Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Put Down That Chocolate Bar and Do the Happy Dance

It’s Lent, so of course I’m knee-deep in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita while also contemplating the universalist message of the Lotus Sutra. Christian ritual, Hindu devotional reading, Buddhist philosophy – yep, that’s the kind of pan-religious hippie chick I am. My Lenten devotions sometimes take the form of a spiritual practice derived from another religious tradition – Buddhist meditation, for instance, or Hindu-inspired yoga – but not this year. No, this particular convergence was simple happenstance – and just like all happenstance, I don’t think it actually happened randomly. Something drew me into seeing the connection between these three seemingly disparate things – seeing, not creating, because the threads of connection are always present between all things, although we often do not see them.

Lent is a time of renunciation in the Christian liturgical calendar; we generally think of it as the time of “giving something up” – forgoing something we enjoy. And boy, does that sound pretty dull and drear. But take a look at the Upanishads and the Gita and things start looking up. The call to renunciation is at the heart of both, and when we really get at what they are saying, we start seeing that renunciation is about 180 degrees away from “dull and drear”. Honestly, it’s about finding joy.

“Giving something up” really just means consciously making a choice. We give things up every day: we give up going to the park on a beautiful day so that we can go to work and make money, or we give up going to work and making money so that we can go to the park on a beautiful day. We make a choice, each with its own consequences, and each choice involves a renunciation. But because it’s a choice we make happily and with a goal in mind, we don’t usually think of it as a sacrifice. We want to do these things.

The Gita and the Upanishads tell us that when our renunciations, our choices, are done from selfless motives, they bring us closer to understanding our connection to the divine and to each other. They are not elements of a drab and drear life, but rather pathways to community, to transcendence, to joy. The things we give up – whether it’s something as simple as candy or as difficult as a destructive habit – are just things or ways of being; they’re not the truth of what we are. The whole purpose of sacrifice is to help us remember that. It’s not just about strengthening our self-control, although that’s a nice side benefit; it’s about rediscovering that vision of ourselves as spiritually connected beings whose true state is joy. The Upanishads and the Gita tell us so - along with just about every other sacred text in the world.

So go ahead, forgo chocolate, stop the cigarettes, vow to be nice to the people who annoy you. Renounce it all in the name of love, and head on the path toward joy. After all, it’s Lent.