A few years ago, while researching for a book, I made what was for me a surprising discovery: 91.5% of North Americans are either members of a religious faith, or profess spiritual beliefs. Less than one-half of one percent are atheists, and only 8% consider themselves agnostics or free thinkers indifferent to all religions. World statistics are in the same neighborhood. (Virtually 100% of the Indian population are members of a religious faith.)

Given these proportions, and considering the law of probabilities, one might expect to be bumping into saints everywhere. Yet how rare in our world are the visible fruits of a spiritual life—selfless love, compassion, charity, joy, wisdom. How much rarer yet is the goal of spirituality, God-realization. There seems to be some mysterious missing link between spiritual belief and living spirituality on this earth.

The Kaivalya Upanishad hints at this missing link in the Sanskrit phrase, “tyagenaike amritatvam aanasuh,” “by renunciation alone have people attained immortality.” Not that renunciation is all we need. There are many other essential qualities—love, compassion, selfless service, alertness—as well as meditation and other spiritual practices. Yet the growth of all these spiritual qualities and practices actually depends upon renunciation.

To serve selflessly, we must renounce selfish interests. Service often requires foregoing rest, recreation, or even meditation. The same holds true of any expression of true compassion and love; we forget ourselves. If even for only a moment, we renounce self-interests to give love or compassion freely. Even to be alert requires renouncing the comfortable, familiar wanderings and inertia of the mind. Similarly, to practice meditation, we may have to resist the lure of the TV or forego reading the newspaper. Indeed, no spiritual quality can blossom without being nourished by the waters of renunciation. Without renunciation one may derive temporary pleasure from the world, but one will live in a spiritual desert.

This raises an interesting point: The word renunciation evokes images of austerity, a dry life of enduring hardship and discomfort. Yet renunciation is the nourishing water of spiritual life. This can even be true of the literal renunciation of possessions. St. Francis extolled the bliss of “holy poverty,” i.e. renunciation of possessions, as far exceeding any other pleasure, earthly or heavenly. (Don’t freak out; you don’t have to take a vow of holy poverty. More on this below.)

In essence, renunciation is a direct means to clean up the attachments, aversions, and subtle addictions that clutter and limit our lives. We thus become more self-possessed, more ourSelf. With this spiritual expansion comes inner peace and bliss. Those who regularly practice some form of renunciation find they naturally prefer this inner bliss of regaining their Self to passing, external pleasures. This message, however, has been all but lost today. Thus even amongst many religious people, the goal of religion—God-realization—has gained the status of an impossible dream.

The saints and sages of every religious tradition of the world have extolled the value of renunciation. Christ also held renunciation as the key to immortality. When a seeker asked Christ, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” Christ answered, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” This is essentially the spiritual aspiration of the vast majority of the world’s religious population—to live according to God’s laws. But this is only a beginning point, “entering into life.” This leads to a virtuous and happy life here and a heavenly state in the afterlife. It does not lead to spiritual perfection, to God-realization. Thus when the same seeker replied, “I have kept these from my youth. What do I still lack?” Christ answered, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give the money to the poor. Then come and follow me.”

The contemporary Indian saint, Mata Amritanandamayi (Ammachi), makes an interesting point regarding renunciation: She does not say that everyone must renounce the world. Rather, She tells us to live in the world like a bird sitting on a dried twig. The bird knows the twig can break at any time and is ready to fly off in a moment. Nevertheless, such detachment will develop only by regularly practicing some renunciation in our lives, such as turning off the TV and meditating for at least some time each day. We need not strain with superhuman effort in this; we should allow ourselves to feel the secret joy of renunciation, which we can experience directly as the bliss of meditation.

This leads to what I consider the final word on renunciation, a comment Sri Sankara makes in his Aparokshanubhuti. He says:
The abandonment of the illusory universe by realizing it as the all-conscious Atman is the real renunciation honored by the great, since it is of the nature of immediate liberation.*

For one who sees all this as unreal, sees that in truth the world is nothing other than one’s own pure, divine Self, there can be no attachment. Such a one has nothing to acquire, nothing in the world to cling to. He lives a natural, spontaneous state of perfect renunciation, yet he has nothing to renounce. He or she is immersed in the bliss of the immediate experience and knowledge of the divine.

The idea that rising to this state of perfection is simply a matter of giving up all our possessions is a sad misconception. You may give up your house for a cave, but you still will have rain, cold, and hunger to deal with. You will still find yourself attached to comfort, though your standards may have dropped significantly—and to what spiritual purpose? Spirituality isn’t a matter of lifestyle; it’s a state of mind. We can live a rich spiritual life naturally, right in our own homes, by experiencing the bliss of the divine through meditation. Then the divine naturally becomes our inner focus in life, no matter what our outer lifestyle.

Let us test these holy waters of renunciation through meditation, and see if we don’t come a few steps closer to living our highest ideals.

*Verse 106, page 57, Aparokshanubhuti, or Self-Realization of Sri Sankaracharaya, Swami Vimuktananda, Advaita Ashrama, 1982

This article by Ajayan was first published by Matruvani, Kerala, India. Updated and revised.