Sometimes the simplest advice can be the hardest to take. Here’s how to practice detachment without giving up on life.
I’ll never forget the first time I seriously considered the relationship between detachment and freedom. I was in my 20s, staying with a friend in Vermont, trying to recover some equilibrium in the midst of a difficult breakup. One evening, bored with my moping, my friend tuned in the local alternative radio station, which happened to be broadcasting Ram Dass. He was telling a famous anecdote about the way you catch a monkey in India. You drop a handful of nuts into a jar with a small opening, he explained. The monkey puts his hand into the jar, grabs the nuts, and then finds that he can’t get his fist out through the opening. If the monkey would just let go of the nuts, he could escape. But he won’t.
Attachment leads to suffering, Ram Dass concluded. It’s as simple as that: Detachment leads to freedom.
I knew he was talking directly to me. Between my two-pack-a-day cigarette habit and my painful relationship, I was definitely attached-and definitely suffering. But letting go of my fistful of nuts seemed unthinkable. I couldn’t imagine what life would be like without the drama of a love affair, without cigarettes and coffee-not to mention other, subtler addictions, like worry, resentment, and judgment. Still, the story of the monkey and the jar stayed with me, a depth charge waiting to go off.
A year later, I had become a fledgling yogi. I no longer hung around with girlfriends who would listen to my latest troubles. Instead, my time was spent with people whose answer to any expression of discontentment was, “Let it go.” Pursuing simplicity, I had blithely flung away my career, my apartment, and my boyfriend. What I hadn’t managed to get rid of were the worry, the resentment, and the tendency to criticize. In short, I had simply moved from one behavioral pole to the other, and as a result, I was still suffering.
Only the Trying
It took me a few years of throwing out the baby instead of the bathwater to figure out that detachment is not about external things. In fact, as is so often the case with the big issues of spiritual life, detachment involves a deep paradox. It’s true that those without a lot of clutter in their lives have more time for inner practice. But in the long run, disengaging ourselves from family, possessions, political activism, friendships, and career pursuits can actually impoverish our inner lives. Engagement with people and places, skills and ideas, money and possessions is what grounds inner practice in reality. Without these external relationships, and the pressure they create, it’s hard to learn compassion; to whittle away at anger, pride, and hardness of heart; to put spiritual insights into action.
So we can’t use detachment as an excuse not to deal with fundamental issues such as livelihood, power, self-esteem, and relationships with other people. (Well, we can, but eventually those issues will rise up and smack us in the face, like an insulted ingenue in a 1950s movie.) Nor can we make detachment a synonym for indifference, or carelessness, or passivity. Instead, we can practice detachment as a skill-perhaps the essential skill for infusing our lives with integrity and grace.
The Bhagavad Gita, which is surely the basic text on the practice of detachment, is wonderfully explicit on this point. Krishna tells Arjuna that acting with detachment means doing the right thing for its own sake, because it needs to be done, without worrying about success or failure. (T.S. Eliot paraphrased Krishna’s advice when he wrote, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”)
At the same time, Krishna repeatedly reminds Arjuna not to cop out of doing his best in the role his destiny demands of him. In a sense, the Bhagavad Gita is one long teaching on how to act with maximum grace while under maximum pressure. The Gita actually addresses many of the questions that we have about detachment-pointing out, for instance, that we are really supposed to give up not our families or our capacity for enjoyment but our tendency to identify with our bodies and personalities instead of with pure, deathless Awareness.
Yet the Bhagavad Gita doesn’t deal with all of our questions. That’s just as well; the real juice of the inner life is discovering, step by step, how to find these answers for ourselves. For instance, how do we fall in love and remain detached? Where do we find the motivation to start a business, write a novel, get ourselves through law school, or work in the emergency room of a city hospital unless we care deeply about the outcome of what we’re doing? What is the relationship between desire and detachment? What’s the difference between real detachment and the indifference that comes with burnout?
What about social activism? Is it possible, for example, to fight for justice without getting caught up in anger or a sense of unfairness? And then there’s the relationship between detachment and excellence. It’s nearly impossible to excel at anything-including spiritual practice-if we aren’t prepared to throw ourselves in 100 percent. Can we do that and still be detached?
Then there are the really knotty issues, the situations that seem literally defined by attachment, like our relationship to our children or to our own bodies. How do we work with attachments so visceral that to let go of them feels like letting go of life itself?
