give up to grow up: the quality of renunciation

What is it to renounce? And why is it so important – what is the place of renunciation among the qualities to be developed in someone working on themselves?

Part 1: Everyday Renunciation

While most people can see and understand that qualities such as generosity, morality, compassion, honesty and patience are generally good and useful things, renunciation may sound rather remote, far away, not something that most people will apply in their lives on a daily basis. And yet, everyone has to practice the quality of renunciation from time to time, whether on a very small scale, or a big one. There are three main things that are needed for an act of renunciation to make place – firstly, you need to see that you have to make a choice between two (or several) incompatible paths; secondly, you have to know what you want; and thirdly, it’s essential to understand what you let go of and why, and be ready to give it up, for the sake of going for what you really want.

Choice

There is an old proverb from the middle east that says “You can’t hold two watermelons in one hand.” In English we say “you can’t have your cake and eat it,” and in French there is the saying “You can’t run after two rabbits at the same time.” Any time two desires are incompatible and in opposition to one another, one of them must be dropped, and this is what renunciation is for; to allow us to drop one watermelon so that we can keep the other one, when it becomes impossible to hold onto both.

Any time someone has to give up something that they enjoy for the sake of having something or achieving something that they consider more important, this is renunciation. When a woman gives up smoking cigarettes because she is going to have a baby; when someone gives up eating chocolate and cake and the food they like because they want to lose weight; when someone decides not to go to a party so that they can study for an important exam; when someone who wants to be an astronaut gives up having a wife and a family for the sake of pursuing his studies and career, all this is renunciation.

A common thread running through most acts of renunciation, which can be seen in even these everyday examples, is that the choice one faces is often between satisfying one’s desire for a short-term, momentary pleasure, and working towards a long term goal that is perhaps less “fun” but more important.

Renunciation is born from knowing what you want most, what is most important to you, which watermelon is most important for you to keep.  

What do you want more? To smoke your cigarette, or your baby to be healthy? To eat this cake, to succeed in your weight-loss goal? To enjoy the party, or to get good results in your exam so that you can study at the prestigious university you have always dreamed of attending?

Renunciation of the short term pleasure requires being able to understand that by giving up a small pleasure now, you will get a greater reward in the future. If you are not clear enough that this future reward is really what you want – if you don’t care about having a healthy baby, or about being healthy yourself, or if you don’t want to go to university and don’t care about getting good results in your exam – then why would you deprive yourself of the brief enjoyment you can have right now for the sake of a goal that is to be realised only in the future?

Goal

Without an aim, talking about taking renunciation is like talking about buying a plow without having any tractor, horse, or any other vehicle with which to pull it. We have to know what we renounce for, what we practice for.

Imagine two ten-year-old-boys are learning how to play piano.  One of them is sent to piano lessons by his parents, because they want him to learn how to play a musical instrument. He attends the lessons because he’s not the kind of young boy who disobeys his parents, but he’s not really interested in learning – even if he sort of likes the idea of being able to play piano, he doesn’t like practicing it and has a thousand other things he can do in his free time that he enjoys much more.

He never practices piano without being told to do it, and all the time while practicing half his mind is wondering when he can stop and go and play football with his friends, go and watch tv, or go to play video games. It’s highly unlikely, not to say impossible, that this boy will ever be a good enough piano player to give a concert.

Another boy is brought one day to see a concert given by a professional pianist one evening, and he is enchanted by the experience. He sees the pianist playing Debussy, Chopin, Bach; sees how the player is entirely absorbed in his performance, how he becomes one with the piano, the perfect skill and mastery with which he plays. He comes away from the concert with the piano still continuing to play on in his mind, and it seems to be singing: I want to do that too. Now he has an aim in life. This is his goal, his dream, this is his biggest desire.

When he leaves the concert he asks his parents if he can have piano lessons, and as soon as he starts to learn, all his energy and concentration is directed towards that subject. He enjoyed playing football before; he used to quite like video games, he watched TV from time to time… but now all of that is over, as if it were part of a past life. Now, he decides voluntarily to give up all these activities for the sake of having more time to practice piano. Even going to school seems like a waste of time for him. His parents have to drag him away from the piano to come to eat meals.

What is the difference between the two boys? One has an aim; the other does not. One has an aim so crystal clear that he is willing to give up everything else, and the force of his renunciation gives him strength and energy for practicing, so that he is almost certain to achieve his goal. All his effort is focused on one place, and there are no distractions, nothing pulling him in another direction. Why can a laser beam cut through metal, while an ordinary light bulb cannot? The energy of the laser beam is all concentrated at one point; while the light bulb sends light in a billion different directions. The laser is pointed towards one target.

