Thoughts on Western Renunciation

Clouds heavy with rain and an eerie mist have given today an introspective energy and I wanted to share some new thoughts and musings.

As I mentioned in the last blog, I’ve been reading Living with the Himalayan Masters, a collection of Swami Rama’s adventures compiled by his disciple Swami Ajaya.

The book is almost like a collection of biblical parables. The chapters are short, and center upon one or another extremely interesting story from Swamiji’s life. (How one person could experience so many interesting things is beyond me.) He does not bother with hyperbole or poetic language — it is not uncommon for him to reduce a period of two years into one sentence. At the end of these concise yet revealing stories, he tends to finish by expressing the wisdom and lessons learned from that particular scenario. The reader gets the fun and exciting stories of the highlights of a Himalayan renunciate’s life in tandem with profound knowledge transmissions gained from his direct experience. So it’s quite addicting.

…But also slightly poisonous.

“Why poisonous?”, you might ask. Surely a little bit of light-hearted spiritual literature can do nothing but good, bringing a deeper knowledge of yogic tradition and a glimpse into the romantic side of the renunciate lifestyle. But that latter part is a bit of a problem for me. The quasi-escapist notions of wandering the Himalayas, dreaming of spending years in disciplined practice, and sacrificing all physical and emotional attachments for spiritual awakening all seem like a pretty damn good idea. The poison – this beautiful poison – lies in the fact that things are alright at this moment and leaving it all behind would be so very, very hard.

This is not the first time I’ve considered the renunciate lifestyle. When I was 18, I left home quite abruptly and drove to Oregon without a plan. I ended up discovering a hybrid sort of community that is best described as a “spiritual development center”, and spent the better part of a year practicing meditation and studying Yogic philosophy. I took to the practices so well and with such zeal that I felt I might make a good sannyasi (Yogic monk/renunciate). However, life circumstances brought me back in university, where I vowed to complete my degree once and for all before moving onwards. Now I am once again feeling the pull of some sort of devoutly spiritual lifestyle.

It is extremely easy to “forget” about spiritual aspirations when engulfed in the world of youthful university lifestyle. Parties happen, substances happen, music festivals happen, and slowly but surely practices become chipped away. Now that I am able to spend my days in a karma yoga flow, and spending more time per day in meditation, I am being reminded of that which I love so deeply. I am deeply grateful to the amazing people at Sea to Sky Retreat Center for holding such a sacred space. The influence of community is not to be underestimated. No man is an island. Just like water eroding enormous mountains to the ground imperceptibly over time, so is the influence of those we surround ourselves with. I will be the first to admit that my friends are amazing people, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have such beautiful beings in my life. To all of my friends, I love you. I am in no way implying that my life has been negatively influenced by those whom I choose to interact with; rather, a long-brewing realization is starting to crystallize within me: I truly desire to devote my lifestyle to one of single-pointedness, fixation upon a single direction. It is becoming clearer and clearer that this direction will be spirituality. After experiencing and learning for myself the importance of sangha (community), should I be striving to live a lifestyle in which I am interacting with others who share this goal? Swami Rama says:

I have a firm conviction that no one can be enlightened by anyone else, but sages inspire and give inner strength without which self-enlightenment is impossible. In today’s world, human beings do not have any examples to follow. There is no one to inspire them, and that is why enlightenment seems to be so difficult. Great sages are the source of inspiration and enlightenment.

I don’t live in a world where I can walk to a straw hut outside of the city to have audience with a wise old hermit. Quite honestly, I don’t even know if these sages are to be found anywhere in Eastern Asia anymore! I mean, this book was written in 1978 — India has been westernizing, modernizing and capitalism-ing for over forty years since Swami Rama wandered the Himalayas. But his advice in the above quote need not be interpreted so literally. Taken more generally, Swami Rama is advocating here to spend time with spiritual role models and those who are travelling the same path as you so as to stay inspired and challenged.

Is renunciation possible in the west?

As I mentioned, I am not living in India. Canada and the United States are not known for a rich history of wandering sadhus and hermits. Homeless beggars do not get their bowls filled by citizens here. Renunciation is (or was, at least) honoured in India as a noble path. Here, our society is motivated by free-market economics, and if you are without material possessions and reliant on others’ goodwill to survive, you are an abject failure and deserve nothing. I don’t see any way to clearly discern purposeful renunciation with a “failure to thrive”, and thus do not expect that a hypothetical western renunciate would receive special treatment for any reason.

Even if one was to renounce all worldly goods, grab a bowl and a walking stick and begin trekking, things would be more difficult than in the East. We are young. Spiritual civilization basically began in ancient India — there are thousands of years of wisdom teachings and spiritual paths to be handed down in dozens of languages. In other words, there are more teachers, the sages which Swami Rama speaks about. Renouncing in the West is truly blazing one’s own path. In the Rocky Mountains, there will not be that guru in a cave which you seek. Perhaps a bear. This land has a rich history of Native American spirituality, but a systematic genocide by our predecessors has all but erased that. Now we have nothing ancient.

