Have you ever relied on indifference to navigate a challenging encounter? Or do you respond to the many larger issues that face us with indifference? Have others bumped up against this wall of indifference in you? Or have you hit an interior place of indifference when on a creative or spiritual journey because it just doesn’t seem to be going your way? Indifference is a fierce attitude with the ability to destroy creative momentum.
I find that some confuse “nonattachment” (found in Buddhist philosophy) with indifference. In the Buddhist philosophy, being nonattached means you are not so self-absorbed. You are not attached to outcomes, or how others perceive you, for example. You are not attached to getting things your way or having others be in agreement with you.
This practice of nonattachment, however, does not invite us to put up a front of indifference. A casual, dispassionate response to life’s circumstances becomes, even if unwittingly, a defense against having direct experiences. Indifference used as a method of protection inhibits us from fully participating in life’s conversations, not only with people, but also with the offerings of each experience and encounter.
Furthermore, this indifference can show up in our choices. We may claim that our choices don’t matter, but in reality every choice counts because every choice plays a part in future conditions and experiences.
Indifference turns us away from situations that are innately intimate and often uncomfortable. We may choose indifference because we somehow want to shut out people or experiences from getting into our hearts and minds.
I learned in my youth to use indifference as a way to protect and defend myself. In my indifference I could walk away without having risked anything. While it may have protected me in some past lethal situations, to have it as a habitual response only holds me back from true intimacy and engagement. Indifference prevents us from exploring circumstances and possibilities, as well as the internal landscape of our own heart and mind. It makes us less vulnerable and available. It also renders us ineffective.
The antidote to indifference is a kind of vulnerability – specifically, a vulnerable curiosity.
This vulnerable curiosity, which is a state of appreciation, can be defined as a willingness to learn and to be influenced by others. Curiosity allows us to explore the possibilities inherent in a given dynamic. Instead of going into a situation with a mind set on protecting ourselves with indifference, we enter each conversation with a question mark. What wants to happen here? (What is possible?) What is happening here? We keep an open heart to discover, listen, and participate in (and from) all that arises in each interaction. We become more and more curious and open in our interactions with others and in each unique situation.
Curiosity then generates an appreciative attitude. When we are open, undefended, and curious we will naturally find ourselves in a state of appreciation. And from this comes a natural state of nonattachment to outcome because our energy and attention are more open, so that a mutual exchange and influence can take place. We then don’t hide behind a wall of indifference.
We remain curious about our choices, too. This does not mean we won’t say no or decide not to participate in a relationship. What it means is that even in our rejections and disillusionments we can maintain a vulnerability, a curiosity about the other and our own experiences.
Each of us has various titles and personas we can hide behind to keep us distanced from the vulnerability of an open heart. We can use our titles – as a professional, a teacher, an author, counselor, minister or anything else – to maintain a false separation from the other, an indifference that does indeed keep us from intimacy. This also prevents us from making a positive difference. We can feed a grandiose sense of self by rigidly holding on to certain beliefs we have of ourselves or the world. Such rigidity, a black and white view of life, is a disguised form of indifference. Attitudes such as “I don’t have to care because that is not important to me and my beliefs,” or “I don’t believe that,” both give permission to shut oneself off from others.
I looked up the definitions and synonyms of the word “vulnerable,” and it does hold mostly negative references, such as “exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed.” This mindset of being prepared for the possibility of being attacked or harmed sets us up to be in a constant state of defensiveness and secrecy. After a while of this we may shut ourselves off with indifference.
I prefer to take “vulnerable” to mean undefended and wide open to all that is possible in any given situation. I consider myself better prepared for the negative and positive when I hold a vulnerable curiosity. I view vulnerability as an open door and indifference as a locked door.
In Buddhism it is recommended that our spiritual and creative pursuits be done in the context of generosity through the motivation to experience the benefits of the act itself; that the practice be our goal, not what we will get from it. There is a great generosity of spirit and ethical discipline when we pursue beneficial acts for their own sake. I help someone across the street because she needs the help, not to feel good or to show off my spiritual integrity. When we write or paint simply for the sake of doing so, then the results will be beautiful and beneficial.
This also alleviates a great deal of suffering because it gives us permission to let go of results, perfectionism, worry about or focus on outcome, or dependence on the response of others to our actions. What both these qualities point to is nonattachment. We are nonattached to outcome, to how we appear to others, to praise and blame, to getting it just right. We generously shed our skins of attachment so we are ethically sound in our states of generosity.
We can only be generous and receptive to possibilities when we are nonattached. So nonattachment is beneficial to you and others, while indifference can cause further suffering to both.
“Full engagement in the movement called democracy requires no less of us than full engagement in the living of our own lives.” Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy