Will, diet, renunciation and religion

Traditionally the main religions have advocated renunciation in one form or another. Whether it’s the fasting for Lent or the day time fast in Ramadan – lay people have been stimulated to restrain their appetites at one time in the year. For religious professionals – like monks, nuns and priests – renunciation was a full time duty. At least in ideal, if not always in practice. In many cases the ideal got lost so far that the religious class lived better than many of the lay people. In Tibet for instance the monasteries were not only the most powerful institutions, but also the best taken care of. Socially this wasn’t a bad situation, as they were accessible for people of all ranks as sanctuary as well.

Renunciation is a strange ideal. It’s the ideal of voluntary poverty. Voluntary poverty only means something when there is riches to begin with. One admires the Buddha for wandering through what’s now Nepal and Northern India, not so much because he was poor, but because he left behind riches. If he hadn’t been rich to begin with, he’d have merely been a vagrant.

The American dream is sort of the opposite. It starts with poverty, ideally after immigration, and ends in riches, after hard work.

Renunciation as an ideal is, in a religious context, contrary to the spirit of our times. But other forms of renunciation do have a high status. Those who manage to keep their bodies slim through diet and exercise are praised in our culture. The rigor of the regimen most women need to live up to this ideal, makes the end result even more prized. This too is an ideal born in riches. In poor cultures those who have enough to eat to become what we’d call overweight, have a high status. But in the West food is easy enough to come by, and fat making food is easiest to get. So being thin has become the ideal.

I wonder whether these things aren’t praised because they show an effort of will. My first hour in the morning is spent wandering around the house. Getting dressed, making tea, washing my face, setting the table for breakfast and starting up the PC – not necessarily in that order… And I’m liable to forget one or two of those as well. Life puts more constraints on most people of course. When there’s work to get to, the clock becomes important (*). When there are kids to feed and get to school or soccer, that too puts many constraints on things. However that may be, to add regular exercise to the morning ritual shows real will power and dedication. This sort of thing may get easier with practice, for those of us who DO NOT do all that, it still looks like a lot of effort.

Biologists have figured out, however, that regular exercise gives a reward in the form of hormones that make you feel better. Exercise literally makes one feel better. Perhaps renunciation in general does that – because fasting also gives a natural high, I’m told. It also makes it harder to attend to responsibilities, unlike exercise. Exercise gives physical energy, while fasting obviously takes it away.

In Theravada Buddhist countries there’s a strange cycle – monks start out as a renunciate: they live apart from other people off very little. But the better they succeed at renunciation, the more the people around them worship them. They become what’s called a ‘good dharma field’ – that is: giving to them is extra good karma. So they get a lot of gifts from the surrounding people. This obviously makes their renunciation less severe. If it goes on long enough, others will start being displeased with the lack of renunciation, and go off and start a new revolution. But the same dynamic ends up making that initiative too end in relative wealth.

What all this shows, I think, is that we have a strange relationship with that which sustains us. On the one hand a lot of things are taken for granted: food, a roof over our head, our social position. On the other hand, part of us knows that other ways are possible. The American dream reminds poor people that some do get out. It lulls rich people to sleep: some get out, so why not all… On the opposite end of the spectrum, renunciation is a reminder that riches too are a choice. The food we eat is a choice. And that which is rare gets admired: people stepping outside the box to be different.

*) I work at home and therefor get to set my own time.

8 thoughts on “Will, diet, renunciation and religion”

  1. Hi Kantinka, nice article, as always. I find fasting wonderfull, when I get the chance, it puts all the spiritual practices on a much deeper level, as long as you don’t have other commitments to deal with, and as long as you break it correctly it has wonderfull lasting effects.
    God Bless,
    Hari Om

  2. nice article… the effect during at least a few days of fasting is detoxification–as Dr. Shelton said in his books such as _Fasting Can Save Your Life_… that is not so spiritual, though if I recall correctly the texts of the Essenes said they fasted, and their name means ‘healer’….

