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Chapter 22
Renunciation

My sudden conversion to this totally unexpected life had the effect on my earthly family of a grenade hurled unexpectedly into one’s dining room during a leisurely Sunday breakfast. My parents believed strongly in giving us children the freedom to follow our own lights, but even so, their concern for my happiness made them anything but indifferent to what struck them as a sudden plunge into insanity. Nor did I help matters much when, in my zeal of conversion, I endeavored to persuade them that my choice was the only sane one.

Some weeks after my arrival at Mt. Washington, I received a letter from Father Kernan, the associate minister at our Church of St. James the Less, in Scarsdale. Was I, he inquired sympathetically, in some emotional or spiritual difficulty? And was there anything I might like from him in the way of help or advice? Though I was touched by his considerateness, I replied that, if he really wanted to understand why I’d left the church, he might read Autobiography of a Yogi. Some months later he remarked to Mother, “We don’t ask enough of people like Donald.”

Next, some military officer came out (I don’t recall his connection with my family), offered to help if he could, decided he couldn’t, and left — presumably to report that at least I wasn’t starving to death. Some time after that, Sue and Bud Clewell, relatives in Westwood Village (a suburb of Los Angeles; my mother and Sue were first cousins), visited me with pleas that I not estrange myself from the family. My brother Bob wrote from New York to ask if I wouldn’t join him in some housing-development scheme; he wanted me to write the brochures for it. Dick, my youngest brother, wrote from Williams College, “Couldn’t you have found what you wanted in one of the monastic orders of your own church?”

Bernard told me one day of his own experience — not with relatives in his case, but with erstwhile companions. “Shortly after I moved to Encinitas,” he said, “a group of my old friends arrived, determined to kidnap and hold me forcibly until I agreed to give up this ‘wild-eyed fanaticism’—in other words, to become, like them, a devotee of the dollar! Fortunately I wasn’t around to receive them: Master had sent me that morning on some urgent errand to Mt. Washington. My friends, thwarted, soon abandoned their plan.”

Whether by coercion or by love, it is not unusual for people who dedicate their lives to high ideals to encounter opposition from well-meaning friends and relatives. For between selfless idealism and worldliness there exists a fundamental incompatibility. Worldliness lives in the constant expectation of personal rewards and benefits, of desires satisfied, of value received. Idealism scorns personal benefit, renounces selfish desires, and views life rather in terms of value given. It finds its highest benefit in the very act of sacrifice, and considers that a true gain which worldliness views only as a loss. “Fanaticism,” is the verdict commonly pronounced by worldly people on any but the most pallid expressions of idealism.

And if that verdict isn’t forthcoming, “ulterior motives” is the back-up charge. All the while, however, worldliness feels vaguely uneasy in the presence of selfless dedication, as though sensing in it some hidden threat to all that it holds dear. For the soul of every human being knows that its true home is not in this world, but in infinity.

Perfect representatives of either side are rare, of course. Worldliness and renunciation are qualities that people manifest to varying degrees, but no single human quality ever suffices to define an individual. Worldly people may even, in one part of their natures, applaud heroic self-sacrifice in others. And many, of course, are no strangers to self-sacrifice themselves; in fact, they sacrifice much for their own families and their more worldly ideals. Moreover — strange twist of human nature!—it is frequently the worldly man who most sternly censures the renunciate who falls from his ideals. And of course the renunciate, for his part, must do constant battle in himself against worldly self-interest.

But the fact remains that between worldliness and renunciation, considered as abstractions, there is not and can never be the slightest compatibility. As the Bible puts it, “Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.”(1)

The renunciate’s worldly friends and relatives would always prefer to see him keep his feet in both boats. Indeed, he may legitimately show them love as children of God. But if he dwells pleasurably on the thought, “These are my people,” or if he looks on their worldliness with sympathetic favor, he places himself in real danger of losing his vocation. For one who keeps his feet in two boats may fall in between and drown. Many a renunciate has abandoned his high ideals because he tried to reconcile in his own mind these two conflicting worlds.

