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The Red Pill of Renunciation: Embracing Reality as It Is

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What do The Matrix and Jerry Seinfeld have to do with renouncing suffering?

You know there had to be a point in this podcast where we’d bring up The Matrix, and that day has finally come. After our last two episodes on contemplating suffering (Am I More Important Than Everyone Else in the Universe and Letting Go of Suffering), we reach a profound point on the path where you decide which direction you want to take your life: toward a continued pursuit of worldly happiness, chasing objects outside yourself; or toward an inner source of happiness that relies only on your mind. Metaphorically, you take the red pill or the blue pill, the choice that Morpheus offered Neo in The Matrix.

I suppose there must be some listeners out there who haven’t seen The Matrix, which came out in 1999. So, I’ll briefly describe the famous scene where Keanu Reeves, as our hero Neo, is presented with his fateful choice.

Neo is a hacker by night, corporate slave by day who’s had increasingly strange encounters with mysterious leather-clad hackers who know way too much about him. After being introduced to their leader, Morpheus, Neo is given the choice to find out what The Matrix is, a mysterious concept that’s been floating around the net that may explain the underpinnings of reality itself.

Morpheus gives Neo the choice of taking a red pill or a blue pill. The blue pill will return Neo to his everyday life of dreary work and furtive hacking. The red pill will reveal what the The Matrix—what reality—truly is. But, as Morpheus says:

“The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes, to blind you from the truth that you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison…for your mind….”

Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix, faced with the choice of the red pill that reveals the true nature of reality, or the blue pill, which returns him to life as usual. Which would you choose?

Neo decides to take the red pill, and what follows is one of the most awesome reveals in the history of cinema, which I’m not going to spoil for you. 

The Matrix has so many Buddhist references that we could mention this movie in almost every episode. And it’s definitely going to come up again when we delve later into the ultimate nature of reality, the topic of Emptiness or Dependent Origination.

But this choice between the red pill or the blue pill—Morpheus’s claim that Neo, that all of us, are slaves—can be interpreted as the conventional suffering we all experience in everyday life, the suffering whose true cause is our mental delusions; that we don’t suffer unwillingly due to external events unwillingly imposed upon us, but that we are each slaves to our mental bad habits of attachment and anger and ignorance of how things truly exist and how to be happy.

With this Buddhist interpretation of Morpheus’s offer, the red pill is like our meditation on Suffering and Its Causes that reveals the true nature of our human condition. From the Buddhist worldview, this revelation says our pain or happiness are internal psychological experiences of the mind, and not results of the external worldly circumstances that we face each day.

I’m Scott Snibbe, and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Today, we’re looking at a step on the path that in some ways is a point of no return. It’s the point where you courageously decide whether to keep blaming your pain and pleasure on things outside yourself. Or you take the radical step of taking responsibility for your own joy and pain as mental experiences that you can learn to control, to tame your own mind.

As Morpheus says right before Neo takes the pill, “Remember, all I’m offering is the truth, nothing more.”

Is renunciation for you?

The formal Buddhist name for this red-pill topic is renunciation. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, renunciation doesn’t mean renouncing everyday pleasure or our friends, but, as we keep hearing again and again, renunciation is something that takes place in your mind when you come to realize that external experiences are not the true cause of happiness or suffering. You renounce the outer world as a reliable source of happiness.

Of course, the outer world of sense phenomena and experiences is a contributing cause to your mental state. But the larger factor from this world view is your mind, and not external phenomena. We can prove this in real life when we see people who have it all, yet are miserable. And it’s also proven out when we meet people who are destitute or have many problems, and yet who are still are happy and at peace with themselves.

The view that happiness comes from within your own mind is fundamental to the Buddhist worldview, and doesn’t require supernatural belief. But it is a specific point of view. You may find that you firmly hold the other view: that genuine happiness can come from outside yourself: from a nice life with good friends, family, delicious meals, a beautiful home, comfort, safety, and security. These are all lovely things to enjoy, and of course they offer some level of happiness. 

But if you firmly believe that these alone are the sources of a stable, deep sense of happiness, then this step of our mind-focused practice isn’t necessarily for you. You may choose to pause at this point on the path and focus on the other helpful techniques that we’ve explored so far like The Preciousness of Life, Impermanence, or Cause and Effect

As the Buddha said, you must examine each practice for yourself and see whether or not it provides genuine support in your own life; or simply whether it’s the right time to take on a particular practice.

However, at least stay with me to explore the idea of Renunciation, because many people have found over the centuries that the red pill of renunciation is a far richer and more meaningful way to live, a path to the happiest, most meaningful way to experience our precious lives.

What is renunciation?

Renunciation follows directly from the contemplation on Suffering that we explored in our last two episodes. Renunciation means to give something up, or to abandon it. 

