An Urban Meditator's Guide to Renunciation

On retreat recently, I found myself in meditation often having intense internal debates about some of the plot twists in the show “Homeland”.  I was getting very upset with the decisions made by some of the characters.   This was creating an incredible amount of proliferation in the mind and “wasting” valuable minutes of my meditations.  If I was going to proliferate at the very least, couldn’t it be about something that was “real” and from my life.  Proliferating around a fictional TV drama seemed absurd.   Now, at this moment I don’t want to open up the “pandora’s box” around whether things from my life are any more “real” than the fictional show Homeland but it would certainly have been a more practical proliferation.   What was clear was that if I renounced watching shows like Homeland or any number of similar shows, the mind would have been less occupied with this kind of unnecessary baggage.   It would have been one less object of potential proliferation.

The practice of renunciation doesn’t get much airplay in the world of “urban” mindfulness.    For those of us who live in New York restricting our sense pleasures is rather contrary to our day-to-day existence.   Living in a city of strivers where all of us are driven toward success we often find ourselves in a continual goal-oriented state.   This is also a problem in the modern world of mindfulness.  People want to learn meditation practices for very specific reasons and with goals in mind. 

In a Buddhist context, renunciation is one of the 10 Paramitas—Perfections of the Heart—and plays an important role in one’s spiritual development.   In practicing renunciation we are letting go of those things that inhibit our capacity for freedom—meaning our freedom from craving aversion and delusion.   So we discover that in letting certain sense desires go or in renouncing un-healthy relationships or even relaxing around our goals we feel a bit more lightness in our lives.  We have expanded our capacity for Freedom. 

In our media driven environment we have daily opportunities to practice renunciation.   Try not picking up your phone for an hour or while you’re eating. Try to go off-line for the hour before you go to bed. 

When we meditate we are actually practicing renunciation on a number of levels!

First we have cut out at least one if not several sense doors—the door of sight and to a degree the door of sound (and the need to make sounds!).   More importantly we have renounced the need to do.    If in fact if we find ourselves striving to accomplish something in meditation—even the accomplishment of a focused mind, or one of relieving stress--- we need to renounce this.   Just let go of the idea of accomplishing anything.    When we meditate we also renounce our identity.     If we are practicing with others,  and we find ourselves needing to “look” a certain way in meditation, then we are clinging to an identification of a meditator.   Letting go of this, we can relax into our practice. 

Outside of formal practice we might then discover many other things we can renounce.   Try a day of renouncing views!  Just take a day (or at least an hour) and do nothing!

Inevitably this brings up the question of enjoying the delights of life.   As lay practitioners we are not renouncing entertainment, or good food,  or pleasure.  We are simply recognizing the impact these may have on our path toward a more easeful life.  We may discover that we are renouncing certain aspects of our life without even realizing that it’s happened.  It also brings up questions about having goals.   We don't need to renounce the goals but can we renounce clinging to a goal. In my experience when I don't cling to a goal, I'm usually surprised by the final results.   

Will I decide not to watch the next season of Homeland?  Probably, but I’ll make sure to leave enough space between the end of the season and my next retreat!