REFLECTIONS ON THE MIDDLE WAY AND RENUNCIATION AT THIS TIME OF YEAR
I would like to wish all of you good wishes and enjoyment in all the traditional and contemporary celebrations and events that you may be engaging in.
These include Christmas, Yule and New Year, and you may (or may not) celebrate them in different ways; they are an opportunity for some families and friends to get together, sing and eat, play and mark them in some ritual way. I am, however, fully aware that this time of year can be a difficult and confronting time for many people, and for a whole host of reasons. This Head’s Up is an offering to everyone, no matter how the season is upon you.
Growing up, I could not understand fully the pleasures and deeper sweetness of Christmas. I was blinded by my own excitement and desire for presents, food and great TV. The chaos of overindulgence and consumption often felt devoid of meaning and left me numb rather than connected to those around me. As an adult, in response to these experiences, I felt the need to go ‘underground’, to rest, recuperate and reflect at this dark time of the year. I wanted to reconnect and somehow sanctify this time.
I began to take myself to a retreat centre over this holiday. At first, for a few years, I went to a silent retreat centre. Later, and after some years working full-time as a teacher, I found that environment too austere and instead, spent a week on retreat where there was less silence, but much connection with the earth through walking and gardening, and with others through talking and cooking together.
In my own way, I was exploring a ‘middle way‘, and adjusting the conditions to enable me to engage productively in meditation, and reconnection. From the Mahavagga, an early Buddhist text (part of the Vinaya Pitaka):
There are two extremes which should not be followed, bhikkhus, [monks] by someone who has gone forth: Devotion to pursuing sense pleasure, which is low, vulgar, worldly, ignoble and produces no useful result;
And devotion to self-denial, which is painful, ignoble and produces no useful result.
Avoiding both these extremes, bhikkhus, the Middle Way that a Tathàgatha [a Buddha] has Awakened to
gives vision and insight knowledge, and leads to peace, profound understanding, full realisation and to Nibbàna. (Mv 1.6)
Although I am not a nun, I clearly felt the need for temporary withdrawal from my life, especially at this time of year and one of the qualities that I still feel moved to explore and develop in my own life is that of renunciation.
As a monastic, where there is a lifestyle of simplicity and restraint, renunciation is easy to perceive. The role of renunciation in the lives of lay Buddhists is not so easy to understand. We are not asked to renounce money, sex, or a varied wardrobe, or to shave our heads or to not eat after noon. Renunciation tends to get a bad press in the Western world, conjuring up images of depriving ourselves and unhealthy repression. We do not want to give things up!
However, renunciation is one of the ten ‘paramis’ in Buddhism. The ten virtues – or perfections – (paramis) are related to manifesting peace, understanding and loving-kindness. Nekkhama, or renunciation, has as its central aim, greater happiness and this is initially not that easy to understand with our (should I say, my) mindset. It means letting go, unburdening and releasing, both material and mental things that are toxic in our lives. Another parami, discernment or wisdom (panna) is important here: we should know what it is that we need to let go of.
We need to let go of whatever gets in the way of our deep happiness; that is, objects and patterns of attachment, aversion and ignorance. But how do we know what they are? In our culture, and at this time of year, we are actively encouraged to feel attraction, desire and excitement. Because this time of year is so extreme, I do feel it is easier to perceive the tension and suffering in these states. We could, perhaps just ‘watch our attraction and desire’ and remain still. Through openness to experimenting we can take time to reflect; does this mental or material thing actually lead to my deep happiness?
The practice of renunciation does not generate more suffering. In fact, it has a freeing quality. The Buddha recommended that his lay followers observe day-long periods of temporary renunciation. These were traditionally on the new-, full- and half-moon days. During these days, lay followers were to observe eight precepts (which added to the five precepts); celibacy, no food after noon, no watching of shows or listening to music, no use of perfumes or cosmetics and no use of luxurious seats and beds. This was to place some restraints on all five of the senses. The days are then devoted to studying the Dharma and meditating.
I am surprised at how contemporary and applicable these precepts are! Less easy, perhaps, is to free up whole days and align them with the lunar calendar. Nevertheless, there is room here for me to experiment with renunciation and its relationship to happiness.
Since I have had my daughter, the winter breaks have got decidedly more festive and the practice of renunciation harder to access. How valuable to her, though, for me to choose (for the sake of my own happiness) a middle way of moderation, both in terms of my interaction with objects and my behaviour or habits?
I wish you a joyous and contemplative break!
Who so has turned to renunciation,
Turned to non-attachment of the mind,
Is filled with all-embracing love
And freed from thirsting after life. (Anguttara Nikaya 5.55)