Renunciation can sound masochistic, but in this tradition, renunciation doesn’t mean giving up pleasure, sense experiences, relationships, or fun, which may sound like a relief. But giving up suffering requires diving deep into our minds and courageously facing our true inner causes of suffering.

Again and again, I’ve read two specific pages on renunciation from a profound book written by Alex Berzin and the Dalai Lama called The Gelug / Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. In the book’s introduction, Berzin writes that when we reach the stage of renunciation:

“[W]e are willing to sacrifice something. This does not refer to forgoing something trivial, like television or ice cream, or even giving up something not at all trivial, like making love with our marriage partner, or even relaxing and having fun. We need to let go of our problems and all levels of their causes.”

The problems that he’s talking about are the self-destructive aspects of our own personalities, the ones that cause us each to suffer: our attachment, our anger, and our selfishness. These also manifest in disturbing mental habits like nervousness, anxiety, and worry. From the perspective of renunciation, these are the things that we must let go of, that we must stop being attached to, in order to find the true causes of happiness.

You can see how the path takes a turn here, because up to this point the idea of meditation as a kind of treatment for various day-to-day problems makes sense. This is the approach of much mindfulness training, and a reason for the wild popularity of apps like Calm and Headspace and Ten Percent Happier. Through meditation, they offer an immediate solution to real problems that people experience every day.

But with renunciation, this is where the rubber meets the road, and you must have a strong courageousness and drive to truly renounce the causes of suffering. 

You have to be ready for this point, and you may need to meditate and contemplate—even for years—on the powerful steps that come before: The Preciousness of Life, Impermanence, Cause and Effect, Suffering, and Refuge. Each of these points helps us better understand our minds. And we come to this tipping point of deciding whether we truly wish to be free of suffering by renouncing the causes of suffering in our own minds.

Renunciation step 1: understanding suffering and wishing to be free of it

Renunciation has two parts. First, a sincere, heartfelt wish to be free of suffering and its causes. We can get to this point by meditating and reflecting on suffering as we did in the last episode. 

But reflecting on suffering isn’t like a college class, where you take the test at the end and you move on: Suffering 101. The point is to internalize a deeper understanding of suffering that you reflect on daily, that you observe in everyday life. 

Even highly realized teachers reflect deeply on this topic every day. The attendant to Lama Zopa Rinpoche—who’s the head of the Buddhist organization where I learned all these techniques—sometimes asks Rinpoche what he’s meditating on. And often he’s at these very early stages of the path, meditating on the preciousness of life and suffering. So, one way to understand what reality is to get in touch with what suffering actually is. 

There are other ways to get in touch with the suffering nature of reality besides meditation. Sometimes comedians are particularly good at it. The best comedians are almost like spiritual teachers in their ability to transform the way that we see reality. 

Chris Rock or Larry David’s jokes about everyday problems—like arguing with your partner, dealing with an angry boss, or flying coach—they help us more easily accept these problems with a smile. They also help us feel compassion, realizing how so many of us suffer in the same way, which is why we all laugh at the same jokes.

There’s a great new Jerry Seinfeld special on Netflix called 23 Hours to Kill that seems to be all about The Suffering of Change, which we discussed in the last episode: the dissatisfaction that we feel even when we’re doing the things that we call pleasures. 

In the show, Seinfeld talks about how we’re always trying to go somewhere, but then when we do, all we want to do is get back. How, when we’re home, all we can talk about is leaving. When we’re on the way there, all we want is to finally be there. And once we’re there, all we can talk about is when we need to get home. 

He climaxes this routine by saying, “Nobody wants to be anywhere. Nobody likes anything. We’re cranky, we’re irritable, and we’re dealing with it by constantly changing locations.”

This is genius. And I think even the Dalai Lama would approve of Jerry’s insights into the Suffering of Change!

Jerrry Seinfeld on The Suffering of Change in 23 Hours to Kill (Netflix)

So, the first part of renunciation is realizing what suffering is, what its causes are in our mental delusions, and having a wish to be free of it.

Renunciation step 2: letting go of our problems and their causes

Remember how we discussed that a better term for suffering might be dissatisfaction? How the first form of Suffering, The Suffering of Suffering, is obvious, and how the ordinary term “suffering” fits it well: problems like sickness, aging, uncertainty, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want.

But the second form of suffering, The Suffering of Change, can be better described as dissatisfaction, because it deals with the things we’d normally call pleasures, the things Seinfeld talks about like going out to dinner, watching TV, and seeing friends; things we call pleasures but that are somehow still unsatisfactory to us. 

Because none of these external things has the ability to sustainably please us. Objects wear out and change, as do people and experiences. We exaggerate how much we think we’ll like something or someone. And then we’re disappointed at the reality. Or our mind is fickle and stops enjoying something or someone that we enjoyed immensely only the day before. 

