November 12, 2008


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.


john said...

You ask "what is wrong with my life" because you cried. Maybe the answer is another question: "what is right with my life?"

My yoga teacher has also recommended "just sitting." After reading your blog entry, I actually tried it--for a very long ten minutes. I saw all kinds of problems with my life, but just near the end of the session I saw my family and friends. They are what is right with my life. Thanks for the excellent experience. Take care.

Your friend

Monica said...

Yeah, but see, I think that's one of the things that is wrong. It's so very easy to brush off the problems and tell myself I'm really not that bad off. I'm not starving or freezing or threatened by violence. The world is basically good...nirvana is now...blah...blah...blah. But the things that are right with my life, and they are many, don't cancel out what's wrong, what's damaging, what's painful. You don't let the thief off the hook because he helps his elderly neighbor lady shovel her walk.

So long as I tell myself only the good things, I'll never develop the motivation to truely practice.

jeff said...

Thanks so much for this post. I learned about Utah when Ani DiFranco and he recorded together, but I had never read the piece you posted, and it offers a lot of insight.

Sitting meditation is so strange. If I do it 10 minutes a day consistently, a bit of equanimity just works its way into my life--not that I'm aiming at that or whatever. It just feels right--not good, necessarily, but right.

I also appreciate your response to John. Working with the difficult emotions as well as with the good stuff seems important, though I'm a newbie to Buddhism. Crying suddenly seems to be one of those "juicy" moments that Pema Chodron talks about...

wolfie185 said...

WOW you quoted Utah Phillips!!! Not a person you hear quoted that often, very cool.
On the "power greater than ourselves" what ever works for you can be a Higher Power. As a Buddhist in recovery I have had my ups and down with this, for me I believe in a Divine Creator, that some divine being is responsible for creating the universe and not a puppeteer guiding our every move and thought. Following the Dharma for me means working towards living in harmony with the universe. If I am working towards living in harmony with the universe then I am being conscience of how my actions or inactions effect others, if I get caught up in self I create situations which cause the harmony to subside and I feel crappy, it is up to me to choice whether or not to stay in my bag of shit or not, sometimes I do, it is comfortable and it is mine.
What happened to you is what I call "surrendering" it is only though surrendering that I am free. Surrendering to the fact that I can't drink alcohol or use any other mind altering chemical without starting a chain of destructive behavior was a very important step for me but it was just the first in a long line of steps and I keep taking them. When I acknowledge my other destructive behaviors and then surrender to them I can then start to work on them, this is where Awareness/Mindfulness comes into play. I know there are things I can do to improve repeating destructive behaviors but I haven't suffered with them enough yet to surrender them, procrastination is one of my worst and bits me in the ass at work every so often and also I could save myself a few extra dimes if I would pay my bills on time instead of waiting until the last moment and pay late fees.
Just go with the flow, life isn't easy but it doesn't have to be as hard as we make it either. I find for myself that if I can maintain an attitude of gratitude and positive outlook on life even when it throws me curve balls then I can stay fairly serene and peaceful which is where I like to be and others in my life appreciate it also.
Take Care

greenfrog said...


This is the best reason to sit that I've ever heard.

moonpointer said...

Or... renunciation is just the letting go of attachment, aversion and delusion. Amituofo :-]

Monica said...

True. That's the what. But we also need the why and the how.