Happiness comes when we let go, not when we hold on. Do you sometimes feel the joy that comes with simplicity—the ease and sense of sufficiency discovered when you are without all your stuff, perhaps when you are traveling or camping?
Renunciation brings joy by lightening our burdens. Recently some students have expressed interest in deepening and expanding their practice of renunciation while still maintaining the responsibilities of the lay life with family, household, and work duties. Although not inclined to ordain as Buddhist monks or nuns, one can still apply a variety of renunciation practices inspired from monastic life. Our conversations generated a list of ideas for how to practice renunciation as a lay person that I will share on this blog post.
I recommend give up just one pleasure at a time, and investigating your relationship to sensory pleasure. Before engaging in each activity, choose a modest duration for the practice, and then keep your vow absolutely. It matters less how long you choose to engage in the renunciation practice; it matters more that you keep your commitment.
1. For example if you wish to reduce your entrancement with sexual desire, make a commitment to not engage in sexual activity for a specific number of days, weeks, months, or perhaps one year. During that time practice celibacy strictly—refrain from masterbation, erotica, and fantasy as well as intimate relationships, even when the opportunity arises. If sexual thoughts arise, become mindful of them immediately, and swiftly abandon them. After your renunciation period has concluded and your commitment to celibacy has ended, bring a wise relationship to intimate and sexual activity.
2. Choose to limit the time you spend using the internet, TV, reading novels or newspapers, or listening to radio, and replace that time with meditation practice or study of Buddhist texts.
3. Moderate your intake of food or drink to interrupt compulsive or unmindful habits. Structure your meals to bring more mindfulness to the experience: mindful while preparing, consuming, and cleaning up the meal.
4. If you are attached to clothing style or personal appearance, refrain from the use of cosmetics, and simplify your wardrobe decisions by wearing only one color of clothing for a period of time.
5. Sleep on the floor instead of a soft and comfortable bed.
6. Reduce the length of time that you sleep and replace those hours with formal sitting and walking meditation. When I practiced in the Thai monasteries, sleeping more than 4 hours was considered extremely slothful. You may decide that you need more than 4 hours of sleep in order to work through the next day, but consider the possibility that the deep relaxation of meditation practice might restore your energy in ways that excessive sleep simply cannot. Be sure to replace the renounced sleep time with meditation.
7. One night per month, stay awake half or most of the night doing just sitting, standing, and walking meditation. If you need a little nap the next day, fine. If your body aches from tiredness, or your mind is dulled, bring mindfulness and attention to this experience. See what it is like to once in a while abandon the comfort of a full night’s sleep. If you become more reactive, ill tempered, or easily irritated when you are tired, notice the reactivity and strive to uproot the defilements. If you dull out in sleepiness, strengthen your interest in awakening. Practice so that your mind does not shake and wobble between desire and aversion, even when you are uncomfortable or tired.
8. Work with the tendency to accumulate possessions. There are many ways we can limit what we buy. Perhaps commit to not purchase anything new this year unless you need to replace something that broke. Or decide that before you will bring a new item into your home, you will give away something. For example if you buy a new shirt, before putting it in your closet you must take another shirt out and give it away.
9. If accumulation is not an issue for you, but self interest is, then every time that you give something luxurious to yourself, also give something to someone else. If you buy yourself a cup of coffee, buy one for a friend. Practice sharing whatever you like with others. Practice giving something to someone, every time you give something to yourself.