And then there’s the hovering knowledge that we lose everything at death. A realization that can make us anxious and clingy, unable to appreciate life’s fleeting pleasures in their simple impermanence.

Letting go of our problems—letting go of our suffering and dissatisfaction—means letting go of their causes: our delusions. It’s worth going back to the last two episodes, if you can (Am I More Important Than Everyone Else in the Universe and Letting Go of Suffering), to review all those different forms of suffering, and the deeper dive into their causes: our delusions of anger, attachment, and selfish ignorance.

At this stage in the path we muster the clarity and courage to acknowledge that the sources of our inner turmoil are these delusions, delusions that have infected our personality: the root delusions of attachment, anger, and selfishness; and the subsequent ways these manifest in our personality as anxiety, tension, worry, jealousy, pride, and other irritating states of mind. 

Do you want to be free? Is the question at this point. Or do you want to keep going on with a life that feels frustrating and unsatisfactory, that fails to give the ego what it wants, an ego who believes that “I’m just a little bit more important than everyone else in the universe.”

Lying to yourself is the alternative to renunciation

But what is the alternative to renunciation? I can say from my own experience, that it’s just as The Matrix says, it’s a big fat lie, lying to yourself about the nature of happiness, the nature of reality itself. 

There’s one character in The Matrix who lacks the courage to face reality as it is. This person regrets having taken the red pill and wants to go back to the fantasy of The Matrix, back to its illusory pleasures of steak and wine and sex. He asks the agents to wipe his memory clean so that he can return to believing that these are the true sources of happiness.

In this episode, you’re hearing an approach that is a bit stronger than a gentle guided meditation to help you sleep better or increase your focus at work. Because we’re looking at the fundamental nature of reality itself, the underpinnings of real happiness and meaning in life. It requires clear-eyed courage and some determination.

At this point you may feel like stopping the podcast. Like Neo, in The Matrix, your ego may rebel. When Neo is first pursued by Agent Smith at his cubicle-filled workplace, Neo says to himself, “Why is this happening to me? What did I do? I’m nobody. I didn’t do anything.” He wants to go back to life as usual. But unfortunately, the ordinary way that he sees life is a huge lie. Reality is different than he thought it was.

The way this kind of lie—lying to ourselves—manifests in our everyday lives is through blame and denial. When problems occur, we blame them on others around us, or on the material conditions around us. 

I have a friend who sometimes breaks down in sadness and tends to repeat, “I’m just tired,” or “I just need a glass of water,” instead of sharing what’s really going on. 

I’m like this sometimes, too. I blame the people around me for my own inner sadness or anger or craving. When I was working at a big company, I could blame my problems on my bosses or difficult co-workers. At home, I can blame problems on the people closest to me: my wife and daughter.

And the people around you can back you up. It’s even considered a good way of being a friend, giving unconditional support. With problems at work or in relationships, your friends back you up. They support your point of view. They trash your boss or your ex-girlfriend, your ex-husband. Is that really what we need?

On Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and YouTube, we get surrounded by bubbles of confirmation bias, selecting for information that attracts our clicks and taps; that supports the world view we believe in, whether outer reality is truly like that or not. 

I don’t know whether this is true, but I’ve heard the stories about Kim Jong Un, how when he tours North Korea, it’s literally like a movie set, where they freshly clean and paint the houses and streets and fill the store windows with food and products to make it seem like his country is better off than it truly is. There’s a great scene in the Seth Rogan comedy The Interview, where James Franco goes into one of these stores late at night and finds that the produce is all made out of plastic.

James Franco learns that reality (at least in North Korea) is a lie in The Interview

I’ve seen this kind of bubble of denial with the ultra-rich as well. I had two jobs where I had the chance to work with billionaires: with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and later with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

Most of the people surrounding these powerful men were well-paid employees who depend on their boss for their livelihood. So these billionaires can end up surrounded by people who agree with everything they say, regardless of whether it’s backed up by data or even common sense.

This bubble of denial that the powerful and the wealthy experience is similar to the story of the Buddha’s own life. Siddhartha Gautama was an Indian prince before he became enlightened, a kind of boy billionaire like Mark Zuckerberg. The Buddha’s family insulated him from any pain, any contradiction, any suffering. 

But there came a point in his twenties when the Buddha broke free, when he wandered into the city surrounding the palace and quickly had a chance to witness sickness, aging, and death. He found out that everyone must suffer these. And seeing this made him turn away from a life of pleasure and denial to one seeking the truth of whatever reality might actually be. 

Funny enough, you can also watch Keanu Reeves act out this story, since he played the Buddha himself in 1993’s Little Buddha.

The Buddha took the red pill.

To renounce suffering is to courageously renounce a life of lying to oneself, of skimming the surface of the magnificent consciousness that we’ve somehow been granted in this precious human life.

