Detachment and Liberation

Thanks so much for all of your emails last week in response to my grief-focused post. I really appreciated your compassion and  I felt soothed to know that many of us are feeling this same way.  Of course I don’t want anyone to suffer, yet there is a balm to the soul in remembering that I am not alone, that my feelings are typical for all humans.  I felt relieved to be reminded that my thin-skinned experience is part of what makes me whole, not something that reveals me as broken.

As I let these feelings, these tears, wash over me again and again, I felt better.  I am so grateful that I am learning to let this happen and learning to be less attached when I feel that tightening of my throat and prickle in my tear ducts.

This week I have also felt really happy!  I had the same sensations I just mentioned when I heard the news about Joe Biden’s choice for a running mate.  I was overwhelmed by the relief, joy and hope I felt.  I heard just a tiny squeak from my censoring, tear-fear voice that tried to hit the brakes on my crying, and I was still able to just sob and feel relief wash over me.  Again, I have held this tension and worry in my body for years now, wondering when a ray of hope would be seen for our cultural pains.

My challenge now, is to enjoy this sweet relief without trying to keep it forever.  It’s like these delicious peanut butter and dark chocolate treats I just discovered:  if I eat one while I’m at my computer or while driving or even walking, I don’t really experience the delight.  When this happens,  I need another one, to try again.  Once the bag is empty from all my distracted eating, I long for the next bag.  I may not be able to enjoy a single sweet treat, but I’ve awakened my desire and that button is stuck in the “on” position.

Detachment is so tricky!  Sometimes I try to save myself from this desire, by pretending I don’t enjoy life’s little treats.  This means missing out on joy.  You may remember the Practice Letter on joy, where it’s noted as one of the Four Immeasurable Qualities in Buddhism.  We need joy, we need to enjoy our lives, and we need to learn to do so without grasping or clinging to experiences as our only way to experience joy.  (If you missed this teaching, please go to the Practice Recordings page and listen to the meditation – it’s a good one!).

So detachment is meant to be applied to those parts of life we love and those we hate.  We might experience this in an āsana class, where there are poses we prefer and those which have us gritting our teeth to suffer through.  Many of us have an attitude toward the days Monday through Friday that is in sharp contrast to those days called The Weekend.  We love these people, these ideas, these colors and we hate those.

I’ve often had students resist detachment because they are afraid their lives will be bland, that they will have no passion.  Detachment is a key to liberation.  We feel and think and do anything, everything, without letting it stick to us.  Rather than having restrictive boundaries like stone walls, we can allow many things in, experiences, people and opinions.  For 25 years I was vegetarian.  If I went to a restaurant I would scan the menu to find foods that fit my definition of vegetarian.  I felt aversion to all the other dishes and also felt excluded from the dining experience.  My strong feelings about trying to do less harm in the world were causing me pain.  Now I realize that any food choice I make has an impact, and this is part of living on the planet.  I enjoy eating all kinds of food now, with less attachment to my wish to “be good”.  I don’t have the need to judge anyone’s way of eating, and I can try someone else’s cuisine without fear of my own judgement.  The world gets bigger for me, I am more connected to my fellows and my stone-wall boundaries are more fluid, permeable, open.

Detachment is so challenging because our minds move so quickly.  Once we perceive an object as an object, it is seen as separate from us.  Instantly the mind needs to decide if it’s good for me or bad for me.  If I like it, I want it!  If I don’t like it, I want to get away from it.  This happens in the flash of a moment and my whole being is recruited into my attraction or aversion.  Notice how your face reacts when you smell a yucky smell.

Our strength is in our ability to pause, notice that attachment is forming, and relax a bit.  Can we loosen the hold of desire and still enjoy the moment?  Can we witness the aversion and feel what this does in the body?  You may remember that the medicine for aversion is tenderness.  Cultivate tenderness for those yucky feelings you have when you dislike someone or something.  Please avoid shaming yourself or trying to suppress your feelings.  Just recruit tenderness.  If you’re like me, this will feel confusing at first.  It gets better!

Well, I hope this is helpful to you today.  I will be bold enough to say that I am sure you will find things you like and do not like in your day.  Observe yourself.  Find out if you can truly enjoy one moment without wishing it would last all day.  Look on each moment as if it were a young child or a puppy – you know this being will not be this same adorable young one forever.  You can enjoy them, each of these moments, just as they are, just for now.