Friday, July 27, 2012

The Mechanics of Detachment

Detachment is a central concept in many living faiths—and certainly in all mystical traditions. It has an eastern flavor, but it is present in the teaching of Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, and in Sufism. “In the world but not of it” is a Persian saying. Detachment plays a role in secular culture, but there it is called concentration—which isn’t detachment but is an important aspect of it. It is anathema in commercial and pop culture.

In my own experience, being concentrated or centered produces a kind of indifference—not the negative kind but more akin to neutrality. The various practices intended to produce it, directly or as a by-product, all involve a shift of attention from “the world,” and that includes the body, to something higher. One common form of it is self-remembering, thus remaining aware, in the midst of everything, that I am still there, acting, seeing, reacting; thus it is a kind of separation of the self from the flow. The opposite is usually called identification. In the latter state the self is absent, entirely absorbed by the action, of whatever kind: physical, mental, emotional. For all practical purposes we aren’t really there—as agents. Detachment implies an act of the will. Simply being bored with something doesn’t mean that we’re detached. We’re then attached to boredom.

Paradoxically, being detached while acting makes the action much more efficient. Frustrations with some necessary or desirable engagement will sometimes trigger detachment. It wakes us up. Then we say: “Le’s see now…”—meaning, let’s see how to approach this problem most intelligently. At that moment, if the detachment is strong enough, all desire will be suspended—thus indifference will be present. With it comes a degree of freedom in which the options available will become more visible. Our intelligence will be enabled. Our judgment will be clear. The action chosen will be the right one. When detachment isn’t present, flailing results, and the results tend to get worse and worse.

In situations where the frustration is triggered by the environment at large—thus by definition things we can’t do anything about—if we can immediately reach detachment, we’ll be careful to ignore the event rather than let frustration grow in circumstances where no practical response is available. Scotching that seedling of frustration will save us energy—better used in other ways.

Constant practice of detachment causes it to surface when needed. It’s not a sexy sort of thing. It would be hard to market. Those drawn to spiritual practices by the promise of magical powers are rapidly frustrated. If wanting is the problem, what am I doing here? It is paradoxical to aim for a state in which a kind of sovereign indifference to everything is the result. But it’s very efficient. The alternative is to take our chances at the gaming tables of ordinary life: exultation in victory, despair in loss, uncertainty, the absence of freedom and control….

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