Keanu Reeves as The Buddha (Little Buddha, 1993), discovering the suffering nature of reality in the sickness, aging, and death that we must all experience.

Where do you turn once you renounce the true, inner, source of problems?

But where do we turn once we renounce the true causes of our suffering, our delusions? We touched on this in our two episodes on Refuge (Alone Together and What Do You Do When You’re Alone?). When we realize that food, relationships, work, sex, money, and friends—that none of these are satisfactory refuges that bring lasting happiness on their own. 

There is somewhere else to turn, though. We realize that we can turn inward to our minds for happiness, to the qualities that are always present right within ourselves: mental stability, understanding impermanence and cause and effect, critical inquiry, and an open heart that considers others equally important to ourselves.

We can continue learning from Keanu on this point, who studied Buddhism extensively to prepare for his role as the Buddha. There’s a succinct one-minute video teaching from an old DVD where Keanu explains the topic of Buddhist renunciation: where we turn for refuge when we realize that external things can’t bring lasting satisfaction.

Instead of quoting Neo, now I can quote Keanu himself:

“When we are uncomfortable and anything unpleasant happens, we look to take refuge in something. Usually we turn to food, alcohol, sex, drugs, money, power, or relationships, but none of these things give us the lasting protection or satisfaction we’re looking for. When you understand you can’t find lasting happiness, then the desire to find true refuge becomes strong… To take refuge is to finally seek protection from suffering in a way that can really help you. When we think about the ultimate nature of reality and what causes us to suffer, this is the true refuge.”

Keanu Reeves (as himself) succinctly describing renunciation: where we turn for refuge when we realize that external things can’t bring lasting satisfaction.

Renunciation becomes the basis for everything that comes next on the path. Coming up next are the juicy topics of love and compassion and the ultimate nature of reality. People often jump straight to these topics without all the preliminaries that we’ve gone through in our first eighteen episodes. But these topics are the foundation for the more advanced teachings that we’ll be looking at next. 

After next week’s meditation on renunciation, we’ll dedicate an episode to reviewing the whole path up to this point, which is traditionally called the “lower scope” because it deals with your individual mind’s problems and their antidotes. 

The next step, the “upper scope” then expands our mind to other people and to other phenomena through compassion. And that’s also when we introduce emptiness, which seeks to understand the interdependent nature of all reality. 

According to this tradition, unless you’re enlightened, you never stop needing to meditate on reviewing the whole path. That’s the point of the Lamrim, the incredible spiritual innovation that A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment is based upon. 

There was, and continues to be, a belief that it might be possible to skip these seemingly less pleasant “preliminaries” and jump straight to love and compassion and emptiness—to only practice these more advanced meditation techniques. 

But Atisha in the eleventh century, and Lama Tsongkhapa in the fourteenth, and The Dalai Lama today, and any great teachers in this tradition, they all firmly hold to the importance of studying and meditating on the whole path in order to build a stable base for true inner happiness and a deeply meaningful life.

With the inner, mind-focused techniques that we’ve been exploring together—techniques that are formally called “Mahamudra”—we shift our focus from what we are experiencing to the process of experience itself. 

We start to explore and understand the relationship between mind and experience, disrupting the solid, external way that things appear, to reveal reality as something more flexible and subtle and beautiful: an interdependence between the mind and perception and our social sphere. 

To do this requires the renunciation that we’ve talked about today, renouncing the self-centered, delusional way that we imagine things to exist. We move from exaggerating and blaming and denying to renouncing our delusions and entering a place of presence and curiosity and openness to show how things might truly exist.

What comes next?

The scene from The Matrix that we began this episode with only happens thirty minutes into the movie. Just as there’s another two hours to The Matrix, with some of the best stuff yet to come, so also are some of the best parts of the path now something to look forward to for those of you who’ve stuck with us and chosen to take the red pill.

Next week, we’ll meditate on Renunciation, the pathway to embracing the true causes of happiness in our own mind, rather than outside ourselves, seeing reality as it is rather than how we wish it to be. 

As we’ve reflected here today, renunciation relies on everything that comes before on the path: The Preciousness of Life, Impermanence, Cause and Effect, Refuge, and Suffering. If you have time, you may want to go back and do some of those meditations this week in preparation.

You might also want to watch The Matrix, if you can stomach the violence. And watch it from this view of turning away from the causes of suffering and toward renunciation, courageously embracing reality as it is rather than how we want it to be.

As we sign off for this week, I’d like to give a shout out to my partner in A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, the man behind the scenes, Stephen Butler. For 20 years, Stephen and I have both been students of the same Tibetan teacher, Geshe Ngawang Dakpa, at San Francisco’s Tse Chen Ling Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies. Stephen also happens to be a music producer of more than 20 Grammy nominated recordings. And we’re both fans of The Matrix. Until next week…


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production and sound design by Stephen Butler
Theme music and slap bass riff by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


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