The best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines detachment as a “lack of emotion or of personal interest.” Many of us strive for this experience in order to try to escape that which is painful, frightening, or out of our control. “If I could just not care so much,” we think, “then I would be okay.”
But how could we possibly strive to not care, when caring is at the essence of what makes us human? It seems at the core of our very nature, and in fact, people who are fully detached are frightening in their lack of empathy and compassion. Those who are not psychopathic but desperately seek detachment frequently become involved in addiction or addictive behaviors as they attempt to force their minds and hearts into an unnatural place of escape.
The author John Burnside describes this problem eloquently. “To imagine that one can simply withdraw, and somehow achieve peace, or wisdom, or detachment, is a mistake,” he states. He goes on to write that “to practice detachment one must be in the world, in the chaos of emotions and needs and conflicts that make up ordinary life. If the world is sometimes disappointing, so be it: a just life is one that must be lived in the midst of disappointment.”
Here Burnside gets at something similar to what the 12-step program Alanon terms “detachment with love.” Alanon is a program which originally arose out of a need for family members and friends of alcoholics to learn how to live healthy lives in spite of the pain of having someone in their life suffering from alcoholism. It has since become a place where many seek help to become free from any type of codependency.
When Alanon members speak of “detachment with love,” they are talking about responding to the world with choice, rather than acting from anxiety; in other words, being responsible for ourselves and to ourselves, rather than attempting to control others around us. From this perspective, we cultivate the ability to care deeply about a another person without being controlled by or invested in how another person responds to us. We remain attached, but not overly so.
The great sage Maharishi Mahesh Yogi explained misunderstanding about detachment as an attempt to force the mind into disinterest, rather than as a natural outcome from cultivating a different experience of life. He explains that the mind remains attached to things or experiences as long as it remains unfulfilled, but as soon as it becomes contented, attachments to lesser experiences lose their charm and the mind naturally becomes detached from them. In other words, a person becomes detached from a hut when they move into a mansion. Transcendental Meditation is the technique he offered as a way for the mind to move naturally into a state of both fulfillment and witnessing; ie detachment.
When speaking about detachment, the teacher and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh stated that “detachment and calm give us a larger space, inside and outside of us. This space, we can also offer it to those we love.” An example of this would be the ability to forgive. The act of forgiveness is the practice of letting go of the suffering caused by someone else’s wrongdoing (or even our own); a practice that repairs relationship and also allows us to become free from pain. Without inner fulfillment, and the space created from detaching with love, it’s hard let go of that suffering and forgive. In this way and many others, the space we create through detachment with love, and the ensuing freedom it provides, allows us to be more fully loving, and ultimately more deeply attached.
Samantha Smithstein, PsyD