Topical Compilations and Commentary: Detachment
Excerpts from various sources interspersed with commentary by Dan Kral
Detachment is one of my vocabulary words. I have been aware of the concept of detachment for a number of years and have tried to practice it in my everyday life. Sometimes I am successful and sometimes I am not. Even the concept of detachment is a paradox and in some ways very hard to grasp. The initial word seems almost cold and not-caring. But as you look deeper it is a foundation stone of the FREEDOM that Jesus came to give us. We are not moved by our circumstances – but can remain solid in who we are in the midst of any and all circumstances. Detachment does not mean that we don’t care – we care immensely – but our detachment allows us to do the right thing because we are not tied to our emotions – not tied to who we think we are. Detachment allows us to BE the person that God created us to be. Without detachment we are pulled and swayed and blown about by the circumstances of life. If someone tells us how wonderful we are we feel good and if someone tells us we are stupid we feel bad. If we are detached from these kinds of comments – then we are steadfast – we are building our house on the foundation of rock that will not be swayed.
My experience with the concept of detachment started a number of years ago when I started to understand that I had a choice when I would start to react to a situation through my emotions. The choice was to follow my emotions or to make a conscious decision to “detach” from my emotions and look at the situation from a position of standing on the sidelines for a moment. What I discovered was that if I could consciously make a decision to not be controlled by my emotions my responses in a situation were treated with more credibility and respect. If I allowed my emotions to control my responses I lost credibility and respect in the situation. In addition, when I responded from my emotions I became deaf – that is, I no longer was listening for God and if I was not listening – then how can I hear?
In all of our lives there are emotionally charged situations that provide the opportunity to start to learn something about detachment. But, in order to make a conscious decision to detach your self from your emotions – you have to be aware that your emotions are taking over and that there is even an opportunity to make a decision. This may be the most difficult first step because most of us are not aware that 1) our emotions are taking over and 2) we have a choice whether or not to allow that to happen.
You can’t change anything you are not aware of. So the process of detachment has to start with awareness. And the process of awareness must start somewhere around the realization that you have choices about how you react to various situations in your life.
In the process of learning something about detachment I thought about God and the concept of detachment. It seemed to me that God’s love required Him to be detached. How could God allow His son Jesus to come to the earth and suffer and die a horrible death without detachment? How does God allow us as a human race to cause so much pain, and death, and destruction without detachment? But in the midst of detachment is love. And as John Hall said “God’s problem is not that God is not able to do certain things. God’s problem is that God loves. Loves complicates the life of God as it complicates every life. True love has to, by its nature, allow the freedom of response from its beloved. It does not mean that your love is not there – it means that true love allows the beloved to respond in freedom and does not coerce a response. It does not mean that you don’t care – it means that, in love, you must give choices, and to give choices to someone you are in love with – means that in the midst of your love you need to detach from manipulation and control and allow the beloved to choose freely – that is true love and detachment is a necessary part of true love.
A few months ago I happened (if there is such a thing) upon a book by Meister Eckhart – a Christian mystic from the 13th century containing “selections from his essential writings.” One of the “essential” writings selected for the book was a treatise “On Detachment.” Reading Meister Eckhart’s thoughts on detachment were so much deeper than I had gone with the concept that I had to read and re-read – digest and re-digest what he was saying. It appears from what I have been learning, that detachment, in its truest form is a journey and not a destination – but on the journey – the possibility of union with God is opened up in a way that may not be possible without detachment. In many ways I am not surprised at all by what Meister Eckhart has to say. It is another glimpse of how deep is any subject having to do with God and His nature. When we think we know – we find out that we have just touched the hem of His garment and we have not yet begun to learn and the experience the depths of God.
Quotations on Detachment
No one is happier than the man who has attained the greatest detachment.
The soul has a secret entry into the divine nature when all things become nothing to it.
Meister Eckhart (commenting on Augustine’s quote)
This entry here on earth is nothing other than pure detachment.
Perfect detachment has no looking up to, no abasement – not beneath any created thing or above it. It wishes to be neither beneath nor above; it wants to exist by itself, not giving joy or sorrow to anyone, not wanting equality or inequality with any created thing, not wishing for this or wishing for that. All that it wants is to be.
