Because we feel lack in our hearts, we look for completion in the outside world. The moment we find something that makes us feel even a bit better then we felt before, we grasp that something, we get attached to it. It may be a job, a person, a possession, an idea, an emotion. It could be anything. Its only requirement is that it gives me that lost sense of comfort and pleasure and security and wholeness that I don’t find in my own heart.
The huge problem with attachment is that nothing in this world is permanent, and whatever I get attached to will sooner or later go. The moment it goes away I suffer. The bigger the attachment, the stronger the suffering.
This is nothing new, at least not new for people that can see a bit further than their immediate pleasure. And because of this, since the beginning of time those people that could see the problem of attachment have been attracted to renunciation.
Very often, people talk about renunciation as giving up all—or at least some—of the things one tends to get attached to. Traditionally, the way this is done is by moving away to a place where there are less attachments, like a monastery, or an ashram, or a cave, or simply the country side. Several people have mentioned to me their desire to leave everything and go to India or a place like that. I do believe that in this kind of renunciation there is something quite useful and interesting that can be done as an exercise, like a gym for the soul. I have done it myself.
But many times, especially in the Western world, this renunciation is more like running away from problems than a sincere understanding of the problem of attachment.
In my experience, there is a much more interesting renunciation, one that I can best describe as the deep understanding that nothing – NOTHING – belongs to me. And although this can also be used as an exercise, it is also the truth. We get very attached to things because we know that we can lose them, and we know this because deep in our hearts we know that nothing stays, that sooner or later everything will go.
In this practice, in this kind of renunciation, we don’t let go of the things themselves, we only let go of our attachment to them.
Of course one never knows how attached one is to something, until one loses that something. In general, the way we can lose something is because it is stolen, forgotten somewhere, broken (in the case of material things) or dead (in the case of living things). When any of these things happen (like for example loosing one’s phone) it can be quite difficult (actually, in the case of a phone it can be almost devastating :)). But, beside the difficulty (great or small), dealing with it can also bring the understanding that ‘nothing belongs to me’, and so it can make me see the level of attachment I have to whatever I have lost. To have something lost or stolen or broken can happen to anybody, anytime, anywhere. Besides dealing with the loss—which is something I need to do—I can also use this situation as a time to practice renunciation, to practice truth, to practice the understanding that nothing belongs to me.
Everything has been given to us for a short while to use and enjoy, but when the time comes, everything has to be returned. There is a beautiful quote from Epictetus, 2.000 years ago, that says:
‘Nothing can truly be taken from us because nothing truly belongs to us. Inner peace begins when we stop saying of things: “I have lost it”; but instead we can say, “It has been returned.”
– But the person that took it was a thief!
What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it, look after it as something for you to enjoy; but don’t view it as your own, just as a traveler sees a hotel.’
I have a personal example. For the last year or so, but especially for the last few months, I have been experiencing the loss of my youth. In my heart I feel very young and brimming with life, but still, something that has been very dear to me is going away. I can feel it in my levels of energy and I can see it in my face when I look into a mirror. I can clearly see that the beauty and power of youth is walking away. And this is something that will happen to everybody. No matter how rich or poor, no matter how happy or unhappy one is, no matter how healthy or unhealthy, everybody is going to experience it. Of course if one has more money one can do many more things to push away the realization that youth is going, to try to prolong youth a little longer. And people do, especially in our society. There are multi billion euros companies trying to sell to people the fountain of youth… but of course it is only business; we all know it does not work. Youth, like everything else is going away.
Nothing belong to us.
Now, some people may argue that although it is true that youth was given to us, a house (or any possession), a diploma, or even the family we have came out of our own hands. A person may say: ‘nobody gave me this money I have, I earned it with my own effort and work’.
OK, but who gave you the capacity to make those efforts? Who gave you the capacity to think about what efforts to make? Who gave you the body with which you could make those efforts? Who gave you the environment where you could make that effort? Who gave you the necessary energy? Who gave you the intelligence to chose the right kind of efforts? Who gave you the organs that could support life in order for you to make those efforts? And who gave you the air and the food and the light that you need?
Let’s say you are good at sports or at music or at business or at planning? Who gave you that capacity? One fine day you realized that for some reason your body or mind was good at some things and so you decided (with the capacity to decide that was also given to you) to make use of that ability and get better at it. But all these things were given to us, not for ever, but only for a while. We are like caretakers. Things are given to us, we can use them and enjoy them, but sooner or later, we need to give them back.
This body is going to go, for sure. There is no doubt about it.
But before that happens, we can practice this renunciation: ‘nothing belongs to us’. Everything that we have has been given to us by Life. I call it Life. At other times it could also be called God, or the Universe, or the Total. The name is really not important. What is important is the recognition that something bigger and more powerful than us has given us everything we have. And renunciation is the understanding that what is been given to me does not belongs to me and so it has to be returned.
I can learn to be grateful for what I have been given and also, I can learn to be open when those things are asked back. In more developed stages, I can even learn to give thanks when ‘the owner’ appears to collect ‘his’ belongings. But this wisdom can only dawn when whatever was given to me was used with gratefulness, and not with demand. This thankfulness is also known as peace.
Renunciation is recognizing truth. And truth is always liberating.