What Is the Meaning of Renunciation?

By The Spiritual Explorer | Published 4 November, 2015

Dear Spiritual Explorer: I was called to be a “renunciate” or nun at a very young age. Then renunciation seemed to be a rather harsh discipline that I was asked to undertake. I now am a Buddhist and am still called upon to renounce certain things. Can you explore the meaning of renunciation in these current times? Joan P., Detroit, MI

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Dear Joan: The meaning of renunciation runs across a whole spiritual spectrum and affords many interpretations. Many people would be surprised to know that they embrace attempts at renunciation and know instinctively, if not consciously, that in giving up pleasures of the body and mind, renunciation can lead to a divine experience. In Christianity in the spring, people are called upon to embrace the meaning of renunciation during Lent. One is called upon to refrain from a favorite food or behavior. And in Judaism, the first day of Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and prayer, abstaining from food and drink. In Buddhism as shown in the extraordinary book of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, Siddhartha, upon seeing death, illness and old age, decides to renounce his luxurious lifestyle and surrenders to asceticism, again embracing his own meaning of renunciation.

Viewing my own meaning of renunciation through life’s experience

As I ponder the whole meaning of renunciation, I am reminded of my compatriots and myself at the beginning of our spiritual quests in the 70’s. As we set out on our journey, many of us did colonic cleansings and fasts. It seemed we just jumped onto the bandwagon of New Age spirituality without even realizing the intent of what we were doing. While the desire to be cleansed arose unconsciously and was not seen as renunciation, I now think that was exactly what it was. In our own sophomoric fashions, we too were attempting to be cleansed of old behaviors that perhaps no longer served us so that we might embrace a new sense of self.

However, while it began as an innocent attempt at renunciation, the paradox is that it evolved in many cases surrendering to an excessive lifestyle of drugs, food and sex, not realizing then the discipline that is needed to embrace the true meaning of renunciation. Now I believe the meaning of renunciation to be the renouncing of unwholesome qualities to allow good or wholesome ones to take their place. A good thing is that it no longer involves mortification of the flesh, flogging or wearing hair shirts. Instead it can become the giving up of those things that impede a joyous march towards the Self.

The meaning of renunciation through Siddhartha’s experience

In the book of Siddhartha he begins his voyage into an ascetic life surrendering to the many disciplines that he believes will lead him to experience the cessation of mind and body cravings. Instead he became disillusioned in his efforts and like many attempts at renunciation,  embraces its opposite, falling into a lifestyle of illusion. Finally, bored and sickened by the lust and greed within him, he moves on again. Nearing despair and seeing the futility of his own efforts towards enlightenment, Siddhartha comes to a river and meets a holy man, who through teaching him the sounds of the river, finds the enlightenment, peace and knowledge that he has forever longed for.

My personal experience of the meaning of renunciation

For me at this stage of my life, having attempted many forms of renunciation, I feel that that the meaning of renunciation and its purpose has to include not just some self-serving attempt at “enlightenment,” but kindness and compassion for others. It involves perhaps a more selfless kind of behavior, attempting to move away from my own limited outlook and desires. It also involves gratitude for those things I am blessed to have in my life. Most importantly, it is about looking beyond this small “I,” which has always stood in the way of my joy, believing that self assertion was the way to happiness.

While a small step perhaps in the scheme of religious aspiration, I know it to be a major step in my mind. The meaning of renunciation for myself becomes the striving for a self that also includes the desire for all to be happy. While this is a major tenet of Buddhism, I believe that it is the underlying concept of all spiritual attempts in major religions.

On a personal level, I like to think of attempting to refrain from gossip and an extending of compassion to those whom I formerly felt threatened by and attempted to harm through my gossip. These are forms of renunciation that are available to me now. And in the words of some Buddhist philosopher: “Harmony becomes my pleasure, my delight and joy and I speak words that create harmony. Whatever words are gentle, pleasing to the ear, affectionate, touching the heart, such are the words a spiritual aspirant speaks.”

While I might not ever experience the bliss of enlightenment, I have now come to believe that even meager attempts at renunciation have the possibility of bringing about a certain harmony and joy into my life, and hopefully into yours. Thank you for your question.

If you have a question about “the meaning of renunciation,” or anything else, you can write me at Ask The Spiritual Explorer.

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