Vairāgya, in Sanskrit, roughly translates as dispassion, detachment, or renunciation. The big question on renunciation is ‘what is it that we are renouncing?’.
Is tyaag (sacrifice) of all our worldly possessions the same as renunciation? To understand this, I would like to draw from Yog Vashistha. There is a wonderful story of a king and queen who eventually realized the truth. While the queen realized it very early, the king decided that the way to enlightenment was austerity and penance. He left his kingdom in the care of his wife, gave up all his worldly possessions and moved to the forest where he performed severe penance for many years – so was this the right path to enlightenment? Not really, it just resulted in him being extremely frustrated and unhappy. This is a common confusion with initiates on the path to spiritual growth.
True renunciation does not lie in becoming a swami, going to the mountains, living in a ‘dharamshala’ and sleeping on the floor. Further, it can be attained by anyone—whether a multi-millionaire, yogi, student, farmer, doctor, prisoner or anyone else. It’s not what you have or don’t have; it’s your state of consciousness. This, of course, sounds very profound but let’s discuss what it really means. The renunciate is someone who rests in the joy of the spirit rather than that provided by the senses. A true renunciate enjoys what comes to them unsought, and does not chase desires in this illusionary world. In fact seeking enlightenment and forcibly renouncing worldly pleasures as the king also translates into intense desire as does the setting of milestones to measure spiritual progress.
If I were to put it in a single statement – someone who has overcome the attraction of the senses and is detached in terms of possessions, relationships and desires is a true renunciate.
Renunciation is a critical part of the journey towards enlightenment, however the way to look at it is not that you don’t ‘own anything’ rather it is to not let anything ‘own you’. Not your senses, not your mind, not your possessions, not your relationships and most of all not your ‘identity’. Remain established in the ‘self’. So how does one renounce all these ‘thinks’ and ‘things’?
A simple way to look at it is equanimity. When we remain unaffected by joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, likes and dislikes, we achieve equanimity. How then do we reach this stage. In this article we will examine one of the ways to get there, and that is the way of ‘acceptance’. When we see things just ‘as they are’ and not as they ‘should or should not be’ we develop acceptance. Apart from situations and scenarios that may occur externally, this also pertains to accepting ourselves. This does not mean inaction or making no effort towards correction and change. But once acceptance has permeated within, it lacks the emotion and you learn to accept yourself on an ‘as-is-where-is’ basis. I am not recommending a sense of futility or fatalism, which are both negative in connotation. Rather, saints often talk about ‘contentment’, the root of which lies in ‘acceptance’ which stems from a positive mindset.
Rabia of Basra, was a well-known Sufi mystic. Her approach to spiritual life won respect from many contemporaries. When people asked her, “When are servants of god content?” She replied, “They are content when they are as grateful for pain, as they are for pleasure.”
It’s a long journey, a journey which we have traversed across many lifetimes, and as we continue the path.
Let me share a great tool to build acceptance of oneself and others. It is known as pratipakshbhavana. This is one of the yogic mind practices that teaches you to cultivate a positive thought every time a negative one enters the mind. In other words, it is a device to create an opposite attitude towards thoughts or feelings that cause a disturbance in your mind.
In simpler words, it reflects an opposite viewpoint. When you receive thoughts about something your intellect does not like, you select an opposite thought to superimpose the disliked original one. For example, if someone is rude to you, instead of naturally developing animosity towards them, pratipakshbhavana teaches you to look at them in the opposite manner. You can convince yourself that maybe the person was going through stress and did not realize how they were speaking, or that perhaps it was your destiny to face a crude reaction from someone, or you can ask yourself if something you said initiated this reaction. These are just a few illustrations of how you can stop the other person’s behavior from hurting you.
As a golden rule instead of looking at the rate of success, look at the rate of decreasing failure.Maharishi Patanjali remarked, “Expose the mind to constant thoughts of anger and resentment, and you will find these anger-waves build up anger-samskars, which will predispose you to find occasions for anger permeating your daily life. A man with well-developed anger-samskars is said to have a bad temper.”
Once a guru was questioned , “What should I do if I get sensual thoughts while treating women?” He smiled as if he had been asked that question a hundred times before. He said, “While treating women visualize her as an infant and then an old lady.” This was a unique example of a kind of pratipakshbhavana, where you superimpose not an opposite emotion but a variation of visualizations to avoid a negative one.
I urge you to think about a game of cricket. Technically, it is almost impossible to see a ball at 100 miles an hour and then decide how to play it. Few batsmen can do that. So how do they hit a ball that moves faster than one can think? It is called practice. It also leads to muscle memory.
You have to go to the nets and keep practicing till you know what to do. You need to understand that you will improve, but only a little at a time. And so it is with spiritual practices.
Even when struggling to accept yourself, you can look at the flip side and say, “These days, I dislike myself less” and then say, “I hardly dislike myself”, which will eventually lead to a feeling wherein you will not dislike yourself at all.
From here on, I pray that you can start accepting yourself unquestioningly.