I was fortunate enough to have frequented the Yoga Festival of Milan this year. I was particularly taken with Eric Baret - a Frenchman who holds some clout in the yogic world and for good reason. His conference was a mix of quiet slow paced practice and understated wisdom. He dedicated a large chunk of the time to answering questions and one was;
"Why is it in the yogic world that we hear so much about renunciation and austerity(no eating meat, no sex, no smoking, no this no that) there seems to be a tendency to withdraw from pleasure, is there not a more joyful path to follow?!"
His answer was that this path of renunciation in the yogic world has been put about by "Patanjali fascists" (which caused a ripple of uncomfortable laughter amongst his audience) and is unnecessary for and in the life we lead. What a relief. He suggested that Patanjali's ancient text (YogaSutra) has undeserved influence, had probably been badly translated in the first place, then regurgitated weirdly, from the West back to India where it is now practiced and preached in both. It isn't a path that he suggests, stating that one in life should not exclude nor change anything.
Tiziano Grandi who is of the same line of thought, suggests immersing ones self fully in ones life and not withdrawing from it. It's not necessary to deprive oneself and body to access a certain quality of self-awareness. On the contrary. Our life style rather than be our problem can be used as a tool. Our outside circumstances with all the trouble and strife are all but an obstacle. Talking about typical western lifestyle choices Gurdjieff for example (unconventional mystic and spiritual teacher born at the end of the 19th century) inferred that to progress along a spiritual path one would benefit from living with husband/wife and kids. Buddha on the other hand, sumised that to have children was a distraction and suggested one refrained. One of these great teachers promotes living life to the full the other to withdraw from "distractions" (which are, well.....if you think about it, just about everything). Both are valid.
I know however, which I would rather choose.
In fact philosophizing about passion recently it was clear that there are different schools of thought amongst yoga teachers and practitioners. Many promote the "path of the monk" which means living a simple life void of as many distractions as possible (and "passion" is seen as a pretty major one) so sex, alcohol and eating meat to name just three are frowned apon. This path I personally think is more suitable for....well....monks. It seems a little unfair to request this from those living in 2010 and in a metropolis. Although if one is able to follow this path in the midsts of Milan - well, hats off to them. I have the maximum of respect for these resilient few.
I don't think the problem is renouncing as such, but being attached to that renunciation. To give an example Baret said in his conference, if someone formally meditates every day - fine (although he didnt seem particularly impressed with this formal meditation suggesting instead that it is brought to everyday life rather than to a cushion) and can't live without doing so - then meditation itself becomes a problem. Lets take choice of diet. Buddha was a vegetarian, although there were occasions recorded of when he ate meat. Usually when it was offered to him. This is indicative that he was a vegetarian but not attached to being so. He wasn't going to lose sleep nor beat himslef up about his "mixed values" just because someone had offered him a bit of Sheperd's Pie. For to do so (lose sleep) surely would have made his renunciation an even greater mental distraction than eating a sausage or two. Renunciation can be a useful tool to (amoung other things) create non-attachement, as long as it doesn't become an attachment in itself.
*Eric Baret follows the Kashmir yogic tradition