13. Dying To Live

Reflections on the Via Negativa of Renouncement

Introduction -Thanksgiving, 1995

This morning, riding out to Glenbrook Hospital, I did a calculation. It is 95 days since my heart attack and cardiac arrest. I see this as a “second life”, one I almost did not have. This part of my life feels like a gift. It also gives life a “borrowed” quality. We are all living on “borrowed time”, though it is rare to think of it that way. Mostly we feel ownership of our time, of our lives. We own them. This is certainly better than to feel we are living as if someone else owned them. Too many people – perhaps most – have that experience. But, neither do we really own our lives either: we have been created. The first part of my life was a gift, too, but I never really saw it quite that way.

The spirit of renouncement is to realize one never truly owns anything. We are responsible for things, for our actions, thoughts and so on. We should be stewards, responsible caretakers for the world’s wealth. But possession is always temporary and this temporariness is easily mistaken for permanence. Can I give thanks with my life? In some very simple, deeper way, I understand (if that is even the right word) renouncement more clearly. We are born and die naked. In between, what matters are our connections, relationships with the Whole. The Whole includes all the parts, what theologians call the Immanent, what we might call “daily life”.  The Whole is not something separate from the parts.

Two nights ago, I had a conference with a woman who works in a factory. Her work is packing. She spends her days packing goods to be shipped, something she had not really considered before having this job. It is fairly boring but she is able to think during the work time and pray because her mind is not really used very much in this work. As we spoke, she reminded us both of the enormous amount of human labor that goes into manufactured goods, this despite all the machines. That night, as I unbuttoned my shirt to undress and go to sleep, I thought of all the people who were involved in its manufacture and shipping and sale to me. This denim, dark blue shirt, made in Korea, took on a different quality, a quality of aliveness, a quality of humanness, that it did not quite have before. It became a connection to the Whole, very tangible and, until then, unnoticed.


“Language is a tailor shop where nothing fits.”

— Rumi

There is a paradoxical nature to truth that is difficult to write about without sounding either obvious or opaque. However, it is into this realm that I should like to go, looking at the process of what is sometimes called “spiritual unfolding” as a continuous dying, from which a fresh present is continually reborn. The name of these little deaths is “renouncement” and it is the Way of Renouncement not so much as idea, but as process, that I would like to explore here. One’s only authority in this field is the experience which comes with working with these ideas for over twenty years both individually and with others as part of Cafh Order. For at the center of Cafh as a spiritual road of individual transformation, is the notion of renouncement.

Renouncement is not a word or attitude which seems to have much promise. In fact, it almost seems to suggest the very opposite of what any sane person would want. However, renouncement is a bit like tea. If we try to eat tea leaves directly, they are bitter and unpalatable. If  they are steeped in the hot water of life, though, their essence is released and plain water is transformed into something else. As a powerful idea, renouncement can be misused. It doesn’t fall under the rule that “if a little is good, more is better” and like sacrifice, which is an aspect of renouncement; it has a long and checkered history. Therefore, I am writing this with some trepidation, knowing, too, that renouncement is the soup bone of spiritual life, that which puts protein in the soup. In some form or other, it is at the center of all the great religious teachings, though often veiled. I hope a veil can be lifted a little on this central idea, an idea that, one hopes, will be more prevalent in the life of the world than it is now.

II. The Golden Rule

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It is has always seemed to me that the Golden Rule, whether in the form above, or some other variation, goes a long way in directing morality, and, if actually followed, would lead to a very different world. At the heart of the injunction to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the importance of relationship with others. We are social creatures and depend on each other for our material, emotional, intellectual and spiritual well – being. Our tendency, though, is toward self – centeredness, and using others for our own ends. Can we renounce that tendency, and, with it, the desires that are spawned, leading to fear, conflict, exploitation and violence to one another? This, of course, is no small order, but it is a good place to get a footing on the slippery slope that is renouncement, for the formal definition of renounce is “to give up” and, in particular, to give up a possession, a claim or a right. But, which claim or possession or right? This is sometimes trickier that it may seem. For example, if I had a talent for playing basketball, should I renounce it because it gives me many rewards? If I had a great deal of money or power, should I renounce them because it is inherently selfish to have wealth or power? There seem to me to be no easy, pat answers to these kinds of questions, but if one recognizes that renouncement is essentially an act of relationship and not one of self – denial, then one is guided toward different questions. These questions are more centered in the web of relationships within which we live than ideal principles.  Thus, the questions posed above might be rephrased and posed as how can I best use my talents, wealth or power to enhance my relationships with the world around me?

