When we are successful we keep doing the same thing. Often we close down around a routine or formula. We are on autopilot. But when we fail we try something new. Small failures along the way keep us open to new ideas. We remain flexible and vigilant.
Failure also teaches us about the power and wisdom of renunciation. Commitment requires renunciation. If you commit to an early morning meditation schedule then you can’t stay up late watching TV. That can be a tough renunciation for some people.
If you commit to an evening meditation schedule you can’t eat a big dinner because then you just want to veg out. It takes a lot of energy to meditate. You have to be alert. So you have to practice renunciation.
As a culture, Americans are not good at renunciation. It’s kind of a bad word because we live in a consumer culture. For years we have been treated like consumers and now it seems we’ve begun to see ourselves as consumers. Indulgence has become a conditioned cultural value. Extravagance and flamboyance are associated with American lifestyles. Our worth is measured by our possessions, status, and relationships. These values benefit corporate America but they cause a lot of stress and anxiety for the rest of us.
Renunciation protects us. It keeps us from closing down around our desires. If you go to a social gathering with a strong desire to find a romantic partner, all you see are ring fingers. You’re not interested in talking to anyone who’s wearing a wedding ring, so you are closed off.
What we want determines what we see. Since my wife retired she has been cooking wonderful dinners. But she also travels a lot since she retired. When she’s away, as I drive home from work all I see are restaurants. I don’t see anything else, just restaurants.
To stay open and engaged in what’s actually going on, we have to be aware of how much influence our desires have over us. There’s a Sufi saying that when a pickpocket meets a saint he only sees the saint’s pockets.
Any kind of commitment requires renunciation. Renunciation is a matter of putting aside our immediate desires just a little bit so we can stay focused on something bigger. When we were waiting and watching the horizon for signs of big wave, one that would carry us all the way in, it was tempting to take whatever wave came along.
Training in renunciation involves seeing our immediate desires as they arise without indulging them. If you indulge a desire what happens next? Another desire arises. And another and another. The faster you can indulge your desires the faster they arise. What happens to your life in all this chasing around? Where does it go?
But if you investigate the nature of desire rather than indulge it, the pattern is broken. When the next desire arises, here’s your opportunity again to investigate. As your understanding deepens the stream of desire slows to a trickle. It never dries up; but it loses its power over you.