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