In the Biblical story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt lies a deep spiritual allegory. Only those who had been born out of captivity, in the wilderness, were permitted to enter the Promised Land. With man, similarly, only those mental qualities which are born in the “wilderness” of meditative silence — qualities such as humility, devotion, and soul-joy: gifts, all, of divine grace — can be brought over into the “Promised Land” of divine union. Pride, anger, greed, lust — the offspring, in short, of man’s ego-bondage — must die, before God-consciousness can be attained. (“Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus said, “for they shall see God.”(2)) Even a wise, discriminating ego — symbolized in this story by Moses(3)—though capable of leading one out of worldly captivity and of shepherding him through the long process of spiritual purification, must eventually offer itself up into the infinite light. Moses was permitted to behold the Promised Land from afar, but he had to die before his people could enter and live there. As Jesus put it, “He who will lose his life [who will, in other words, offer it completely to God] for my sake shall save it.”(4)

The worldly person asks first of life, “What do I want?” The devotee is indifferent to questions of personal, egoic fulfillment, and asks only, “What does God want?” Renunciation is an inner state of consciousness, not an outward act. All men, whether married or single, who love God and want to know Him must reconcile themselves to living for Him alone. The pathway of the heart is too narrow for the ego and God to walk it together; one of them must step aside and make way for the other.

“Living for God,” Yogananda said, “is martyrdom”: martyrdom of the ego; martyrdom of self-will and selfishness; martyrdom of all that worldliness clings to so desperately. But the true devotee comes in time to see that this isn’t martyrdom at all, since its end is blissful freedom in the only true Self: God. We are sons of the Infinite! Anything that binds us to a limited existence desecrates this divine image within ourselves. Renunciation is no abject self-deprivation, but a glorious affirmation of the universe of joy that is our birthright.

As St. John of the Cross put it:
In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything,
Desire pleasure in nothing.
In order to arrive at possessing everything,
Desire to possess nothing.
In order to arrive at being everything,
Desire to be nothing.
In order to arrive at the knowledge of everything,
Desire to know nothing.(5)

The essence of renunciation is to relinquish the poverty-consciousness of a beggar, and the clutching attitude of a miser towards things, places, people, experiences — in short, the limitations of this world — and to offer oneself constantly at the feet of Infinity.

Especially in the beginning of the spiritual life, Yogananda told us, it is better to mix little or not at all with worldly people. For it is essential that one’s heart be strengthened to prepare it for making this heroic gift to God of every desire, every thought, every emotion. No weakling could even possibly make so total a self-offering. Cowards quickly fall by the wayside. None who enter the spiritual path for its superficial glamour alone can survive tests that have no other purpose than to assault the devotee’s every natural inclination. The more completely one can identify himself with an attitude of complete self-surrender, the more likely he is to succeed in his spiritual search.

This is as true for householders as for monks and nuns. Outward renunciation merely helps to affirm the inner resolve, necessary for all devotees, to seek God alone.

In the Self-Realization Fellowship monasteries, Paramhansa Yogananda taught us boldly to claim our new identity as sons of God, and to reject all consciousness of worldly ties.

“Sir,” I began one day, “my father.…”

“You have no father!” Master peremptorily reminded me. “God is your Father.”(6)

“I’m sorry, Sir. I meant, my earthly father.”

“That’s better,” the Master replied, approvingly.

“Milk will not float on water,” he often reminded us, “but mingles with it. Similarly, as long as your devotion is still ‘liquid’—that is to say, untried — it may be diluted by worldly influences. You should avoid such influences, therefore, as much as possible. Only when the ‘milk’ of your consciousness has been churned into the ‘butter’ of divine realization will it float easily on the ‘water’ of this world, and remain unaffected by it.”

“The mind of the worldly man,” he once said, “is like a bucket riddled with holes of desires, distractions, and worries. It is impossible for a person in such a state of mind to gather and hold the milk of peace.”

Master was compassionate toward those who were weak; he never sought to impose on them ideals that were beyond their reach. Rather, he took each person as he was, and guided him from that point onward. Thus, even in the monasteries, disciples sometimes mistook his kindness and encouragement for leniency, and never realized how drastic was the inner revolution to which he was actually calling us. He would be satisfied with nothing less than the total destruction of our mental limitations. The more of ourselves we gave to God, the more he, encouraged by our willingness, demanded of us.

I’ve always smiled when I’ve met people who defined his love for them in terms of the little things he had given them or done for them, outwardly. “Master got me a new job. Master found a new apartment for me.” The real definition of his love for us lay not in what he gave to us, except spiritually, but in what he took away. His real purpose was not to tidy up our little mud puddles of delusion and make them more comfortable to play in: It was to take us out of our mud puddles altogether. If this meant subjecting us, in the process, to temporary pain, he flinched no more from that task than a conscientious doctor would in trying to cure his patients of serious physical ailments.