The Perils and Opportunities of Reality
By Anthony De Mello © 1990
The Archer – pages 58/59
When the archer shoots for no particular prize, he has all of his skills; when he shoots to win a brass buckle, he is already nervous; when he shoots for a gold prize, he goes blind, sees two targets, and is out of his mind. His skill has not changed, but the prize divides him. He cares! He thinks more of winning than of shooting and the need to win drains him of power.
Isn’t that an image of what most people are? When you’re living for nothing, you’ve got all your skills, you’ve got all your energy, you’re relaxed, you don’t care, it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose.
It’s not easy to listen, especially when you get emotional about an idea. And even when you don’t get emotional about it, it’s not easy to listen; you’re always listening from your programming, from your conditioning, from your hypnotic state.
We listen through who we believe ourselves to be not through who we really are. We always listen through filters (we also see through filters). If you can detach… then you can listen, really listen. Detachment is not about not caring, detachment is about not letting who you think you are control a situation.
How many people do you know who are unaffected by praise or blame?
Being unaffected by praise or blame is all about detachment. Being unaffected by praise or blame is what freedom is all about. It is getting at the heart of the “I don’t care” attitude.
I said that if you didn’t have negative feelings you’d be much more effective, much more effective. Because when negative feelings come in, you go blind. “Me” steps into the picture, and everything gets fouled up. Where we had one problem on our hands before, now we have two problems. Many wrongly assume that not having negative feelings like anger and resentment and hate means that you do nothing about a situation. Oh no, oh no! You are not affected emotionally but you spring into action. You become very sensitive to things and people around you.
This is the paradox of “I don’t care.” Not caring, being detached, does not mean or even imply passivity. It is having 100% focus on what your goal is and 100% detachment from the outcome. Because we are detached from the outcome, we are also detached from the roadblocks along the path. This reminds me of the line from The Princess Bride where Wesley says to Count Rogan (the six fingered man), “We are men of action – lies do not become us.” Being aware enhances action – we become men of action when we are honest with ourselves and can see ourselves for who we really are.
It is very important that when you swing into action, you be able to see things with detachment. But negative emotions prevent that.
What, then, would we call the kind of passion that motivates or activates energy into doing something about objective evils? Whatever it is, it is not reaction; it is action.
That is a good way to restate the line from the Princess Bride – “We are not men of reaction – we are men of action.”
Page 58/59 The story of the archer…
There’s a lovely saying of Tranxu, a great Chinese sage, that I took the trouble to learn by heart. It goes: “When the archer shoots for no particular prize, he has all his skills; when he shoots to win a brass buckle, he is already nervous; when he shoots for a gold prize, he goes blind, sees two targets, and is out of his mind. His skill has not changed, but the prize divides him. He cares! He thinks more of winning than of shooting, and the need to win drains him of power.” Isn’t that an image of what most people are? When you’re living for nothing you’ve got all your skills, you’ve got all your energy, you’re relaxed, you don’t care, it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose.
This is a story of focus and detachment. Trying to be somebody (i.e. winning the prize) gets in our way of being who we truly are (a great archer who can hit the target). We need to detach. Detachment, detachment, detachment – it is a crucial step in life. Detachment is not an easy step, but it is a crucial step.
What I’m advocating here is not concentration. That’s not important. Many meditative techniques inculcate concentration, but I’m leery of that. They involve violence and frequently they involve further programming and conditioning. What I would advocate is awareness, which is not the same as concentration at all. Concentration is a spotlight, a floodlight. You’re open to anything that comes within the scope of your consciousness. You can be distracted from that, but when you’re practicing awareness, you’re never distracted. When awareness is turned on, there’s never any distraction, because you’re always aware of whatever happens to be.
Awareness allows you to focus on what is in front of you. Detachment allows you to put your whole effort into the task without expectations and without caring about what happens along the way. The word passion is associated with suffering. If being passionate means that you are willing to suffer and you have come to a place where it doesn’t matter, then you are passionate.
So begin to be aware of your present condition whatever that condition is. Stop being a dictator. Stop trying to push yourself somewhere. Then someday you will understand that simply by awareness you have already attained what you were pushing yourself toward.
