Saturday, 31 May 2008


This is an article that I wrote back in 1997 while I was studying transpersonal theories and mysticism at the University of Helsinki. I have a Masters degree in Comparative Religion from 1999. So while I may be thinking slightly differently of my personal reality today, I hope this will serve as a basis for those who are seeking to understand the dynamics of mystical and esoteric teachings!


All mystical teaching aims at the liberation of man from the fetters of the material world. A prerequisite for this, however, is renunciation; in order to achieve a permanent state of mystical union with the divine, all the desires that confine us to the pains and pleasures of the mundane sphere must be extinguished. Everything we were ever attached to, must be sacrificed for this supreme state of being. If we hold on to as much as one photograph, or even the desire to attain a state of mind devoid of desire, then we are still caught up in the wheel of Samsara.

There are, however, a number of questions in relation to this issue that might be considered. Does renunciation, for example, lead to a sense of real freedom, or does it bind us to new rules and restrictions? Is a lifestyle infused with a renouncing attitude life-denying or life-affirming? Could such a lifestyle be considered healthy or pathological? Does renunciation require great efforts of will? Is it something that everybody should be striving for? Is it something that concerns only a few dedicated individuals or could renunciation somehow be considered a natural part of human life?
It seems to me that the subject of renunciation is very much at the core of the question whether a quest for spiritual liberation is a promoter of mental health or not, and therefore I would like to dedicate this article to a few of my own points of view concerning the issue. Rather than presenting an expose of the way that renunciation has been understood and applied within religious traditions of the world, I will venture at a discourse of a more personal nature. My aim is to try and highlight some central features of renunciation such as they have presented themselves to me during my personal quest for the ontological foundations of my own being-in-the-world.

The spiritual traditions that have influenced me the most are Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, and these will consequently be lurking in the background of my arguments. I am also indebted to many a contemporary writer, but especially to Ken Wilber, whom I consider the greatest now living advocate of transpersonal psychology. From lack of space, I will refrain from explaining his theories in any detail, however. The interested reader is encouraged to consult his impressive production for thoroughgoing analyses of the transcendental aspects of the human psyche.

Renunciation has a negative ring to it, doesn't it? Somehow the word seems to conjure up images of emaciated ascetics with a keen predilection for using a whip - on themselves. The idea of renouncing all the attributes of living in the world seems, of course, nothing short of life-denying... And that is exactly what many an ascet has tried to do - they have actively tried to suppress the life-force of their bodies in order to gain something else. Since spirit was considered in opposition to the material world, then consequently, all corporeal sensations needed to be suppressed. The Buddha himself was attempting this approach, until finally, weak and famished after years of ascetism, he woke up to the realization that one cannot gain the realm of spirit by suppressing its counterpart. "If the string is too tight, it will break, and if it is too loose, it won't sound" were the enlightening words of a musical teacher to his pupil in a boat passing on the river next to Gautama Sakyamunis abode - so the story goes.

The golden middle way, which entails a balance between opposing forces as much on the physical level as within the psyche, was the answer to his quest. Christian faith has also a long tradition of repressing the corporeal aspect of human life, and this may well be one of the reasons why the liberation of sexuality has erupted with such chaotic and often rather destructive features. Whenever we are biased, we are actually defending our viewpoint against its opposite - whether we are conscious of this or not. This is because we can only understand life through an analytic act of comparison: The concept of "low" is incomprehensible without a comparative reference to the concept of "high". The quality of light make sense only when juxtaposed to darkness. Someone who has never experienced a lack of love, would hardly be able to grasp the meaning of hate nor truly appreciate the value of love. And so on.

Reality in itself is not dual -our perception of dichotomies is dependent on consciousness alternating its focus in a linear and dualist manner. Discursive thinking, which follows our perception of dichotomies on the physical and emotional levels, obviously helps us orientate in reality in a meaningful and constructive way, but it also makes us liable to assuming stances "for" and "against" and thus upholding a judgmental attitude and a sense of boundaries. But the question is, how real are these boundaries? And are we irrevocably confined to language for our understanding of reality? I will get back to the question of language at a later stage, but let us now have a look at the play of opposites in relation to the various levels of the human psyche. Everything goes in pairs. If I focus exclusively on being good, then the quality of badness, which is the natural companion to goodness, will be repressed and dispatched into the subconscious, where it will form part of what C.G Jung called the Shadow.
The repressed material may be just about anything that we do not acknowledge and accept as part of our reality, and may also have positive features: if we identify with certain negative and destructive attitudes, then the positive counterparts of these attitudes may form part of the Shadow. Because our psyche is forever seeking a balance of internal forces, the repressed material tends to make itself known in one way or another - this material is calling upon our attention so that our psychological growth may continue. Perhaps the most important way the Shadow appears in our conscious lives is through other people: we project our obscure aspects unto somebody else.

