– Krishna teaching the mysteries of the universe to his devotee Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.
“Those who have attained perfect renunciation are free from any sense of duality. They are unaffected by likes and dislikes, and are free from the bondage of self will. The immature think that knowledge and action are different, but the wise see them as the same.” – Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita
Renunciation is a word that freaks many people out, largely because they do not understand its spiritual meaning. They associate it with images of emaciated forest Yogis who engage in silent meditation for years at a time, or perhaps with Christian hermits spending long days and lonely nights fasting solitude. This misunderstanding unfortunately hinders many people from integrating the blessings of renunciation into their everyday lives. For periods of intense meditative separation from everyday routine are indeed a small aspect of renunciation, but true renunciation is a state of mind that is not limited to any particular life circumstance.
The Bhagavad Gita revolutionized and redefined the idea of renunciation at time in India when the population felt that God-Realization was only attainable by a small spiritual elite. It proclaimed that renunciation is a matter of the heart, which transcends the mundane conceptions of monk and lay person, spiritual practitioner and “worldly” person that unfortunately still dominate many religious communities today. The Gita radically proclaimed that a life of actively serving others (while inwardly renouncing desire and practicing frequent meditation) is actually superior to a life of solitary meditation alone. Anyone who understands that God-Realization is the highest goal of life, and strives to structure their life around this lofty ideal, is a renunciate in spirit, regardless of their vocation, race, gender, or religion.
It is one thing to quote ancient scriptures and praise their inspired poetry, but how can we actually integrate their wisdom into our life in this historical era? As an average American dude who works 40 hours per week and is thronged with the infinitude of distractions that permeate modern society, this is the fundamental question of my life. In this post I’ll explore three dimensions of renunciation as inspired by my reading of the Gita that can be appiled today: the practical dimension, the mental dimension, and the ultimate dimension. As with all my writings, their purpose is not to set forth a metaphysical truth to be believed in on faith, but rather to provide potential spiritual inspiration to interested readers by humbly expressing my own personal experiences and current understanding.
Select a clean spot, neither too high nor too low…Then, once seated, strive to still your thoughts. Make your mind one-pointed in meditation, and your heart will be purified….Even one who inquires after the practice of meditation rises above those who simply perform rituals. – Krishna
Although the specific techniques they recommend differ, the Bhagavad Gita is in agreement with the historical Buddha that practicing regular meditation is the surest way to realize spiritual enlightenment. From this technical perspective, a very practical dimension of renunciation involves how we spend our precious leisure time. Most people reading this blog have hours of leisure time per week when they are free to do what they please. The average American watches several hours of television per day, for instance, a testimony to the fact that there is usually time to dedicate at least a few minutes, or half an hour, to mediation.
I myself have been steeped in this collective indulgence as much anyone: if I could see my own life on rewind, the amount of time I have spent watching movies, TV shows, internet videos, etc., would be utterly depressing and humbling. I have learned, however, that meditation yields far greater joy than useless distracting entertainment, and is like the nectar which is “bitter at first and then sweet,” rather than worldly pleasures which are, “sweet at first but bitter in the end.”
Integrating even a little meditation into daily life is a form of renunciation, for when we choose to do one thing we are necessarily renouncing another. Although there are times when I desperately don’t want to meditate, I force myself to meditate everyday, and have maintained a daily practice of Zen meditation for 7 years. I also personally try to do at least 2-3 Buddhist meditation retreats per year that are about a weeklong, and have been extraordinarily blessed by engaging in them. I have many hobbies – I enjoy writing, making music, reading, watching movies, etc. – yet I recognize that spiritual awakening is the most important dimension of my life, and is therefore worth the relatively modest amount of time I dedicate to it.
Since everyone has unique karma, there is no use comparing yourself to me or anyone else on the spiritual path. Everyone has a unique path to God – for some people, even a few minutes of meditation per day would result in great spiritual progress and is all they can manage. Never forget what a wise woman once told me: “There are no “shoulds” in God.” Unfortunately, many people get hung up because they irrationally compare themselves to spiritual masters like the Buddha or Krishna, failing to recognize that even small steps toward integrating spiritual practices in your life can go a long way. I often tell people that you don’t need to run a marathon to integrate the benefits of exercise into your week. Similarly, you don’t need to become a spiritual superhero to integrate powerful meditation practices recommended by the ancient masters into your daily routine. Consistently doing even a few minutes of meditation per day is unfathomably good karma, and even a single day spent on the path to God-Realization is better than a hundred years spent chasing the shadow puppets of desire.
The Mental Dimension of Renunciation
You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect even-ness of mind. – Krishna
While the practical discipline of regular meditation is undoubtedly important on the path to God-Realization, if it is taken too literally the spiritual path can become just another to-do list. Part of the Gita’s innovation was its idea that renunciation is a state of mind that anyone, even those who don’t practice meditation, can integrate into their life. The essential point of mental renunciation (repeated ad nauseum in the Gita itself) is that renouncing the craving for the results of action – and not action itself – is what is leads to spiritual freedom. This idea is similar to the Buddha’s four Noble Truths which state that the craving for something else – and not the actual external situation – is what causes suffering and perpetuates the illusion of our separation from the joy of Nirvana.
