Sunday, August 28, 2011


At present you need to live the question
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet


So will you also frolic with me on the edge of this ominous time and wrest from it whatever it may offer
~ Friedrich Schleiermacher, Letter to his Bride


In Western culture we confuse renunciation and sacrifice. We see our nature as inherently “bad” and regard the slaughtering of our heart's desire as the necessary payment for original sin. We understand our redemption literally as an exchange or trade-off rather than as something freely given up in the true spirit of offering.

Moreover, there is an urgency to expiate the badness that we are uncomfortable holding, a need to eject it from ourselves as quickly as possible. This is the origin of confession, but also of pornography, projection and scapegoating. Unable to contain our forbidden parts, and if we cannot either secretly indulge or confess them, we will project them onto others whom we will then publicly shun, exclude or otherwise attempt to cut off from ourselves.

This disembodied moralism and its dark side (moral perversity) have been sealed on our collective consciousness since the age of Enlightenment. Their coolness is, I think, best illustrated by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who extolled moral duty as arising in the mind in strict obedience to a moral law borne of reason alone:
Duty! Thou sublime and mighty name that dost embrace nothing charming or insinuating, but requirest submission .... but merely holdest forth a law which of itself finds entrance into the mind, and yet gains reluctant reverence.
(Critique of Practical Reason)

The performance of a duty that demands submission or sacrifice is an act of violence. Renunciation, on the other hand, is an act of generosity that arises from the body itself and manifests as a stirring of the heart. It is warmth, not coolness. Love, not reason.

It is not necessary to be emptied of bodily desire, made hollow like a shell in order to be made holy. It is not necessary to be pure. On the contrary, to be whole, we cannot leave any parts behind. Muddy roots must be included, just like the lotus.

What is renunciation then? What is given up if there is no sacrifice? Paradoxically, it is the act of “letting go of holding on and holding back” (Pema Chodron; The Wisdom of No Escape)

It is not effortless but is in fact, as Gurdjieff says, “intentional suffering”, as we need to make an extraordinary effort to stop trying to sort things out and, as the saying goes “stop doing something and just sit there”. We need to tolerate ambiguity and overcome the quick-fix mentality, we need to learn patience. Rather than aspire to the dissolution of complexity into manageable parts, aspire instead to its resolution into clarity and savour its darkness and mystery.


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