Joyful Renunciation

I was confused for a long time about renunciation. This is not entirely my fault. In the Buddhist monasteries where I ordained and practiced, renunciation was a physical, ritual, communal, and obligatory action. Every few days we shaved our heads to signify cutting off delusion. We lived as simply as possible and renounced worldly accomplishments by turning away from professions that made a lot of money. In many spiritual traditions throughout the world, internal renunciation is symbolized and catalyzed by physical acts: shaving the head, living in poverty, departing from family. The idea is to change your body in order to change your heart and mind.

The mistake I made along the way was believing that renunciation is supposed to hurt. And I've actually heard this message echoed in dharma centers in the West as well as Zen monasteries in Japan; at the end of retreats at Spirit Rock, for example, I've heard the instruction to donate an amount that "hurts."

But renunciation is not supposed to hurt. It's supposed to clear away the psychological clutter in our lives that get in the way of joy.

In the Eightfold Noble Path, "right intention" or "right thought" means the intention to renounce, the intention of good will, and the intention of harmlessness. The key mistake I made with renunciation during my monastic career was the belief that renunciation can be compelled from the outside in, rather than the inside out. I believed I could will myself to renounce. But renunciation comes from understanding, not force. Bhikku Bodhi explains, "real renunciation is not a matter of compelling ourselves to give up things still inwardly cherished, but of changing our perspective on them so that they no longer bind us. When we understand the nature of desire, when we investigate it closely with keen attention, desire falls away by itself, without need for struggle."

This June, I am publishing my second book, called Just Enough. It is a cookbook of vegan Japanese food but it is also an investigation of the Middle Way, of how to avoid the extremes of self-abnegation and selfishness. I began writing it after I left the monastic life and was reintegrating in contemporary Western culture. After many years of loneliness, I was in the bliss of new marriage and rekindling old friendships, and saw clearly that I had gone too far in the direction of self-mortification during my time in Japan.

It makes sense that we are all confused about renunciation, especially growing up in the West, and especially if you are middle or upper class. In the United States, morality is linked with the accumulation of money and property. Eating, shopping, and drinking alcohol are national pastimes. So it is understandable that when we arrive at Buddhism we are shocked and ashamed of our own relationship to sensual pleasure. Many of us take a deep dive in the other direction; giving up our things, splitting up with partners, wanting to live simply. We may take it to extremes.

Last month I recorded a series of dharma talks on the Four Noble Truths and the Buddha's life for Tricycle Magazine. In the draft of my talk I spoke about Buddha's realization of the middle way and avoiding the extremes of self-mortification. During the editing process, my editor kindly pointed out that while I did a good job of elucidating the extreme of self-denial, I didn't talk much about the extreme of craving sensual pleasure.

She was right.

The thing about extremes is that they are so easy to fall into. In my joy and exhilaration at finding myself back home, at marrying a wonderful partner and eating delicious food again, I think I fell without realizing it into an extreme of attachment to dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine is the chemical in our brains that rewards and encourages motivation. It makes us feel pleasure and excitement. Oxytocin is the "love chemical." Speaking in terms of brain chemicals makes more sense to me then using Buddhist terms like "sensual pleasure" because I think these terms can be kind of vague. I also find chemical language useful because the main problem with dopamine is that it is addictive. When we encounter an activity or object that produces dopamine, our brains remember its location and compel us to return again when the dopamine inevitably fades. When dopamine fades, we feel stressed and anxious. So we become addicted to the thing that initially caused us to produce dopamine.

This is precisely what the Buddha was talking about when he spoke of the cycle of craving. The problem is not the dopamine itself, but the addiction to the dopamine, the stress we feel when we don't have it.

In the last few weeks I've been trying to undo some of my addiction to my iPhone and social media. It's helpful to view it as an honest to god addiction. Which it is. I've been weening myself off by removing social media apps from my phone, by keeping the phone charged in a different room, and by bringing my attention to my state of mind before or after I check my phone (for more on this, check out How to Break Up With Your Phone, by Catherine Price). How am I feeling? What do I want? What do I think checking my phone will do? How do I feel now that I've checked my phone? What I've found is that I almost always check my phone out of boredom or stress. When I am aware of this I am able to ride out the feeling of anxiety and craving, to redirect to something like my dog, a book, or the blue sky. And lo! Dopamine can be found in other ways, like exercise, sleep, massages, or my good frenemy meditation.

Some other things that can be joyfully renounced: the attachment to being right, especially with ones romantic partner. Self-critical thoughts. Feeling overweight or ugly. Let them go!

In undoing some of my patterns and letting go of craving (dopamine), I've found that the sky looks bluer, the trees look greener. This may be because San Francisco's rainy spell has come to an end. Or it may be because I'm not checking my phone every third second and am actually paying attention to the beautiful city around me.

But I do know now that renunciation-- true renunciation-- is joyful. It doesn't hurt. Sure, it feels uncomfortable to ride out feelings of anxiety or craving, but these end. And after a wave of craving ends, do you know what's left? The whole world, right in front of you, shimmering and alive.

My next book, Just Enough: Vegan Recipes and Stories from Japan's Buddhist Temples is available to preorder.


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