It would seem that running to the East is the only way to renounce in the traditional sense. But wait — that’s not traditional at all! I am not from Bhutan. I do not speak Nepali. The Himalayas are not my backyard. To travel across the world to chase the stories of a different generation is a romantic idea, but I should not be deluded into thinking there is tradition in this decision. On the other hand, the notion of a westerner travelling to the East for a “spiritual journey” is so common as to be cliched these days, meaning that a hypothetical caucasian renunciate would not be so out of place wandering around. More familiarity and friendliness from the locals would go a long way. And language? Well, English is (was?) India’s official language (thanks to British Colonialism), which seems nice in theory. The small villages, especially those surrounding the Himalayas, are full of many local dialects. Learning the language would be an essential task.

Shedding the big attachments

Renouncing, by definition, involves leaving behind all material possessions. The car, the tent, the drum, etc. All things. Meh – no problem! What are things, anyways? The physical aspect is the easy part, though. What about the emotional attachments?

Yogic sannyasi renunciates take a vow to forget their past lives, and are told not to talk about the past life before their renunciation. They even get a new name — they have been born again into a new section of life. Could you leave your significant other behind? How about your mom and dad? Your brothers and sisters? All your friends? Could you do this forever? I don’t know if I could. There’s not much to write on this, but a lot to think about.

The romantic notion of renunciation is also the most superficial aspect. Although wandering between secluded mountain caves and developing esoteric powers from deep meditation is all well and good, there is much hardship. Much. It is truly a difficult path. The lowest rung of Mazlow’s hierarchy — our most basic needs — are dependent upon the flow of the cosmos. With even the slightest doubt in the earnestness of one’s path, it could quickly become dangerous. Unflinching determination and clarity on the goal — tuning fully in to one’s dharma — results in all vital needs being fulfilled. Or so I am told.


Many people have reached enlightenment without needing to subscribe to the lifestyle of the renunciate. (Adyashanti, Gabriel Cousens and Eckhart Tolle come to mind.) For that matter, renouncing is not a pre-requisite for any spiritual attainments. This is vitally important to keep in mind when considering such a drastic path. As always, there is a spectrum of options. One rung down the ladder of austerity is a monk in a monastery. In such a situation, there is minimal material attachment, but food and shelter are not a daily concern. On the other hand, the environment is geographically constricted, and usually goes in tandem with quasi-religious ceremony and ritual, and the daily schedule must be followed (as opposed to created by you). It obviously makes more sense to stay within society while striving to deepen one’s practices, although this task is no easier than any other route to awakening. There is also the route of householder — working in the world while striving to stay unattached to it. The idea of working a job and having a family while successfully practicing non-attachment and selflessness in one’s actions seems incredibly daunting. To me, it almost seems harder than the sannyasi lifestyle!

Hmm. Lots to ponder.

This kind of stuff has been ruminating in my head lately, but I don’t think I’ll be dropping out of school or selling Luna the wondervan anytime soon. (i.e; Don’t worry, mom.) Despite the urgency I am feeling about doing things right now, I am fairly certain I will survive if I wait one more year before doing anything drastic. Hopefully. But I will be moving forward throughout the summer and paying attention to how I could see myself pursuing spirituality in a major way.

– The Silly Sadhaka


13 thoughts on “Thoughts on Western Renunciation

  1. Bharat

    I’ve been reading works of the late Doug Boyd lately. You may enjoy “Rolling Thunder” “Mad Bear” “Mystics, Magicians, and Medicine Men”. All these about spirituality and mysticism in North America. I am about to read “Swami”.

  2. noellapiquette

    Hello wonderful Sadhaka,
    Fabulous ruminations. The internal journey appears to be a hard fought one, complete with the dramatic intensity that harkens a life shift. The dichotomy of a lengthy, profound internal move and the physical sojourn that one can take is quite interesting – which one represents the truth of a renunciator? Does the mindfulness required to lead a purposeful, meaningful life equate with having to take action toward a physically demanding, potentially depleting journey? It seems to me that many of the spiritually led individuals whom I have been privy to know, that struck a balance between living their life, focus on the sole purpose of sharing their kindness and wisdom with others whilst engaged in life…not living in a monk’s cave where their knowledge will not impact on the masses. That balancing act was clearly not an easy one as there are many distractors, but that confidence in themselves, in their beliefs & values, and the power of relationships were mitigating factors in making that choice.
    You have the benefit of youth and stillness for the next few months to begin shaping how you want to/choose to live your life and share your incredible gifts. You also have the benefit of wisdom to tap into what journey you want to undertake…and whether it could be internal or external… or a simultaneous one.
    You are loved and supported.

    Here is a poem that I thought you would appreciate:

    Journey Home [Written by: Rabindranath Tagore – A Bengali poet, philosopher, visual artist, playwright, composer, and novelist from India.. Bengali polymath; 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature]

    The time that my journey takes is long and the way of it long.

    I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light, and pursued my
    voyage through the wildernesses of worlds leaving my track on many a star and planet.

    It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself,
    and that training is the most intricate which leads to the utter simplicity of a tune.

