What are you willing to give up?

On the spiritual path, this is one of the fundamental questions, one that usually brings up a torrent of fears mixed with incredulity.

What do you mean “give up”?

Why would/should I give up anything?

Sure, these are valid concerns. Perhaps we should backtrack a bit…

Why Tread The Spiritual Path At All?

Let’s start with an even more fundamental question – why bother with spirituality? Isn’t the relational world busy enough to keep us occupied? We have the various spheres of our lives that consume every waking moment – our families, jobs, relationships, political and social landscapes with their ever-changing crises, and importantly, the content of our own minds that keeps us totally enthralled in it all. By nature, we are busybodies, even when we aren’t engaged in active work because the mind is always working (except for the much-welcomed relief of sleep!). Why add another complicated sphere into this muddle with spiritual stuff?

Turns out that often, we don’t seem to have a choice in the matter. It seems that some of us are called to the spiritual path, and the calling occurs in myriad ways – loss, accidentally meeting someone that inspires us, coming across a book or teaching that touches something beyond the usual busyness of the mind, and so on.

Whatever the stimulus is, it catapults us into another universe. Here, we discover a treasury of sorts – another way of being and of looking at the world, practices that engage our senses, and a community of practitioners with the same interest and investment in it all. We come to understand that the idea of inner freedom, and become captivated by the prospect of transcending our habitual way of being that results in continuous cycles of joy and pain, and peace and conflict.

However, there’s a catch here (there always is!)…

Even though our focus in life has begun to shift, our old ways are so deeply ingrained that they don’t magically go away. Ordinarily, much of our energy is expended in the daily dealings of work, family, relationships, and so on, leaving very little to contemplate the basic questions of existence (which is really what the spiritual path is mostly about). This energy is so deeply entrapped in these dealings that it is nearly impossible to change its course unless we are prepared to drastically change our ways.

There are two broad ways of bringing about this change.

One is to renounce the world and spend all our time reflecting on the principles of the spiritual path. The first is the path of the renunciate or the monk.

The other is to be engaged with the world while being engaged in the principles of the spiritual path. This is the path of the householder.

When we hear the teaching that we don’t have to become monks in order to tread the path of inner freedom, we may heave a huge sigh of relief. “Oh good, I don’t have to give up any of my vices and attachments. I can have freedom in addition to everything else I want to own.”

There’s nothing further from the truth.

The crucial thing to understand is that whether it is the path of the renunciate or the householder, the “path” is one of unlearning. Yes, of course, there is learning, but the learning is not to become a beast of burden! We can become highly knowledgeable about texts and sources – we would then be highly informed, and not necessarily free. In fact, knowledge can and does obscure freedom, which has nothing to do with information.

What results in freedom is a total shift of perspective, which occurs when we are willing to step out of the bounds of our conditioning and social, moral, cultural, political, and countless other norms.

What’s even more important to realize is that we can’t think, reason, or con our way into inner freedom. Inner freedom happens as a gift of grace when we surrender all that we are and all that we think we know.

In other words, when we become willing to give up everything, the right situation is created for Grace to descend by way of transformational insight and the experience of inner freedom.

The Proverbial Cake

One common misunderstanding we tend to have about the householder path is the idea of having the cake and eating it too. The cake here is, of course, our sticky attachments to the web of things that make up the story of “me.” Paradoxically, inner freedom that we’ve been discussing here isn’t granted to the “me” – it is freedom from the “me.” It arises when we see through the dense layers of stuff of “me” that obscure our already innate divinity. Seeing through the stuff cannot be a mental exercise, because then the freedom will also be a mental illusion where we go about in a self-congratulatory mode for having “made it.”

The seeing through happens through the hard work of continuously applying the teaching in our daily lives. Say you’re a mother, and your teacher gives you a simple teaching – “you are not a mother.” You work with this by relentlessly seeing how you’ve donned on the mother identity that prevents you from seeing your child as anything but your child, where the ideas you’ve adopted from society, family, and culture have shaped how you should behave, act, speak and think like a mother. You notice how you can’t allow your children the freedom to be as they wish to be (even when they’re adults), where they have to worry incessantly about upsetting you by being sad or failing at something. You see how you either wear the honorable mother badge for being proud of their accomplishments or beat yourself up for their misadventures.

When your teacher asks you what you’re willing to give up, you, the mother, have a catastrophic response. “I can’t give up my kids!” And then you sigh in relief when your teacher says it’s the attachment to your children that needs to go. You think that as long as you’re not being asked to relinquish your children physically, you can deal with the attachment. You don’t see that attachment is infinitely harder to relinquish. You can renounce your kids and go off to a cave, where they’ll haunt you in your contemplations even more vividly than in real life!

This is one of the many faces of self-deception and the case of being tempted by the proverbial cake that you would like to eat and hoard at the same time.

While letting go of our children seems drastic, often we have a much harder time letting go of our ideas, concepts, beliefs, and previous learning. We continue to innocently believe that we can hoard all of that and add on freedom – like icing on that magical cake.

And so freedom continues to elude us. We can be on the spiritual path for decades (or lifetimes) and yet remain in the dark when it comes to the experiential knowing of inner freedom. We collect concepts and practices, hopping from one teacher and tradition to the next and the next, hoping that freedom will arrive this time, but it never does – because the very premise is faulty, and because we haven’t emptied ourselves enough for Grace.

What Is Giving Up, Anyway?

What does giving up entail? Should we leave our jobs and families, and go off to live in isolation? Well, if that is your definitive calling, sure. However, this isn’t the case for most of us. Like Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukṣetra, we are required to stay engaged in our lives.

At this point, you may be tempted to think that perhaps this means being in the world but  mentally checked out and spacey in our dealings.

Well, no.

This approach requires the cultivation of the skill to navigate life skillfully. Here, life becomes the laboratory where the teachings learned through teachers and books as well as the methods of sitting practices are continuously applied.

For example, here is this situation, this person, this event in front of me. I have a very strong tendency to respond and react in the ways I’ve always employed. Right here, in the heat of the moment, can I find another way that is totally unfamiliar to me? Can I leap off the cliff into the unknown? This is freedom, which is the ability to access all possibilities in a given circumstance and not being tied to the one that arises from our ingrained patterns. We tend to think that the unknown is some magnificent, extraordinary, or mystical event when in fact it is constantly staring us in the face in the very ordinary events that make up our lives.

Say your teenage son yells at you and calls you names. The unknown is right here – you can access it if you apply the teaching right here and now, but only if you have created the space for it to show up. And this space is created by your willingness to give up what gives you comfort – the familiarity of your old ways.

The interesting thing here is that even when we realize that our own patterns of thinking and being are causing our pain, we are reluctant to give them up because the patterns are familiar and comfortable.

It is when we arrive at the willingness to give up everything that we make space for the infinite possibilities that exist in every situation. And in this space, we realize that we never owned anything in the first place. This is one of the many paradoxes of the spiritual path.

Whether we are a renunciate or a householder, the path is the same. It’s only the circumstance in which the path is trodden that differs. Both require the willingness to give up everything. We can be a renunciate and continue to be evaded by freedom because we can’t give up attachment to our own ideas and beliefs. On the other hand, we can be a householder and arrive at freedom because we have made space for it by systematically working through our attachments.

Renouncing the world doesn’t guarantee freedom because, in the ultimate analysis, attachment to our beliefs isn’t very different from attachment to our families. Embracing the world, on the other hand, isn’t about deluding ourselves about the proverbial cake.

The whole idea of giving up is the savoring of the secret sauce in the empty cup.

Image Credit: Simi Jois Photography

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