Many spiritual traditions that have encouraged a more thoughtful approach to living have emphasised the need to turn away from behaviours or habits that either harm ourselves or others. Meditation, when first taken up, can sometimes throw into relief certain types of activities that stand in the way of leading a more mindful or ethical life. In fact, meditation can be a good way of judging for ourselves the effects of our own actions by the intrusiveness of the results of our behaviour on our ability to sit peacefully. This, in itself, can be a good gauge of what is wholesome and unwholesome in our lives. And yet the decision to limit the excesses of our actions often gets a bad name in our capitalist culture where we are encouraged to indulge ourselves and be a good little consumer.
Religion, on the other hand, has had a lot to answer for in attaching the idea of sin and guilt to some of these very same activities. From how we conduct ourselves in sexual matters to the excesses of our lifestyles have all come under the eyes of the moral thought police. By deciding that something we do is inherently bad, either for dogmatic or religious reasons, is to lose sight of its ‘context’ – when we do something, how often we do it and how it affects others have far more relevance than labelling it, ‘a priori’, as a sin or as something to feel guilty about. What we are looking for is balance. To start with, rather than categorising something as ‘bad’ we should begin by asking ourselves does it either exploit, or cause violence to, our fellow humans or other living creatures. To act appropriately in the world is to consider – will my actions bring more or less suffering? Renunciation need not be a life denying stance but rather one that takes all life into consideration.
This approach has found a voice throughout history, whether it is the ancient renunciants of India or the in certain anarchistic movements of the modern era. These lifestyles, often associated with a denial of excess or indulgence, are not all about giving up what is pleasurable. Renunciation of the most powerful kind is saying no to systems of thinking or power that seek to limit us in our capacity to be creative and to fully embrace the world in a way that is fulfilling. Nor is renunciation only found in the monk or the punk, but we see it from generation to generation in various movements that ask us to look twice at the choices we make in how we live our lives and conduct our business. Giving up certain habits and activities can actually enrich us and promote greater freedom and happiness.
Remember also that those in power do not like refusal. Simply to refuse is in itself a way of non-violently opposing oppression and injustice. This is the radicalism at the heart of renunciation. It is one sure way to truly change the world.
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