  3. Hi Katinka, my personal experience has shown 1 day of fasting produces tremendous mental clarity for at least a week afterwards (until something shoots me down). Basically, it clears the mind completely, and during the fast I can get much deeper in meditation much quicker.
    God Bless,
    Hari Om

  4. I “fasted” once for a whole week and it was a very enriching experience. The only “food” I had was a clear vegetable broth prepared without any spices or salt, several supplements made out of dried spirulina and wheat grass, and an occasional fresh juice. I did experience a sort of spiritual high. In part you do feel purified and detoxified as was previously mentioned by other commenters. And there’s also an element of becoming detached from food that feels quite liberating.

  5. One of the first concepts I came across when looking into spiritual issues as a youth was the German concept “spannesbogen, (sp?)” which was described as the “self-imposed delay between the desiring of an object and the reaching out to take it.” More simply, willfully delayed gratification — the exertion of the will over the desires.

    As I view it, repression of desires is not freedom, it is actually a perversely inverted enslavement to the desire. I think (in some cases) renunciation could lead to simple repression. That is, when the renunciation becomes an unconscious activity (perhaps through formalized ritual).

    On the other hand, renunciation can also be a method to assert a temporary control over the egoic desires.

    The root, from this mind, is the degree of conscious intention. Alteration is a willful process of freeing the inner self from the demands of the ego (which conceives of itself as a separate being). A first step in that process is that willful control. Not so much to deny the physical world or the desires, nor to live in an artificial intermediate state, such as the poverty the article mentioned. Rather, to consciously soften the ego over time, with the intention of coming to actually perceive that those desires are for things of a transient nature, whereas our real nature is eternal.

    Thus, from the eyes, real renunciation and self-control is ultimately a process of observing and assigning more appropriate values to experiences.

  6. I think it’s Spannungsbogen – and yes, it’s known that successful people have a large capacity to delay gratification. For instance: the ability to slave away in college for years knowing that at the end the reward of a good job is likely.

    I wonder though: is there any true wisdom in delaying gratification – or is true wisdom knowing that gratification itself won’t make you happy either? I’m reminded of a video with the Dalai Lama I saw recently. He reminded us that in the west we seem to go from desire to desire: always wanting MORE. That’s not likely to bring permanent happiness, is it?

  7. Thank you very much for that correction. It’s been many, many years since encountering the word and was unable to find it.

    The thought in the comment from the Dalai Lama, is echoed in the words of Paramahansa Yogananda:

    “Thus we see that though the true aim of mankind is the avoidance of pain and the attainment of Bliss, yet owing to a fatal error man, through trying to avoid pain, pursues a deluded something named pleasure, mistaking it for Bliss. That the attainment of Bliss and not pleasure is the universal and highest necessity is indirectly proved by the fact that man is never satisfied with one object of pleasure…..And so he is constantly falling into pain, even though he wishes to avoid it by the adoption of what he deems proper means. Yet an unknown and unsatisfied craving seems ever to remain in his heart.”

    Regarding delayed gratification. Perhaps the words in the previous comment were not written clearly (one certainly wasn’t ;^). Of course there can be no wisdom in delayed gratification if it thought of as an end in itself. In such a case, it is just a formalized ritual consisting of bouts of repression. Afterwards the desire is just as likely to be even stronger as a result of the delay.

    The intention is not merely to pretend to be good by denial.
    The thought is this. If that which prevents gnosis is the ego’s false image that we are separate and disconnected from the universe, then we enhance the experience of separation by clinging to that false image.

    It that is taken as true, then is it not worthwhile to observe and examine and alter the ego’s influence? And, will we not discover that the ego desires things and conditions which provide it with the sense of security, affirmation and belonging — relative to the manifest world? (Is it not from the ego’s selfish point of view that selfish actions arise?)

    If that is found to be the case, then Self-imposed delay of gratification can be viewed as a tool of exerting control over the ego — prior to the work of reprogramming (by replacing the false views through study, introspection and meditation).

    Hopefully, this clarifies the previous comment.


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