On this subject, a worthwhile lesson springs to mind: When I was a child, as I wrote earlier, I was taken off all dairy products. As a result, my teeth suffered. I remember going to a dentist in Bucharest who, out of “compassion” for my pain (or possibly to spare himself having to listen to me react to it!) stopped drilling, and filled my teeth before the infection had been completely removed. As a result, my teeth eventually suffered a great deal more.

On the subject of renunciation, especially, there was often in Master’s manner a certain sternness, as though to impress on us that the staunchness of our dedication to God was, for each of us, a matter of spiritual life or death.

Daya Mata tells the story of how, while still young, she once asked Master whether he thought she ought to go out and find work to support her needy mother. Instead of the sympathetic reply she was expecting, Master cried, “Leave! Go on! Get out this minute! I don’t want you here!”

“Master,” she begged him tearfully, “I don’t want to leave here. This is my entire life!”

“That’s better,” he replied, gently. “You have given your life to God, and renounced all worldly ties. The responsibility for your mother is now His alone.”

On Yogananda’s invitation, the mother came to live at Mt. Washington, and remained there until her death some forty years later.

Soon after that scolding, Master began referring to Daya Mata affectionately as his “nest egg.” For it was from her arrival that he dated the beginning of his monastic order.

Nothing won Master’s approval so much as the willingness to renounce all for God. Renunciation meant to him, however, an inner act of the heart; outward symbols he viewed more tentatively, as potential distractions to sincerity. In Phoenix, Arizona, a raggedly dressed, unkempt man once explained his appearance to him by boasting, “I’m a renunciate.” Yogananda replied, “But you are bound again — by your attachment to disorder!”

For this present age, prejudiced as it is against many aspects of the spiritual life, he counseled only moderate adoption of the outward symbols of renunciation, such as monastic robes. Perhaps he felt that these symbols might attract too much attention to oneself, and thus feed the very ego which the renunciate was striving to overcome. Much as he loved St. Francis of Assisi, for example, and referred to him affectionately as his “patron saint,” he often said, “St. Francis loved Lady Poverty, but I prefer Lady Simplicity.” Renunciation, to him, was not a matter of where one’s body is, nor of how it is clothed, but of one’s inner, mental purity. “Make your heart a hermitage,” he advised everyone. It was not so much that he rejected outward forms; some of the traditional forms, indeed, he favored. His primary concern, however, was that we use them to internalize our devotion.

Monasteries, like all human institutions, have a tendency to involve their members outwardly in communal affairs. To some extent, of course, this is necessary, but Yogananda urged us even in our monastic life to remain somewhat apart.

“Don’t mix with others too closely,” he recommended to us one evening. “The desire for outward companionship is a reflection of the soul’s inward desire for companionship with God. But the more you seek to satisfy that desire outwardly, the more you will lose touch with the inner, divine Companion, and the more restless and dissatisfied you will become.”

He told me a story in connection with this point: “When I was young, I met someone who was married. He said to me, ‘I used to have many friends, and enjoyed their company. After I got married, however, I seldom saw them again. I then realized that my need for their company had actually been a suppressed need for a mate.’ ‘Thank you very much!’ I said to him. ‘You’ve taught me something important.’”

Frequently Master held up to us examples of saints who had remained withdrawn even from their fellow devotees. “Seclusion,” he often told us, “is the price of greatness.” Though mental withdrawal may not make one popular with less dedicated devotees (Daya Mata, who lived that way through her years of early training, soon found herself dubbed by fellow devotees as “the half-baked saint”), it is a shortcut to God.

Disciples seeking Master’s help in overcoming delusion received loving encouragement from him in return, and sympathetic counsel.

“If the sex drive were taken away from you,” he told a group of monks one evening, “you would see that you had lost your greatest friend. You would lose all interest in life. Sex was given to make you strong. If a boxer were to fight only weaklings, he too would grow weak in time. It is by fighting strong men that he develops strength. The same is true in your struggle with the sex instinct. The more you master it, the more you will find yourself becoming a lion of happiness.”

The three greatest human delusions, he used to say, are sex, wine (by which he meant intoxicants of all kinds), and money. I once asked him to help me overcome attachment to good food. He smiled.