This idea goes against everything we are taught growing up in America. We are taught to chase our desires and to to create a life based on them. With almost the exact opposite advice, the Gita tell us to renounce all desire, or craving for results, and simply engage in action with the purpose of realizing God alone. The tricky point here is that this state of mind includes action and desire, but the action is performed from a purified mental perspective, a perspective based on the spiritual knowledge that God alone is the do-er and the goal of all work. God gives us natural desires to fulfill our material purpose in His dream-drama, but from the higher perspective they are merely means to the end of Awakening and should not be sought in themselves. Working with this attitude of what the Gita calls “selfless service” is something I will further explore in future posts in this series.
How is this radical viewpoint of inner renunciation practically applied? In essence, we should view all activities as meditation and understand God-Realization as the goal everything we do (In previous posts and in my book I have written extensively on practicing Zen meditation in activity, the method of meditation I personally use which includes activity). A master lives in the world with the same difficulties as the rest of us, but has only two remaining overarching “desires:” to realize God, and to fulfill whatever dharma (or duty) they have been assigned in this incarnation. The rest of their life therefore becomes a means to that end. They act only to please God and to perform their necessary role in God’s dream drama, but – although they do their best – their mind is unconcerned with whether they succeed or fail in material undertakings, because it is always aware of the Changeless One who is the witness of change but does not change.
Paradoxically, this perspective actually allows a master to enjoy worldly life more than someone who seeks happiness in material desire. Once you realize that life is only a movie, and that both the Watcher of the movie and the movie are Changeless Bliss Itself, you are free to enjoy the movie without being overwhelmed by its ever-changing scenes of success and failure, pain and pleasure, life and death that always and inevitably go hand in hand. As the great master Ramakrishna said, once you wear the glove (of renunciation) you can hold the poison (of enjoying the world of desire) in your hand without getting hurt by it.
Skeptics may think I am describing sublime and imaginary realms far beyond the Earth, and I used to think the same way. Yet my years of Zen training have taught me that the key to communing with God is understanding that your own Awareness itself is God. I therefore no longer see activities as activities, but as meditation upon God, Buddha, or what the Gita calls Brahman. When I am shopping, working, reading, walking, writing a blog, using the bathroom etc., I continually ask the question: “What is seeing? What is hearing? What is experiencing this? What am I really?” When this practice is followed through to its conclusion, the spiritual aspirant sees that the fruit of renunciation is realizing that God Itself is the one living “your” life and has become all things to express Itself. Then, with all the great masters from the beginning of time, you will clap your palms in joy and exclaim, “There is nothing whatsoever in the universe to do, for I have always been the Bliss I was seeking!” Yet, paradoxically, to actually realize this and to maintain this realization requires persistent effort in meditation, even though what is realized is beyond both effort and non-effort.
They for whom I am the supreme goal, who do all work renouncing self for me and meditate on me with single hearted devotion, these I will swiftly rescue from the cycle of birth and death, for their consciousness has entered into Me. – Krishna
Mental and practical strategies for renunciation pale in importance to the true essence of renunciation, which is understanding that God-Realization is the very purpose of life itself. The Gita makes it clear that we have all re-incarnated thousands of times seeking happiness based on our insatiable desires, and that we keep spinning on what Buddhists call “the wheel of samsara (or separate existence)” because we have not understood that only in the spiritual path can lasting happiness be found.
Even if you are a yogi in a cave who meditates 24 hours per day, you will not find God until you come to a point where He is all that matters to you and you inwardly renounce lesser desires. Conversely, if in your heart you weep inwardly for God alone and cry out “Reveal yourself to me!” (truly, the only prayer worth praying in the end), you will eventually realize Him even if you live the chaotic life of a lay person. True renunciation a matter of the heart; it is is the overwhelming quest for God-Realization, and the understanding that It is incomparably greater and more important than any lesser quest. This ultimate renunciation transcends any life circumstance and is the highest possible blessing for those who understand its meaning.
From this perspective, renunciation is not merely the giving up of something, but the gaining of something Inconceivably Valuable. Jesus said that a wise man will sell all his possessions to posses the Pearl of Great Price, which is worth far more than all of them combined. Similarly, a person of spiritual knowledge understands that the Ever New Joy of God-Realization (Yogananda’s expression) is worth far more than any temporary sacrifice that must be made to obtain it. May anyone who read this forget these words and seek the One to whom they point, who alone can give them the Joy they have always been seeking.
Written in love in the year of our Lord 2016 for the glory of the One True God who alone is the do-er, to be dispersed into the formless realms of the internet for the benefit of human beings, aliens receiving our signals, angels, devas, multidimensional astral beings, all beings in the Eternal Now, and most of all myself who desperately needs to practice what I preach,
p.s. A dedicatory poem to compliment my shameless ramblings on what can never be described and has never been seen by a human eye:
All the scriptures of the world are like excrement
Compared to the actual Bliss of God
For they only point to That which is beyond them.
Father, may no one read these words and that think they contain
Or even come close to describing the Truth!
May no one believe that You are outside of them
Or that you are contained by the creeds and the dogmas of mankind!
Father, how shameless I feel even mentioning Your Glory in written speech!
Even so, may this humble offering awaken in even one person
The desire to experience You, who in truth is their own Self –
Eternal Love, Eternal Peace, clothed in the universe, yet beyond it;
Who, if even once realized, satisfies every desire
And re-awakens the hidden Joy they have never once
Been separate from.
- Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita: Introduction
- Peaceful Protest: Wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita on Helping the World from a Spiritual Perspective
- Working from the State of Rest
- Lessons from the Gita 3: God Realization – The End of Religion
- Thoughts on Matthew 6: 33
- The Rest is Gravy: A Rambling
- Spiritual Priorities
- Travel Blog 2: Bodhgaya – Circumambulating the Diamond Throne