In chapter 12 of Seeds of Contemplation, the Cistercian monk Father Thomas Merton wrote the following lines:
“You will never find interior solitude unless you make some conscious effort to deliver yourself from the desires and cares and the attachments of an existence in time and in the world… It should be accepted as a most elementary human and moral truth that no man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say “no” on occasion to his natural bodily appetites. No man who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating and drinking, who smokes whenever he feels the urge to light a cigarette, who satisfies his curiosity and sensuality whenever they are stimulated, can consider himself a free person.”1
Renunciation is common to many spiritual traditions – the giving up of worldly things to concentrate on religious practice. When I first came to Buddhism, and for a considerable while afterwards, I saw renunciation solely as the giving up of behaviours that might distract from spiritual practice or make the mind less able to concentrate on matters of the spirit. When the mind is pure, so will be practice. There is, of course, an element of truth to this as spiritual practice is much harder if you overindulge in food, alcohol or mindless entertainment. Any of these will tend to make the mind less calm and more active. However, what I had overlooked was that worldly pleasure, as well as being a distraction in and of itself, tends to become most appealing during times of pain and difficulty.
Buddhist meditation, especially the insight (vipassana) and just sitting (shikentaza) type practices, has the aim of allowing practitioners to sit with all experience, whether it is good, bad or indifferent, without falling prey to impulsive reactions. If this is achieved then life can be approached in a much more balanced way with actions coming from a place of awareness rather than emotional reactivity.
Meditation practice can be understood as a form of renunciation. When we meditate we are implicitly agreeing to sit with whatever arises during the time period of practice and not get up from the cushion until that is over. Further, we are bound to hold our attention on our experience and to bring it back when it wanders. In this way, meditation gives us a familiarity with our experience and inner world of thoughts with the aim of allowing us similarly to be with good and bad experiences in the usual passage of everyday life (often called the post-meditation period in Buddhist texts). However, many people (myself included) find that their ability to sit with experience on the cushion does not always translate to being able to patiently accept the usual ups and downs of life with equanimity. Why is this? The answer, I believe, lies in renunciation.
I find it very easy to be a good Buddhist when things are going well. I am generous, kind and can experience sensations and thoughts with relative ease. The true test, however, comes when things get a little more uncomfortable.
Like most people I have, from an early age, developed a host of strategies to avoid facing unpleasant feelings and experience by either avoidance or masking them wit something more pleasurable such as comfort food, alcohol, drugs, entertainment and sex. I know only too well that my six year old daughter will invent the most fabulous of stories to avoid being told off and I am not always a whole lot better! One of the teachings of karma is that patterns of reaction become ingrained the more we indulge in them. So, if each time an uncomfortable situation arises, we avoid it, this will tend to become our normal way of dealing with things. If, however, we open to what is happening and are able to be with it until it passes, this will set the pattern for a more positive response.
My first reaction to the idea of solitary retreat and yogis living in caves for years on end was that it is the easy way to practice. Without distraction from meditation or the emotional ride of day-to-day dealings with other people, surely watching your breath must be very simple. As anyone who has done even a short retreat will know, however, the truth is far from that. The reason for this is that there is nowhere to escape from our thoughts; no distractions and nothing to take the place of what is actually happening. We are forced into facing reality and letting it work its way through us.
Although the life of the solitary yogin may represent some kind of spiritual ideal, few among us can, or wish to, engage in such an ascetic existence. Most western practitioners of Buddhism are lay people and householders and therefore walk a balance between the sacred and profane worlds. Good food is usually freely available and distraction is the mere push of a computer, television or mp3 button away. Rather than being forced to face reality, then, most of us have to make that choice to be with what is rather than do the easy thing and seek out the next pleasant stimuli.
Renunciation then, as I see it, is not the removal of all distractions and worldly pleasure from life, but the refusal to turn to them as a first response to dealing with difficult experience. There is nothing wrong with enjoying good food, entertainment and even alcohol. However, if you are using any of these pleasures to blot out reality then even the best meditator is going to find their everyday experience and reactions differ little from anyone else in the world. In order for progress in formal practice to make the transition to normal life, renouncing grasping at earthly pleasures for support has to occur as a voluntary act. This is why Buddhists go for refuge to the three jewels rather than any worldly object or person. It is an acknowledgement that anything other than spiritual practice is a dead end in terms of meeting experience directly. By going for refuge, we are renouncing the use of mindless distraction in favour of being with what is. Understanding this explicitly may make the difference between making progress on the spiritual path or being stuck were we are, regardless of how good our sitting practice may be. Like everything else in life, though, it is an individual choice to be made, and it may be some time before we recognise the results of our actions upon our spiritual progress. For me now, the path is clear, even if my feet upon it are not always the steadiest.
1 New Seeds of Contemplation p84-85 (New Directions edition)