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Just Let Go

Sometimes the simplest advice can be the hardest to take. Here's how to practice detachment without giving up on life.

By Sally Kempton

meditation

I'll never forget the first time I seriously considered the relationship between detachment and freedom. I was in my 20s, staying with a friend in Vermont, trying to recover some equilibrium in the midst of a difficult breakup. One evening, bored with my moping, my friend tuned in the local alternative radio station, which happened to be broadcasting Ram Dass. He was telling a famous anecdote about the way you catch a monkey in India. You drop a handful of nuts into a jar with a small opening, he explained. The monkey puts his hand into the jar, grabs the nuts, and then finds that he can't get his fist out through the opening. If the monkey would just let go of the nuts, he could escape. But he won't.

Attachment leads to suffering, Ram Dass concluded. It's as simple as that: Detachment leads to freedom.

I knew he was talking directly to me. Between my two-pack-a-day cigarette habit and my painful relationship, I was definitely attached—and definitely suffering. But letting go of my fistful of nuts seemed unthinkable. I couldn't imagine what life would be like without the drama of a love affair, without cigarettes and coffee—not to mention other, subtler addictions, like worry, resentment, and judgment. Still, the story of the monkey and the jar stayed with me, a depth charge waiting to go off.

A year later, I had become a fledgling yogi. I no longer hung around with girlfriends who would listen to my latest troubles. Instead, my time was spent with people whose answer to any expression of discontentment was, "Let it go." Pursuing simplicity, I had blithely flung away my career, my apartment, and my boyfriend. What I hadn't managed to get rid of were the worry, the resentment, and the tendency to criticize. In short, I had simply moved from one behavioral pole to the other, and as a result, I was still suffering.

Only the Trying

It took me a few years of throwing out the baby instead of the bathwater to figure out that detachment is not about external things. In fact, as is so often the case with the big issues of spiritual life, detachment involves a deep paradox. It's true that those without a lot of clutter in their lives have more time for inner practice. But in the long run, disengaging ourselves from family, possessions, political activism, friendships, and career pursuits can actually impoverish our inner lives. Engagement with people and places, skills and ideas, money and possessions is what grounds inner practice in reality. Without these external relationships, and the pressure they create, it's hard to learn compassion; to whittle away at anger, pride, and hardness of heart; to put spiritual insights into action.

So we can't use detachment as an excuse not to deal with fundamental issues such as livelihood, power, self-esteem, and relationships with other people. (Well, we can, but eventually those issues will rise up and smack us in the face, like an insulted ingenue in a 1950s movie.) Nor can we make detachment a synonym for indifference, or carelessness, or passivity. Instead, we can practice detachment as a skill—perhaps the essential skill for infusing our lives with integrity and grace.

The Bhagavad Gita, which is surely the basic text on the practice of detachment, is wonderfully explicit on this point. Krishna tells Arjuna that acting with detachment means doing the right thing for its own sake, because it needs to be done, without worrying about success or failure. (T.S. Eliot paraphrased Krishna's advice when he wrote, "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.")

At the same time, Krishna repeatedly reminds Arjuna not to cop out of doing his best in the role his destiny demands of him. In a sense, the Bhagavad Gita is one long teaching on how to act with maximum grace while under maximum pressure. The Gita actually addresses many of the questions that we have about detachment—pointing out, for instance, that we are really supposed to give up not our families or our capacity for enjoyment but our tendency to identify with our bodies and personalities instead of with pure, deathless Awareness.

Questions, Questions

Yet the Bhagavad Gita doesn't deal with all of our questions. That's just as well; the real juice of the inner life is discovering, step by step, how to find these answers for ourselves. For instance, how do we fall in love and remain detached? Where do we find the motivation to start a business, write a novel, get ourselves through law school, or work in the emergency room of a city hospital unless we care deeply about the outcome of what we're doing? What is the relationship between desire and detachment? What's the difference between real detachment and the indifference that comes with burnout?

What about social activism? Is it possible, for example, to fight for justice without getting caught up in anger or a sense of unfairness? And then there's the relationship between detachment and excellence. It's nearly impossible to excel at anything—including spiritual practice—if we aren't prepared to throw ourselves in 100 percent. Can we do that and still be detached?

Then there are the really knotty issues, the situations that seem literally defined by attachment, like our relationship to our children or to our own bodies. How do we work with attachments so visceral that to let go of them feels like letting go of life itself?

I have a friend whose 18-year-old son dropped out of school and now lives on the streets, choosing not to get a job. My friend and her ex-husband did everything they could to keep their son in school, including promising to support him financially through any form of educational training he chose. When none of their efforts worked, they acted on professional advice and withdrew financial support. Now, when they want to see him, they drive six hours north and go to the park where he hangs out and look for him. Their son seems fine with the whole situation, but they still wake up in the middle of the night, imagining him cold and hungry or seriously injured, and they move daily through different stages of worry, fear, and anger.

"This is the choice he's making about the way he wants to live his life," they tell themselves, drawing on the spiritual teachings that have nurtured them. "It's part of his journey. He has his own karma." But how do you stop being attached to your son's well-being? Can you just cut the cord that binds you to that long-cultivated feeling of concern and responsibility? During times like this—usually times of loss, since loss is notoriously more difficult to detach from than success—we face the hard truth about detachment practice: Detachment is rarely something we achieve once and for all. It's a moment-by-moment, day-by-day process of accepting reality as it presents itself, doing our best to align our actions with what we think is right, and surrendering the outcome.

On one of the homeless son's birthdays, his mother found him, took him to dinner, and bought him new clothes. He didn't like the pants, so he left them and went off in his old ones. "At least I saw him. At least I could tell him that I loved him," my friend said later. "I could remind him that anytime he wants to make other choices, we're here to help him."

I admire the way this woman holds the complexity of her feelings about her son, doing what she can while still recognizing what she has no power to do, looking for a way to find the best in the situation without glossing over its difficulties. There's nothing Pollyanna-ish about her detachment; it's hard-won. Life demands this of all of us—all of us—sooner or later, because if this world is a school meant to teach us how to love, it's also a school for teaching us how to deal with loss.

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Reader Comments

Amanda

Amazing insights and enjoyed the references to the Gita. I've read it but your references where such great examples. Thanks for sharing your talents!

Kat

I also found this article very enlightening. As I was reading it, I realized something within my self I needed to detach from. Thank you very much.

Namaste

Brandy

I am extremely emotional and often addicted to something or other. I very much appreciated this article. I work in disaster response and tend to internalize drama happening around me to others. It makes my job difficult at times when I cant detach from the emotions of the situation.

SO thank you

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