Sometimes right in the middle of a meal, I remember about dessert. Suddenly I can’t taste what I’m eating. My whole focus shifts to desire and the anticipation of something sweet. This may happen even though the meal is tasty and I had been looking forward to it! Sad, huh? But instead of judging it, let’s see what’s going on here, because this is an example of what we all experience to one degree or another in some area of our lives. Why can’t we enjoy what’s right in front of us? Why does the mind leap into the future or into the past?
Whether it’s a craving for sweets or some other sensory experience, desire for something else clouds our ability to be present. Sense desire is the first of the Five Hindrances, those obstacles to mindfulness. All of the Hindrances pull us away from present experience: We crave something or are annoyed by something; we are too restless, worried, spaced out or sluggish to notice what’s going on in this moment; or we are in a constant state of doubt. Whatever muddles the mind, clouding clarity and compassion, hinders us from feeling fully alive and well.
In our exploration of the Ten Paramitas, Perfections of the Heart, we now come to the third Paramita, Renunciation. What is that? All the synonyms for ‘renounce’ sound equally unpleasant: ‘abdicate, abstain, cancel, deny, disavow, eschew, forego, give up, let go, rebuff, refuse, relinquish, abandon, repeal, repudiate, sacrifice, spurn, surrender, veto, waiver, yield.’ Yuck! If you feel resistance to them, you are not alone. Even the Buddha said that at first his ‘heart did not leap up at renunciation, seeing it as peace.’ But later he did recognize the inner peace that renunciation creates within, once it is truly understood and acted upon.
In Buddhist practice, renunciation is not denial, nor is it punitive. Instead it is recognizing where our happiness is. If we believe that happiness comes from the objects of pleasure in our lives, then we are constantly seeking out these things and experiences, caught up in a state of longing. Then, once we attain the object of desire, after a brief jubilation, we find it difficult to fully enjoy because, like all things, it is fleeting. We want it to last forever, but that is not possible. So there is clinging that arises in our experience. We either plot how we can hold onto it, or we have discovered it isn’t all that great and plot how to get the next object of pleasure in our lives. Perhaps you can pause and think of some situation in your life that illustrates this.
Once we understand the nature of impermanence we see that it is not the objects of pleasure that provide happiness. It is, instead, our ability to be present. We can enjoy even ordinary moments, even challenging ones, if we are fully present in all our senses. Through our meditation practice, we create a spacious ease to hold all that arises in our experience, and we discover the joy available in every moment.
When we believe that happiness is attaining a particular sense object — I used chocolate as an example, but it could be anything that we long for and hate to see end — then we get caught up in the throes of misery of our own making. So I don’t have to renounce chocolate. (Yay!) I simply need to notice how the Hindrance of sense desire is activated within me, and how it causes me to suffer. That awareness, fully realized, disempowers the Hindrance. This is skillful renunciation — a kind of catch and release of the mind states. These Hindrances are universal in nature and we will come upon them again and again in our lives. Each time is an opportunity to notice, to celebrate and be grateful for the noticing, to observe and be curious about the way the Hindrance is impacting our experience, and to compassionately detangle and eventually release it, with a reminder to keep an eye out for it because it will appear again.
Renunciation is the third of ten Paramitas, right after Generosity and Ethics. All these Perfections of the Heart work together, but there is a traditional order and a reasoning for this order: As we develop a sense of generosity, deepening our connection to others, we naturally develop a sense of non-harming. So the Paramita of Generosity begets the Paramita of Ethics. Our exploration of Ethics took us to review the Five Precepts or vows of non-harming that are traditional in Buddhist practice. Each of the Precepts uses the word ‘refrain’, as in ‘I will refrain from taking what is not freely given.’ Notice how the word ‘refrain’ naturally leads us to Renunciation. We refrain from, we renounce, we let go of ways that we harm ourselves or others. And in all three of these Paramitas, the Hindrances have played a major role in our investigation.
A word came to me as I prepared to teach about Renunciation and I think it has a place in this discussion. I thought of ‘cleave’ as in cleave unto each other in our marriage vows. What if we ‘cleave unto this moment’, holding this moment above all others? In our mindfulness practice we are in effect vowing to ‘marry’ this moment, letting go of our longing for other moments, for the past or the future. There is a devotional quality to this wording that I think captures the sense of renunciation that we’re going for. It’s making an intentional choice to be here and now.
Buddha said, “I removed the fever of sense pleasures and dwell without thirst with a mind inwardly at peace.”
A few posts ago, I told the story of my nineteen-year-old self’s experience of being high and having a vision of a mountain with people earnestly climbing it. When I saw that although I was at the same level as the top of the mountain, I was in a hot air balloon and it was losing altitude. I recognized that I needed to ‘go to the mountain’ and climb one of those paths. Looking back, I can see that it was a moment of renunciation. It became clear that no drug could provide what I was seeking. So renunciation is not denial of the pleasures of life, but a way of recognizing what is truly beneficial and what is causing us harm.
A final quote from the Buddha: “When we understand the nature of desire, it falls away by itself.” A look at the Hindrances with a vow to release them with mindfulness and compassion allows true happiness to arise in our hearts.