The most difficult part is not renunciation itself, but deciding. Knowing what you want, figuring out what’s important to you, is one of the most important things you can do for yourself in this life. When we really know our aim and it is perfectly clear, solid as a mountain that no wind can break, then renunciation does not even require effort – it happens naturally of its own accord.

See and Understand

Sometimes you can know what your aim is, and yet still remain sticky to something that is blocking you from reaching that aim. How can this be? Why would you do this? Often, it can be because we like the thing that we have to give up, but also because our determination to reach the aim is not really strong enough.

There is a story about an acquaintance of ours who was very overweight, and for a long time had the aim (at least in theory) of losing weight – had been told by several doctors that “If you lose weight, you will avoid all problems of cholesterol, diabetes, sleep apnea, etcetera.” And so he tried several diets, but never followed them strictly, he would lose weight and then quickly gain it back again. He was never quite able to renounce the pleasure of the good food he enjoyed, even if he knew that this was what he had to do in order to achieve the goal of losing weight and being healthier.

 One day, he suffered a serious heart attack. After being rushed to hospital, he spent a week in intensive care, close to the edge of death. Yet he did not die; instead he slowly got better, and with time was completely recovered. From the day that he came out of hospital his attitude was completely different to before: now he dieted extremely strictly, never allowing himself to cheat. Now he was able to easily renounce what he had never before been able to let go, having seen for himself directly the effect that it was having on his body, and having received the shock of his life at the gravity of this effect. I don’t want that!

After seeing by himself the harmful consequences of following his desire, suddenly the desire lost all its power: what he once saw as his best friend, now he saw as an enemy. Because it’s always more tempting to follow one’s desire than to not follow it, it’s hard to renounce if you are not 100% sure of why you do so, what harm you avoid, or what future reward you get by doing so.

Part 2: Higher Renunciation

Somebody who decides to stop smoking or to follow a particular diet needs to have determination and perseverance; without these, and other good qualities, they would be incapable of succeeding in their goal. But what differentiates this renunciation and higher renunciation?

As with any quality and any action, the results and the value of any act of renunciation depend greatly on the purpose for which it is done, and the intention with which it is done. It’s possible to take renunciation for a very harmful purpose: an obvious example is somebody who straps a bomb to their body and blows up themselves along with all the others that they want to kill. Although this person renounces their life, a very big sacrifice to make, this is a renunciation that brings bad results and leads to harmful consequences, as it is an action whose intention is to hurt, harm and destroy.

But somebody runs in front of an oncoming train to pull another out of the way sacrifices the same big thing, but motivated by love, compassion, caring for others to the point of risking their own life. This is a renunciation of great goodness with a very high value. For someone who wants to use this life to work on themselves and to make the world better by being in it; there will be occasions for renunciation as an act made with wisdom and morality; a higher form of renunciation than that of every day life.

Choice

A “good” renunciation means to deliberately let go of some aspect of selfishness. Instead of doing what I want, instead of satisfying my desire, I choose to do something that helps somebody else; or that simply helps the world to be a little better. I sacrifice my pleasure, my ease, my comfort or my ego; for the sake of replacing it with a less selfish action. The nature of the choice is between something I want  to do, and something I know is better to do, wiser to do, kinder to do.

Suppose I am a rich doctor in a wealthy country, thinking about taking early retirement, when one day I see an advertisement for Medecins Sans Frontiers, and I’m struck by the idea: what if, instead of retiring early, I were to go and apply to volunteer in Africa, working as a doctor in the poorest of places, where people need it most?

Now I have this thought, I must decide what to do. It’s a noble idea, and yet I hesitate – going into that situation would mean giving up so much of the ease and comfort that I am used to.  Instead of living in a nice house with a big garden I will probably have to share a shitty little room in a run-down building somewhere; I will have to eat whatever food is available; , not what I’m used to, I will be in a place where I know nobody, unable to see my family. I’ll make less than one tenth of the salary I earn, and go from the top of the professional ladder to being right at the bottom, a trainee, a nobody. I will go into places where instead of having a comfortable and easy job, with stable working hours, I am always to be in stressful situations. I will be living in a place where life is not easy, maybe even places where just being alive each day is not something to take for granted. Am I ready to renounce all this, even if it is for the sake of easing the suffering of a great many people?

