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Renouncement: An Old Idea for a New World

by Robert Magrisso

(en español)

Audio Introduction

A hate filled white supremacist enters a black church and murders nine people in cold blood in an effort to incite a race war. He is captured and imprisoned. The families of the victims offer forgiveness rather than return hate. They renounce violence and revenge.

A professional basketball superstar player in the championship playoffs realizes that he cannot dominate the scoring as he has done all year if his team is to win the championship. He has to trust his teammates and pass off more often. He has to renounce his individual play so that the team can win.

A new mother with an infant with special needs decides that she has to spend more time with the baby at home than she had planned. Her career, for which she has studied and planned for a decade or more, needs to be put on hold. She decides to renounce her professional ambition for the sake of the child at this time.

A young man, concerned about climate change, global warming and its vast implications for life on earth, uses public transportation and his bicycle as much as possible to decrease his carbon "footprint." He renounces his dependence on his automobile and its insidious determination of his life choices

One could give countless examples of the role of renouncement in daily life similar to those given above. The spirit of renouncement informs many different actions and attitudes that, on the surface, seem disconnected from each other. Forgiveness, teamwork and sacrifice are just a few of the virtues that are given life by the spirit of renouncement. Indeed, it could be said that at the heart of all religions and ethical systems, often going by some other name, is the idea of renouncement. Love, compassion, sharing, flexibility, inclusion all have in common the critical component of renouncement.

However, renouncement is an old word that we more often associate with monks, yogis and monasteries than contemporary daily life. The dictionary definition of renouncement in English is "the act or practice of giving up or rejecting something once enjoyed or desired." It has such synonyms as abnegation, repudiation and self-denial. It seems to me that this definition is highly inadequate to describe what is meant by this word as used in Cafh.

Cafh as a spiritual path is a "path of renouncement." However, it generally leaves the term renouncement undefined. Each member forms his or her own ideas about what this means based on teachings we have heard, writings we have read and, especially, our experience. Indeed, the idea of renouncement is not a single idea, but a complex set of ideas which is really a world view. On the one hand, it is a visionary idea—a way of approaching life that is very different from the predominant ways of today. On the other hand, it is a very old idea, an idea that takes many forms, is part of all cultures, moral and ethical systems and religions.

Renouncement, as it is practiced in Cafh, is a world view that values living in the present, recognizing we are all integral parts of the Whole, and that we need to liberate ourselves from our own conditioning. Renouncement is an idea that comes out of a vision of reality that is both grounded and sound. It is hoped that this word, this idea, can work its way into mainstream thought not as self-denial but as a liberating force, liberating each of us from attitudes, behaviors and feelings that limit and possess us in ways that we recognize as unhealthy for us and the greater whole in which we live.

There is no doubt that, over time, society has made progress in many ways. Yet it seems that our ability to live together in peace and harmony has not developed at the same pace as society's scientific and technical progress.1

The world today has gotten smaller and closer due to the vast technological advances in transportation, communication and economic integration. We routinely fly to all parts of the earth, visit cities and countries which in the past we may have never known or perhaps could only read about. Now we communicate with individuals instantly by voice and video almost any place on earth. Information, goods and foods come from all over. "Globalization" is one of the hallmarks of our day.

Along with this comes the inevitable encounters with people who are different from ourselves—people who look different, speak a different language, have different habits and values. Is it possible to live in peace in such a multicultural world? Are we fated to live always in conflict? Is diversity something that we appreciate or are threatened by? Can we expand our sense of identity to appreciate differences without losing our own core values? Can we see those values as unfinished and learn to improve them? Can we transcend the limits of our empathy to include others who are different from us, so called "foreigners," "others"? Can we overcome separativity in its various forms?

However, these are not easy questions to answer and are likely to be with us for generations. We need to learn to renounce for the benefit of the greater whole of which we are a part, as seen in our interdependence of economies and sharing the earth as our home, this small planet in the vast universe. Enhanced by technology, we now all affect each other, even those who live on opposite sides of the earth. Whether it is the atmosphere, that thin layer of gases upon which life depends, or the ocean, which is 70% of the earth's surface, we have the power to affect it in ways no human cohort in the past ever could. Climate change involves a scale of phenomena larger than humanity has ever had to consider. We have weapons of mass destruction that include the nuclear power previously found only in the stars, that has the capability to destroy much of the life here on this planet.

We live together, whether we like it or not. Can we open ourselves to this challenge and break out of self-enclosed ignorance and indifference, fear and greed? To do this seriously is to come up to hard places, where one's discernment is challenged, where there are no easy answers and falling back on simple, easy slogans and prior history is not enough. Sometimes the need for renouncement is initially obscured by a feeling of discomfort. The ego and its defenses are always there, conscious or unconscious.

Such openness requires work. Can I renounce a way of looking at things that may no longer be helpful or accurate? And what values are the anchors for this, the centers around which to gravitate, to pivot? Our minds are all filled with narratives, learned and handed down—conscious and unconscious. Some are helpful but others are out of date, some are in need of strengthening, others in need of jettisoning because they come from an older, insular world. But none of this work is possible until I realize that some of the ways that I see the world are conditioned and biased, not necessarily suited for today.

One of the greatest challenges in this process is how to harmonize the value of each individual and the needs of the group. I have grown up in a culture that stresses individualism, often at the expense of the common good. What I need to renounce is different from what someone from a culture where conformity is the norm needs to renounce. But still, the role of renouncement remains central once one discerns the issues more clearly.

What is the basis of my "identity"? Do I only identify with a particular group, my ethnic group, my religious affiliation, my gender, my nationality or race and see all other groups as inferior or threatening? Can I expand my identity to humanity and include others as individuals with whom I can identify, for whom I can feel empathy? Renouncement of my parochial identities and inclusion of the other is part of the sense of participation that is one of the attitudes at the root of this kind of renouncement. Freedom from past conditioning, historical grievances, and the desire for revenge are some of the attitudes that are necessary to generate social justice. So much needs to be renounced before the endless cycles of hate and war can be broken.

Renouncement is a much needed social and political force in the modern world where interconnectedness and interdependent multiculturalism are the facts of life. We need to adapt if we are to live in peace. The challenges will be with us for generations, but learning to think and feel in this way has already begun in different forms, as documented in the examples at the beginning of this article and illustrated in The Arch of Unfolding. It is hoped that renouncement can be identified as one of the essential attitudes that transforms ideals into action and strengthens the forces of sustainability and peace in this new world. 

Renouncement: An Old Idea for a New World

Robert Magrisso has been a Cafh member for over 40 years. He was one of the founders of the Cafh group in the Chicago area where he and his wife raised their family and continue to live. He is a physician practicing internal medicine and is also an artist. Many of his articles and artworks are available on the Seeds of Unfolding website click on Integrating Meditation and Daily Life



See "Inner Alchemy" by José Luis Kutscherauer, Spiritual Director of Cafh. Click on Inner Alchemy