“Don’t worry about those little things. When ecstasy comes, everything goes!”

But where the principal delusions were concerned, he was very serious, and worked with infinite patience to help us overcome them.

The desire for money he contrasted to the joys of non-attachment and simple living. “Renounce attachment to all things,” he told us, “even to the fruits of your action. Don’t work with the thought of what you might get out of it. What comes of itself, let it come. Work to serve God, and for the supreme satisfaction of pleasing Him.”

Related to the desire for money is the ambition for worldly power and recognition. “Realize,” Master said, “that God’s is the only power in the universe. In all your actions, see Him as the true Doer; seek to please only Him.” He added, “Worldly power, fame, and riches are like prostitutes: loyal to no one. Only God will stand loyally by you forever.”

The desire for “wine” Master related to the soul’s deep-seated longing to escape pain and suffering, and to reclaim its lost inheritance of bliss in God. “Pseudo-ecstasy,” he labeled intoxicants of all kinds — even the “intoxicant” of too much sleep. He urged his students to escape the delusions of worldly life not by dulling their minds to its sorrows, but by rising above them in the higher “intoxication” of soul-joy. “Meditate,” he urged us. “The more you taste God’s joy within you, the less taste you will have for those mere masquerades of ecstasy.”

In fact, I knew a disciple who at one time had been an alcoholic. He took Kriya Yoga initiation from Master, and thereafter practiced the technique — quite literally!—with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and his prayer beads in the other. In time he found so much enjoyment in Kriya Yoga practice that one day, halfway through his meditation, he disdainfully set the bottle aside, and never touched it again.

In sex-desire Master saw not merely the physical, procreative instinct, but the soul’s longing for union with God manifested in the need for a human mate. It was to this unitive urge that he usually addressed himself when referring to the sex instinct. Romanticists in his audiences sometimes objected to the cheerful irreverence with which he tended to treat the “tender passion.” But Yogananda was particularly averse to feeding people’s illusions: It was his goal to demolish them.

“Marriage,” he once told a church congregation, “is seldom the beautiful thing it is so commonly made out to be. I smile when I think of the usual movie plot. The hero is so handsome, and the heroine so lovely, and after all kinds of troubles they finally get married and (so we are supposed to believe) live ‘happily ever after.’ And I think, ‘Yes, with rolling pins and black eyes!’ But of course, the producers end the story hastily before it gets to that part!”

“Remember,” he advised me once, “it is the Divine Mother who tests you through sex. And it is She also who blesses, when you pass Her test.” He counseled his male disciples to look upon women as living embodiments of the Divine Mother. “They are disarmed,” he said, “when you view them in that light.” I was never present when he counseled his women disciples in these matters, and have never steeled myself to consult any woman on the subject. I think, however, that his suggestions must have been based on encouraging in them similar attitudes of respect. For only by deep, divine respect for one another can men and women win final release from the magnetic attraction that draws them to seek fulfillment in outer, rather than in inner, divine union. The point comes, I have found, when complete respect leads to complete inner freedom. In desire, there is a wish to possess, and in perfect respect that wish ceases to exist.

Another helpful practice is, as much as possible, to avoid hugging others. Hugging is usually, in any case, a very superficial way of showing affection. I tell people truthfully that I feel much closer to them when I embrace them inwardly than when I grapple them in my arms, as if possessively. The touch sensation, so much a part of sexual desire, is a physical cul-de-sac on the way to the feeling of bliss in every atom of creation.

In the monastery, as I mentioned earlier, Master permitted no social contact between the monks and nuns. When necessities of the work demanded communication between them, he counseled them not to look at one another, and especially to avoid looking into the eyes; also, to keep their conversation as brief and impersonal as possible.

So strict was he that he even discouraged many of the normally accepted courtesies that men and women extend to one another. I remember one day, when Master and I were standing out of doors near the entrance to his Twenty-Nine Palms retreat, a young nun came to the door of the house, laden with packages. Observing that she was having difficulty in opening the door, I went over and opened it for her.

“You should not have done that,” Master told me, after she had gone inside. “Keep your distance,” he added, “and they will always respect you.”