As long as I remain in indecision, unable to decide which direction to go in, I can never be at peace with myself. While I cannot reconcile the two forces that are pulling me in completely different directions – compassion versus selfishness, generosity versus greed for my own ease and comfort – it is as if I have one foot in each of two boats that are going in different directions; gradually I become more and more strained, more and more stretched, until if I can’t decide to give up one boat and jump in the other, I will break a leg, fall in the water, become the loser in every sense.

Aim

In order for the idea of this level of renunciation to make sense, we must first understand what it means to have an aim in the life – not merely a temporary goal, not merely an aim “for now,” but an aim of all that we do, a direction that we choose to give our life, a way of giving value to the life.

What is my biggest desire? What makes me get up in the morning? How do I want to use this life? If I wander through life without any clear sense of purpose; without any aim or any end towards which I am working, it is likely that it will often be difficult to make decisions, and my decisions will often end up being guided by simply what is easiest for me to do; rather than what is the wisest thing to do.

Once you have an aim, it makes everything clear, everything easier. Every choice you make should bring you closer to this aim. If something is bringing you away from your aim, it is this that must be renounced.

If I have no aim in the life, how do I go about deciding whether to take early retirement and live my own comfortable life until I die, or renounce it to go and help others in their pain and suffering? I have a great many ways to confuse the subject, to complicate it, to put doubt in everything, to cheat myself: “Maybe they’re not looking for people like me anyway;” “Maybe I’m too old,” “I should just concentrate on my family right now,” “It will be so stressful, I don’t know if I can handle it!” And so on.

But if I know that the reason I became a doctor in the first place out of love for humanity, compassion for those who are in pain and suffering, and a wish to help them; if I am clear that this is for me the biggest aim in the life, this is what’s driving me, this is what is most important for me – then all uncertainty is removed. If I don’t renounce the thing that is holding me back from pursuing my aim, no matter what argument I can make or excuse I give myself for keeping it,  then it means that I must question myself as to whether this was ever truly my aim, or if it was in the end just a nice idea that I liked thinking about.

Understanding to abandon

The more you are attached to something, the harder it is to give it up.  The more you are dependent on something, whether for comfort, pleasure, security, or happiness; the bigger a renunciation it is to let go of it, and the deeper an understanding you need of why you must do so.

An interesting and relevant example here is the five precepts of Buddhism. No stealing, no lying, no killing, no alcohol or drug, and no sexual misconduct. All who wish to follow the teaching of the Buddha and work on self improvement must begin by choosing to take on these five rules as a guide in their life, not simply because someone has told them they should, but because they see for themselves the benefits of following them, and the harm that is avoided by following them.

This is more difficult for some people than others, depending on how deeply they are involved whatever action has to be stopped. If I’m an alcoholic it’s harder to give up alcohol than for someone who just drinks a glass of wine once a month or so. If I’m a fisherman, it’s harder to renounce killing compared to someone who is just used to swatting the occasional fly in summertime.

Ajan tells a story about a woman that he met while he was living in Thailand near where the monk that was his teacher was staying. One of the few other students who spoke to him was a certain woman who owned a restaurant in the village by the beach. She told him that before she became a student of the old monk, she had been the owner of three fishing boats, gaining most of her income from fishing. Now, after becoming his student and understanding his teaching on the precept of non-killing, she had abandoned her fishing boats and let go all of her employees.

Nobody can do such a thing unless a big change has occurred in their way of seeing things; in their view of what is important and what is not important, in their understanding of what is right and what is wrong. What did this woman see that she had never seen before, which pushed her to making such a big renunciation?

When you earn your living from fishing, you cannot afford to see or understand the suffering of all those beings whose lives you are ending.

You can’t allow yourself to look at how much they love life and fear death. You see, but at the same time cannot see the fear and agitation of the fish as they are caught in the net, and how they never stop desperately trying to escape. If your livelhihood is fishing, you can’t acknowledge how much suffering you are causing so many thousands of living creatures, you do not comprehend the unpleasant fact that all your wealth and your comfort is built on that suffering; that for every dollar you earn, a living being has paid with its life.

For the one who has the courage to really open her eyes to this reality, it is impossible to continue as before. What was unseen before was now seen clearly, and all that seemed important before – money, wealth, position, security – now was seen as tiny, insignificant, compared with the price that has been paid for it; the huge weight of all the suffering she had caused others, in order to earn money.With one’s vision of the world so completely overturned, renunciation does not even require such a great inner struggle, it is not something painful or difficult. Seeing clearly that there is no other possible choice to make, then there is no more conflict, no more indecision, no more duality. I have to abandon that.  That is all. It is that simple.

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