Practices to Abandon: What Yogis Do

The desire to renounce things is the obstacle. The Self is simple renunciation. The Self has renounced all.

~ Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi compiled by Sri Munagala Venkataramiah, Talk 268

The past several days, as of this writing, have been filled with excruciating pain. I had never before experienced literally blinding pain, but an exposed nerve in a broken tooth will do that, apparently. In one particularly bad instance, it was only through mental japa — the concentrated repetition of a mantra — that I managed to hold it together enough to make an appointment with the dentist and walk home from work to take care of myself. While I’m sure I would have survived without it, the Yoga discipline of japa notably improved my performance under the circumstances.

The timing is funny, as a friend of mine had just asked me the following a few nights before the tooth became a problem: “What do yogis do? With witches, I can look at something or even just make something up and say, ‘That seems like something witches would do,’ but I can’t do that with yogis.” I’ve been thinking about it ever since, as I’d never really stopped to consider how I’d describe what yogis do before. The intense pain of a nerve ending exposed to the elements gave me a stark context for my contemplation. You’d think I could just say, “Yogis do Yoga,” and let that be that, but as I said in my last post Yoga is difficult to pin down. Patanjali clearly defines Yoga as both the set of practices which achieves and the achievement of the stilling of modifications of the mental substance. That’s a helpful definition as far as it goes, but it does require a lot of unpacking.

I won’t insult or bore my readers with another lengthy explanation of the fact that what gets sold as “yoga” in the marketplace bears just about zero resemblance to the real thing; let’s take that as a given and move on. Things like meditation, contemplation, ritual worship, and so on are obvious enough examples of “stuff yogis do”, but they don’t always look as expected. There’s not one form for any of these things which you can count on in any given individual or group, and even some of the common terms will mean different things depending on context. All of these practices, their myriad of shapes and names, and the variety of reasons for engaging in them are all very important for the yogi; read about those, try them out for yourself, and you’ll know a good bit about “what yogis do”.

But, significantly, you won’t know the most important part: Yogis renounce.

Yogis renounce every obstacle to Awakening. We renounce our own sense of action and desserts, all of our karma. We renounce our conditioned thoughts and emotions. We renounce our love of life and our fear of death. We renounce our disgust, our grasping. We renounce those things and ideas with which we identify, those building blocks of selfhood and separation. We renounce our lack of awareness and our misapprehensions.

This may sound extreme, but stick with me. This is not the cultish “breaking down to build up in our image” thing; the lineage does not force this renunciation in the individual, nor does the Guru insist upon it. We practice our meditation, our chanting, our ritual, making every thought, word, and deed throughout the day somehow a thread in the tapestry of our Yoga. We continue to engage with the world as needed, but do so with increasing spontaneity and decreasing artificiality. Whatever is real within us, we discover it by peeling away everything else.

We do not thereby destroy our personalities, efface our likes and dislikes, or enervate our affections. So long as we are human beings, we will have these characteristics. But we do learn to wear them more lightly. We come to see them for what they are: fancy dress, the shape and color of which reveal something of what is underneath but which cannot be it. We therefore take them less seriously, seeing them as opportunities for practice and simultaneously as ornaments or toys to be enjoyed for as long as they last.

We renounce the world and thereby ourselves — as everything we think we know of ourselves is conditioned by the things of the world — but ultimately we renounce renunciation. Many Hindu and Jain Yogis become attached to asceticism, Christian mystics to mortification, Buddhists to non-self; these are all a form of egotism, fear of death, of grasping after renunciation itself. Even renunciation and holiness become sources of pain if we fail to see them for what they are after they have served their principal purpose. Patanjali tells us that the purpose of Nature (prakrti) is for the enjoyment and liberation of the Self (purusha); once it has performed both of these tasks, it becomes as if non-existent. Of course, the world doesn’t really vanish when one attains Awakening, but such a person is able not only to see the world as it is, but to see through the world, to see beyond the appearance to That which upholds it. At that point, what is there left to renounce but the thought of renunciation itself? When everything is let go, everything can simply rest in its own nature.

Ultimately, then, we can cut through it all to this: what yogis do is whatever it takes to get to that place wherein everything is just as it is. It is a paradox of spiritual practice that we must apply a great deal of effort over a long time just to realize — genuinely realize, and not just theoretically accept — that there’s nothing to realize and no effort is necessary. Yogis live this paradox. All of the schools, lineages, metaphysics, theologies, cosmologies, meditations, mantras, yantras, and rituals are just for this. However grandiose, lowly, or merely absurd that may strike any given ear, that’s it, that’s all we do.

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