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?
And then, there are the really knotty issues. Like our own health. Or the lives of our children.
I recently talked to a woman whose 18-year-old son has quit school and chosen to live on the streets of a Northern California town. She and her ex-husband did everything they knew how to keep him in school, including promising to support him financially through any form of educational training he chose. When none of it worked, they acted on advice and withdrew financial support. Now, when they want to see him, they go up to the park where he hangs out and look for him. Their son seems fine with it all, but they still wake up in the middle of the night, imagining their son cold and hungry or seriously injured, and they move daily through different stages of worry, fear, shame, and anger.
They reassure themselves with teachings: "He's learning about life. It's part of his journey. He has his own karma." At other times, they pray for his well being. 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? At times like this—usually times of loss, since loss is notoriously more difficult to detach from than success—you face the hard truth about detachment practice. Detachment is rarely something you achieve once and for all. It's a moment-by-moment, day-by-day process of accepting reality as it presents itself, doing the best you can to align your actions with what you think is right, and surrendering the outcome. When it was their son's birthday, his mother went up to Berkeley, took him to dinner and bought him new clothes. He didn't like the pants, so he left them in his mother's hotel room, and went off in his old ones.
"At least I saw him," she said later.
Detachment Step by Step
When we lose something we care about, there are actually four stages to go through on the way toward genuine detachment. In the first two stages, we acknowledge and work with our feelings. This is crucial, because otherwise we truncate the process and our detachment will never be more than an escape hatch, a form of spiritual bypass.
Acknowledgment doesn't just mean recognizing that you want something badly, or that you're feeling loss. When you want something, feel how you want it. Find the wanting-feeling in your body. When you're feeling cocky about a victory, be with the part of yourself that wants to beat your chest and say "Me me me!" Rather than pushing away the anxiety and fear of losing what you care about, let it come up and breathe into it. And when you're experiencing the hopelessness of actual loss, allow it in. Let yourself cry.
However, since you're on a journey of detachment, you don't just leave it there. You actually find a way to work with the feelings. I've found that the best way to do this is to sit with them in meditation. I always start by probing the feeling space that desire or grief or hopelessness brings up in me, perhaps naming it to myself, but then gradually focusing on the feeling itself, breathing out the content, the story-line. (Sometimes before you can get to this, you need to talk to yourself for a while, reminding yourself that you do have resources, or remembering helpful teachings, or praying for help from the invisible realms, or simply directing saying "May I be healed" with each exhalation.)
I bring myself into contact with the inner witness. Then I start to explore the energy in the feelings. As I go deeper into the energy, inside the feeling, the knotty, sticky quality in the energy starts to dissolve—for now. That's my way of processing. There are many others. The important thing is not which process you use, but that you have a way to explore your feelings that allows you both to be present with them and to stand a little aside from them.
In the third stage of detachment, you begin to recognize the value in the journey you've taken, in the task you're doing, regardless of whether you are pleased with the outcome. The mother who came back from her son's birthday and thought, "At least I saw him," was experiencing one version of that recognition. For many of us, the third stage of detachment comes when we realize that we've actually learned something.
A young scientist spent two years doing a career-defining study, and was coming close to a breakthrough when he picked up a journal one day and found that someone else had gotten there before him. Of course he was devastated. The hardest thing for him was finding a way to get his enthusiasm back. "My mind kept coming up with hopeless thoughts," he told me. "I'd find myself thinking, 'You're just unlucky, the gods of science won't ever let you succeed.' I didn't even want to go to the lab." He learned to work with his hopelessness through a combination of tactics: mindfulness ("Its just a thought"), talking back to it, ("You can do it,"), and prayer. He told me that he knew he'd begun to detach (the word he used, actually, was heal) when he realized how much he'd actually learned from the research he'd done, and how much he'd learned that would come in handy later.