How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. - Annie Dillard
I sometimes wonder if I’m wasting my time and thus wasting my life. My spiritual tradition highlights inspiring tales of renunciants, individuals who have spent multiple years, even decades, in retreat from the ordinary world.
These are not just stories from by-gone days. One of my teachers, a New York Times best-selling author, recently returned from four years as a wandering yogi, moving about in India with no money or permanent shelter as well as meditating in caves in the Himalayan region.
Considering these influences, I sometimes feel I too should withdraw from the world. I’ve come to see, however, the drawbacks of tormenting myself with “I should.” Chewing the same “should” over and over again is hardly letting go and certainly not the practice of mindfulness or presence.
3 Spiritual Paths: The Monastic, the Forest Yogi, and the Householder
There’s no need to feel guilt for choosing the path of a householder. Buddhist tradition defines three very different spiritual paths, which Susan Piver shares in her article, What You’re Doing Right Now Is the Path:
- The path of monastacism.
- The path of the forest yogi, sometimes called wandering yogi.
- The path of the householder.
The path of the householder, according to Piver, can be magical, equally potent, and even more difficult than the other two. Instead of renouncing the conventional world, the householder embraces it fully with ever-expanding insight, awareness, and compassion.
Relinquishment of outer activities and possessions, you see, represents just one version of renunciation. On a deeper level renunciation means understanding the transitory nature of thoughts, emotions, and sensations and cultivating the ability to let them go as they arise. Instead of following after them, you sustain an awareness of what is in the present moment, whether you’re in formal meditation or going about your daily life. As a result of this practice, humor, spaciousness, and emotional ease naturally arise.
This story from the life of Yukhok Chatralwa Chöying Rangtröl in Masters of Meditation and Miracles* underscores this alternative perspective on renunciation.
Chatralwa had a rather big, comfortable house, with lots of sunlight, filled with religious objects and books. One day a well-known lama [teacher] called Rinchen Dargye visited him. After entering Chaltralwa’s room, the lama kept looking around instead of sitting down. Chatralwa sharply asked him, ‘A-we! What did you lose?’ The lama answered, ‘I heard you are a Chatralwa, a hermit. But in fact, you have collected enough to be called a rich man.’ Chatralwa replied, ‘Chatralwa means someone who has got rid of his or her emotional attachments to worldly materials or to life itself. It does not mean being poor and hankering after them, as many do.
Although renouncing material activities and possessions can be beneficial for some individuals, the monastics and forest yogis of this world, whatever path you take, in the end true renunciation depends upon the state of your mind.
Being present itself is renunciation and the foundation stone of being a practitioner, or living a meaningful life. - Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
What Is Attachment?
Understanding attachment can help us gain clarity on renunciation as well because the two are intimately interconnected.
According to the Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, attachment doesn’t mean being devoid of emotions, cold as a stone, or uncaring. It doesn’t mean you don’t have any interests, passions, or possessions. Attachment refers to grasping on what appears in the mind - the tendency to move into concepts, habitual patterns, and suffering.
For example, you can love your garden, your work, or your partner without attachment. But when you feel distressed about the wild pigs uprooting your garden, anxious about work, or annoyed with your partner, you’ve moved into your story, the conceptual mind, and the experience of suffering. You're suddenly at odds with life as it is.
As a householder, the aim is to let go of or renounce your emotional patterns, unhealthy beliefs, and your dramas as they ceaselessly unfold in every moment of your life, without the protection of monastic walls.
Enrich Renunciation with a Good Heart
Always recognize the dreamlike qualities of life and reduce attachment and aversion. Practice good-heartedness toward all beings. Be loving and compassionate, no matter what others do to you. What they will do will not matter so much when you see it as a dream. The trick is to have positive intention in during the dream. This is the essential point. This is true spirituality. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, Life in Relation to Death
You can strengthen your practice of deep renunciation by cultivating kindness and the awareness of the dreamlike qualities of life.
It’s easier to renounce harmful reactions and behaviors when you realize everyone else is just like you. Everyone wants to be happy, no one wants to suffer. Although often people go about trying to gain happiness in the oddest, most unhealthy, and sometimes even the rudest of ways. With a bigger perspective, you see how pointless it is to harm anyone else and as a result, gradually feel more and more compassion rather than annoyance with other peoples' idiosyncracies.
What does it mean to call life “dreamlike?” Does it mean nothing exists?
Not at all. It means life exists in a way similar to a dream. A dream can feel so real when it’s happening, to the point of causing your heart to speed and sweat to bead up on your skin.
But as soon as you wake up, the dream has vanished.
Life is like that too, isn’t it? You may not even remember what happened yesterday though it seemed so significant at the time. In the same manner, although you may have visions for the future, just like in a dream, you never know what will happen next.
When you recognize the dreamlike qualities of life, you see existence as it really is. This helps you to relax, focus on the priorities, and be kinder to others.
The Spiritual Householder and Meditation
One of the dangers of the householder spiritual path is the temptation to neglect mindfulness and meditation as the display of life pulls you into its swirl. But it's challenging - near impossible - to see your unhealthy patterns and release them without pausing to create space on a regular basis. Otherwise, the busyness of your mind and the turbulence of your emotions will pull you every which way.
Just like monastics and wandering yogis, householders must also practice meditation regularly if they wish to strengthen the awareness aspect of the mind and weaken the habitual tendencies to react in unhelpful and harmful ways. They often engage in shorter retreats too.
It would be easy to fool ourselves into believing that we are evolving spiritually by boldly living everyday life while failing to look within, meditate, and retreat every now and then.
You can tell this might be the case by the fever and pitch of your emotional states. Of course, none of us are perfect yet. You may still get waylaid by chaotic emotions sometimes even if you are a genuine spiritual practitioner. But ideally, as a dedicated spiritual householder, your attachments, aversions, and negative emotional habits will soften with each month and year that goes by.
Let Go of “Should”
While it’s always healthy to consider alternatives - after all Pema Chödrön became a Buddhist nun in her 30’s after a divorce - whatever is happening in this very moment is your spiritual path.
Don’t waste your time ruminating like me about what might be better. Embrace this very moment for all the peace, warmth of heart, and clarity it can offer you.
In the end, I let go of my “should.” I realized this “should” was connected to ancestral stories that aren't relevant to my life. Letting go released so much bound up energy. As a result, I feel more joyful in my everyday doings, more cognizant to use my time wisely, more aware of the needs of others, and more richness in my moments of quiet spiritual practice.
I would love to hear your thoughts about renunciation and what it means to be a spiritual person in this modern world. What do you think?
Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious! Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always. With love, Sandra