We mirror each other. If we find a person with ever so little of the very same psychological features that we are repressing in ourselves, then we will react to these in an instinctive and probably greatly exaggerated fashion. We may thus experience unproportionate feelings of fear, hate, admiration, infatuation, or any other human affect towards the object of our attention. All this is perfectly natural, however, because it is through these kinds of constellations that we evolve as human beings. Through projections, valuable lessons are being created, and sooner or later we will have learnt what we needed to learn in order to progress.

According to Ken Wilber and other proponents of the transpersonal theory, the consciousness of a human being is in a constant state of evolution. Through what Wilber calls the spectrum of consciousness, consciousness progresses from level to level in a hierchical order by shifting its focus and identifying with even higher modes of cognition, but always including and integrating all previous levels. According to Wilber, pathologies often do occur, and this is due to the repression of previous levels of consciousness. Humanity is presently dwelling on the level of discursive thinking, and does seem to have trouble relating to previous, more instinctual and physically orientated levels. All our shadows tend to create havoc in our personal lives as well as on a global level. A typical example is our difficulty in acknowledging that as biological entities, we are truly dependent on nature for our well-being, and that exploiting nature the way we do is a means of destroying ourselves.

Now, whenever consciousness transcends a level, it renounces its identification with this particular state of being. It has learnt what there was to learn, and will consequently move on to new modes of perceiving and processing reality. According to this model, then, the act of renunciation does not imply any particular effort of will. There has to be a certain willingness to learn and evoluate, but the actual evolutionary drive will still be functioning whether - as self-reflecting individuals - we are particularly happy about it or not. Spirit will eventually have its way... This also means that repressed material will never stay forever in the subconscious realm - sooner or later the individual will become aware of the pathology, and the blocks will clear out through a reflective process of introspection and conscious work with emotional relationships and mental attitudes.

I believe the taoists were right in claiming that the only unchangeable thing that exists, is change. It seems to me that the creative force is an endlessly pulsating rhythm through which the spirit is manifesting itself in various forms of reality. This rhythm is formed through an alternation between the opposite forces of yin and yang: of feminine and masculine, cold and warm, dark and light, passive and dynamic, inhalation and exhalation, destruction and construction... It is when we really learn to dance to this rhythm, when we really become one with the stream of ever-changing patterns of life - it is only then that we will be truly free. For in resisting change by holding on to the past or living in the tomorrow, by grasping at status and material possessions as if we could own these forever, and by just generally being afraid of losing our (false) sense of external security, we are really binding ourselves to a terrible lot of pain and sorrow. We are forever insatiate, forever seeking pleasure, but as soon as we have gained our object of desire, we start to fear its loss. And we eventually do lose it, because that is the law of change. And there will be mourning, pain and an emptiness, that we will attempt to fill up by focusing our attention on yet other objects or people that we might own.

I do personally believe that there is a purpose in all this, a profound meaning that gradually unveils itself as an individual journeys through life. I believe that Spirit is seeking adventure! It is volunteering for this school of life in order to gain experiences. And one day, after a great many rebirths and deaths, nothing could be more natural than to say thank you and goodbye, and move on to some other form of existence. Life goes on, effortlessly, beautifully -if only we allow it to.

There was a time when I thought that the mystical was something apart from the toil and moil of everyday life, that to become enlightened was to enter another dimension of great magnitude and wonder, but quite specifically other than the dimension we human beings are occupying on planet Earth. This is symptomatic of thinking in dualist terms, of course, which, as we have already seen, is the natural stance of the rational mind. Presumably I was also influenced by the fact that people used to withdraw into monasteries in order to dedicate their lives to a search for God. But then I kept coming across the idea that all is One and that microcosmos reflects macrocosmos and vice versa. I had a very strong intuition that this must indeed be the case, and I ventured at trying the consequences of such an assumption. For instance, if the world has been issued out of the One, then obviously it cannot be other than the One. By definition, there cannot be anything but the One. If there is nothing but the One, then the One can have no external boundaries and it must consequently be boundless as well as timeless and spaceless, for time and space are dependent on the existence of physical and mental boundaries (which presupposes the notion that physical reality is not as solid as we think).