Hold all things lightly. The tighter you grab, the harder you try, the more elusive your goals become. The lighter you can hold the outcome in a situation (what happens, happens) – the more successful you will be in attaining your goal. It is having 100% focus on what you want to have happen and truly 100% detachment from the results (what happens, happens). When you can honestly say “I don’t care” you are on the path to freedom. There is such a strength in freedom and freedom comes by not caring. If the archer is not aware of the prize, he hits the target with no effort.
The Song of the Bird
By Anthony De Mello © 1982
VERY WELL, VERY WELL (Page 94)
A girl in the fishing village became an unwed mother and after several beatings finally revealed who the father of the child was: the Zen master living on the outskirts of the village. The villagers trooped into the master’s house, rudely disturbed his meditation, denounced him as a hypocrite, and told him to keep the baby. All the master said was, “Very well. Very well.” He picked the baby up and made arrangements for a woman from the village to feed and clothe and look after it at his expense. The master’s name was ruined and his disciples all abandoned him. When this had gone on for a year, the girl who had borne the child could stand it no longer and finally confessed that she had lied. The father of the child was the boy next door. The villagers were most contrite. They prostrated themselves at the feet of the master to beg his pardon and to ask for the child back. The master returned the child. And all he said was, “Very well. Very well.”
Am I quick to defend myself or can I let God work in my life? Do I answer my accusers or do I let my actions speak louder than words ever could? Does it matter what people think – or what I KNOW in my heart? I need to go like a lamb to the slaughter. I can only do that if I abandon all to God and lay it at his feet. God is good – what more can be said…
No Man is an Island
By Thomas Merton © 1955
It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activities. We must withdraw ourselves to some extent, from effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.
It is only when we are detached from ourselves that we can be at peace with ourselves.
We must learn to be content in all circumstances, including want and plenty but also content to live. When I am content I am at peace and things just flow.
The Ragamuffin’s Path to God
By Brennan Manning © 2000
Humility is manifested in an indifference to our intellectual, emotional, and physical well-being and a carefree disregard of the image we present. No longer concerned with appearing to be good, we can move freely in the mystery of who we really are, aware of the sovereignty of God and of our absolute insufficiency and yet moved by a spirit of radical self-acceptance without self-concern.
Humble people are without pretense, free from any sense of spiritual superiority, and liberated from the need to be associated with persons of importance. The awareness of their spiritual emptiness does not disconcert them. Neither overly sensitive to criticism nor inflated by praise, they recognize their brokenness, acknowledge their gifts, and refuse to take themselves seriously.
This is a great definition/explanation of detachment. It embodies Esse Quam Videri (to be rather than to appear/seem); Lord my goal is to be the person you have created me to be rather than to appear to be someone else. It is the “I don’t care” paradox of life – that when we can be 100% focused on our goal and 100% detached from the outcome (because the outcome is in the Lord’s hands) we draw strength from our detachment and we draw closer to the Lord. If the outcome is the Lord’s and we have encountered the crucial decision and determined that God is good (in everything He does) then we have no reason to be attached to the outcomes of the events in our lives.
The Artist’s Way
By Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan © 1992
This sounds like a lot of emotional tumult, it is. When we engage in a creativity recovery, we enter into a withdrawal process from life as we know it. Withdrawal is another way of saying detachment or nonattachment, which is emblematic of consistent work with any meditation practice.
No Greater Love
By Mother Teresa ©1995
Do not pursue spectacular deeds. We must deliberately renounce all desires to see the fruit of our labor, doing all we can as best we can, leaving the rest in the hands of God. What matters is the gift of your self, the degree of love that you put into each one of your actions.
We need to focus on the task that God has given to us. We need to focus on doing what is right. We need to focus on the process – the steps along the way. The result, the outcome, is God’s and God’s alone. If we try to control the outcome – our entire focus changes and we are no longer walking with God through the process. The process is the present and if we are walking with Him in the present the outcome is His to determine – and we can be at peace.
“I am no longer my own. Whether I live or whether I die, I belong to my Savior. I have nothing of my own, God is my all, and my whole being is His. I will have nothing to do with a love that would be for God or in God, I cannot bear the word for or the word in, because they denote something that may be in between God and me.”
–Saint Catherine of Genoa