…One may be passionate and also practice detachment. It is central to the work of the artist, for example, that the self, and the desire for rewards of various kinds, are set aside, at least temporarily, in pursuit of an elusive excellence…John Burnside. Introduction to Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea
The number of times I have had people say to me that you have to detach, or separate yourself from feelings, or other things human, over the years has been staggering. What’s never been clear to me is why I would want to do that.
The claim that it well make me a better person has always sounded dubious. How could separating myself from the world of feelings be anything other then selfish?
The problem is that most people have misunderstood the concept of detachment to mean that to obtain spiritual enlightenment, or grow as a human, is to remove oneself from contact with all things worldly. Whether by retreating to a monastery or suppressing feelings as negative it all amounts to the same thing. Running away.
I was listening to an interview with the younger brother of the Dalai Lama on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s(C.B.C)radio show The Roundup last fall where he broached the same subject. He has not been a monk since he was fifteen(he referred to going the monastery at the age of five as being “kidnapped” in a half joking tone) and firmly believes that far too many people retreat to monasteries for the wrong reasons.
He said many are too lazy to try and live in the real world and live a spiritual life at the same time. It was his belief that by living outside the walls of the monastery one attains the same levels of enlightenment while simultaneously living out our paths to the fullest.
We are human beings and this world, in the state that it is in, is our responsibility. Cutting oneself off will accomplish nothing and is a sign of surrender. The same could be said for detachment from ones feelings; it is a refusal to deal with our personal world’s circumstances. If we deny the anger, grief, or joy that is our potential to feel and express we are denying those very elements that makes us human. We are losing the opportunity to live life to the fullest.
“It is a good day to die” is a native American expression that has oft been misinterpreted. Usually used in Hollywood movies by stoic noble savages heading into battle it’s true implications are far beyond mere warrior bravado. Simply put it means to live each day as if it was your last and make sure you have no regrets when you have to leave. If every day is a “good day to die, how would denying yourself the emotional experience of being human serve any purpose.
Many people have turned to eastern spiritual practices to fill a void in their lives caused by their perception that there can be no fulfillment in our consumer driven society. Because they equate materialism with spiritual blankness they have latched onto the word detachment as a means of salvation.
“If I can only detach myself from all the distractions of this society then I’ll be saved”. Thus detachment has come to be equated with removal. What they have missed is that true detachment would give them a means to live within any society anywhere.
The quote at the beginning of the article talks about the artist and detachment. When an artist is working on a project they do not worry about how it will be received or how they will be rewarded. Their concern is with the doing and what it will take to accomplish the task at hand.
Detachment is the ability to remove expectations of all kinds from your life. When you give your seat up to a pregnant woman on the bus are you expecting something in return? Do you do it for the recognition or do you do it because it’s the right thing to do?
In the first instance you have invested your action with the hope of gratification. If it is not fulfilled you are maybe disappointed perhaps even angry. But if you do it because just the doing makes you feel good then the action in itself becomes the reward. The moment of doing becomes the important thing, the sacred thing if you like, not the potential for reward that the action may or may not offer.
The next time someone tell you to detach yourself from your feelings ask them why? There’s nothing wrong with feeling. In fact by expecting enlightenment as a reward for cutting themselves off from feeling they prove they have missed the point. They end up cheating themselves out of living their lives to the fullest.
Detachment should help you appreciate life’s pleasures by removing the burden of expectations. With no preconceived notions of what to expect as a result of doing something, you will always be pleasantly surprised and never disappointed. To me that is reward enough.