I'll never forget the first time I considered the relationship between detachment and freedom. I was in my 20s, staying with a friend in Vermont, trying to recover my equilibrium in the midst of a difficult breakup. One evening, bored with my moping, my friend tuned into the local alternative radio station, which happened to be broadcasting a program of some tapes by Ram Dass, who at the time was an early spokesman for Eastern spiritual values. Ram Dass was telling a famous anecdote about the way you catch monkeys in India. The way you catch monkeys is to put a handful of nuts into a jar with a small opening. The monkey puts his hands in the jar, grabs the nuts, and then finds that he can't get his fist out through the small opening. If the monkey would just let go of the nuts he could escape. But he won't.
Attachment leads to suffering, Ram Dass said. It's as simple as that. Detachment leads to freedom.
I felt that he was talking directly to me. Between my two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and my weird and painful relationship, I was definitely attached, and I was definitely suffering. Of course, 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 speak of all my other, subtler addictions like worry, guilt, and criticizing other people.
But 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 had blithely flung away my career, my apartment, and my boyfriend. 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." In short, I had gone from one extreme to another. What I hadn't managed to get rid of so easily were the worry, guilt, and tendency to criticize. And as a result, I was still suffering.
Most of us figure out sooner or later that detachment is not about externals. It's true that a person without a lot of clutter in his life has a lot more time for practice; my younger brother, who lives in the wilds of Humboldt County, spends about eight hours a day doing prayers and meditation, and he strikes me as being in an enviably balanced state. On the whole, though, disengaging yourself from family, possessions, political activism, friendships, and career pursuits doesn't necessarily make for a richer inner life. Anyone who has ever met an angry, self-righteous renunciate could tell you that it'snot your house you have to give up. It's your anger, depression, and pride.
My generation of yogis was expert at throwing out the baby instead of the bathwater, but we did learn a few things in the process. For example, we learned that detachment is not a synonym for indifference, carelessness, or passivity. We can't use detachment as an excuse not to deal with fundamental issues like livelihood, power, self-esteem, and other people. Well, we can, but eventually those issues will rise up and smack us in the face, like an insulted ingénue in a 1950s movie.
The Bhagavad Gita, which is surely the basic text on the practice of detachment—I call it Detachment 101-- is wonderfully explicit about this point. Krishna tells Arjuna that acting with detachment means doing things for their own sake, because they need to be done, without worrying about the results. (T.S. Eliot paraphrases Krishna's advice by saying, "For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.")
But Krishna also tells Arjuna at some length not to cop out of doing his best at the job his talents and social position demand of him. In one sense, the whole text of the Bhagavad-Gita is one long argument for doing your job in the best way possible. The Bhagavad Gita actually answers many of the questions that we have about detachment—pointing out, for instance, that what we are really supposed to give up is not our families or our capacity for enjoyment, but the deep tendency to identify with our bodies and personalities instead of with pure, deathless Awareness.
Yet, the Bhagavad Gita didn't speak to every question that confronts us when we try to practice detachment. Even if it did, the real juice of the inner life is discovering, step by step, how to answer these questions for yourself. For instance, how do you fall in love and remain detached? Where do you find the motivation to start a business, write a novel, get yourself through law school, work in the emergency room of a city hospital, unless you care deeply about the outcome of what you'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 be a fighter for justice without getting caught up in anger or the sense of unfairness?