I have a friend whose 18-year-old son dropped out of school and now lives on the streets, choosing not to get a job. My friend and her ex-husband did everything they could to keep their son in school, including promising to support him financially through any form of educational training he chose. When none of their efforts worked, they acted on professional advice and withdrew financial support. Now, when they want to see him, they drive six hours north and go to the park where he hangs out and look for him. Their son seems fine with the whole situation, but they still wake up in the middle of the night, imagining him cold and hungry or seriously injured, and they move daily through different stages of worry, fear, and anger.
“This is the choice he’s making about the way he wants to live his life,” they tell themselves, drawing on the spiritual teachings that have nurtured them. “It’s part of his journey. He has his own karma.” But how do you stop being attached to your son’s well-being? Can you just cut the cord that binds you to that long-cultivated feeling of concern and responsibility? During times like this-usually times of loss, since loss is notoriously more difficult to detach from than success-we face the hard truth about detachment practice: Detachment is rarely something we achieve once and for all. It’s a moment-by-moment, day-by-day process of accepting reality as it presents itself, doing our best to align our actions with what we think is right, and surrendering the outcome.
On one of the homeless son’s birthdays, his mother found him, took him to dinner, and bought him new clothes. He didn’t like the pants, so he left them and went off in his old ones. “At least I saw him. At least I could tell him that I loved him,” my friend said later. “I could remind him that anytime he wants to make other choices, we’re here to help him.”
I admire the way this woman holds the complexity of her feelings about her son, doing what she can while still recognizing what she has no power to do, looking for a way to find the best in the situation without glossing over its difficulties. There’s nothing Pollyanna-ish about her detachment; it’s hard-won. Life demands this of all of us-all of us-sooner or later, because if this world is a school meant to teach us how to love, it’s also a school for teaching us how to deal with loss.
Detachment, Step by Step
When things are going well for us, when we feel strong and positive, when we’re healthy and full of inspiration, when we’re in love, it’s easy to wonder why the yogic texts carry on so much about detachment. When we’re faced with loss, grief, or failure, it looks much more appealing-our practice in detachment becomes a lifeline that can move us out of acute suffering into something close to peace.
Yet we can’t leapfrog into detachment. That’s why the Bhagavad Gita recommends developing our detachment muscles by working them day by day, starting with the small stuff. Detachment takes practice, and it reveals itself in stages.
Stage One: Acknowledgment
When we’re dealing with a major loss or strong attachment, we always need to begin by acknowledging and working with our feelings. These feelings are the stickiest aspects of attachment: the excited desire we feel when we want something, the anxiety we feel about losing it, and the sense of hopelessness that can arise when we fail to achieve it.
Acknowledgment doesn’t just mean recognizing that you want something badly or that you’re feeling loss. When you want something, feel how you want it-find the wanting feeling in your body. When you’re feeling cocky about a victory, be with the part of yourself that wants to beat your chest and say, “Me, me, me!” Rather than pushing away the anxiety and fear of losing what you care about, let it come up and breathe into it. And when you’re experiencing the hopelessness of actual loss, allow it in. Let yourself cry.
Stage Two: Self-Inquiry
Once you’ve felt your feelings, you’ll need to process them through self-inquiry. To do this, start by probing the feeling space that the desire or grief or hopelessness brings up in your consciousness, perhaps naming it to yourself, and gradually breathing out the content, the story line. (It sometimes helps to talk to yourself for a while beforehand, to take care of the part of you that needs comforting. Remind yourself that you do have resources, recall helpful teachings, pray for help and guidance, or simply say, “May I be healed,” with each exhalation.)
To begin the self-inquiry part of the process, bring yourself into contact with your inner witness. Then explore the energy in the feelings. As you go deeper into this energy, its knotty, sticky quality will start to dissolve-for the time being. In any process for working with feelings, it’s important to find a way to explore your feelings that allows you both to be present with them and to stand a little aside from them.
Stage Three: Processing
In the third stage of detachment, you begin to become aware of what has been useful in the journey you’ve just taken, in the task or relationship or life stage you’re working with, regardless of how it all turned out. The mother who came back after her son’s birthday and thought, “At least I saw him,” was experiencing one version of that recognition. Many of us reach the third stage of detachment when we realize that we have actually gained something, even if it’s just a lesson in what not to do.
A young scientist I know spent two years on a career-defining study and was nearing a breakthrough when he picked up a journal one day and found that someone else had gotten there before him. He was devastated and lost his enthusiasm for his work. “My mind kept coming up with hopeless thoughts,” he told me. “I’d find myself thinking, ‘You’re just unlucky; the gods of science won’t ever let you succeed.’ I didn’t even want to go to the lab.”
