What Do We Have to Renounce?

In yoga, and in the traditions that embrace yoga as their methodology for self-recognition and self-fulfillment, the discussion of renunciation plays a significant role.  Most of the lifestyles taught by the traditions that embrace yoga are very ascetic lifestyles.  Sannyas is conceived of as, in a way, the pinnacle of this asceticism, the ultimate renunciation.

So I want to give you my short take on renunciation.  What is it that we actually have to renounce?

I like to tell a story about going to India and going to the Ganges with my Brahmin friend. He always does a ritual there for his ancestors. In the ritual, we wade up to our belly buttons in the river. Then we do a little chant and take water in our hands and offer it to the river. That’s such a simple sweet thing for me to do because we are offering water to the river. Yet it’s silly.  First of all, offer water to a river? Second of all, it’s not our water.  It’s the river’s water.  It was never our water.  It was always the river’s water.  What that tells us is that basically, if you think about it, what do we really have to offer?


If the water in my hands belongs to the river, the water in my body does, too. Whatever minerals there are that compose this tissue belong to the earth.  It’s not mine.  When I am out of here it’s going to become earth again.

This isn’t my body.  It is a body. Even this mind is not my mind. Most of the thoughts that go on in my head are not mine.  (This may not be easy for you to grok, but trust me on it. ) Whatever stuff I have, when I go, it’s eventually going to become water and dirt. It’s nothing.

So what is it that we have to renounce? Well, actually, we do have something: our ego and the tensions that comprise it.

Our ego is just a bundle of tensions all glommed together that we call us. These tensions completely limit our understanding and the richness and the range of our self-expression. If there is one thing that is very important to renounce, in order to discover the largeness, the vastness, the sweetness, the richness of the life that is alive inside us, the only thing we have to renounce are our tensions. Of course, this is easier said than done.  It’s much easier to renounce vegetables and alcohol and meat. We can renounce all of these things, and that’s easy.  But renouncing our tensions isn’t so easy.

Renouncing tensions allows our creative energy to flow.  In the flow of that creative energy, qualities and capacity, talents and skills that are alive within us emerge. Ordinarily we never have the opportunity to be in contact with them. We are usually too busy wasting our energy, struggling with this tension and that tension, wrestling with our egos, to be in touch.   The richness that is available when we release those tensions is absolutely amazing. Renouncing tensions and allowing our creative energy to flow makes every miracle that is possible in the world happen. Every miracle that is possible in your life is awakened.

We are not here to deal with each others' faults.  We’re here to practice opening our hearts to everyone, even the people whom we think we don’t like and that we think don’t like us. We are here to take in every experience and every person, and dissolve the tensions and take the energy of that experience and learn from it.  What we can be learning is to release tension and allow ever-growing love in our life. It is that ever-growing love in our life that blesses us in every way that is possible.

The Purpose of the Havan

In the Vedic period, the havan (also called the homa, the yajna, and the agnihotra) was the practice by which people re-established their alignment with the natural order of the whole universe. In this practice, they aligned themselves internally. They then aligned themselves with all the forces that operated in their environment for the purpose of sustaining balance and harmony for the benefit of the whole: the individual, the family, and the community.

The fire ceremony had two aspects to it. One is regular and private to the family. I have friends in Kerala, in South India, in whose house the fire has not gone out for more than 1,000 years. That, to me, is just amazing.

The second function of the havan is public. As an example of that, the oldest continuous yajna that I know of happens now in South India, but not very regularly. The people in the village where it happens claim that the ceremony has been going on for 8,000 years without interruption. The altar has three fire pits and is constructed in the shape of a bird, using 10,008 bricks which are specially made for the occasion–one brick for each line in the Rig Veda. The whole community builds the altar, covers it with thatch, and they meet for eight days, dawn til dusk, and chant the mantras together. They offer ghee, grains, nuts, and fruit into the fire. There is a very specific aesthetic quality to the whole experience because there is the fire, the offerings, the chanting and the smoke. All of the senses become completely engaged, and the ordinary, discursive, wandering mind becomes disabled.

For each of the sensory domains, the resonance of the experience permeates us and is intended to elevate us to a different level of experience of our own lives. So this practice, the ritual offerings, the mantra, the whole aesthetic sensibility, is intended to lift the practitioner and those attending into an ecstatic state in which a vision of the higher context in which each of us functions as human beings is accessible to us. It is a vision that we do not ever encounter in our ordinary lives.

In other words, the whole point of yoga is to achieve a state that transcends thought and feeling and makes accessible to us the direct experience of where we come from and why we’re here. That experience is so intimate that it transcends even the most intimate of our personal experiences.

A secondary aspect of that experience, seeing the larger context, we become aware of the more sophisticated reality in which we operate. We begin to understand that we are not the only sentient beings that are present here, and further, although we imagine we might be, we are not at the top of the food chain. In having the ecstatic vision of our own ultimate reality, we also encounter the spiritual beings that have a profound influence on all of our lives.

The Inheritance of Karma

Each of us comes into the world as a manifestation of the life of our mother and father. All mothers, whether they know it or not, are reaching into themselves when they have a child and pulling out a chunk of their own life. Each of us has received our life from our parents, and as we have received that life, we also received the resonance of the life they have had, which is received as a resonance of the life their parents had. All of this adds up to a frequency, a vibration that manifests our physical bodies, our intellect, and our emotions.

Thumbnail for 1429

All of the attitudes and opinions and things we think we know that we don’t, we receive from our parents. All the limitations that they have experienced intellectually, emotionally, and spatially, become a limitation in our life. This is our karma.

Most of us understand karma to be like cause and effect, sin and retribution. We think of karma as payback for our mistakes. In fact, karma is not like that at all–it is the disappointment of our ancestors that we have inherited. It is their frustrations and, in many cases, their physical traumas, as well as their heartbreaks that live on even today in our life as our attitudes about ourselves and our limitations in our ability to take in information and to express ourselves fully from a deep and fine place.

It’s because of our karma that the functioning of our creative energy is suppressed. We become locked into a pattern of understanding ourself as a separate, disconnected, alienated and not entirely loveable physiological mechanism. We don’t understand what resources are truly available to us as a human being, and our lives become filled with frustration. The practice of yoga is about restoring the full function and range of motion of our creative energy, undoing the limitations our karma imposes.