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.


Markus said...

One misconception that i personally had related to this is my idea of what it would feel like to be truly non-attached.

based on my experience and concept of the type of renunciation that we practiced was that the desire itself would go away. Sri Chinmoy used the terms "Desire" and "Aspiration" and the way that I (and I believe most of us) understood it was that "desire" was something bad and "Aspiration" something good. "Desire" was related to wanting physical things (sex, money, recognition and the like) and "Aspiration was the desire for spiritual things (or "no-things") including the love of God.

Recently I have been thinking differently about this:
"Desire" itself, or the force that manifests as it, seems to be a manifestation of the prime life-force itself. As such it would be divine at least in its origin, no matter what it attaches itself to (and here is this interesting word: "attachment") So, the problem is not the desire itself, but the fact that we attach it to specific manifestations and we then go after these manifestations as if they could fulfill and quench that eternal thirst.
If seen like that then non-attachment might feel quite different: Desire itself might not go away--in fact it might increase as we connect more and more to the primal divine force of life. So, in this process we might eventually be able to tolerate the full force of desire without mistakenly attaching it to anything, and simply moving in surrender with that force without clinging to any manifestation. In a way this becomes a more difficult and ultimately more fulfilling path. (this is how I understand Tantra as well as the "karma Yoga" aspect of the Gita.) Nothing repressed, nothing deadened down and yet attached to nothing--fully free and surrendered.
In the process of transforming ourselves towards this final stage there might have to be times of intense renunciation to break the attachment to the manifestations (sex, etc.) but there might also have to be periods of intense engagement--to root out the guilt associated with many of them (drilled into us for eons by misunderstood religious and even spiritual tenets)
Actually, all of this then also explains to me much better the need for spiritual guidance (from a master or often also from "inner" sources of guidance--because how do we know when which of these is needed on our individual path?)
This seems to be my current experience: Desire (and therefore aliveness) does not go away or decrease, if anything it increases with the amount of spiritual light we attract. On the other hand attachment has to decrease, or we will get caught in so many traps of this world.

In addition, there is not so much difference between attaching desire to physical and "spiritual" things. Each can present a stumbling-block, and I think specifically for serious seekers the later might become a much more serious--because more subtle--problem. How attached are we, for example, to our concepts of how spirituality should be and how enlightenment should look--I certainly see this manifesting in my own consciousness on the path (any path!)...and it can be discovered in many of the posts here and so many other spiritual writings. I don't mean to judge this in any way--I think it is unavoidable unless complete "enlightenment" or "freedom" has been attained; and who of us knows what that really means?

Y. said...


Thanks for reading and for your fine comment here.

I particularly like the point you made that:

"In the process of transforming ourselves towards this final stage there might have to be times of intense renunciation to break the attachment to the manifestations (sex, etc.) but there might also have to be periods of intense engagement -- to root out the guilt associated with many of them (drilled into us for eons by misunderstood religious and even spiritual tenets)."

That says it all to me. My nine years of celibacy in the Center were critical to making a permanent break or crack in my attachment to the world in general. Because of the intensity of that experience, that break can never be healed in me.

I don't mean in the sense of a wound that needs healing, so maybe the word crack or fissure is better. No matter what I've done since my time in the Center -- and it's been near 20 years now and I've done a lot -- that crack has never been and I don't think ever will be put back together. And that's a good thing to me.

Honestly, it feels like the root or foundation to liberation. No matter what happens or how bad I become or behave, it can be said that I'll never be deluded into thinking the things of the world are permanent or satisfying.

Then comes that next piece -- engagement as you call it -- in which experiences with the things once shunned in the Center are used to "root out the guilt associated" with these experiences, which guilt we picked up along our spiritual journey or before.

I think once you've done that work, you begin to become truly useful in the world as a force for the kind of spiritual change we'd all like to see.

Good stuff, Markus. Keep it coming!

Markus said...

Thanks for your encouragement and for having this blog. It has really started a new phase in integrating my experiences at the Center and thinking deeper about what it all meant. (It's just something that you can't talk about with anyone that hasn't experienced it--or at least it's not quite the same)