The Art of Detachment
When scientists began contemplating the conquest of space, the first problem they encountered – a problem that had to be solved before they could make any headway at all – was how to get beyond the pull of the earth’s gravity. A rocket has to build up a speed of twenty-five thousand miles per hour to escape this pull, and engineers quickly ran into a kind of “catch-22”: to attain this speed, an ordinary rocket would have to be so large that its sheer weight would never allow it to escape the pull of gravity.
Yet the human spirit delights in overcoming obstacles. Undaunted, scientists finally came up with the idea of a multistage rocket, with one or more independent boosters attached. Each booster holds fuel, which it burns in one great leap upward. As soon as its fuel is expended, its job is done and the booster is dropped, freeing the spacecraft from the burden of its great weight.
Exploring inner space confronts us with a similar problem. What makes it so difficult to turn inward in meditation is the pull of objects and experiences outside us, the attraction of the physical world. Even memories, anxieties, plans, and so on draw their power from experiences of the senses: things we have felt, seen, heard, smelled, or tasted, which we want (or fear) to experience again.
This attraction is only natural, and there is nothing inherently wrong in it – just as gravity is natural, and there is nothing wrong with staying on earth. Problems arise only when we want more: new worlds to explore, a higher reality. Then we discover that the pull of our body, our senses, and our private, personal satisfactions is what keeps us earthbound, preventing us from soaring to those heights where we can look back and see that all of existence is one indivisible whole.
To rise above this pull, we have to build up a great deal of momentum. Just as in launching a rocket, immense power is required. But where are we to get such power? Space scientists can experiment with explosive mixtures such as liquid hydrogen and oxygen, but what do we use as human beings? The mystics give the answer: the power that drives a human being is desire. Our desires are our fuel.
I am full of admiration for the world’s astronauts, who undergo such arduous training in their desire to go where no one has gone before. That desire is so great that it overrides all lesser predilections. For the sake of a few days in outer space and the thrill of seeing the earth floating free in a sea of stars, they are willing to learn all kinds of strange new skills and put up with endless deprivations.
To reach our true Self, called the Atman in Sanskrit, shining like the full moon in the depths of consciousness, requires the same measure of dedication and training – and here, too, the secret is desire. If it is the power of our personal desires that keeps us earthbound, it is that same power, when released and harnessed, that will provide the fuel to launch us into higher consciousness.
To apply this we too need a booster rocket strategy, and the mystics of all religions have given us one, based on their own personal experience. In English it is called detachment: the art of withdrawing desire from lesser things, letting them fall away, so as to harness their power to reach the heights of what a human being can attain.
Life at its fullest
This journey brings an overflowing, ever-present sense of joy. The Buddha, who almost never talked about himself, once admitted quietly, “I am the happiest of mortals. There is no one happier than I am.” This is the joy for which every one of us is born. Not tuppenny-ha’penny pleasures, not tinsel delights or costume jewelry, but a jewel that is beyond price: the jewel hidden in the very depths of our hearts.
Detachment not only releases joy; it is also the secret of health. It is the best medical insurance in the world, and not only because it can keep us free from physical habits that sap our vitality. Most illness has a serious emotional element. While there is an important place for physical measures in the treatment of disease, a mind at peace and a heart flooded with love can release healing powers that strengthen and revitalize the physical system. Strength can be regained even after years of emotional instability. In extreme cases, I believe, recovery can be brought about even from what seems a terminal illness.
Today, of course, it is widely appreciated that because of advances in medical knowledge, we can expect to live much longer than was reasonable at the beginning of the twentieth century. But we can lead lives that are not only longer but richer, more loving, and more productive. The next steps in stretching the limits of human health and longevity, I believe, will not be in biotechnology. They will come from learning to govern the way we think and feel. Detachment is a longevity skill. Freedom from compulsive emotional entanglements is the best insurance against stress. More than that, by opening a window onto a fuller, loftier view of life than that dictated by self-interest, detachment brings a sense of purpose. Without a reason for living, the human being withers and dies inside. However paradoxical it may sound, it is detachment that enables us to give ourselves wholeheartedly to worthwhile work without ever getting depressed, despondent, or burned out – right into the last days of our lives.
Most people who work hard – which means most men and women in this country – bring their work home with them, yapping like a poodle at their heels. At the dinner table, when they sit thinking about their deadlines and responsibilities, the poodle is nestled under the chair, whining away. They curl up with it at night and dream about reports that haven’t been filed, statistics that don’t point to the right conclusions, mail that hasn’t been responded to or that has been sent out with the wrong memo attached. Detachment gives us the capacity to concentrate completely while on the job and to drop our work completely when we walk out the door.