It is only when one strives to overcome delusion that one discovers its primal power. “As soon as the first thought of sex arises,” Master said, “that is the time to catch it.” Worldly people scoff at what they consider such exaggerated precautions. “It’s absurd,” I’ve heard them exclaim, “to suggest that every time I look at a member of the opposite sex I’m going to feel tempted!” Basic attraction, however, may find an outward expression one day toward “the one, right” man or woman. In any case, the germs of that attraction can distract the heart from one-pointed devotion to God; the process of infection begins long before the stirrings of any noticeable attraction to one human being. The root of attraction lies in an instinctive pleasure at the mere abstraction, “man,” or, “woman.”

A woman once told me that her little daughter, while still a toddler, had a special giggle that she affected only in the presence of little boys. It was to this deep, instinctive, and generally not specifically directed response that Yogananda was most particularly referring when he spoke of tracing temptation to its “first thought.” Years of introspection have shown me that if one can catch this subtle first response — so rarely even noticed by most people — and immediately impersonalize it, the thought of attraction virtually vanishes from the mind. Even then, however, one must be careful. “One is not safe from delusion,” Yogananda said, “until he has attained the highest, nirbikalpa, samadhi.”

Rejection of the world is only the negative side of renunciation. Master’s usual emphasis was positive. “Nothing can touch you,” he told us, “if you inwardly love God.” Nevertheless, there is a beauty in the act of utter self-offering to God that makes renunciation, even in its more limited, negative aspect, one of the most heroic and noble callings available to man.

Bernard told me of one occasion when a visitor from India came to see Paramhansa Yogananda. The man was received by Sister Gyanamata, and had the poor grace to treat her condescendingly — as though, in serving her guru, she were only Master’s servant. Later, inspired by his interview with Master, he apologized to her.

“In India,” he said, “we are taught to respect all women as wives and mothers. Forgive me, please, that I failed to pay you that respect earlier.” Smilingly he concluded, “I offer it to you now.”

Sister Gyanamata, in her usual impersonal manner, replied, “At least half the people in the world are women. Most of them sooner or later become mothers. There is nothing in either fact that merits special respect. But you may, if you wish, respect the fact that, in this life, I have become a renunciate.”

The visitor could only bow. For renunciation of egoic desires and attachments is, ultimately, a necessary steppingstone for everyone, whether married or single, toward his rediscovery of that divine image within him which alone gives him importance in the greater scheme of things.

A final word: Dispassion does not mean indifference to the feelings of others. Concern for them is an important way of expanding beyond the confines of ego-consciousness, for it helps one in any effort to eliminate the ego altogether as a focus of one’s awareness.

In the hindsight of sixty years on the path, I realize that I received, during my earlier years of discipleship, a few teachings from senior disciples that, at the time, I questioned mentally and therefore never fully accepted. Now I see that my hesitation in accepting them was that I realized those teachings were valid only in certain respects, but invalid in others.

Faye, for example, indicated to me several times that she considered it a virtue not to care what anyone thought about anything. Her aloofness was a virtue to the extent that it affirmed the integrity of her conscience. It also locked her into her own opinions, however, and thereby made her less sympathetic than she might have been, not only to others’ opinions, but to their actual needs.

She once received a letter containing a number of criticisms, including (for reasons that I forget) a criticism of her. Would not true impartiality have made her willing to consider those criticisms, and to consider them equally? Instead, she addressed only the one that concerned herself, remarking, “As for what he says about me, he is welcome to his opinions.”

These are subtle points, but true renunciation of ego includes not thrusting oneself forward. Her reaction to the opinions voiced in that letter were confined, instead, to those which concerned herself. If all of the opinions expressed had been equally unimportant to her, would she have expressed her reaction only to this one? Dispassion means disinterest in any benefits to oneself, but it doesn’t mean lack of concern for the well-being of others, which must include also an interest in their opinions.

Next

Chapter 23: God Protects His Devotees

Footnotes

  1. James 4:4.
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  2. Matthew 5:8.
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  3. Symbolism apart, Paramhansa Yogananda once told me that Moses was a true master.
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  4. Luke 9:24.
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  5. This poem, incidentally, shows also the close correlation that exists between the mystical experiences of the great Christian saints and those of great yogis. St. John’s expressions—“possessing everything, being everything,” etc.—are no mere metaphors. He is describing, quite literally, the state known to yogis as samadhi, or cosmic consciousness. In Chapter 33 many more such Christian corroborations of the ancient yogic teachings are presented.
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  6. “While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12:46–50)
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