In eastern monastic traditions there is a lot of talk of “renunciation”. One who enters a monastery, it is said, renounces the outwardly focused world and becomes a “renunciate”. This sort of language can sound harsh to western ears, but there is something in it that would benefit us tremendously, I believe.
I consider myself to be something of a renunciate, even out here in the world beyond the monastery gates. Over the past twenty-five years I have let go of a truckload of outward and inward things, and that process continues. The road from my beginnings to this blessed day has not been easy or pretty, as I have practiced renunciation rather unwillingly as I have gone along. In fact, the process has been largely involuntary. I want to say that it has happened against my will, but this is not true: I have conceded firmly along the way, though with a lot of griping and complaining.
In the beginning I consumed everything I could get my hands on, as did all of my peers. I think of my twenty-year-old self with a mixture of amusement and pity. I was so clueless, so unconscious, back then! I smoked cigarettes and drank black coffee. I smoked pot, drank liquor, and indulged occasionally in the slim selection (compared to now) of other recreational drugs. I was never much into television (and we had no internet), but I would read until my eyeballs burned in order to avoid intimacy with myself. I even ate meat. As far as more subtle distractions go, such as the common addiction to being right and making others wrong, forget it. I had no idea such things existed. I enjoyed being propped up by substances and chemicals, or at least I believed I enjoyed them, and figured I would use them the rest of my life.
The first thing to go was tobacco. I was unusually active physically, as I still am; when I found I had to choose between cigarettes and bicycles smoking had to go. That one felt somewhat voluntary, but those following did not. I gave up Marijuana when it made me too paranoid to function. I quit beer when it started making me puke. Things leveled off for a few years after that, but then I began to notice that coffee made my stomach ill, as did tea and soda. I resisted this change mightily, trying to find some way to hang on to caffeine, but it was no good. I finally gave it up when it made me feel so bad that I no longer had a choice. And that was the thing about this involuntary purification: it always felt forced upon me in such a way that I had to yield.
When I entered the monastery I gave up all sorts of things: reading and writing, music, travel, movies and other entertainment, friends, sex…. For eighteen years it was just me in the silence with my inward experience. As the monastic environment eroded my defenses over time I found myself required to give up more subtle things, such as the notions of right and wrong, good and bad, lack and deprivation. I discovered, of course, that these things are illusions, but they seemed real at the time and it was a great struggle (as it still is) to let them go. The entire aim of the monastery was, from one point of view, to break a person’s addiction to conditioned mind as a whole. There is no deeper renunciation than that, as far as I can see.
I left the monastery two years ago. At that point I was free to choose what I would and would not bring back into my life. During these years I have experimented a great deal, and at times have imagined I would lead a more worldly life, but the fact is that nothing has kept my attention for long. There is no pleasure, no distraction, worth “giving a life for” (in my teacher’s language). The renunciation is not involuntary any more, I’m pleased to say. I’d rather live healthily, happily, and at peace.
This is not to say that I think there is something wrong with any of the things I mentioned. I don’t. Rather than looking at them through the lens of right and wrong, it’s better, I think, to consider what is skillful and what is not. What leads towards suffering, and what leads away from it? That’s all that really matters, at least to me.
Here’s the other thing that happened. As I walked somewhat reluctantly along this path of renunciation I learned something really important. I discovered that the less we need the more happy we are. More about that in the next blog.