In this regard, though, we can endlessly fool ourselves. Who doesn’t equate his or her own happiness with that of the world? Who doesn’t think his or her self – interest isn’t noble and who cannot rationalize anything? Very quickly, when one begins to go into the issue of renouncement, honestly, we begin to see not only the value of self – knowledge and dispassionate reflection, but the absolute necessity for it. For we may have many external freedoms, such as freedom of speech or freedom to travel, but it doesn’t take too much insight to see how we are controlled by our emotions, opinions and all that we have been formally and informally, taught. We are the culture we live in. We are its assumptions, its values and so on. To be able to “see” it, we need, to some degree, to get out of it. We need to break our identity with who we think we are. It is said that fish do not notice water, just the way we don’t notice the air. Culture is similar. We notice the assumptions when we travel or are confronted by someone who doesn’t share those assumptions, but most of the time, they are just a given we don’t question. In order to renounce, one needs to question.

III. Questioning

“So you have to question the very validity of experience – your own experience or the experience of anybody else… Then, by questioning, enquiring, asking demanding, looking, listening attentively, the reactions of the old brain become quiet, [though] not asleep. It has come to that quietness through observation, through investigation.” 1

There are many ways to question. There is a destructive way of questioning that is not so much a questioning as a negation. But, there is also a gentle, persistent, interested questioning that is a means of going deeper and deeper into reality. It is this latter type of questioning that opens up new ways of perceiving, to break up our conditioned ignorance, which is really a systematic ignoring. Questioning is a means to go beyond the surface, the superficial, the easy dogmas to which we so easily cling like the wreckage of a storm at sea. For life is much more permeated by the unknown and punctuated by storms that we might like. Questioning opens our perceptions, and changing the way we perceive often leads to changes in the way we behave and relate to the world around us.

All of the great advances in the scientific understanding have begun with the questioning of the assumptions and understandings others have had about that world. Again and again they teach us that our naive perceptions about reality are misleading. The history of science has been that of one humbling discovery after another. However, these discoveries have also brought the technological innovations that have transformed the world and the lives of virtually all human beings. Older paradigms are renounced regularly in science as are older paradigms in every field of inquiry as more and more humans study in those areas than ever before. It is true that all this change does not always lead to greater comfort, but is false security the kind of comfort we really want? Something in the human spirit is not so easily satisfied.

A similar process of inquiry into the nature of not only the world around us, but our very selves, is not only possible, but liberating. To see the conditioned reactions, the stereotyped patterns of repetitive thoughts, feelings and behavior, which determine so much of our lives, is to begin to be able to break those patterns. Until we are aware of these patterns, we are controlled by them, unconsciously, unwittingly, feeling free, but actually, paradoxically, enslaved by ourselves.

Questioning is part of the Way of Renouncement. It may not be so easy to grasp hold of Truth (with a capital T), but it is not that hard to observe our self deceptions, rationalizations and conditioned reactions to life, and to develop an attitude of renouncement toward them, an attitude of letting go. If we were to imagine renouncement as a mudra, or sacred gesture, it would be that of a grasping hand slowly opening, letting go of its grasp. In a nutshell, that is the whole movement. There is an old saying that the human is born with clenched fists ready to conquer the world and dies with open hands, letting go. How much damage do we do with those clenched fists and can we need live in a different way in a different way before old age or death?  

How to question? Who to question? What to question? I imagine this questioning process as using a shovel or a spade to soften up the ground, to prepare it for new growth. Questioning is necessary but not sufficient. One needs seeds for growth also. Something that first exists as a possibility, a dream, an ideal, lives first in the mind. It is there that it needs to be uncovered first. Realization is the making of it into reality. Meditation is a means of questioning.

IV. Meditation Practice

“Meditation is to find out if there is a field which is not already contaminated by the known.”

— Krishnamurti

If our thoughts and feelings tend to run in ruts, in patterns, so do our questions. They can be as predictable and circular as anything else about which we think. In science, as in other fields, the big changes, the truly revolutionary advances, were not predictable, not expected. In order to see something fresh, we need to know about it, care about it, and then, paradoxically, forget what we know. While great scientific discoveries or creative leaps occur after much work and effort is made, there is also an element of spontaneity, unpredictability which cannot be controlled. At best, one can try and create conditions where the likelihood of this happening is enhanced. Meditation practice is one systematic way to create such conditions.

The preparation for meditation practice includes embracing a state of not knowing. If I already “know”, then questioning is not sincere and is only going through the motions. In “not knowing”, one renounces their current “knowledge” and opens up to a different way of seeing or understanding. We remember the profound mystery which is the human condition and rather than react in fear, try to stay with that mystery, to let it be a means to opening. We can use an unfamiliar image, an odd perspective to see a familiar situation, problem or relationship in a new way. Here renouncement is to embrace that which is different and include it in our awareness. Rather than the kind of exclusionary attitude that so easily and naturally develops when we live life based on our likes and dislikes, preferences that come very close to prejudices, an attitude of inclusion is fostered by renouncement. Nothing is the final answer, the ultimate truth. Every realization can go further and what is fostered in all of this is an open ended quality. Of course, we tend to “close” things up all the time, find secure answers and stick by them. Renouncement as attitude is the holy “doubt” that moves us from stagnation.

