Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Monica's post about renunciation over on Buddhist in Nebraska got me thinking about the different ways that notions and the experience of renunciation work in my life. This evening, I ran across the following, about how commitment to truth requires a profound degree of renunciation, from Ram Dass' marvelous book, Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita

Ours is not a culture that has much appreciation for any path of renunication. Ours is a culture built on the idea that more gratification, sooner, is better. Gandhi said, "The essence of civilization consists not in the multiplication of wants but in their deliberate and voluntary renunciation." That's certainly a hard sell here in the West, where everything keeps fanning the flames of our desires. ...

By Gandhi's yardstick, my own country with all its affluence, is not yet very civilized. If we look at what people do with their great wealth in America, we find that they mostly use it to try and create more and more sensual gratification for thmselves. And then when they're totally jaded with it all, and they begin to feel the inevitable falling away of their desires, they don't know where to turn. It's a dead-end street, because it all passes, it's all transient.

Once we see that, we're motivated to turn the process around. But as we start to do that, our minds sometimes get ahead of the rest of us, and we start giving things up in order to be "good," and not because we see that they're a hindrance and we're finished with them. We try to jump the gun on the process.

I've had my own experience of the difference between those two motivations in connection with the practice of fasting, which is a form of renunciation (we renounce satisfying our desire for food). Fasting was an interesting one for me, because I have always had an intense relationship with food. I learned from my mother to equate food with love, so by the time I was ten I was wearing pants in size double Z, with balloon seats. I was definitely deep into the oral trip.

Then it was 1967, and I was at the temple in India. I noticed that everybody there fasted a lot, so one day I said to my teacher, "Hari Dass, can I fast?" (Actually, I didn't say it -- I wrote it on the slate I carried, because were were maun, silent, at that time.) Hari Dass answered, "If you'd like." I asked, "How long should I
fast?" He said, "Four days would be good." So I asked him, "How long do you fast?" He wrote, "Nine days, on every new moon." I thought, "Well, if he can do it, I can do it." So I wrote, "I will fast for nine days." And I looked very holy.

The time came, and I started the fast. And then I proceeded to spend the entire nine days thinking about nothing but food. I thought of the Thanksgiving dinners I'd had as a child; I visualized the roast turkey....

I did complete the fast. I made it through all nine days. But the interesting question was, while I was so busy fasting, what was it I was feeding?

Three months later, when I did my next nine-day fast, I was getting much better. ("Better" -- a new ego trip!) Now I spent the whole time thinking only about foods I could eat as a yogi. So I thought about spinach with lemon on it, and steaming bowls of rice ....

Time passed, and then a few years afterward, I was back in India again. Some friends and I were staying at a little village, and it seemed like a good opportunity to do another long fast. But this time, except for the fact that at noon, lemon and water or ginger tea was brought instead of food, I never even noticed I was fasting. I was just busy doing other things instead of eating. About halfway through, I thought, Oh, this is what fasting is about. Far out!" It's not about renouncing food -- it's about renouncing hunger! I hadn't even known what it was all about before, because I was so busy thinking that the ego-tripping I was doing was tapasya, that it was an austerity of some sort.

I've come to recognize that the real tapasya happens when we are so ripe to do it that we just do it. We do it joyfully, with a feeling of "Yeah -- of course. That's what happens now." We do it with a feeling of "Whew! Now I can be rid of that one." It's a
release, not self-denial. Ramana Maharshi said, "I didn't eat, and they said I was fasting." Right there in that statement is the essence of tapasya. As long as we think we're doing the austerity -- "Look at me! I'm giving this up!" -- it's just another ego trip. Whatever we may think we're renouncing, we're just stuffing our egos with both hands.

pp. 134-136

A few pages later, he describes a personal crisis point he reached as he tried to implement Maharajji's two instructions to him: "Ram Dass, tell the truth," and "Ram Dass, give up anger." In trying to live consistent with those instructions, Dass insults and rejects the people around him, throwing a plate of food into the face of a man who serves it to him. He writes:

Across the way, Maharajji was watching. "Ram Dass!"

I went over and sat down in front of him. He said to me, "Something troubling you?"

I said, "Yeah. I can't stand adharma. I can't stand that in all of us which takes us deeper into the illusion. I can't stand it in them -- they're all so impure! I can't stand it in myself. In fact I hate everybody in the world -- except you." And with that I started to cry -- not just to cry, but to really weep and wail. Maharajji tried to comfort me; he patted me on the head, he sent for milk and fed it to me. He was crying, and I was wailing and wailing. And when I got all finished with my wailing, he said to me, "I thought I told you not to get angry."

I said, "Yeah -- but you also told me to tell the truth, and the truth is that I'm angry."

Then he leaned toward me, until he was nose to nose and eye to eye, and he said, "Give up anger, and tell the truth."

I started to say, "But..." -- and then, right at that moment, I saw my predicament. See, what I was going to say to him was "But that isn't who I am." And in that instant, I saw in front of me the image of a coffin, and in the coffin was an image of who I thought myself to be. And what Maharajji was saying to me was "I'm telling you who you're going to be, after you're finished being who you think you are."

Then I looked at all those people, all of whom I detested, and I saw that one layer down, one tiny flick of the lens, I loved them all incredibly. I suddenly saw that the only reason I was angry with them was because I had a model of how I thought it ought to be, which was other than the way it was. How can you get angry at somebody for being what they are? You're trying to outguess God. ... The next time you get angry, look closely at what you're angry about. You'll see that you're angry because God didn't make the world the way you think it should have been made. ...

So the practice of satya requires that in all our doings -- in our dealings with other people, in steering our spiritual course, whatever -- we stay as close to the truth as we possibly can. Maharajji said to me, "Truth is the most difficult tapasya." It's the hardest austerity, the toughest one to do. He said, "People will hate you for telling the truth." And sometimes they do. "People will laugh at you and taunt you, they may even kill you," he said, "but you've got to tell the truth."

The trouble is, we can only tell the truth when we cease to identify with the part of ourselves we think we have to protect. If we're afraid of being laughed at or taunted or killed, we can't tell the truth; we can't tell the truth if we're busy guarding some
position. It's only when we realize that we're not as vulnerable as we fear we are that we can afford to tell the truth. ... I can never be straight with you if I need something from you. So in order to tell the truth to you, I have to give up whatever that need is inside myself. That's why satya is a practice of renunciation; what we're required to renounce are the attachments that keep us from speaking the truth.

pp. 146-47

I have lived my life trying to get people to like me. Oh, I've been reasonably successful at approaching and approximating truth at times, but I've often resisted telling it straight, rather than slant, for fear of harming others.

Or so I told myself.

But in the past few weeks, in particular, I've begun to notice how much of my fear of harming others might be a cloak for my fear of de-friending myself -- a fear of losing what I so strongly want -- connection, love, validation.

Am I ready to give up that desire? Not completely. Not yet. But I am, with the ideas of Monica and Ram Dass, beginning to see that my attachment to such relationships is not entirely benign, and that it may, curiously, be harmful.