And so on... I am not going to present a long list of rational arguments, but urge you to do your own research, if you find it necessary. Suffise to say that according to this way of seeing things, everything that we see and don't see (for surely our faculties of perception and our rational understanding of reality are restricted!), all the experiences we have had, have and will have in the future, all the various manifestations of the natural realm that we can love and hate, use and abuse - all are but aspects of the One - whose abode, so as to speak, is in the eternal, timeless and boundless Now. My body, my emotions and my thoughts, as well as my spiritual aspects, are accordingly also One and only seemingly different from one another. My soul is only seemingly separated from my body. I am only seemingly separated from you. And what about time? Is each moment a separate bead on a straight string of moments? What happens when thinking disappears? Will there still be a perception of time as passing? I suggest you try this one out for yourself!

You may rightfully ask how it is possible that your experience of the world as consisting of neatly separated objects is so acute and convincing, if reality is really boundless? And who or what is experiencing the world as a conglomerate of separate bits and pieces and random events? These are obviously very complex issues, and I cannot hope but to brush their surfaces within the confines of this article. But I will present you with a few more viewpoints in relation to my previous discussion about the role of language, hoping thus to reinforce the idea of our basic identity as boundless and independent of social conventions, as well as renunciation as a natural part of human evolution.

A human being is very much identified with language, and many a philosopher - notably Heidegger - has considered language to be the prerequisite for our sense of being-in-the-world. As soon as we have an experience, we analyze and define it through a use of concepts. There is thus an automatic division between experiencer and experienced - created through thoughts. But according to transpersonal theory, this is only one of many levels of consciousness. This is the level of the ego - in other words the level on which our sense of individuality is being created and maintained through discursive thinking. And as we saw before, discursive thinking is constantly making choices between pairs of opposites. If a thing is not this, it must be that. Because I am me, I cannot be you. And I do know I am me because I am capable of analyzing feedback from my environment! A sense of boundaries is thus maintained. It is very hard for us to think in terms of both-and rather than either-or, and pairs of opposites are particularly difficult for us to contain underneath the same conceptual roof.

Within zen buddhism, intellectual paradoxes - koans - are being used as a means of forcing the rational mind to surrender to a higher form of intuitive knowledge. Experiences of meditation also show that it is possible to have awareness without having thoughts. And believe me - a lot of interesting things start to happen when thoughts are giving way. Meditation is thus a method for deautomatizing - renouncing - our dependency on rational thinking. But what in my experience also starts to happen is a joining of all sorts of opposites, on all levels of the psyche. Eventually even highly charged attitudes of liking and disliking will be married in a new synthesis of deep and honest compassion towards all living beings.

All the shady parts of the psyche will be brought into the light of consciousness, where if met with patience and acceptance, will gradually be integrated into the sphere of love.I feel that Good and Evil should also be acknowledged as equals, for they are but aspects of one and the same thing, and as transitory and relative as all aspects of the worldly realm. I believe that they exist as tools in the school of life, but that the Absolute One is beyond such dualism. Their mission is to help us evolve and eventually to wake us up from the grips of Maya, the power of illusion. When this has been accomplished, they lose their existential meaning for us and will only remain as points of reference for our continued being-in-the-world. All physical, emotional and mental faculties that were cultivated prior to the insight regarding the true nature of human existence, will be included on this new level of consciousness, but there will be no more dependency on them as they will be understood as transitory and therefore no source of lasting happiness. When consciousness rises above the level of discursive thought, all conceptual categories are transcended. This means that there are no words, concepts or mental categories for the kind of experiences that are now being met. We may have to resort to words like joy, bliss, love and happiness in order to indicate what we are experiencing, but it should be kept in mind that these are concepts issued out of a dualist experience of life.

When consciousness no longer identifies with language, the role of the ego also changes, since it is dependent on the illusion of boundaries for its sense of individuality. The ego has to abdicate its autocracy. It does so reluctantly, but it has no real choice. Because we believe so firmly in its solidity, the thought of losing it seems preposterous. We imagine that without a self-sense we'd be thrown into some indefinable void, where we'd be demolished. The ego doesn't, however, vanish - the enlightened being will remain an individual with a certain personality - but it will have lost its hold of the mind. The ego was responsible for the pains and frustrations brought about by the process of choicemaking. The constant swinging from one opposite to another, from pain to pleasure and back again, from possessing to not possessing, and the driving force behind all this - our desires - were very much dependent on the existence of the ego and its analytic faculties, since these are the ones that tied us up and made us resist the movement of change. The process of letting go of the ego and its liaisons may be long or short, but it will happen, as naturally as flowers bloom and fruits and berries ripen - when the time is right.

For reasons that I am not going to speculate about in this context, it seems that a great deal of people are now going through such transformative processes of letting go of emotional and mental dependencies, and this is often happening with great intensity and an accelerated tempo. Most of these people do not find it necessary to take refuge in the confinement of monasteries. In some respects this may be a harder way of maturing, but there is a great deal of support to be found within society today. Consider also this as a way of learning to understand the meaning of the statement that "All is One": in other words that there is no real difference between the supreme state of enlightenment and the toil and moil of everyday life. And I believe that as a process of unification is going on within a great number of people, so it is being reflected within society as well.