He learned to move through his hopelessness using a combination of tactics: mindfulness (“It’s just a thought”), talking back to it (“Things will get better!”), and prayer. He told me he knew he’d begun to detach (the word he used, actually, was heal) when he realized how much he’d learned from the research he’d done, and how it would come in handy later.
Stage Four: Creative Action
The scientist will have reached the fourth stage of detachment when he’s able to start something new with real enthusiasm for the doing of it, rather than out of the need to prove something.
Loss or desire can paralyze us, so that we find ourselves without the will to act or else acting in meaningless, ineffective ways. One of the reasons we take time to process is so that when we do act, we’re not paralyzed by fear or driven by the frantic need to do something (anything!) to convince ourselves we have some degree of control. In the early stages of loss, or in the grip of strong desire, it is sometimes better just to do the minimum for basic survival. As you move forward in the processing, however, ideas and plans will start to bubble up inside you, and you’ll feel actual interest in doing them. This is when you can take creative action.
Stage Five: Freedom
You’ve reached this stage when thinking about your loss (or the thing you desire) doesn’t interfere with your normal feelings of well-being. Desire, fear, and hopelessness are deeply embedded in our psyches, and we feel their pull whenever any remnant of attachment exists. We know that we’ve begun to achieve real detachment in a situation when we can contemplate what’s occurring without immediately getting blindsided by these feelings.
The fifth stage is a state of true liberation, which the sage Abhinavagupta describes as the feeling of putting down a heavy burden. It’s no small thing. Every time we free ourselves from one of those sticky feelings, we unlock another link in what the yogic texts call the chain of bondage.
Detachment as Offering
Whether we’re doing it daily or as a way of dealing with a big bump in our road, practicing detachment is easier if we do it with a soft attitude. I have a huge amount of respect for the Zen warrior approach to the inner life, the one in which you heroically renounce your weaknesses and tough out the hard stuff, perhaps using your sense of humor to give you the power to move forward. But when I try to detach in that way, it seems to lead to a kind of emotional deep freeze.
So instead, the way I ease myself toward detachment is to practice offering. I connect myself to the inner Presence (the Vedantic texts call it Being/Awareness/Bliss), and then I offer up whatever it is that I’m doing, whatever I’m intending or wanting, or whatever I’m trying to get free of. That’s the time-honored method set forth in the Bhagavad Gita: Offer the fruits of your labor to God.
Every spiritual tradition includes some form of offering (and some form of God), but for detachment practice, the two most powerful ways to offer are to dedicate your actions and to turn over your fears, desires, doubts, and obstructions to the one Consciousness. Offering our actions helps train us to do things not for any particular gain or personal purpose but simply as an act of praise or gratitude, or as a way of joining our consciousness to the greater Consciousness. Offering our desires, fears, and doubts loosens the hold they have on us, reminding us to trust in the Presence-the source of both our longings and their fulfillment.
Here is what the practice of offering might look like…..
First, call to mind the largest and most benign level of reality you can connect to-whether it is humanity, a particular teacher or divine form, a sense of oneness, or simply the great collective of the natural world: humans, animals, plants, the earth and air, the stars and planets and space itself. Or simply become aware of your own being, the Presence or energy that feels most essential to your life.
Once you’ve done this, bring to mind the action you’re about to do or the outcome you’re hoping to bring about. Mentally make an offering of it to the Presence. You can say something like, “I offer this to the source of all, asking that it be accomplished in the best possible way.” If your issue is a strong attachment or something that disturbs you about yourself, your life, or someone else, bring it to mind and offer that. You might say, “May there be balance and harmony in this situation,” or “May things work out for the benefit of all,” or “May things work out according to the highest good.”
If you care deeply about what you’re offering-your desire for a particular relationship, or your wish for the well-being of yourself or of someone you love-you may notice that you’re reluctant to let go of it. If that’s the case, offer it again. Keep offering it until you feel a loosening of your identification with your hope, fear, desire, anger, or feeling of injustice. Whenever you feel the clutch of attachment, offer it again.
Once you’ve made the offering, let yourself linger in the feeling space you’ve created inside yourself. The nurturing force of the Presence is the only power that really dissolves fears and attachments. The more we get to know that vast, benign energy, the more we realize it is the source of our power and love. And that’s when our detachment becomes something greater-not detachment from desire or fear but awareness that what we are is so large, it can hold all of our smaller feelings inside itself and still be completely free.