The next Parami is Renunciation. The Paramis are qualities of heart and mind which we need to bring to the practice, but which are perfected, or cultivated, by doing the practice. For those of you in 12-step programs, you can almost think of them as “the promises” of the practice.
Renunciation doesn’t have much appeal to us, as a word. It connotes “there’s something I really want, but I know I shouldn’t have it, so with great effort and force of will, I will forswear it.” No. Renunciation can be thought of more like, a social event we are obligated to go to, that gets cancelled. Ahhhh. Release, and relief.
We all know what it’s like to be obsessed with something – a food, a behavior, an activity, an object, a person – and then to get it or do it or taste it or have it – and either it isn’t quite as wonderful as we thought it would be, or even if it is, it isn’t long before it’s replaced by the next craving. Renunciation is seeing this through ahead of time – and letting go.
It is something we learn in our sitting practice. Every time we realize we’ve been carried away on a train of thought, and return our attention to the breath, we are practicing renunciation. Every time we bring ourselves back from fantasies about the future, or ruminating about what we should have done differently in the past, and return to this moment, right now; this breath, this body sensation, this sound – we are practicing renunciation, the art of letting go, and planting a seed that bears its fruit in wisdom.
We’ve all practiced it without realizing it. If you can remember back to a favorite toy, doll, bike, gun or blanket – that gave you comfort or power or happiness as a child, and ask yourself, where is it now? If you had it now, would it give you the same happiness or comfort of power? No, because we’ve outgrown it. Renunciation is like that. We see through the chimera of this or that thing we MUST have NOW to be happy, and the wanting lessens.
We never stop growing. We never stop shedding friends, or jobs, or needs, or desires, habits and behaviors that are so important at one stage in our lives, which cease to be at others. Things that are desperately important when we are younger – what people think about us, or where our appearance falls on the scale of criteria set by others – become less important. Not with effort, because it’s the nobler, more spiritual thing to do, but naturally, as we grow older, and our priorities change.
So this is one way of practicing renunciation – just noticing what falls away naturally, and appreciating the benefits of letting go.
Another way of practicing renunciation is through physical discipline. Those of us who used to smoke, or drink or eat compulsively or take drugs, and who’ve learned to stop, know that there is a period of time where it is very difficult, but on the other side of the effort, there is freedom, release. It was worth the effort to be free of the addiction.
At one time I had an almost crippling addiction to a certain computer game. I would start to play, and look up to find it was hours later, and the time was gone. I would be faced with a difficult problem at work, and to ease my mind, I’d turn to this game – and then I’d be lost again. I was convinced that it did something to brainwaves similar to narcotics. I cannot tell you the number of times, over the number of years, when I would stop for a while, only to play one game one time, on someone else’s computer, only to be helpless in its grip again. Finally, one day I was able to stop by making a commitment to myself that if I played one game, I would have to contribute $250 to the re-election campaign of a politician I loathed. Every time I’d see his face on TV, I’d say, “He wants you to play [this computer game].” It worked. I was not about to contribute one dime, let alone $250 to this guy, and the deal I made with myself held. It was really, really tough, but I’m very very glad.
Then there is renunciation through mental discipline. Noticing, as we are about to tell ourselves the same story, for the fifty gazillionth time, with the same beginning and the same ending, to see it for what it is, and stop it!
Like this Bob Newhart sketch:
Giving up our negative and destructive mental habits can be as difficult as stopping smoking. To catch ourselves rehearsing a fantasy or regret, as we catch ourselves reaching for a cigarette or a cookie or a drink, and to stop it. To return to this moment. To this breath. This body sensation. This sound. We can find the same freedom we found by giving up cigarettes, when the distraction beckons, to see it for what it is, and to remember to come back to the moment.
Why do this? Because there are states of mind we can only experience when we let go of the stories and fantasies and daydreams. When we allow ourselves to explore the silence, the space of possibility from which the stories arise. It is only here that we can experience “the peace that passes all understanding,” a happiness not dependent upon the things we were trying to grab onto or shove away.
This is why we meditate. To find a place, beneath the chatter and the noise, where we can know our true nature, and the true nature of reality. To see clearly the three characteristics of all phenomena; to see it and know it in our bones and being. That all phenomena are constantly changing, arising and passing away; and that nothing is ultimately satisfying in and of itself, because it inevitably will change form; and nothing exists apart from a constantly changing kaleidoscope of causes and conditions, combining and de-combining, in an infinite do-se-do of life.
In this silence we connect with something much larger than the self that is made up of clinging, and relax and open to a rhythm of life which includes and surrounds us, of which we are made.