Renunciation and Joy

I was talking to someone recently about practice and the subject of renunciation came up. This is a common topic of discussion among Buddhist practitioners, and little wonder since the message we seem to get so often is that we need to give everything up. The most basic guidelines for living, the five precepts, for most people will require some kind of giving up; although most people don’t have to give up killing it is likely that many would need to make a commitment to giving up alcohol. To deepen our practice we come to understand that really we need to give up on the frivolous things in life like watching tv, movies, going to gigs, anything that we do for mere entertainment and that stirs up the senses. To go far in the practice we need to throw ourselves into it completely and sometimes that is what we do, we go in fast and hard with the most difficult practices.
It is no surprise that we do this really, messages like ‘no pain, no gain’ and ‘go big or go home’ have escaped the confines of the gym and are attitudes that get applied to everything, even the calm and peaceful practice of meditation! We have been led to believe by society that the only way to achieve anything is by sheer brute force and willpower, but this approach won’t work in Buddhist practice. In fact being so hard on yourself is almost like a form of violence, and quite simply peaceful ends cannot be achieved with violent means. The Buddha himself talked about the amount of effort we need to apply to our practice as being like the strings on a lute; too loose (not enough effort) and the lute won’t play, too tight (too much effort) and the strings will break, what we need is to apply exactly the right amount of effort to make the lute play beautifully in tune. How much effort is that? Well you just need to try it out for yourself and see.
As new practitioners we can get a bit fixated on giving everything up, in fact some practitioners continue this fixation throughout their practice, but this is counterproductive if we don’t have the right things in place to support these changes.When I think back to the start of my own practice I too threw myself wholeheartedly into giving things up, I gave up watching tv, listening to music, reading fiction, drinking alcohol, smoking, and eating meat. On moon days I would follow the eight precepts pretty much to the letter, I would take a big lunch to work with me and eat it before noon, I would avoid all forms of entertainment, and I would sleep on a mattress on the floor since my own bed was definitely high and luxurious. Some of this was fairly easy, sleeping on the floor is just like camping, but some of it was very hard – no entertainment is really challenging to do on your own at home, I was climbing the walls sometimes with boredom.
I can remember quite vividly one night early in my practice when I was giving myself completely to being mindful all the time, which can be really hard work in the beginning, and I just felt so depressed at what I had gotten myself into. Here I was being effortful every waking minute of the day watching my mind and bodily sensations, giving everything fun up, and I was miserable. I had a moment of doubt about whether this hard practice would ever bear any fruit or had I consigned myself to a dry, torturous existence. I can’t remember what it was that made me persevere but I decided to continue with the practice, and eventually I started to get the benefits of it. Yes to some extent we do need to go big to make gains on the path, but it doesn’t need to be hard.
One thing that I did come to understand quite quickly was that renunciation done the right way wasn’t about giving up, but it was more about letting go. In practical terms this is more like realising that we don’t need something anymore instead of going cold turkey and deciding to just stop. The training of the path creates the conditions that allow us to realise that we do not need things anymore, either because we examine the effect these things have on our minds and bodies and decide it just isn’t worth the disruption; or because we no longer need the stimulation or entertainment any more, we are quite content with whatever is going on right now. Giving up eat meat was like that for me, I just got to a point where I realised that I didn’t need to eat meat any more, it wasn’t essential for me, so I just stopped and without any hardship either. Giving up smoking was a bit harder, but the application of mindfulness to my physical and mental experience allowed me to observe the waves of cravings coming up, peaking, then fading away. Watching the impact that these cravings had on me made me determined to beat them, I didn’t want to go through this disruption just for the sake of having one more cigarette, it made me realise that the few minutes of pleasure weren’t worth the strain and discomfort that the cravings would create. But more importantly by this point I had a good meditation practice and I knew I could calm my mind and body by watching the breath or by doing sitting meditation, I had something to counteract the discomfort and this is the part that we often overlook when we turn our attention to renunciation.
As my practice developed I started reading the suttas more often and this opened my eyes to a point that the Buddha makes frequently in his teachings, that we need to develop ‘a pleasant abiding’ as part of our practice. Specifically the Buddha is talking about concentration meditation, or the jhanas, but we can raise pleasant feelings through mindfulness meditation too. In fact I consider the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment to contain a key point that we often overlook in our practices, the Buddha was only able to obtain enlightenment when he used a meditation technique he remembered from his childhood, one that created pleasant feelings. The path of practice is hard and we need something to replace all the things that we need to give up, and that something is pleasant feelings that arise through meditation. We need to cultivate inner peace and joy because otherwise our practice is all hard work with no relief.
Concentration and blissful meditative states are what the Buddha recommends his bhikkhus to develop, but we know that in the busy world we live in that this is a skill that takes many years to master, if it is even possible at all in ordinary life. So how do we cultivate enough good feeling in ourselves in the beginning, or indeed at any point, to give us the relief from the hard work of the practice? Firstly metta meditation is great for this, those feelings of warmth and love that come up are the perfect remedy for hard practice. If you can turn some of that warm feeling towards yourself and wish yourself well then all the better, but if you are someone who struggles with feeling kindly towards yourself then just leave yourself out until you are able to. You will still get the benefit of the calm and peaceful feelings that metta meditation brings up even if you don’t wish it to yourself. If everything seems like hard work for you then drop all your other meditation practices and just do metta for a while. Practicing dana, or generosity is another way to cultivate good feelings, so perhaps find a way to some volunteering at the local temple, or just find ways to be generous with the people around you.
Walking meditation is also very good for developing calm in both the mind and the body, allow your body to relax while you walk and gently encourage the mind away from thinking and onto the soles of your feet or the movement of your body. Once you have achieved a feeling of calm rather than just watch it, you can actively cultivate it, in fact this is what you would do in concentration meditation. Cultivating isn’t the same as thinking about, so once a feeling of calm does come up don’t think about it or analyse it, just experience it as calm and allow it to grow. Relax your body more, relax your mind more, anywhere you feel tension or resistance either physical or mental just make the effort to let that go. I sometimes think about cultivating either a metta state or a peaceful one as being a bit like keeping a balloon in the air, you only need to push it gently to make it stay up, if you were to hit it hard it would fly off so push it gently to keep it floating.
Concentration meditation is obviously the key way to experience meditative bliss but don’t try too hard in the beginning, if you have already been able to experience calm and peaceful feelings through other practices then concentration meditation becomes easier. Concentration meditation pretty much relies on conditions to be right so even experienced meditators can’t sit on the cushion and achieve bliss every time, it just doesn’t work like that. Follow the precepts, live a good life, be kind to beings, and practice well, these are some of the conditions that support concentration. Mindfulness practiced well will eventually lead to good concentration so you don’t even need to deliberately set out to practice concentration meditation, it will just come to you in time.
Regardless of how you come to generate the calm and peaceful feelings the important thing is to allow those feelings to persist beyond your meditation. Sitting on the cushion or walking on a meditation path is one thing, but if those feelings only come up for you when you meditate then you are not getting the full benefit of them. How do you get the feeling to persist? Well this is where that simple life comes in again, if you generate all these lovely peaceful feelings then watch a horror movie then you can be pretty sure the peaceful feelings won’t last long. When we practice mindfulness we can see what causes the feelings to dissipate, and if the feelings are important to us then we eventually start to choose the peaceful feelings over the excitement, and then renunciation isn’t just easy, it’s the obvious thing to do.

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