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Renunciation is not about pushing something away, it is about letting go. It’s facing the fact that certain things cause us pain, and they cause other people pain. Renunciation is a commitment to let go of things that create suffering. It is the intention to stop hurting ourselves and others. – Noah Levine, Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries
Asked if one had to renounce his or her possessions, Mahatma Gandhi said, “No… you have to renounce the possessor.”
Let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 94.
When seekers explore various spiritual paths and religions, they often soon realize that a spiritual life requires grappling with the ego, the self, the “I.”
Most major Faiths advise those who seek spiritual growth and enlightenment to renounce the self—to let go of the ego and the suffering it can cause, and to transcend the boundaries of the inner self.
Buddhists call it nekkhamma, which means “renouncing the world and leading a holy life.” Hindus call it sannyasa, the life stage of renunciation, which involves abandoning material desires and prejudices for a more peaceful, loving, simple inner life. In Christianity, renunciation emerges primarily from the salvation exemplified by the synoptic Gospels. In Islam, the Sufi tradition of rebirth focuses on renouncing the self. In the Baha’i teachings, Baha’u’llah advises all seekers to free themselves from the self’s “man-made limitations:”
With the hands of renunciation draw forth from its life-giving waters, and sprinkle therewith all created things, that they may be cleansed from all man-made limitations and may approach the mighty seat of God, this hallowed and resplendent Spot. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 279-280.
This universal spiritual call does not mean giving up your individuality.
Instead, the great Faiths ask each of us to transcend our own small, petty, individual concerns in order to love one another. They ask us to expand our vision and devote our energies, not to ourselves, but to humanity itself. They recommend a wider embrace:
O My brother! Forsake thine own desires, turn thy face unto thy Lord, and walk not in the footsteps of those who have taken their corrupt inclinations for their god, that perchance thou mayest find shelter in the heart of existence, beneath the redeeming shadow of Him Who traineth all names and attributes…
In this connection We will relate unto thee that which was revealed of old concerning “life”, that perchance it may turn thee away from the promptings of self, deliver thee from the narrow confines of thy prison in this gloomy plane, and aid thee to become of them that are guided aright in the darkness of this world. – Baha’u’llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries, pp. 48-49.
Every human being has those “promptings of self” that Baha’u’llah describes. We all want something in this world—material success, possessions, fame, power, etc. We all have earthly desires—and those desires can become a prison, barring us from the higher, more spiritual stages of our development.
How does that happen? Simple: we focus all of our energies and our resources on achieving those fleeting material desires; and they control us, dominate the expenditure of our energies and blind us to more noble and selfless goals:
Every soul seeketh an object and cherisheth a desire, and day and night striveth to attain his aim. One craveth riches, another thirsteth for glory and still another yearneth for fame, for art, for prosperity and the like. Yet finally all are doomed to loss and disappointment. One and all they leave behind them all that is theirs and empty-handed hasten to the realm beyond, and all their labours shall be in vain. To dust they shall all return, denuded, depressed, disheartened and in utter despair.
But, praised be the Lord, thou art engaged in that which secureth for thee a gain that shall eternally endure; and that is naught but thine attraction to the Kingdom of God, thy faith, and thy knowledge, the enlightenment of thine heart, and thine earnest endeavour to promote the Divine Teachings. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 204.
That teaching, common to every legitimate belief system and religion, reminds us that nothing physical can last. Every object, every achievement and every possession will someday fade and vanish:
…Rejoice not in the things ye possess; tonight they are yours, tomorrow others will possess them. Thus warneth you He Who is the All-Knowing, the All-Informed. Say: Can ye claim that what ye own is lasting or secure? Nay! By Myself, the All-Merciful. The days of your life flee away as a breath of wind, and all your pomp and glory shall be folded up as were the pomp and glory of those gone before you. Reflect, O people! What hath become of your bygone days, your lost centuries? Happy the days that have been consecrated to the remembrance of God, and blessed the hours which have been spent in praise of Him Who is the All-Wise. By My life! Neither the pomp of the mighty, nor the wealth of the rich, nor even the ascendancy of the ungodly will endure. All will perish, at a word from Him. He, verily, is the All-Powerful, the All-Compelling, the Almighty. What advantage is there in the earthly things which men possess? That which shall profit them, they have utterly neglected. Erelong, they will awake from their slumber, and find themselves unable to obtain that which hath escaped them in the days of their Lord, the Almighty, the All-Praised. Did they but know it, they would renounce their all, that their names may be mentioned before His throne. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 138-139.
Detachment and renunciation of the material world, every truly spiritual path tells us, don’t require us to give up our identities or our personalities. Instead, they ask us to discover our real identities, our authentic inner selves, our actual relationship to the Creator. Renouncing that self—the one that focuses on the lower nature—actually allows our true inner self, our spiritual essence, to emerge.
Next: O God, Protect Me From Myself!