When we take a spiritual retreat or come here [on pilgrimage] we separate ourselves from the drama of our daily lives. Our desire for God comes alive; the influence of the world is much less; the Divine Presence becomes a wonderfully immediate reality. But then what happens? We return to the worldly environment and get caught up in the daily drama. Nervousness and anxiety build up tension in the body; the mind is affected with restlessness and moods. We get emotionally involved in whatever issues are facing us, and when we sit to meditate, they still have a hold on us. For a time we may disengage ourselves from thoughts and feelings about these outer situations, but because of our emotional attachment to them they come right back. Getting away from the influence of maya [cosmic delusion] is like throwing down a yo-yo on a string: it seems that as often as we lay it down, it comes right back!
Now, there is good news and bad news about this. The bad news is that maya is very strong; the attachment is hard to break. But the good news is that maya isn’t gripping us—we are gripping maya. And we can make the choice to let go of it. It is not easy, but we can do it. How? Of course, devotional intensity in our practice of [meditation] is necessary. But there is another key that can make a tremendous difference in our meditation: Renunciation. There is power in that practice—an awesome power over maya.
Chapter VI of the Bhagavad Gita is specifically about meditation, and in Paramahansa Yogananda’s commentary on this chapter [in his book God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita] he describes the inner renunciation that makes deep meditation possible: “The yogi, while meditating upon God, should not distract his attention by allowing himself to ruminate on material objects, mentally planning and replanning material activities for the fulfillment of desired ends. He should renounce without reserve all such desires born of egoistic mental plannings.” This is uncompromising counsel! The ego hates to hear it, but the soul loves it, because it is the way to ultimate freedom.
In this same chapter of the Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna: “Whenever the fickle and restless mind wanders away—for whatever reason—let the yogi withdraw it from those distractions and return it to the sole control of the Self”.…There are many things going on in our lives that we need to think about—decisions to make, people to care for, matters to resolve.…In daily life they are important; it is our duty to take care of the persons and responsibilities entrusted to us. But in meditation they become distraction. We have to acquire the discrimination to make this distinction; otherwise we can try for years, even lifetimes, to go deep in meditation, but never reach our goal.
Whatever you are dealing with in life is meaningful as a step in your spiritual growth, and you try to take care of it with all your energy and love. But when you are meditating, by an act of will you lay it aside in order to concentrate only on God. This is a major shift for the mind, the heart, the will. It is a skill that must be cultivated. Paramahansa Yogananda speaks of it as “the devotee’s power to invoke divinity gained through renunciative will.” It is possible for every one of you to attain this—and it will gradually expand to influence your whole existence.
At the beginning of your meditation, muster your will power and say: “During this meditation, I am dead to the world. There is nothing that is important to me at this time, only God.” This is the use of renunciative will in meditation. The key is: Renounce everything, without reserve. Don’t try to sort it out with the mind. The farmers of the American Midwest have a funny saying: “Never wrestle with a pig. First of all, you get dirty, and second, the pig loves it!” Likewise with the mind: It loves to be active. Though we respect the mind’s power to solve life’s problems, do not engage it in deliberation about outer concerns during meditation; it will only keep you in the realm of maya. Take a dynamic, willful stance toward your current emotional drama.
The beautiful thing about inner renunciation is that we do not have to run away to the mountains or join an ashram. This ideal is lived within—it is the same for me in an ocher robe, standing up here giving this talk, as it is for you sitting there listening. You can carry on all of your daily activities and responsibilities. You can have life and love, you may lose love and loved ones—but by inner renunciation during meditation, gradually you learn to go so deep that nothing ruffles or disturbs you. You can get to that point in a surprisingly short amount of time through repeated acts of renunciative will. Instead of wasting your energies in constantly struggling with the mind, it enables you to put your efforts into diving deep in God. As Krishna said to Arjuna, “With the intuitive discrimination saturated in patience, with the mind absorbed in the soul, the yogi, freeing his mind from all thoughts, will by slow degrees attain tranquility.”
Renunciation enables you to put the mind where it ought to be in meditation. It loosens your attachment to the world and its distractions. And it benefits your daily life in wonderful ways. You find you are no longer full of anxiety; changes don’t disturb you. You are willing to flow with the will of God, and you know how to use your own will rightly. You feel a sense of attunement and understanding through the peace you cultivate in meditation. Think deeply about this concept—“the devotee’s power to invoke divinity gained through…renunciative will.” Work with it. Talk to God about it; ask for strength in developing it, and you will find how much it will help you.
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