Renunciation complements solitude, and is a nuanced expression of solitude, disengaging the self from aspects of its environment that do not complement the life of solitude. Thus renunciation has a psychological component as well as a spiritual one, the former addressing the self in the world and the latter intended to further assist the solitary in more integrative endeavors.
Renunciation is not mere abstinence but a conscious decision about one worldly practice at a time, culminating in a holistic self-discipline. Each object addressed is seen as negative, life-stealing, an “unnecessary.” Each renunciation strengthens the self for the next level, the next encounter with the world. The conventional sense of abstinence is not to pursue or partake of something for a given time, for example, religious abstinence from flesh on certain days or seasons. The conventional sense pales in efficacy when one understands that the whole business of eating flesh can be renounced for many good reasons, not all spiritual. In this example, then, the self breaks the limits of society and institutions and proves to itself that renunciation is an intrinsic good. Such anthropological versions of abstinence are useful among the common people for whom even these are sacrifices; they keep good order in their lives. But the solitary does not need such devices after recognizing not only the efficacy but the strengthening that renunciation provides.
Renunciation is entirely up to the individual in defining bounds, objects, and uses. Because renunciation is both horizontal (in terms of objects and cultural contexts) and vertical (in terms of spiritual and psychological efficacy), each individual must choose. Nor can one practice be disparaged and another elevated. The cultural abstinence of religions, for example, is the collective soul’s remembrance, and every tradition incorporates it. To the degree that it is weakened, so, too, is that tradition weakened. But for individuals, renunciation is not intended as sacrifice or self-punishment but as self-discipline, strength, enlightenment, and equanimity.
Renunciation rises to an ethical imperative for the conscious practitioner. Renunciation is not temporal in the sense of being indefinite because then it would hold out the possibility of reversal in the subconscious mind. Hence, while renunciation rises to the level of personal ethics, in part to confirm and convince the subconscious, it is an entirely self-sufficient act, not depending any more on logical or traditional practice or guilt.
Cultural exemplars exist but they remain lofty and unfathomable to the average aspirant — intentionally so because renunciation ought not to be thought of as easily attained. Too easy and the exercise becomes merely a group identifier. Too lofty and the exercise is unattainable. Too strange and renunciation is violently rejected, labelled as abnormal. Each objection is a plaudit of the world, even of conventional religious authorities, who want to scare off extremes and maintain a comfortable indifference and numb acquiescence among their followers. Such arguers show the lack of spiritual practice in their own lives.
Austerities, as they are called in the East, are not Western-style self-flagellation or wearing of hair-shirts. Austerities address the carnal appetites, quietly changed by force of habit and by a deep understanding of the moral truths behind the aspects of health and utility. The moral scandals of presumed practitioners of celibacy in religious institutions today have nothing to do with excessive austerities overwhelming the self, but everything to do with a fundamental indifference to spiritual practice in the institutions, and by social cultivation of narcissism, which feeds mental vanities of pride as well as bodily instincts unaddressed due to the absence of psychological and spiritual exercises.
How far does renunciation go? Everyone thinks of food, drink, sex — the favorites pleasures, the universal pleasures. But renunciation in these spheres is the easiest part. Some people combine their renouncing: spouse and house, property, worldly career or profession, money — all integral aspects of a daily life that constitutes the social norm. Renunciation is negative: not this, not that. Eventually, renunciation is not anything: not becoming, not being, a folding into emptiness. But it must begin with small practices, always in solidarity with a responsibility that is both moral and practical. What good to give up that which helps the spiritual path? Perhaps not everything is to be renounced? The individual must decide. Whatever does not help is where renunciation must first begin.
As we cannot renounce the self that we never sufficiently developed, so, too, we cannot renounce that which we do not understand. That is the nature of social and institutional instruction, in effect leaving the individual at the mercy of guilt and punishment. The solitary must first understand the object of use, the apparent need and utility, and having grasped this can begin to understand the benefit of renunciation. For example, why not renunciation of time as the first step: 15 or 20 minutes of sitting, renouncing noise, distraction, schedules, busyness? That emptiness is the most valuable part of the form which is our self. “Form is emptiness,” is the Zen saying, pointing to the space within the clay pot as the value of the form, for the space holds all the potential. Beginning in this way, renunciation is a natural process.
Renunciation complements solitude in maintaining the emptiness of form, the deepening emptiness sought in confidence and happy reassurance. Renunciation is the solitary ability to relate to the world and simultaneously to shift between the world’s forms and the world’s ultimate emptiness.