To meditate, one first needs to recognize the inner discourse of thought that is flowing and discover the awareness that is not that discourse. Often, we are so identified with those thoughts and feelings that it is a surprise to realize that we are not them. But, when we do, we can find a spacious awareness in which these patterns still exist but do not control us. In this regard, we renounce our identification with the thoughts and feelings. We can realize that we are more than the fears and desires that are so often the hidden motors behind our thinking. We can allow something new to enter our consciousness and that something new comes from the unconscious. For, psychologically speaking, so much of our behavior, thoughts and relationships are unconscious, pushed aside for various reasons. When we break the spell of consciousness, it allows the deeper aspects of what is in our minds, the “unconscious” to connect with our consciousness, and we begin to use the other “90%” of our brains which lie fallow, more potential than anything else.

To break the identification with the inner discourse, to let it die, is also to break the identification with the illusion of separateness which is so central to our whole way of thinking. It is to open up to the vast network of relationships of which we are part and to understand ourselves as part of the Whole. Renouncement opens up a view of life where “me” and “mine” are not longer the ends to which life moves, but attitudes and obstacles to be overcome.

V. Participation

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

It is only when death gets very close, and we are able to grasp the fact that, individually, “all this” will end for us, as it has for billions of other human beings, that we face life realistically. Until then, illusions of immortality, unending life and time extending forever unconsciously pull us, while, at the same time, the fear of death unconsciously pushes us. Only when death gets very close and personal, do we realize that we know so very little of the nature of reality, from whence we come and to where we go. And only when we are face to face with death do we truly recognize the vanity of so many of our pursuits. To look into life with the background knowledge that everyone we know and meet will die is to look through a different lens. It is to see more clearly, more poignantly, with an appreciation of life’s “little” things. It is to add a dimension to life where gratefulness and impermanence combine, giving all things and moments a different depth.

The day or two after the heart attack and cardiac arrest, I asked to read Meister Eckhart’s sermon called “Blessed are the Poor.” I had read it many times before, but it was surprising to me that this was the first serious writing that I wanted to read. In it, though, he speaks of having nothing, knowing nothing and wanting nothing, a complete annihilation of the ego. While this may be easy to imagine in church or in temple, or in a hospital bed, it is not so easy to live in daily life. We are complex, with contradictory and complicated motives. We tend to live and relate through our egos. For a few moments, or with long years of ascetic practice, we may be able to be the simple souls that we are, but it is not easy to sustain this. The demands of daily life are daunting. It is one thing to have a glimpse of a better way of living, quite another to actually be able to live it. That is my dilemma now, and I suspect the dilemma of many of us. Renouncement does not come gift wrapped, looking very attractive. It may not even be the best approach to life for most people who need the motivation of desires and the assuagement of fear in order to get up each day. On some days I feel that way, too. However, in the long run, the daily effort to renounce leads one to living at a higher order of life whereby those desires and fears do not disappear but can sometimes be transformed into a sense of participation, the sense of living a universal life. Then, one is no longer a separate person, privately suffering, but instead, a human, living the human experience. Then, suffering no longer encloses, but opens one to those around us, and we are ever more strongly connected to the world in which we live.

In her space novel, Shikasta, the first of the Canopus in Argos: Archives series, Doris Lessing describes a period in the pre- history of the planet Shikasta, which is our earth, when Canopus, an essentially divine force, “was able to feed everyone with a rich and vigorous air, which kept everyone safe and healthy, and above all, made them love each other.” This “finer air” is called SOWF, “substance – of – we – feeling”. I can think of no better description of participation in a mystical sense than this. It is the sense of being in union, essentially part of Creation. It is to live in sacredness. This, it seems to me, is the secret joy that is at the center of the Way of Renouncement. It is a joy that is difficult to describe without sounding sentimental in these cynical times. But it is a joy that is real and sustaining in the best of times and the worst. It is at the heart of all religions. It is at the center of all spiritual practice.

It is the paradox that only in giving do we receive and the only true giving is that where there are no expectations of reward. Expectations, however, die hard. We cannot consciously control them. We cannot consciously let them ago, except in a superficial way. We can have an attitude toward expectations of renouncement, but that is different than when they are no longer there.  Herein, though, lies that territory called “inner work”, the challenge of spiritual life.

VI. Inner Work

Of five – billion
I am.

Universal, Prototypic Human
Struggling with
Culture – conditioned, personality identified
To be born anew.

To see
Right – perspective,
Proper – scale:
My sacred nothingness
as one
of five sacred billion.

To interiorize this
As the Antidote
To the Poison of the Conditioned
self – believing,
self – centered,
success – oriented,
twentieth century, control oriented,
Persona of
Who I thought I was.

The human soul
One Soul:
All in me,
Me in all.

Infinitesimal, transient me
Obscure birth,
Obscure death:
Obscure life,

The seed of New – Prototypic Human
Has been sown.
The direction is clear:

The work must be done now.
To live as
One of five billion,
Not as a bee in a hive,

The best in me,
Wanting nothing personally: if only that is to
Again and again
That means.

  1. Krishnamurti. The Book of Life. “October 20”. HarperSan Francisco, 1995.