‘There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives – unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle.’
- TS Eliot, Little Gidding
I have always been drawn to the principle and pursuit of detachment, what the Buddhists’ call non-attachment – not getting drawn into the game and drama of life.
Eliot’s comment about how attachment, detachment and indifference might be mistaken for each other, gives pause for thought. Unthinking attachment and unconnected detachment are both akin to indifference. When attachment becomes so regular and predictable as to be meaningless, it is no longer indicative of a real connection. Detachment of the type where a person is in their own bubble, oblivious to what is around them, also signals the absence of connection.
Somehow I have always felt that detachment needed a qualification to give it meaning.
I remember another occasion where Eliot talked about ‘passionate detachment’. I’ve lost the source, what I liked was the juxtaposition of passion and detachment – a state not of indifference nor disconnection, a condition of feeling but not attached feeling, almost a contradiction in terms but one that intuitively makes sense to me. You can be passionate and yet also detached. Maybe you can be passionate about your detachment – though that raises the spectre of being attached to detachment!
Attachment springs out of a pleasurable experience. Having had that experience, we wish to extend or repeat it. Making the effort to extend or repeat it takes us to a place where we end up living in the past or the future, in the present. We are not here now. We are driven by memories of what has been or desires of what may be, rather than what is. Simply detaching from that is an option, but detachment imposed crudely as an escape from the pain of remembrance or prospect of desire may veer close to indifference.
Recently I’ve come across a description of ‘interested detachment’ which is described as doing your best without being attached to outcomes or results. Being detached in this way is being between the dead and the live nettle, it is the space in between breaths. It is full and empty at the same time.
‘There is the ability to be engaged very actively in life, but at the same time to be non-attached. One does what one does with full enthusiasm: I love to drink coffee, to paint, to dig a garden or chop wood. But can I be wholly in the act but not attached to it? And at the same time, be in relation to this “other,” this stillness, which is in me, in you, in everything. This requires discipline, which one reaches through various methods. It’s not only meditation, and it certainly isn’t through scholastic studies or through prayer of the ordinary kind, although prayer can be a cessation of thought, a giving up, a letting go and being here totally. Now, perhaps, to be that way does require a great preliminary doing; I’m not sure about that. As an old man who has been through a lot of that sort of practice, I don’t think it’s really necessary. I don’t see the sense of it now. I think if I were in the hands of a master today, he would simply tell me, “Look, mister, just be still. Watch your breathing. Get your center of gravity down here.” And then this appears. This is in you, it’s always here. All one has to do is open to it. So I don’t see the sense of all these schools and all these disciplines. I do see the sense, because one is unable, one is not capable as one is, in ordinary life.’ – William Davies
Ah yes – that makes so much sense, to both see the sense and not see the sense. Why have all these schools and methods when one can just do it? And yet one is not capable as one is, one is unable, in ordinary life. Why?
Just being still, watching your breathing, opening to it, detaching from the pageant inside the psyche and the stream of events happening outside in the world - is a choice. It seems to be one of the hardest choices to make. To give up everything that diverts and fills space and stirs up. And yet in making that choice, what is troubling may subside. It’s not inuring yourself to real problems, but it’s letting them settle in perspective.
Interested detachment (ID) works fine when things are not too unsettling. ID is much more of a fine art in the face of what troubles at a deep level – that is, what cannot be explained or intellectually understood.
We are attached strongly to the activity of making meaning. We cannot help but do it. It is going on all the time in our heads. We observe, we deduce, we surmise, and before we know it we have a story. There is a model called ‘the ladder of inference’ (Peter Senge) which captures this simply. I see someone yawn when I am speaking to them, I assume they are bored, before I know it in the blink of an eye, I have a story about the other person and me. Most likely, I am wrong in my outcome but it becomes fixed as truth. I am firmly attached to my meaning, and something major has to happen to shake me off the ladder – a small earthquake or a gale-force wind.
I practise not having an outcome even as the stories unfold. This can be painful within my mind and between my mind and heart at times, as they feel in conflict. Intuition is a dangerous agent in the meaning-making process, as it both confirms stories and escalates to multiple possible stories.
We can choose to detach, voluntarily and positively, from that which we believe we understand, but detaching from that whose meaning evades us and cannot yet be grasped, is an altogether different experience. So detaching from that to which we have already attached and believe we understand, may be a skill within reach. Detaching from that to which we cannot attach (‘I just can’t get my mind round it’) is far harder.
Likewise detachment that is forced on us leads to resistance. Intellectually we can applaud the principle and practice of detachment, but the reality of the practice is far more complex.
Both the ability to find meaning in a situation and the control we have over that situation, which is partly but not only a function of the meaning we find in it, affect the degree to which we may be prepared and able to detach from it.
Detaching from what is either lacking meaning or confused in the meaning it presents, can be a painful and challenging exercise for the mind and heart. This may be especially the case when there is a perceived pattern in the meaninglessness, but the meaning of that pattern continues to elude definition. It can be described but only conjectured about, not understood intellectually yet perhaps understood in a feeling and intuitive sense through compassion.
Detachment is one of the most challenging practices. There is a risk of the left brain feeling it might be torn in two in its craving for explanations, its search for mastery. The only option is to relinquish the search for mastery which is the search for meaning, and to go with a certain bravery and helplessness into the empty space of the right brain for as long and as wide as it takes.