Detachment is often confused with a lot of other words that denote states of mind or emotions. While one has to experience it before understanding what detachment exactly means, I do know what it does not mean.
Detachment does not mean disengagement, disinterest, disillusionment, or indifference. Though these emotions mean pulling away from things or avoiding them, they are all external reactions in response to events and situations. Moreover, they are all negative in connotation.
By contrast, detachment is not about giving up anything externally – family, relationships, material possessions. Nor is it about abdication of one’s responsibilities. It is all about internal detachment — a state of equipoise where the mind is unaffected by joys and sorrows, success and failure, praise and criticism. In other words, detachment is the absence of outward reactions to events and emotions. This means living in and loving the family, discharging one’s duties towards loved ones, working at a job, having assets — and yet not being affected by the ups and downs. Doesn’t that make it most positive and sublime?
Stepping back from a situation, gives enough space to find the right perspective to act prudently and calmly. By stopping to think about a seemingly unsolvable issue and immersing ourselves into something entirely unconnected to it — preferably some physical activity like cleaning the cupboards or baking a cake — we usually hit upon the solution to the problem or find a way to work around it. The short break from obsessing about it helps. Applying this method to life, we can metaphorically become uninvolved bystanders in every situation. This is the simplest form of detachment.
Detachment means standing back with part of the consciousness and observing what is being done without being involved in it. There is no “how” to that; you do it or try it until it succeeds – Sri Aurobindo
If this sounds very difficult, let us look at some things that most of us have experienced. Many of us feel temporary detachment during a crisis. The situation demands that we become doers instead of victims. The classic example is one when one’s loved one, especially one’s child is seriously ill. Even the person who is most helpless in normal conditions undergoes a miraculous change and takes charge.
How does it happen?
By simply feeling the pain, or by being weepy, a person cannot help their child or a loved one in need. Therefore, there is an unconscious stepping back as an emotional parent/relative/friend, creating a temporary detachment from the situation, to act practically and logically. This detachment is born of deep empathy and love, and hence, is not shorn of emotion. If that is not a positive thing, what is?
Funeral rites in our culture exemplify temporary detachment by providing a series of deeply symbolic and meaningful rites, which are to be performed almost mechanically. There is no time for emotional reactions, while following instructions and repeating the mantras. And these rites go on for 12-14 days, with the whole family participating in them. At the end of it all, when the relatives have all departed, the truth sinks in. But by that time, the wound is not so raw, and it becomes a little easier to handle. Time works as a healer, and no one knew it better than our ancestors.
These two are not examples of real detachment, but one can build on them by using the same technique to deal with any situation by standing back and acting with a balanced mind.
But why do we need to be detached at all? Isn’t love beautiful and desirable?
Love is indeed beautiful, but possessiveness and attachment are not. This applies to love of every kind — for our family, friends, material things and even non-material things like name and fame. Possessiveness only creates heartache and tension, and more importantly, impedes spiritual progress by making one remain attached to the object of love.
Do we then have to give up the love of family in the pursuit of detachment?
Certainly not. Detachment does not mean giving up love of our families, our jobs and possessions, and turning into hermits. It merely means that we love without possessiveness, as possessiveness makes us identify with everything that our loved ones feel and do. We laugh and cry with them and suffer with them, instead of being able to help them when they need it. And then come expectations – of how they should speak and act, preferably as we would like them to. And if they don’t, a whole host of negative feelings take over and from there, it is downhill all the way, taking us along, instead of helping us ascend spiritually.
Now, let us for a moment think of ourselves as people thrown together for a time – say, on a train journey. Do we get attached to our co-travellers, however likeable they might be? And if they are obnoxious, do we let them get under our skin? Instead, we don’t think twice about making suitable adjustments to accommodate each other for the duration of the journey. After all, we would all be getting off the train sooner or later and being good to each other doesn’t cost us anything, does it?
Extrapolating the analogy of the train journey to our lives, our interactions with our family and others should be just similar. Our vedas tell us that we are all individual souls who are born to discharge our respective unfinished karmas from some previous life towards each other. Instead of treating each other as co-travellers, we often smother our loved ones with our love or let bad co-workers ruffle our equanimity, making it difficult to be objective in our interactions. Some, advise us to have ‘self-love’ to feel strong and handle unpleasant situations. Unfortunately this is just as bad since it would only lead to a bloated ego – another form of attachment and negativity!
But, if these strong feelings are channelled into playing each role to the best of our abilities, with love and compassion, it creates an abundance of selfless love and joy. We love and let go; we do our duty by those we love and do not expect anything in return. This is the essence of detachment.
Seen in this light, detachment is the most positive state of mind, which we should all aspire to reach, as we grow older. Life would be the simpler and happier for it!
(You might also want to read my post on how love should be like holding a handful of sand.)