Renunciation means you have to want something to change. Renunciation means you have to be fundamentally dissatisfied with the way things are going along. Renunciation means making a commitment. Renunciation means saying “Stop the world. I want off.”
Habitual patterns are an addiction. They are built up over a lifetime, multiple lifetimes, and encoded into our DNA. They are insidious. They are hidden by their very omnipresence, their very normalcy. They hide behind the status quo, not just from us, but from everyone else. Yet they can be no less destructive than chemical addictions.
Utah Phillips quoted the unknown great Ammon Hennessy, “a Catholic anarchist, pacifist, draft-dodger of two World Wars, tax refuser, vegetarian, one-man revolution in America,” explaining pacifism.
He said, “You got to be a pacifist.”
I said, “Why?”
He said, "It'll save your life." And my behavior was very violent then.
I said, "What is it?"
And he said, "Well I can't give you a book by Gandhi - you wouldn't understand it. I can't give you a list of rules that if you sign it you're a pacifist." He said, "You look at it like booze. You know, alcoholism will kill somebody, until they finally get the courage to sit in a circle of people like that and put their hand up in the air and say, 'Hi, my name's Utah, I'm an alcoholic.' And then you can begin to deal with the behavior, you see, and have the people define it for you whose lives you've destroyed."
He said, "It's the same with violence. You know, an alcoholic, they can be dry for twenty years; they're never gonna sit in that circle and put their hand up and say, 'Well, I'm not alcoholic anymore' - no, they're still gonna put their hand up and say, 'Hi, my name's Utah, I'm an alcoholic.' It's the same with violence. You gotta be able to put your hand in the air and acknowledge your capacity for violence, and then deal with the behavior, and have the people whose lives you messed with define that behavior for you, you see. And it's not gonna go away - you're gonna be dealing with it every moment in every situation for the rest of your life."
I said, "Okay, I'll try that," and Ammon said "It's not enough!"
I said: "Oh."
He said, "You were born a white man in mid-twentieth century industrial America. You came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons. The weapons of privilege, racial privilege, sexual privilege, economic privilege. You wanna be a pacifist, it's not just giving up guns and knives and clubs and fists and angry words, but giving up the weapons of privilege, and going into the world completely disarmed. Try that."
That old man has been gone now twenty years, and I'm still at it. But I figure if there's a worthwhile struggle in my own life, that, that's probably the one. Think about it.
So I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about how this idea of addiction and of acknowledging the addiction and dealing with the behavior can be applied to more than just alcoholism or violence or privilege. It can be applied to procrastination, self-deception, obstinacy, clinging, hiding, wallowing, ignoring, and struggling.
I’ve been looking at my self destructive (and people destructive) behaviors. I’ve been trying acknowledge my addictions, my habitual patterns, and to define the impact of those behaviors. I’ve been discussing them, where I can, with the people they effect.
I remember reading once that the second step of addiction recovery is “recognizing a greater power that can give strength,” which is why, I suppose, you hear God mentioned in AA meetings. Or at least in the popular media depiction of AA meetings anyway. So what is the “greater power” when you don’t believe in God? Is it Buddha? In some sects Buddha is depicted as more of a deity, watching over us form the Pure Land or wherever. To me, the Buddha has always been simple Siddhartha Gautama, just some dude who lived and died a couple thousand years ago, who happened, through effort or luck or wisdom, to get some very fundamental things very right. So what then is my “greater power?”
A couple of weeks ago I was sitting at home. I had taken a break from my work to sit on the couch and channel surf. My cat was walking along and I reached over the arm of the couch to scoop her up like I have done a thousand times before. I had just deposited her in my lap when she flipped out. Animals generally flip out for a reason, a loud noise, being startled, etc., but she just flipped out for no reason I have yet determined, spazzed, used me as a springboard, scratched the hell out of my arms, and promptly sat down on the floor three feet away with this calm, innocent look on her cute little face.
”What the hell was that for?!?!” I demanded incredulously, pushing up my sleeves to look at the bright bleeding scratches on my arms. She just blinked at me.
Then I was crying. I felt the tightness in my chest, the wobble in my chin, my face muscles scrunching up and I was crying. And it had absolutely nothing to do with the silly little scratches on my arms. Surprise can be a powerful force. It's that "liberation upon seeing" that "what the hell" that wakes you up. My routine was broken. I was broken.
I sucked it up. I breathed deeply. I calmed down. Then I got up and went out to get munchies from the gas station up the street. On the way home, I realized I was angry. I was walking swiftly and stridently, in the truest meaning of that word. I dropped off my munchies and then I kept walking. It was dark, with only a sliver of a crescent moon in the sky. The weather was fair and the capitol building was lit. I walked around the giant building, feeling each footfall, listening to each breath. I walked up the grand limestone steps and around the lowest balcony. And when I got home, I sat.
For the first time in months, I sat. I just decided to sit. No strings, no set time of day, no complicated rules about when and how and how many days off. I just set the kitchen timer for ten minutes and sit. Every day. No exceptions. And I count, like an addict. Sat three days. Then I missed a day and I start all over again.
So I guess that’s my greater power. The power to sit. The power to do nothing, to choose to do nothing, to just stop, to just breath. I can’t indulge in my habitual patterns, my addictions, my destructive behaviors when I’m just sitting. Sitting is greater than them. And maybe, just maybe, if I keep it up, I’ll find a little of that strength and stability they are always talking about.
I decided something was wrong. Why would being scratched by my cat, something that’s happened a dozen times before, suddenly make me cry if something else wasn’t wrong? Why would I feel so antsy? Why would I feel so angry? So I renounced. I said, “Stop. I want off.”
I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
But I sit.