I’ve often thought about the concept of renunciation – and how I have a resistance to it. Don’t get me wrong. I lived out of my car for 7 years and I was a climbing guide who only made $14k a year for a looooong time, so I understand how living simply can be really fulfilling. That chapter of my life was one of the happiest.
However, as my responsibilities grew (primary breadwinner, mother, cancer survivor x 2, and for many years a caretaker of my elderly parents), my fears about not having enough grew and grew, and renunciation became scary AF.
This kind of renouncing of things is really encouraged in Buddhist teachings, and in more secular groups like minimalists and the tiny house movement. But the people who first taught me about renunciation also came from a background of upper middle class or straight up wealthy. Even Buddha was a prince! They had parents who owned their own houses and had expendable income and inheritances to pass along. I didn’t have that. I didn’t grow up with a lot, and didn’t have those safety nets.
It kind of scares the crap out of me to not own something or to not have way more than enough, because when I was growing up, sometimes shiz did run out (like the donated turkeys on Thanksgiving at St. Vincent de Paul). We got kicked out of housing when a landlord decided a family member should move in, or when they wanted to sell their home.
Add to that the fact that the culture I live in tells us that money is power. And when women have to work way harder to feel a sense of worth – because we’re told that we aren’t inherently worthy or loveable – and when we add to that the oppressive systems BIPOC women find themselves in, renouncing that power is extra hard.
But then I remember that Buddha said renunciation is an “invitation to happiness.” And I’m willing to trust and explore that, because the guy has been right about so many other things. But I am also going to check if it still applies to today’s world, and my lived experience.
Ajahn Succito said, “wise renunciation goes against the current of gain.” So if we really want freedom from the suffering that the mind creates, we have to be prepared to challenge the assumptions of gain and loss. We do that in this episode.
The assumption that accumulating things (homes, land, power, cars, the “right” body) leads to more happiness causes a lot of resistance to living simply in Western culture. But it’s not an issue with the “things” themselves. Renunciation is also the practice of nonattachment, of not clinging to anything.
Letting go of desire forever isn’t the goal either. We’re bound to fail at that as humans – we are born with hormones and physical desires as means to survive as individuals and as a species.
Instead, I’ve found renunciation is about cultivating the intention to loosen our attachment and grasping, not just to material things and sensory pleasures, but also to self-obsession and unhelpful emotions, too. It’s about realizing that holding onto anything that’s impermanent only brings us suffering.
There’s nothing wrong with wealth itself. It’s the grasping at it that causes suffering – and the feeling that there is something missing when we don’t have it that creates suffering.
Renunciation is about letting go of the sense of “not having.” Not of having.
We’re actually giving up the feeling of “I need/want.” or “I’m incomplete without.”
We might naturally think then that’s it’s totally fine to aim for endless abundance and wealth “as long as we’re not attached.” But this can be slippery slope.
We can easily fool ourselves (sneaky brains!). So I run my beliefs by teachers and friends to make sure I’m not deceiving myself. While we’re all our best teachers, it’s helpful to get perspective too. It’s also good practice to go without these things we desire regularly so we can check if we really are as unattached as we think we are.
When we live simply and renounce – even for short periods of time – we start to learn more about where our craving and grasping comes from. Just like when clients as me, “why do I overdrink?” we find the answer in not having a third drink. What arises is why.
This is why I go on retreats regularly. Why I do fasts and cleanses and camp and hang out at our yurt without running water or electricity. It brings me contentment to live simply – and keeps me in check about thatcomforts and desires that I am attached to.
To genuinely develop renunciation, we need to go into the mind and heart. Meditation is a key tool for this, because it is where an authentic, sustainable happiness can be found. It’s not like a huge dopamine hit from shopping or gambling. Instead it’s steadier and reliable, and 100% within us – and 100% available at all times. To have a resource like this within us already is an important inner source of wealth and abundance.
Another part of renunciation is being able to discern our wants from our needs. If we investigate this, we’ll often find that our needs are actually quite simple. On the other hand, our list of wants is never ending.
An important point to remember, however, is that needs can be relative. They change as our life situation changes. Sometimes we “need” a university degree or a car to be able to work to meet our needs. To accurately assess current needs takes ongoing cultivation of wisdom and discernment so we don’t fool ourselves either.
This is a hallmark of the buddhist version of renunciation – it’s more gentle and reflective than aceticism. This is an important point, because taking a self-righteous stance against the sensory world is a shadow of attachment – aversion. And it also acknowledge thes complex world we live in and the challenges of renunciation in a world where money is power.
Let go and hold lightly. That’s the real teaching, right? And the deep question we can ask ourselves is, “Does this possess me?” Letting go of that – of feeling we are lacking – IS central to our liberation.
What’s one thing you can commit to renouncing today? A grudge? A partner or colleague’s annoying habit? What possesses you? No judgment… just awareness, and a gentle invitation to let go.
In this episode, you will learn:
// Why renunciation can be so hard if you’ve been a part of an oppressed group
// How much of Western culture challenges renunciation
// Is it possible to be rich AF and renounce (spoiler alert: it depends)
// The true definition of renunciation (hint: it’s not about the things)
// A deeper understanding of where our cravings arise from
// How to discern our wants from our needs
// How renunciation can be applied on a societal level
// Episode 55: Letting Go to Grow
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