I used to get $150 haircuts and wear suits to work. For nine years I lived in New York City, bemoaning how little time I had in the wilderness. Even though what kept me in the city wasn't worth as much to me as time outdoors, it was a real struggle to give it up. In each of our lives there are occasions when fear, attachment or ego prevent us from making way for what we really want, but yoga offers us a way out.
Renunciation Versus Austerity
While austerity is about lack, renunciation is about choice. Sternness, strictness, and absence characterize austerity, which is frequently associated with asceticism. By its nature, austerity is an extreme act.
Asceticism is the opposite pole of indulgence; a refusal or a disengagement. For some people, it is a sincere path of spiritual progress. However, such people must live outside of society, whether as a monk or nun, a priest, or a hermit. Those trying to pursue and reject the same thing at once leads to confusion and suffering.
Except for these individuals, who remove themselves from society in order to accomplish spiritual practice and goals, asceticism and austerity are inappropriate targets that result in judgement, failure, and self-harm. While renunciation is also an act of refusal, it is more an act of affirmation: we refuse one thing in order to accept another.
What is Renunciation?
Renunciation is a refusal to be distracted. It is a product of mastering the senses, which is called pratyahara in Sanskrit. By mastering one's senses, one does not generate endless desires or the torment those desires inspire, which thus helps to facilitate that mastery. (Learn more in Pratyahara: The Fifth Limb of Yoga.)
Real joy is not the result of getting a new cell phone or even a prestigious new title. In fact, most of the suffering the majority of us experience is induced by our own minds. Recognizing that the act of acquiring does not bring lasting happiness is the first step on the path of renunciation.
Renunciation Isn't Self-Punishment
We cannot, in fact, have it all. To have power in our own lives we must make choices, and some of the most powerful choices we make are about what to give up.
Feel-good messages talk a lot about achieving our goals and other forms of acquisition, but rarely do we focus on emptying, releasing, and letting go. These action are no less necessary than determination and inspiration. However, to choose not to have something is not the same as to punish oneself.
Making way for What is Really Important
The ultimate purpose of life is not to gain material advantage or reputation. When we think about it, we can recognize that much of life in the modern world doesn’t have anything to do with reducing our baseline spiritual ignorance (avidya) or increasing our understanding of Self or The Absolute.
We certainly must care for ourselves, including our physical and emotional needs. That said, if I myself am any indication, we are stronger than we think we are. Sometimes a subtle and nefarious kind of inertia, a laziness, sneaks in and convinces us that we can’t do the things that we in fact can do. Instead, it convinces us that we need things that in fact we don’t need. This force, tamas, is one of dullness, darkness and decay. It is no accident that reducing tamas is a primary effect of yoga practice.
Yoga Helps Loosen the Ties That Bind Us
From the beginning, much of the practice of yoga is about learning to see things—most especially ourselves—more clearly.
Without training, our minds are wild and domineering. We spend virtually every moment, both sleeping and waking, swept up in the constant chatter, storytelling, commentary, and desire of the mind. Our senses feed impressions to our minds, which in turn develops attachments and aversions.
One of the first steps on the yogic path is to become aware of our senses and the effects they have on our minds. We learn to deliberately turn our attention away from sensory input (pratyahara) and focus internally instead.
Pratyahara gives us relief from the continual stream of sensory impressions and allows us to harness the power we usually use for taking-in and processing that stream of data.
With our clearer and more directed minds, we can cultivate viveka, sometimes translated as clear sight, discrimination, or right-determination. In particular, viveka enables us to discern what is transitory and what is not; what is ignorance of our fundamental nature and what is real.
It’s hard to get somewhere without believing it exists. Faith may be the strongest human ability. To really commit to a spiritual path, we must believe in that path. I intentionally didn’t say to “make spiritual progress.” True commitment, practice, and faith—ishvara pranidhana—does not demand that we reach goals or “go” anywhere. For, indeed, there is nowhere to go.
How Renunciation can Help
In order to give ourselves over to what is most important, we must give up what isn’t.
For me personally, I loved the job I had that kept me in New York City. It was rewarding and meaningful to me. Nevertheless, I missed being connected to the cycles of the wild world, and I couldn’t have both.
Ultimately, I felt that one setting better served my commitment to practice. It was a difficult and painful choice—that’s the nature of attachment. Still, making it has enabled me to orient my focus and experience new clarity.
The ability to choose is a luxury and a power, one that invites us continually along our chosen path. Renunciation is an act of confidence—and it can be a joyful one.