    The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
    and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

    My eyes strayed far and wide before I shut them and said `Here art thou!’

    The question and the cry `Oh, where?’ melt into tears of a thousand
    streams and deluge the world with the flood of the assurance `I am!’

    1. sillysadhaka Post author

      Thanks for your comment 🙂
      Swami Rama writes about Tagore in this book. In fact, he states that Tagore is one of the most inspiring beings he had ever met, and was incredibly determined and strong willed in his pursuit of awakening.
      It might not seem as if meditation in a cave is a recognizable service to humanity, especially with our inherent biases. Perhaps on a more subtle level, though, these mountain sages are providing much benefit. Regardless, this need not be a lifelong decision. It is very common for people to spend a few years in spiritual retreat before entering the world.

  3. Jo Ann

    Heyya…. well you’re right all this is right up my alley as I’m still immersed in the fragrance of the deep spirituality I experienced in India. I was drawn to becoming a nun (i’ll have none of that!) in my late 20’s, drawn to the Eastern traditions. However the more I pondered i realized I was in this life to be IN IT… not off on some far off mountain top meditating, far from the maddening crowd. Alas that was 30 years ago, and when my lifelong dream to go to India was realized this spring… I discovered the allure of the Indian mystic is still as great as ever and it was hard to come back to this Western reality.
    It is still true the sadhus and sages are everywhere, especially the higher up into the Himalayas that we got. Can you imagine folks walking barefoot or in sandals here with just a tin bucket for food along the Rogers Pass on the Trans Canada highway? Maybe here it’s more of the dreadlocks and backpacks on young folk with their thumbs out…. Oh does that sound like you?!
    Each morning we would get up before sunrise and go down to the Ganges to bathe and give flowers and fire offerings, followed by singing ‘aarte’ , then by karma yoga. The day would unfold and by sunset we were back down at the river to bathe, and to sing and pray, sometimes with 10,000 people. In the mountains I meditated in the cave of Babaji in Haidakhan, where he was found in the 1970’s, at age 170 years old, limber from his yoga practices. The spirit of an enlightened Master in my presence was palpable and potent in that cave.
    Even if the ‘idea’ that a spiritual journey to the East is ‘cliche’…. the experience is in the moment in an ancient culture that is very much alive today. Many paths lead us to the One, and if your path calls you to this extraordinary Mother India… then I say: listen.
    You will never be the same.
    Blessings ~*~

    1. sillysadhaka Post author

      Amazing comment Jo! It is relieving to hear that the modern era has not obliterated the spiritual vibrations of those lands. This is both heartwarming and motivating for future travels. After your description, I am impressed that you somehow managed to return to Canada!

  4. wanderingfeet

    Well don’t know about that… ! was prompted to comment as I stay close to Swami Rama’s Ashram in Rishikesh and follow the tradition.

    1. sillysadhaka Post author

      Wow! I would love to talk about the practices you follow (without breaching confidentiality, of course). How is the daily flow of life over there?

      1. wanderingfeet

        Hey… I suggest if you read my earlier posts you will know how I got there in the first place.(

        I am still a very much novice… and following is in the sense of practicing what I have learnt here… hatha yoga and breathing practices as taught by the teacher. And about tradition you can read it in the last chapter – ‘Our Tradition’ of Living with the Himalayan masters.

        And I am no renunciate 🙂 Swami Rama always said there is no path superior than the other… but detachment (vairagya)is the key… Live in the world doing your duties or sit somewhere in the caves makes no difference till you have mastered the mind, till you have learnt to let go.

        Of course I cannot comment on what is the path for you, but I’ll quote Swami Rama from one of his books: Path of Fire & Light, vol II

        “There are many paths that lead you to the height, to the summit. No path should be condemned; only ignorant people condemn other paths. In both the paths of the world – the path of the action and the path of renunciation, in both these major paths you have to be non-attached.
        This plane is a well know ground for our attainment. You have come here to attain something, and on the way towards that attachment you should enjoy your life. All the things of the world are meant for you; so enjoy them but do not have a feeling of ownership towards them, for the things of the world are not yours. Make them into means to attain your goal.”

        “It is not possible for you to abandon this work and the world, because you have assigned yourself duties. The call of duty is higher because you have to learn to fulfill your duties. You have to find a way of living in the world and, at the same time, being aware of the ultimate.”

        So Happy Exploration!

  5. Giriisha

    Well, you know it probably does not really matter too much , if you pick sannyasi or householder lifestyle. If you are committed, if you have signed up for the ride and climbed on board the rollercoaster. Then Paramapurusha will have no problem with providing you with the life experiences that you need for growth. Relax, the tools are all there: Yama and Niyama , ashtanga yoga and meditative practices. Work with them and just watch the fireworks begin to go off. If you are in a calm patch then work on your practices as much as you have the time. If things are going nuts then just hang on. As Neam Karouli Baba said to Ram Das. “RAM DAS! Cant you see its all perfect?

    1. sillysadhaka Post author

      Beautiful comment Giirisha. Yama and Niyama are powerful practices and I always forget about them. They seem to get lost in the romance of formal meditation and asanas.


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