To summarize my previous arguments, I would claim that there is a healthy form of renunciation which concerns the letting go of possessive attachments to places, objects, people, memories, and experiences in general, and that this is a matter of the mind. An unhealthy form of renunciation, on the other hand, is one were any form of repression and resistance is the case. But my point is also, that renunciation is not an exclusively "spiritual" phenomenon in the sense that only people with a particularly spiritual outlook are confronted with such issues. On the contrary, we are dealing with the issue all the time, just through the simple process of living life and seeking ways in which we can live it more fluently.

There are, of course, different levels of renunciation. We have to let go of one moment and one thought in order to pass on the next one - this is happening on a very fundamental level of our being-in-the world. Deciding to give up smoking would, on the other hand, involve the discursive mind and probably relate to a number of feelings as well. Acts of renunciation of greater ontological purport would again be taking place on higher levels of consciousness, and this includes the kind of renunciation that I have been focusing on here, namely the kind that helps us break loose from the fetters of illusion. I admit at being especially concerned with the transcendental aspects of human existence, and I'm well aware that many people find discussions about enlightenment rather high-flying: why concern oneself with something that may take place at some indefinite point in the future? My point is, however, that this very moment with all its petty concerns is as "holy" and purposeful as a mystical experience. I feel that there is no need to mystify the spiritual and to create an awe-inspiring abyss between the heavenly and the mundane. Although in attempting to express the ontological foundations of reality we are helplessly drawn into a labyrinth of theories and conceptual categories, this is still part of our nature and our process of living and should therefore be honored, as well.

The important thing is that we look inside of ourselves and express what it is that we are finding there. If the forces of the unconscious are overpowering, then we can always get help in processing the material. In mirroring each other, we are all each other's teachers! But now some closing words on the subject of "ultimate" renunciation, were the beginning meets the end and the circle closes...When a person renounces all attachments to the worldly aspects of existence, there is a final union of opposites: the life-force of the earth will join its heavenly counterpart. In terms of Hinduist mythology: Shakti will rise to join her mate Shiva, and together they will infuse the physical dimension with the power of ultimate Truth. In Buddhist term, the individual enters Nirvana, and becomes one with the Void. The Void is defined as non-being because in one sense, it is the opposite of being-in-the world, which is the only form of being that we are conscious of before waking up to the state of Nirvana. From an absolute point of view, these are of course not in a state of opposition to. This ultimate state is certainly not a void devoid of life. In fact it seems that the void is the abode of all possibilities, of everything that could ever be manifested. And of course I lack the words to describe what I can only intuitively divine...

It goes without saying that the process of purification - of giving up ones desires and bindings - is, an arduous affair. Not only are there a great deal of conflicts (disharmonious relations between polarities) to solve and dependencies to give up, but there is also the simple fact that we have grown used to the world. The world and I - we have been through a lot together. Giving up such a relationship will necessary entail grief. But it is very important to mourn, for it is a purifying process during which masses of stagnated feelings will reach the surface and vanish. And in this process we will become true masters of our emotional lives. No, not dictators, but skilled and loving masters. The fact that must not be surpassed is that whatever happens to our consciousness, we still are human beings and will remain as such until the moment of our physical death. We will have to go on living as usual. In my opinion, a purified person is not in any way of greater value than anybody else - how could it be otherwise, if all is One. But he or she will be an unclogged channel of Spirit, and in infusing physical reality with this force, I've no doubt that such an individual is of importance in the rebalancing of the destructive (read: disharmonious) forces of our dear and beautiful planet.

If all that I have been saying is anywhere close to being true, then it is possible for man to fly into the soaring heights of Heaven with wings of Spirit, light and pure. But beware, for we are not only spirit! May be that our world is an illusion, but it is a very real illusion infused with real value and real purpose (for can we really talk about real and not real, if all is One?), and we are responsible for it. So as long as we are also this body, in this magnificent but badly bruised and crippled world of ours, we need, at the same time, to stay close, very, very close to the earth with its animals and trees and plants and rocks and soil, and all the things that we have created through our intellectual reflection... We need indeed to draw so close, so close that suddenly we are drawn right into it and we realize that this is us! And this, I think, is the riddle of life, the final paradox that we need to solve. In order to become truly humans. In order to become truly free.

Artwork "The Leap Of Faith", handmade collage by author, all rights reserved; copyright V-M C 2004

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