renunciation

Matthieu Ricard begins Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by trying to rehabilitate an idea I confess I’ve always looked down on: renunciation, “a much-misunderstood concept.” It’s not about giving up anything good or beautiful or meaningful, he says; it’s about “freedom from mental confusion and self-centered afflictions,” and “meaning through insight and loving-kindness.”

So it doesn’t parallel “negation,” is in fact an affirming state of mind? Joyous, even? It will be a stretch for me to make that connection, I thought joi de vivre was a condition requiring active, energetic, integrative and positive movement– none of which are normally connoted for me by the word “renounce.” But I’m listening.

Here’s an illustration of how I’ve tended to think about renunciation: “The purity of [the Jamesian concept of ] pure experience,” I wrote, ” is not that of renunciation in the eastern sense, of personal desires and attachments. James was quite at home with the idea that we are the particular bundles of wants, preferences, valuations, and (especially) experiences, and actions that uniquely individuate each of us. As they change and grow, or stagnate, so do we. The people, places, and things to which we sustain voluntary attachments are the most important constituents of our respective identities. To renounce them, or detach from them, would be to die… you can reach a state of consciousness called ‘clear consciousness’ in which the mind is perfectly lucid, without being caught up in discursive thoughts.” We can reach such a state, but James does not advise futile efforts to stay there. Life presses forward.”

Renunciation, in other words, has always seemed to me to mean something like stagnation, torpor, ennui, even suicide. But I stand ready and receptive to Brother Matthieu’s correction.

meditate-on-a-mountainBut I also note that some advocates of renunciation are quite frank: it means “losing interest in life’s activities… letting go of all desires and attachments… turning inward instead of constantly being focused outward.” This is the diametrical contradiction of Russell’s advice in Conquest of Happiness. Happy people of my stripe take an active interest in the  far-flung “outward” world. Is there some reason I’m missing, why we can’t honor our inner subjectivity while also caring about people, places, and things out there?

It’s not, they say, about “going off to meditate on a mountain and escaping the world.” But Ricard opened his TED talk with that enticing Tibetan mountain view. It sure looks, at the very least, like holding the world at arm’s length. It looks like detachment, when engagement seems the more responsible attitude. Is this just semantics?

Then, Ricard gently disputes Henri Bergson’s view that the vagueness of “happiness” is a virtue, allowing us each to interpret its meaning as we see fit. He wants to be more precise.

Can we agree that the Sage of Konigsburg, dutifully bearing the world of pure and practical reason on his back, following his impersonal imperatives and acting categorically for all humanity, was badly mistaken when he said happiness must be “rational and devoid of anyKant personal taint.” Taint?!

can kantThis is one of the nubs of the issue, for me. Personal values, predilections, enthusiasms, interests, idiosyncracies, peccadillos… these are our delights. For us to abandon them for the rational, impersonal, categorical (etc.) out of a sense of duty to the Moral Law and Reason for its own sake, is not to pursue happiness, it’s to denigrate happiness as peripheral to more important things (to be ascertained by always supposing that our choices must legislate for all, imperatively, impersonally, and categorically).  Kantians can help us remember not to denigrate the common world, and bless them for that. But if happiness  is not, at the end of the day, about personal satisfactions and my individual flourishing (and yours), I say it’s over-rated. It is, though. So it isn’t. Critique that, Immanuel.

This looks like a more promising formulation: happiness is “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind… not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being.” And the stoic element of Buddhism is prominent here too: “while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.” I’m prepared to take that possibility as axiomatic, though it seems impossible to “prove.” No problem.

I think Ricard must (to his credit) be a walker, with his example of a perfectly happy pedestrian “walking through a serene wilderness, [with] no particular expectations beyond the simple act of walking. She simply is, here and now, free and open.” Yep, that’s precisely the feeling behind my goofball smile, if you ever spot me ambling down the street or around the lake. (Kant was a daily walker too, I wonder what his problem was.)

But that’s not the whole nine yards, “the difference between these flashes… and the immutable peacefulness of the sage is as great as that between the tiny section of sky seen through the eye of the needle and the limitless expanses of outer space.” So it’s vast, cosmic. I’m familiar with the flash, and find it readily repeatable. But I wonder how I’d do as a sage.

Better than Sartre, I hope. We’ve already seen that he has no use for what he regards as the silly American pursuit of happiness. He makes me sick. Nauseous. Dukkha-filled. Redundant. Superfluous. Suicidal. Well, he would if I swallowed his Nothingness nostrums.

Jean_Paul_SartreIn fairness, Sartre is expressing the state of mind of the pre-Existentialist hero who has yet to take full personal responsibility for creating his own essence, when he says “we hadn’t the slightest reason to be [here].” He’s quite clear, in Existentialism is a Humanism, that fashioning one’s own raison d’etre is a worthy and meaningful undertaking. He’s also quite clear in subverting that activity through the concept of “bad faith.” No wonder he sat around in bars smoking harsh unfiltered cigarettes, suffering logorrhea and the “wicked world syndrome.” (And I suppose I might, too, if the Nazis occupied my country.)

“Sukha is the state of lasting well-being that manifests itself when we have freed ourselves of mental blindness and afflictive emotions,” and Ricard says it is also an undistortive window on reality. My framing question remains: can I have some without disengaging from responsible activity and involvement in the world? Windows are good. So are doors.

So: how to begin to meditate. I love the instruction to just “watch your mind, the coming and going of thoughts… do not be bothered by them.” I do it every day. But I don’t sit first, I walk out the door and I keep going. Works for me. But what works for you?

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