The Detachment conundrum
Of all the Zen teachings and ideas, detachment is one of the hardest ones for me to grasp.
Our daughter was born 3 weeks premature, came home weighing a little over 5lbs. As she could not get enough to eat, she cried constantly for the first three months of her life. We watched her grow, and become an independent woman with a keen talent for storytelling which serves her very well as a budding journalist. You are probably wondering where this is going. Well …. she called us on Friday in tears after breaking up with her boyfriend of two years, her heartbreaking in pieces, wanting someone to just listen and offer some reassurance. Reassurance – that someday, she would find someone who really loves her and treats her as she wants to be treated. ….A very reasonable expectation we thought.
Is it truly possible to be detached at these events? To be an observer, a mirror, …. and listen to her words, be a witness to pain without judgment or emotion? To be more detached, to be emotionally aloof?
Now……. is this what Detachment really means?
Eastern philosophies look at detachment from slightly different angles, often calling it non-attachment (which I prefer), but they all agree that it is a condition in which a person overcomes their attachment to desire for things, people or concepts of the world and thus attains a heightened perspective. Concepts of the world: such as money, power, status, feelings of control, feelings of permanence, “the pursuit of constant happiness” (or better – aversion to pain and sadness), a desire to see things as we want them to be and not as they are.
Attachment to desire and things feeds the ego, many of us become attached to our work, and our sense of value is linked to our social status, to the clothing we wear, to having the latest i-phone and, let’s not forget about driving the latest ……. German-engineered SUV.
Attachment also feeds the illusion we are in control, that if we stay on top of these things – nothing bad will happen to us, instead of recognizing that we are in fact a lot more fragile than we might want to believe. Some of these attachments can lead to addictions of many types; we become workaholics, narcissistic egomaniacs, controlling freaks, dependent on alcohol and drugs, even totally self-absorbed and unaware of our impact on others and our planet.
I think this is the type of attachment that Zen philosophy refers to. The unhealthy type. The type that sooner or later leads to a lot more suffering, to an empty, meaningless and lonely state.
In Hinduism, attachment is viewed as the main obstacle towards a serene and fulfilled life, leading to continuous worries and restlessness produced by desire and personal ambitions. The retired president of Uruguay was recently asked, what would you be doing if you had the billions that Bill Gates has, he replied: “I would be worried about who is trying to steal it from me”. The accumulation and value assigned to material things inevitably lead to perpetual worrying about losing them.
Another translation for detachment is “renunciation”, in this sense the meaning is directed to a sense of “giving up the world and leading a holy life” or “freedom from lust, craving, and desires”. In Zen detachment is also linked to the concept of no-thought, meaning that one must be separated (detached) from one’s own thoughts and opinions in detail as to not be harmed mentally and emotionally by them.
A Buddhist writing states: “One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus is untouched by muddy water.”
The Zen symbol of detachment is the lotus flower rising above the muddy waters.
I think it is impossible not to be attached to your children or your aging mother or your Zen Master, but be mindful of why you are doing it, question whether the act is selfless or if you are trying to control or escape some aspect of your life. Moreover, one must accept the realities of life and to recognize that, with attachment, always comes some level of suffering, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.
How do we let go of attachment? We cannot. Don’t even try.
Attachment to things may drop away by itself when we no longer seek to find ourselves in them.