[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.