of everyday life. This is the beginning of true freedom, for it is only by becoming mindful of your thoughts that you are free to choose whether or not to act on them.

Another way to begin practicing renunciation is through morality. In adopting moral precepts you give yourself a whole series of commands to be used in countering the ego's as they arise in specific situations—especially those situations in which what the ego wants is likely to harm others. If, for example, you have vowed not to take what does not belong to you, then as soon as you hear your ego saying something like: "Wow, look at this! The grocery clerk gave me a twenty dollar bill instead of a ten in change. I should keep this money because, after all, this store is owned by a big corporation and they'll never miss it"—you will remember your vow and so can choose to reject such a self-serving rationalization.

The more you check your habitual egoic behavior, the more you will see how much of your life is conditioned by selfish desires and aversions. Under the delusion that we are separate beings inhabiting a world of external objects, it seems the only way to attain happiness is to acquire the things we like and avoid the things we don't like. Far from bringing us true happiness, however, this strategy actually increases our suffering, because the 'things' we try to acquire or avoid are, in reality, as impermanent as mirages. This is why Jesus cautioned us not to set our hearts on the treasures of this world, which "moths eat and rust corrupts," and why the Hindu saint, Anandamayi Ma, warned:


Everything in this world is transitory. So also worldly happiness: it comes and the next moment it is gone. If permanent, abiding happiness is to be found, That which is eternal will have to be realized. [7]

Even when we are able to hang onto some particular object for a time, this only creates an attachment, and becoming attached to anything, only sets us up for greater frustration, anguish, or grief when we lose it. Consequently, the more we can renounce actions based on our self-centered likes and dislikes, the more we can free ourselves from attachments and the whole syndrome of suffering they cause.

But just as we are not fully aware of our thought processes, so we are usually not fully aware of our attachments, or the power they have to bind us. The best way to become mindful of attachments is to vow to renounce for a time some object or activity around which you suspect an attachment has been formed. Since different people become attached to different things, these kinds of renunciate vows should be "customized" to suit your individual personality. If you are indifferent to food, for instance, there is little point in fasting. On the other hand, if your happiness seems to depend on the quantity or quality of the things you eat, then adopting some form of dietary discipline can be highly instructive.

A common mistake beginners often make when undertaking specific renunciate vows is to confuse them with New Year's style resolutions. For one thing, spiritual renunciation is not something that can be brought about all at once by a single act of will. Rather, as in the case of meditation and morality, renunciate vows must be practiced over a period of time. Nor are such vows designed to make you into a "better person." Their real purpose is to provide opportunities for gaining insight into your own ego and how it functions. Thus, even when you fail to live up to some particular vow, there is much to learn about the compulsive nature of your desires and attachments, and how ephemeral the satisfactions gained from fulfilling them actually are. For this reason, renunciate vows should not be undertaken as some kind of duty, but in the spirit of a scientific experiment designed to show you something about yourself. A good way to begin a vow is to ask yourself, "What would happen if I gave up this thing or that activity for six months?"

Those who persevere in renunciate practices will eventually be convinced that trying to satisfy worldly desires is ultimately futile. This is not something that can be decided intellectually, but must be seen directly in one's experience. Then, when the full force of this insight strikes home, it leads to what we might call a categorical renunciation of any hope of finding happiness in worldly things. Although worldly desires continue to arise and worldly attachments persist, the seeker no longer takes any pleasure in them. On the contrary, activities prompted by these impulses will seem increasingly mechanical and barren, plunging the seeker into what St. John of the Cross called a "dark night of the soul," and which others have described as a "desert experience," and a "wasteland." Here, the things of this world lose their savor, while the Way to the Real World is still largely concealed. Consequently the seeker often feels isolated and lost.

But no matter how painful or desolate this spiritual night may seem, passage through it actually represents a major turning point on the path. Indeed, if the night is dark enough, it forever secures the seeker against backsliding into a worldly life, for the simple reason that he or she now sees clearly there is nothing in that world or life worth going back to. [8]

To those who have not arrived at this stage, renouncing all hope for worldly happiness may seem downright morbid. But this is because they are still slaves to their own desires and aversions and so cannot envision any other motive for acting. "Why would anyone do anything," they ask, "if not to get what they like and escape what they dislike?"

The answer, given by the mystics of all traditions, is really quite simple: One acts out of love and compassion for others. In Tibetan Buddhism this is called cultivating bodhicitta, the mind of awakening. Here is how Bokar Rinpoche describes it:


The person living in the mind of awakening wishes to take on others' suffering, and to give them happiness in exchange. Egocentric vision is abandoned. The only remaining thought is for the benefit of others and love directed towards them. [9]

Actually, love and compassion are always present because they are inherent in the very nature of the mind of awakening (or Consciousness Itself). However, we cannot access their full power as long as we cling to our own selfish desires and attachments when dealing with other people. Practicing renunciation of our own self-interest in all our relationships is what dissolves these barriers and allows love and compassion to start streaming unhindered into our lives. This is why St. Teresa of Avila told her Carmelite nuns:


You must do violence to your own will, so that your sister's will is done in everything, even though this may cause you to forgo your own rights and forget your own good in your concern for theirs. [10]

It is at this point that the path gets particularly steep and the fainthearted turn back, fearing that what lies ahead is only misery and martyrdom. How mistaken they are and how sad for them, because they will never have a chance to discover what another, little known mystic found out through his own experience doing precisely these kinds of practices:


All these disciplines, renunciations, and services which the Holy Ones perform and which others admire so much because they imagine them to be difficult and austere are in reality joys and privileges to the performers. This is one of the great sacred Secrets, and it will always be a secret, no matter how many people give it away, because no one will ever believe it who has not tried it. [11]

Moreover, if you do make it over this hump, you will find that the path becomes increasingly illumined by miraculous graces and glimpses of the Divine. For as the boundaries of' self are weakened and dissolved through love and compassion, so, too, are the boundaries that divide up the rest of this world, rendering it ever more transparent to the Real World, whose Radiance can now begin to shine through. When this happens, rocks will no longer be simply rocks, but occasions for wonder and delight. Trees will no longer be merely trees, but signs and symbols marking the Way Home. People will no longer be just people, but each one will appear as an ambassador from God, bearing sacred teachings of inestimable value.