A detached worker is a reliable worker, a cheerful worker, a harmonious worker. And when you can drop your work completely at the end of the day, you arrive home ready to give all your love to your family and friends. You feel fresh, relaxed. You have no need to give vent to the kind of frustration that millions of good people air: “Leave me alone. I’ve had a misera-ble day!” Mahatma Gandhi worked fifteen hours a day for fifty years for all of us who want a politically free world. When he was asked, “Don’t you want a vacation, Mr. Gandhi?” he said quietly, “I’m always on vacation.” It wasn’t a flippant reply; he meant every word of it. So don’t content yourself with two weeks in July or two weeks at a ski resort in January. You deserve three hundred and sixty-five days of vacation, and that is exactly what detachment can give you.
Detachment brings this kind of protection at every stage of life. Many of the physical problems associated with old age, for example, are not at all a necessary part of aging. The fact that they are common does not mean they are inevitable. Not only senility but even certain physical problems may well have more to do with life-style and thought-style than with changes triggered by some biological clock.
As researchers have observed, we have focused so much on “ordinary aging” – what happens to the majority – that we have ignored “successful aging,” which we can observe in men and women like Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, and Mother Teresa, who grow in wisdom and vitality right into the last days of a long, creative, fulfilling life. I grant you that in the evening of your life you may not be able to compete successfully on Centre Court at Wimbledon. But every one of us can enjoy the vitality, resourcefulness, and unerring judgment that come from a heart full of love and a vast reservoir of experience.
Detachment and love
In English the word detachment sounds passive, callous, unfeeling. Yet it is just the opposite, and the best way to see this is to look at its application in personal relationships.
In Sanskrit, we have two words that are often translated as “love” – two words with a world of difference between them, and the difference is detachment. Prema is pure love, in which I want nothing but your happiness. Your joy is my joy. Kama, on the other hand, is self-centered personal attachment, generally with romantic overtones. In the language of kama, “I love you” means “you please me.” Most of us need no formal introduction to kama. Selfish attachment is what holds most novels together, what most popular songs are based on, what most films depict in graphic detail.
It is discouragingly easy to mistake selfish attachment for love if we do not really know what love is. If you want to see some of the greatest lov-ers of all time, don’t look to Romeo or Juliet; look at Saint Francis of Assisi, or lovely Saint Teresa of Avila. All you need do is read Teresa’s autobiograph-ical accounts to know that she lived in the empyrean of love. What a won-derful paradox: to know what love means, we have to turn to men and women who we say have “renounced the world”!
Listen to Jacob Boehme, the “cosmic cobbler” of medieval Germany, as he tells us how he knew when he was in love – eternal love:
No life can express, nor tongue so much as name, what this enflaming, all-consuming love of God is. It is brighter than the sun, it is sweeter than anything called sweet; it is stronger than all strength; it is more nutrimental than food, more cheering to the heart than wine, and more pleasant than all the joy and pleasantness of the world. Whoever obtaineth it is richer than any monarch on earth; and he who getteth it is nobler than any emperor can be, and more potent and absolute than all power and authority.
Boehme is talking about love in the truest sense. The mark of true love is as simple as it is rare: it is detachment from the tangle of personal motives that makes us seek happiness in making others conform to our desires. Detachment and love go hand in hand. When all selfish attachments are gone, what is left is pure love. The other person is so dear to you that you never have to ask yourself the question, “What is she going to give me?” – in the way of respect, of affection, of loyalty. Once you efface that question from your vocabulary completely, you and that person are no longer separate; both of you are one. That is what love means.
The secret to transforming relationships
All of us begin the quest for love with a great deal of selfish attachment. That is human nature. But with the help of meditation and the allied disciplines we can diminish this selfish element day by day, by putting the welfare of those around us first and our own personal predilections last.
But practicing detachment in personal relationships does not come easily. No other arena of life is more challenging. Disrupted relationships are endemic today, and not because people are immoral or because they don’t care about one another; they just don’t know how to develop detachment. If you cannot stand back from your own pleasure and profit, you cannot help manipulating other people. Naturally, this kind of manipulation corrodes loyal relationships of any kind. It leads to their speedy end, as we can see in the lives of millions of lonely people today.
When you practice detachment continuously – at home, at work, among friends, and especially with difficult people – you will find how much security it brings you in your relationships. A spiritually detached person, which to me means a very loving person, will never allow relationships to degenerate to stimulus and response. The test is simple: Even if you are angry with me, can I stay calm and loving with you and help you overcome your anger? If you persist in disliking me, can I continue to like you? For it is when you dislike me that I have all the more reason to be loyal to you, to show you what loyalty really means.
