Sunday, September 20, 2009
Sanyassa & Tyaga
I used to confuse the means for the end.
For those of us who spent any appreciable time on a path that required some measure of serious renunciation, this confusion is woven into the very fabric of the path of yoga itself. Here I speak of the confusion between renunciation (the means to an end) and the state of non-attachment (the end itself).
To be precise, it's not really confusion. It's conflation.
When you're on a path -- like that of the Sri Chinmoy Center -- which requires most of its followers to embrace a severe renunciation of the world and its pleasures (and pains), the tendency amongst the disciples is to conflate the physical, emotional, and mental act of the renunciation itself with the goal of achieving a state of non-attachment to the things of the world.
That's what I did anyway.
I would take one look at the photo of Swami Vivekananda above -- the very image of renunciation -- and say: "That's my goal." It's funny to think about now, but I remember that shortly after becoming a disciple -- while I was still in high school -- I would day dream about what it would be like to show up to my 25-year high school reunion "god realized." I imagined myself walking into some gathering of my former classmates -- all older and ravaged by time and the world -- with my flowing ochre robes and glowing face.
Renunciation and non-attachment, however, are not the same thing.
As should be apparent to you by now, when I think of these concepts, my mind floats back to the stories and heroes of my spiritual childhood, in particular to those of Sri Ramakrishna and his disciples.
For those of you who don't know, Sri Ramakrishna was a peasant.
Born and raised in the country to parents of modest means, he remained illiterate his entire life. He was barely able to sign his own name.
As Sri Aurobindo would note much later, Ramakrishna's intelligence was intuitive. He seized knowledge by identification and insight, by those processes once thought mysterious but now being explained, at least in part, by psychologists and other researchers as reported in books like Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.
I'm sure this was part of Thakur's charm. He could seize the truth of things quickly and then communicate that truth simply.
From time to time, for example, visitors to Ramakrishna's small room at the Dakshineswar temple grounds would ask him the meaning of one of India's most sacred texts: the Bhagavad Gita.
"The meaning of the Gita," he would say, "can be found by repeating the word itself."
"... gita-gita-gi-ta-gi-ta-gi-ta-gi-ta-gi-ta-gi-tagi-tagi ..."
"Tagi" is suggestive of the Bengali word for non-attachment: tyaga. That's the heart of the Gita's message: embracing action and doing one's duty in the world without being attached to the result of that action.
A linguist might argue that an equally correct translation of the word "tyaga" is renunciation. The linguist might say that, in essence, the Bengali words for renunciation (i.e., "sanyassa" and "tyaga") are one and the same.
Perhaps, but my point -- really a point I lifted from Sri Aurobindo's classic Essays on the Gita -- is a practical one, not a linguistic one. If the message of the Gita -- the philosophical backbone of most modern yoga practice -- were truly renunciation (sanyassa), then the story would never have gotten off the ground.
In essence, the story of the Gita is of the warrior Arjuna's conundrum: should he renounce fighting in an impending battle against his extended family or should he do his duty as a warrior? Arjuna looks to Krishna for advice. If physical renunciation (sanyas) had been Krishna's message in the Gita, then there'd be no story. When Arjuna laments that he'd rather run away and wonder the Himalayas than fight, Krishna would have said: "go for it." End of story.
Krishna, however, does not endorse this physical renunciation or rejection of the world. His message to Arjuna is to act with vigor -- to fight and kill -- but not to become attached to the results of his actions, whether bad or good. Call it what you will, but that's the message of the Gita.
That's the message of this post, too.
There's a huge difference between mastery of the physical, emotional and mental act of rejection -- which made up such a huge part of our lives as disciples -- and mastery of the state of non-attachment. In fact, the discipline of renunciation -- as necessary as I think it is -- almost by definition is the practice of negative attachment (as opposed to non-attachment).
The approach of Alcoholics Anonymous is a good example of this dynamic. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. They have people who have been off the sauce for two or three decades who still stand up and introduce themselves by saying, "Hello, my name is Joe, and I'm an alcoholic."
As complete a physical renunciation it is for an alcoholic to be sober for 30 years, one would never confuse that renunciation with mastery or with non-attachment to drink. On the contrary, he is as attached to the bottle as he was 30 years ago when he had his last drink. It's just a negative attachment (rather than an affirmative one).
Think of it this way: does perfect renunciation of the act of driving a car make you a competent driver? The question answers itself.
To master driving, you must drive.
Swami Vivekananda knew this distinction. He knew that to truly master the world, one must embrace it. How could you learn to be a potter if you refused to touch the clay?
Ultimately, however, we're not really talking about driving a car or touching clay, are we? No. We're talking about something else: grappling with our human nature.
Inevitably, we're talking about sex.