Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Renounce and Enjoy

[This first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the January/February issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

When asked by a reporter to sum up his philosophy in three words, Gandhi replied, “Renounce and enjoy.”  It isn’t easy to summarize the complexity of Vedanta philosophy in three words, let alone 300, while at the same time conveying the essence of the world’s wisdom traditions. Maybe that’s why they called him Mahatma, the Great One.
And what is it to renounce? It is to relinquish the illusion of control, move out of the ego-mind and into a deep and restful state of acceptance and surrender. Renunciation is the conscious decision to stop resisting what is. When asked “What is your secret?” the great 20th century spiritual teacher Ramana Maharshi simply replied, “I don’t mind what happens.”
Yet for Gandhi renunciation was no sack cloth and ashes asceticism. The goal is not withdrawal from the world but full immersion. Free from the tyranny of our own ego demands, we are for the first time truly capable of experiencing joy. It is a terrible irony that the endless search for happiness is the very mechanism that generates perpetual dissatisfaction. Joy, it turns out, is our natural state. When we realize that happiness and joy are already inherently ours and not the result of the fortuitous arrangement of external circumstances, we loosen our grasp.
Renunciation and enjoyment are two sides of one coin – you can’t have one without the other. When you are truly enjoying something, you are accepting it as it is, you are surrendered to it, and you are aligned with it. And when you are accepting, surrendering and aligning, you are enjoying.
Yet how are we to practice renunciation in the midst of this busy, active life? Do we not set goals? Do we not strive to achieve them? If I practice renunciation, who’s going to do all this work?
In the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi’s favorite book, we read Krishna’s words of counsel to the beleaguered warrior Arjuna as he lies crumpled on the battlefield, paralyzed with anxiety. He knows that no matter what he does, terrible things will happen. For Gandhi the battlefield is a metaphor for the field of action in which we all stand. Each of us is the Arjuna of our own lives. We may not literally be warriors, but every day we face a daunting phalanx of rivals, impossible tasks and Sophie’s choices. When Krishna tells Arjuna to fight, he is telling all of us that life brings agonizing dilemmas, and we can’t opt out – we must act. Inaction and action both bear fruit. As Jean-Paul Sartre reminds us, when we do not choose, that is still a choice. There is no reprieve from our radical and inescapable freedom.
The only choice we have is what kind of action to take – selfish or selfless. Krishna tells Arjuna to act without attachment to the fruits of action. We must do the right thing, intend the highest good, and let go of the outcome. When we renounce attachment to results we become a channel through which the infinite good manifests itself.
Things will go wrong. Unintended consequences will unfold. Take action anyway. “Every action, every activity,” says Krishna, “is surrounded by defects as a fire is surrounded by smoke.” Practicing renunciation, we don’t cling to mistakes or define ourselves by them.
Beneath it all is the teaching of non-duality. Everything is a manifestation of the one divine reality, the Godhead Brahman. Therefore, everything that happens is ultimately a manifestation of Divine Mind. The only thing that can interfere with this sacred outflow are self-obsessed people trapped in ignorance, imposing their own limited and limiting agenda on the world. In renunciation we move out of self-will and into accord with Divine Mind becoming its instrument. Then even in the midst of conflict the background hum of divine harmony can be heard. Sometimes it even rises to the surface.
In 1943 my father Hilbert Bolland was taken from his native Holland by the Nazis to be a slave laborer in Germany. It seemed as if the world had come to an end. Yet during those long years of war, each spring the trees blossomed, the deer in the forest gave birth to fawns and the world renewed itself, oblivious to the travails of man. One evening, my father was startled by the trill of a nightingale singing unseen high in the boughs of a Linden tree, its beautiful melody drowning out the din of distant artillery fire. In that timeless moment he knew he was going to be alright. He knew that there was a sacred presence beneath the surface of things, an eternal ground of being upon which everything stands, far more real than any man-made mayhem. By surrendering to that we gain our footing, find our path and realize our joyful nature.


Scott Romney said...

Nice work, my friend! Graceful and well-paced, these words teach a familiar lesson very, very well.

Anonymous said...

Helpful and fluidly-written. I'm letting the words wash over me.

Do you have a recommendation for a very, very simplified yet meaningful version of the Gita?

I want to read more of the philosophy, like what you cited here. I have a brain injury that limits my ability to digest detail. Maybe a kid's version?

© Peter Bolland said...

Dear Blogger Profile, wow, what a GREAT question. I don't know of anything like that offhand, but I'm SURE it exists. The Gita is the most beloved spiritual classic in the Indian tradition, and there are countless film, cartoon, and graphic novel versions, as well as action figures, the whole nine yards. Try a search on Amazon. If it exists, they have it, and will soon be able to drone it to your house. Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Peter.

The (too many) options do speak to its belovedness. If you or your readers come upon one of note, I'll check back in here.

As for Amazon and its drones, I'm telling myself to 'renounce and enjoy'!

creativecompanion said...

I too have a brain injury. Here is not a book, but a video on Youtube in which the teacher speaks very slowly. Copy the following and paste it into Youtube:

Secrets of Bhagavad Gita (English) - Part1 - BK Usha

creativecompanion said...

Peter, thank you for your powerful talk today the the Unity Center. I had been asking for God's guidance in a very painful situation in my life. I received the message I needed to hear today through you. Renounce and Enjoy. Immense gratitude. Stay connected. You are a vessel of light.

Lori Brookes said...

Hi Peter,

Thank you for this one, all of them really. And this comes at one of those most divine of times. Right when I need to hear something, personally.

Blessed to have synchronistically stumbled upon you.