This problem of disliking people, which is a very common one today, is essentially a problem of disliking the images we have formed of them. It is a reflection on us rather than on those we do not like. For in almost all human relationships, we see others not as they really are but as we are. To a suspicious person, everybody seems suspect; to a resentful person, every action is worthy of resentment. Similarly, to a loving person, everybody is worthy of love; every occasion is an opportunity to practice love. It is not that situations never get difficult when you are detached, or that people are never unpleasant. But the choice of response is in your hands. All of us can develop the detachment not to react to the way we are treated. This is the easiest, most effective way to solve problems in human relationships.
I once read a good aphorism from Buckminster Fuller. “We are not nouns,” he says pointedly; “we are verbs.” People who are content with rigid images of others are thinking of themselves and others as nouns, as things. Those who keep trying to get closer to others, to understand and appreciate them more all the time, are verbs: active, creative, dynamic, able to change themselves and to make changes in the world they live in.
Here is the practical difference. When we don’t like somebody, we say, “He upsets me. I’m not going to go near him.” That relationship is static; it has no chance of improving. On the other hand, when we can go against our dislikes, we can actually enjoy the opportunity such a person presents us. Just imagine the freedom! We enjoy being with people who like us, of course, but we can also enjoy being with people who don’t like us. Sometimes I think Gandhiji used to look forward to this kind of opportunity, because he knew it would draw up from within him the deeper creative resources he needed for his work.
Without this kind of freedom, “love” is more an inclination that comes and goes like the wind. When your girlfriend is catering to you, doing all the things you like, you say you love her. But when she turns around and does something that irritates you, you blurt out, “Get lost!” Doesn’t this happen all too often?
To love truly, you must be able to love when things are going your way and equally well when things are not going your way. This is the test of detachment. After all, when your partner is being especially nice to you, it’s easy to be pleasant in return. It is when she goes out of her way to offend you that you should not walk out. That is just the time to sit by her side and for every unkind word she utters, as Jesus says, give her seven words that are kind. For every shove she gives you, try to move that much closer.
To do this at home in the morning, at work throughout the day, and then in the evening among family and friends, you have to have a good measure of detachment from yourself. These are challenges that can appeal to us deeply: the “acts of will” that Saint Teresa of Avila says the Lord wants of us. They are difficult, but they can be practiced, and to great effect. To grow to our full potential in love, we need to try every day to develop a little more detachment from ourselves. Those who get angry and walk out, who get resentful and won’t sit at the same table with others, are refusing to try to grow. Their problem can be solved very simply, to the benefit of everyone around them: they need to practice detachment every day in every situation, in every relationship.
This reminds me of a beautiful incident from the life of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a young woman of our own century of whom I am very fond. In her convent was a certain nun who had a knack for alienating others. She seemed always to be waiting for someone to upset. Naturally her sisters tended to avoid her – even Thérèse, the Little Flower, as she is sweetly called. No one meant to be unkind; it was just that avoiding the unpleasant is so natural.
Then, with a shock, Thérèse realized what she had been doing. With her, as with Saint Francis – here is the mark of a saint! – to understand was to act. Immediately she began to make a point of giving her irritating sister a smile, answering her with kind words, doing little things to help her: although inside, she confesses, she used to wince with the effort.
One day, in a moment of marvelous simplicity, that nun stopped Thérèse and surprised her with a question. “Sister, whenever we meet, you always give me such a sweet smile. Will you please tell me what attracts you so much to me?”
“Ah!” Thérèse confides to us. “How could I tell her that what attracts me is Jesus, hidden in the depths of her soul – Jesus who makes sweet that which is most bitter!”
Jesus had taught her, “Bless them that curse you. Do good to them that hate you.” That is love at its greatest. In order to love like this, we cannot be attached to ourselves. It is because we think so much about ourselves that we strike back, show resentment, speak harshly, move away.
Jesus’ words do not mean agreeing with everything people say or supporting whatever they do. In my role as a spiritual teacher, I sometimes have to oppose people I love. Yet I do it tenderly, and I haven’t lost a single friend. On the contrary, my friends say, “Here is somebody who will stand by me through thick and thin. If I make a mistake, he’ll support me, but he’ll do his best not to let me make that mistake again. If I’m going astray, he’ll bar my way with loving arms.”
As Shakespeare says, “Love bears it out even to the edge of doom.” This is the secret of loving. Let me repeat, for a long, long time everybody finds it difficult. Everybody finds it distressing. But when you go to bed after a day of practicing this kind of love, you know that you have grown. You can stand against the wall and see that you have grown a full inch in spiritual stature. Inch by inch, day by day, you can grow until your head is crowned with the stars. That is our human destiny – the destiny for which all of us have been born.