Even your attitude towards renunciation itself, will be transformed. Instead of vi ewing it as a harsh and burdensome discipline, you will be eager to intensify its practice, so that you can uncover even subtler desires, more hidden fears, and deeper attachments. And, indeed, the more you practice, the more you will be stripped of these egoic veils, like a snake shedding its skin, until at last you will have only one desire left—to attain that Gnostic Awakening which abolishes suffering once and for all.

But then, at some point along the way, it will occur to you that, if all selfish desires are to be renounced and abandoned, this must also include the desire for Gnosis. As the Tibetan master, Lama Lodo, observes: "If anyone says 'I' am going to achieve enlightenment, this [very] grasping prevents him from reaching a non-dual state." [12]

This insight brings you face-to-face with the final act of renunciation required by a spiritual path-sometimes called the Great Renunciation—which is to surrender, not only all hope for worldly happiness, but also the desire for Gnosis and the hope for ultimate spiritual happiness which it holds. But because the desire for Gnosis will have by now become entrenched in the very center of your soul, the demand to surrender it will be tantamount to a demand to annihilate yourself completely. And yet, as you soon discover, self-annihilation can never be accomplished by any effort on your part, for as long as you are making an effort, 'you' will still be there. So what can you do?

The answer is: literally nothing.

But if, in the meantime you have really renounced and abandoned every other desire and attachment-whether for worldly pleasures or spiritual consolations—then, by the time you reach this stage all your bridges will be burned. Thus, although there will be no way to move forward, neither will there be any way to turn back. You will have no choice but to remain right where you are. This is Kenosis (emptiness), the last stage of the path, the gateway to Gnosis. Here, is how Ramana Maharshi describes it:


Sadhanas [practices] are needed so long as one has not realized it. They are for putting an end to obstacles. Finally there comes a stage when a person feels helpless notwithstanding the sadhanas. He is unable to pursue the much-cherished sadhana also. It is then that God's power is realized. The Self [Atman] reveals itself.

In other words, when there is nothing more for the ego to do, it disappears, like the circle of light which disappears when you stop whirling your sparkler on the night of the Fourth of July, and you realize there never was any real circle there to begin with. It was simply an illusion, created by your own activity. And when this activity ceases, the illusion vanishes of itself and the reality is seen. And so it is with the ego. When it vanishes, Gnosis dawns: all things are "wiped away" and "this world is laid flat," along with the 'self' which seemed to inhabit it.

In one sense, then, we can see that the whole effort at spiritual renunciation is, from the beginning, doomed to failure; and we can also see why. Ultimately, it is impossible to renounce yourself and the world because no such 'self' or 'world' really exists—which, of course, is precisely what must be Realized. And yet, in another sense, renunciation in all its forms—starting with the simple refusal to scratch an itch, and ending in the quandary posed by the Great Renunciation—is indispensable to the spiritual path. It is the thread upon which all the practices are strung. And it is by pushing these practices to the limit that all desires, all effort, and all will—that is, everything we imagine constitutes our separate selves—are finally exhausted. Thus, by engaging in a total effort to renounce self and world, the seeker fails totally; and yet, paradoxically, it is only by failing totally that the seeker can succeed.

Having said this, however, it must be admitted that there is still another sense in which spiritual seekers are not renunciates at all. The ones who are the true renunciates are those most dedicated to pursuing worldly things, and most zealous in trying to satisfy their worldly desires. As Anandamayi Ma says to such people:


You all are relinquishing the highest Bliss and thus you actually are the renunciates! By abstaining from the Supreme you have become supreme renunciates. [13]

May all of you be spared this Supreme Form of Renunciation!


 - Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Fall 1995. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.

1. Simone Weil, Waiting For God, trans. Emma Craufurd (1951; reprint, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973), 196.
2. William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1983),24. 3. Ibid., 59.
4. A Buddhist Bible, ed. Dwight Goddard, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), 302.
5. Ramana Maharshi, The Spiritual Teachings of Raman a Maharshi (Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 1972), 49.
6. In fact, the word "renunciation" comes from a Latin root which literally means to reject (re) what has been announced (nuntiare).
7. Anandamayi Ma, Matri Vani: Vol. II, 2nd ed. (Calcutta: Shree ShreeAnandamayee Charitable Society, 1982),56-57.
8. In actual practice, most seekers go through several less intense dark nights before the stage of categorical renunciation is reached.
9. Bokar Rinpoche, Death and the Art of Dying in Tibetan Buddhism, French trans. Francois Jacquemart, English trans. Christiane Buchet, ed. Jennifer Pessereau (San Francisco: Clear Point Press, 1993), 77.
10. St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, trans. E. Allison Peers (New York: Image Books, a division of Doubleday, 1961), 117—Needless to say this does not apply when someone's will is directed toward harming themselves or others.
11. Joel, Naked Through the Gate, (Eugene, OR: Center for Sacred Sciences, 1985), 224225.
12. Venerable Lama Lodo, Bardo Teachings: The Way of Death and Rebirth, red. ed. (San Francisco: KDK, 1982). 57.
13. Anandamayi Ma, Matri Vani: Vol II, 127.

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