Renunciation during Kali Yuga was very different from what it is today. In this new age of Dwapara Yuga we are able to understand, as Anandamoyi Ma said, that the essence of renunciation is to “feast on joy.” Here are her exact words:
The natural food for the mind is joy, and we’re always hungry until we find the ability to feast on that joy.
It is no use regretting that the mind is not stabilized. The mind is restless being starved of its natural food. Feed the mind, nourish it. Then it will calm down by itself. The food of the mind is perfect joy…. This perfect joy is inherent to our nature and the mind is aware of its taste.
All the great saints have said the same thing. Swami Shankaracharya defined God as satchidananda — ever-conscious, ever-existing, ever-new bliss. Bliss or joy is something we’re always seeking because bliss is our true nature.
When the bubble bursts
It takes a long time for a person to turn toward God. Paramhansa Yogananda explained that everyone in the world is motivated by exactly the same thing: the desire to be happy and to avoid pain. But as long as we identify happiness with the things of this world, the pursuit leads to disappointment. Swami Kriyananda has often said that the things of the world always break their promise.
Nonetheless, while we are still pursuing the object of our supposed happiness, we have hope, which leads us on. The bubble bursts when we achieve our goal, only to quickly discover that what we sought was not fulfilling. We think that fame is going to be the most wonderful thing, and that everybody will appreciate us. However, when we achieve that fame not only does it feel empty, but we’re imprisoned by it. We may even have to hide out in alleyways to avoid the paparazzi.
How do we learn the lesson? We learn it only gradually over thousands of lifetimes. We have to chase innumerable hopes before we reach the point where pursuing happiness through the things of the world takes on, as Paramhansa Yogananda put it, an “anguishing monotony.” Then we begin to hunger for something more permanent.
“The seeker rests in his own Self.”
For those wanting something more permanent, Patanjali, the most revered of the ancient proponents of yoga, offers the solution in his second aphorism: “Yoga chittas vritti nirodha,” yoga is the neutralization of the vortices of primordial feeling. The vortices of feeling are the patterns created by our attachments, our likes and dislikes, and our desires for the things of the world. As long as these vortices are active, even subconsciously, we’re caught in an endless loop of chasing desires, satisfying them temporarily, and then feeling hungry again.
Through meditation, and especially the practice of Kriya Yoga combined with deep devotion, we begin to neutralize those vrittis and free ourselves from the compulsion to seek happiness outwardly. If we neutralize them completely, we automatically find union with God. In this state, the seeker “rests in his own self” and feasts on perfect joy. Feasting on that joy is the goal of life.
Everyone, consciously or subconsciously, is seeking this state of total union. But until all the vrittis are calmed, it’s likely that we will turn again and again toward the familiarity of old habits and attachments.
Samadhi-affirming, not world-rejecting
During Kali Yuga, those who wanted to make spiritual progress took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in order to disengage from habitually seeking happiness through the things of this world. In this new age of energy, we need to move away from such a world-rejecting approach. The focus of renunciation is no longer on what we give up, on what we can or can’t do. The focus is on developing those attitudes which enable us to transcend the ego. Then we can feast on the joy of our own being.
Renunciation, in other words, is no longer world-rejecting, but “samadhi-affirming.” Our concentration is focused on achieving the joy of soul-freedom in God.
In the new renunciate order founded by Swami Kriyananda,* the various vows begin with essentially the same statement, “The purpose of life is to seek God.” Another way of saying this is that the purpose of life is to feast on joy and that renunciation is what leads us to that feast. Attachment to the world makes us think that we’re going find joy outwardly, but all we get are empty calories leaving us in constant hunger.
A new frame of reference
To become truly samadhi-affirming, we have to withdraw the mind from sense stimulation long enough to acquire a new frame of reference. This process is a bit like getting away from the bright lights of the city. If we live in the country, we can look up at the night sky and see a myriad of stars, but the bright lights in a city like Los Angeles obscure them. If all we knew was the view from Los Angeles, we could very easily end up believing there were very few stars in the sky. If we had no other frame of reference, why would we think differently?
Similarly, if we’re dedicated to a life that stimulates the senses, when we close our eyes we don’t see very much. But if we withdraw the life force from outer involvement and go deep in meditation, we begin to see not just a little bit of light but galaxy upon galaxy of light. Paramhansa Yogananda compared the light of samadhi to the light of thousands of suns, except, of course, that the inner light doesn’t burn our eyes.
Through the discipline of meditation and devotion, we gradually detach the life force and the senses from outward attachments and find the joy of our true self. The goal of renunciation is finding that feast of joy. Renunciation has very little to do with things we can’t do, except that we have to get away from the lights if we want to see the stars. We have to withdraw from sense stimulation, meditate, and go deep if we want to experience true bliss.
Struggle is necessary.
We heard a very interesting story some years ago. A family had some caterpillars that had woven chrysalises in a terrarium. The children were eagerly watching and waiting for the butterflies to emerge. The first butterfly chewed a little hole in the top of the chrysalis and then struggled and struggled until it finally squeezed out of that hole. After lying there exhausted, it gradually regained its strength. Its wings unfolded, and it became a beautiful butterfly.
When the next butterfly started to chew a little hole in the chrysalis, the family thought, “We don’t want the poor little thing to have to struggle so hard.” They cut a little hole in the top of the chrysalis, but as soon as the little butterfly emerged, it died. The family then realized that the struggle of getting through the little hole was what squeezed the fluids out of the butterfly’s wings and allowed it to survive.
There is always a sense of struggle as we squeeze out the old tendencies we think will provide fulfillment. Everybody wants perfect joy, but renunciation is not yet very attractive to most people in the world. In these early years of Dwapara Yuga, most people are still attracted to form and to seeking fulfillment outwardly. Consciously or subconsciously, we hold on to the thought, “Worldly consciousness isn’t evil. It isn’t so bad.” Unfortunately, we have to go through that struggle many times before we realize that the world will never give us the joy that we’re seeking.
Guidelines for feasting on joy
There are only a few principles of true renunciation. The first is that we see all of life as a search for God or Self-realization. The more we focus on that goal, the more we become attracted to Self-realization rather than to the glittery lights of the senses. The state of samadhi will allow us to finally achieve the bliss for which we hunger.
The second is to see non-attachment as a means of releasing us from old habits and giving us the freedom of thought to seek God. Non-attachment, in this context, applies ultimately to the ego. We need to transcend identification with the little self and the desire to be separate.
The third principle is selfless service. In a sense we should see even meditation as a means of service. One of Paramhansa Yogananda’s highest prayers is, “Lord give me Thyself that I may give Thee to all.” When we share whatever enlightenment we’ve attained with others, to help them evolve spiritually, we begin to see the unity beneath the diversity of outer forms. Then we feel kindness and respect for everyone.
As we live by these three principles, we begin to feast more and more deeply on the ever-new joy of our own being.
From a November 11, 2011 talk at Ananda Village.