raven on the wind
raven on the wind

photo by Greg Rosenke

We all desire relief from the background of unease, dissatisfaction, or restlessness that tends to accompany us everywhere we go when we are in a mind state of wanting, or its mirror image twin not-wanting. Leo Tolstoy famously called the feeling of boredom “the desire for desires”. Feelings of wanting/not-wanting can be so powerful that acting on them seems absolutely necessary. So, when unexamined, our automatic reaction is to avoid or escape the discomfort by distracting ourselves or doing things we believe will bring us comfort.

Like all emotions and urges, wanting/not-wanting shows up in the body as well as the mind. When they’re present, we may notice a feeling of pressure, tightening, tensing, or a sense of closing down or withdrawing. We may also notice urges to avoid, to feel some other way, or to be someone or somewhere else. Though we intellectually know many of our go-to habits aren’t serving us well, our vulnerable human brains trick us into minimizing the suffering we will experience later and over-valuing a moment of relief now. We can act like gamblers, willing to risk the high likelihood of suffering in exchange for a remote chance of lasting relief.

We easily get caught up in the imagined rewards of wanting/not-wanting and so we often respond by indulging these feelings. These unexamined experiences can be so compelling that it might not occur to us to let go or let be. In this way, we rarely get to experience their passing nature and soak in the consequences of non-indulgence. We discover something important when we’re forced to be with the experience of wanting long enough to notice its absence. Deciding not to act on our wanting uncovers truths that may typically be camouflaged by our drives or our habits. A dedicated mindfulness practice helps us become aware of our urges and gives us the choice not to act on them. This is renunciation.

Here are some ways you might be able to connect with your own lived experience of renunciation:

  • Reflect upon whether there was anything the pandemic forced you to give up that you now realize is unnecessary for your happiness or has brought a surprising sense of ease or unburdening. What has that felt like in your body?
  • If you’ve ever gone on retreat or had some other prolonged experience during which your choices were limited, you might ask yourself what you discovered in letting go of control, opinions and preferences. Were there any surprises?

“The ground of renunciation is realizing that we already have exactly what we need, that what we have already is good. So renunciation is letting go of holding back… seeing clearly how we hold back, how we pull away, how we shut down, how we close off, and then learning how to open… What one is renouncing is closing down and shutting off from life. You could say that renunciation is the same thing as opening to the teachings of the present moment.” – Pema Chodron

There is some interesting research that demonstrates how much of our wanting/not wanting is a phenomena of the mind with real consequences when unexamined. The data shows that more unequal societies suffer a lower quality of life, not just among the poor but across socioeconomic status. Scientists have found the mere perception of inequality is correlated with greater negative health indicators such as: higher crime rates including homicide, higher incarceration rates, increased bullying in schools, more teen pregnancies, lower literacy, more psychiatric problems, alcoholism and drug abuse, lower levels of happiness, less social mobility, and less social support.

  • Psychologist Nancy Adler of the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleagues have demonstrated that how people rate how they are doing, relative to others, is at least as predictive of health or illness as any objective measures, including level of income.
  • Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett of the University of Nottingham and the University of York in England demonstrated that poverty amid plenty (in other words, inequality) has worse outcomes than poverty itself in terms of infant mortality, overall life expectancy, obesity, murder rates, and more. The authors state, “Health is particularly corroded by your nose constantly being rubbed in what you do not have… With increasing inequality, [the wealthy] typically expend more resources insulating themselves from the world underneath the bridges… They spend more of their own resources on gated communities, private schools, bottled water and expensive organic food. And they give lots of money to politicians who help them maintain their status. It is stressful to construct thick walls to keep everything stressful out…” (Sapolsky, RM 2018; Scientific American).

While we tend to think of renunciation as deprivation, suppression, indifference, or loss, it’s actually a compassionate way of relating to the world, ourselves, and others because it reduces suffering. The Pali word for renunciation means “to go out” from a small, limited place to a wide open space. It means freedom from, focusing on what is gained versus what is lost – expansive rather than diminished. This stands in stark contrast with what mainstream American culture tends to value; freedom to. Like all of the beneficial qualities we can cultivate, this one can’t be rushed or forced. It takes gentle, patient and intentional  investigation so that we might directly experience the consequences of grasping/clinging and the rewards of letting go.

It can be difficult to discern sometimes between taking care of ourselves and indulging our wanting. We can investigate this by asking ourselves, “What is my intention?” or “What function is this serving? If we dare to renounce, what we find we’re letting go of is things like discursive thinking, barriers to kindness, attachment to material things, control of or comparison with other people, the need to be right, rigid views, and unnecessary fears. This frees up energy and space to live our lives more meaningfully and offers increased opportunities to incline toward our best selves.

Only a beige slat of sun
above the horizon, like a shade pulled
not quite down. Otherwise,
clouds. Sea rippled here and
there. Birds reluctant to fly.
The mind wants a shaft of sun to
stir the grey porridge of clouds,
an osprey to stitch sea to sky
with its barred wings, some dramatic
music: a symphony, perhaps
a Chinese gong.

But the mind always
wants more than it has —
one more bright day of sun,
one more clear night in bed
with the moon; one more hour
to get the words right; one
more chance for the heart in hiding
to emerge from its thicket
in dried grasses — as if this quiet day
with its tentative light weren’t enough,
as if joy weren’t strewn all around.

Holly Hughes, Mind Wanting More

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