Detachment – The Key to a Balanced State of Mind
This highly useful attitude involves breaking the mental link to both physical real world objects and also mental interpretations of real world results. By breaking this link through detachment we reduce the chances of experiencing destabilising emotions and we maintain better control of our actions and results.
In order to understand the value of detachment we also need to consider the original value of attachment. In ancient times a person who took care to protect the things he or she had created to aid survival would likely survive longer and equally so a person who protected their offspring would see his or her genes continue into the next generation. Hence attachment to other things and to other people would prove of evolutionary benefit and this trait would continue in the species.
Attachment can give an emotional response that favours protecting assets. By seeking to control circumstances and the environment and by eliminating risks and hazards wherever possible we increase our chances of thriving and surviving. However, a limit to control of circumstances always occurs and further preparations either will not reduce the risk of calamity any further or will prove so costly to implement that the possible unknown future benefits get heavily outweighed by the immediate cost to pay right now.
At this point we need to recognise that we have done the preparation that we can and so have acted as mature and responsible people. To continue to respond with fear of loss only serves to cause emotional distress without any further productive result. Only if we feel the distress and yet do nothing at all to prepare and protect our things and our people should we feel ashamed. We must rationalise on the balance between accepting the element of chance in our lives and taking strenuous efforts to reduce that element wherever possible and deemed worthwhile. If protection efforts require vast expense in resources, or require controlling the will of other people against their wishes or mean that too many other desired benefits must go by the wayside then we will usually choose not to do those things and so have to accept that chance will play its part. We have to accept that reality. At this point we benefit from developing detachment to things and sometimes to people too.
Often the best way to protect something or someone lies in making it stronger so that it can easily withstand the misfortunes of chance. For example, when I have a girlfriend I don’t seek to control her or to bind her to me or to check up on her all of the time. Whilst that might protect my position in the short-term, in the end it either destroys the relationship or creates so much tension so both parties end up miserable and at loggerheads for much of the time. Instead I focus on treating my girlfriend so well that she would never think twice about looking for affection elsewhere. I think that people have an inherent loyalty to other people that treat them well. If we continuously make the experience of spending time with another person fun, enjoyable, relaxed, supportive, caring and involved then we fulfil most of their desires and fire off all the pleasurable emotions. Only if the other person seems bent on destruction, because their own mind cannot let them remain at peace even when the external circumstances go great, does this method fail. If someone else chooses to seek satisfaction elsewhere with other people then I see that as a reflection of their own troubled mind and nothing to do with me. In such a situation I break the relationship off because such a person cannot accept my generosity and to continue only wastes my efforts. I feel good to have found out the untrustworthiness of such a person as soon as possible so that I don’t invest more time into a losing situation. I protect my position initially by making it stronger through pleasurable appeal and not through restrictive force. Beyond that I remain fairly detached because I cannot control the responses of a girlfriend. I accept that other misfortune might cause the relationship to fail. I work at making the relationship fun and fulfilling and relax about the consequences and reactions that I cannot control.
I don’t have children yet but I can bet that I would sometimes feel anguish about what might happen to them, especially when out of my sight and direct care. However, I feel that the purpose of parenthood lies in raising children to become fully functional independent adults. That can only come from teaching them, training them and encouraging them to develop the intrinsic skills and ways of thinking that allow them to solve problems by themselves and to accept that reality will often not meet their desires and that they must take responsibility for doing what any individual can to improve the chances of meeting desires. By continuously taking the easy option of doing things for the children rather than taking the more difficult route to let them do things for themselves and learn we instead create very dependent children who will suffer later from incompetence to handle themselves well. We create protection in the short-term but generate incompetence and lasting dependency in the long-term. When I have children I will remove risks where possible and do what I can to prepare my children for the problems they will encounter. Beyond that I will have to accept that chance will sometimes prevent me from exerting control and so to avoid continuous worry I will develop detachment to the possible results of those uncontrollable events.
Detachment as an Aid to Acceptance
Some events happen despite our preparations and efforts at protection; very often because to give full protection simply doesn’t justify the effort or because in giving full protection we end up cutting-off other pleasures. For example, I used to get upset if some possession of mine got damaged or ruined. I had a need for my things to remain in excellent condition and when this didn’t happen I got annoyed, disappointed and sometimes angry – especially if the damage occurred by someone else’s actions. However, since I really don’t like to feel emotional pain and I really don’t like to feel at the whim of things beyond my control I chose to think differently about my possessions. I decided to think of my things as just material possessions, useful for a while but then generally discarded. Although they had a monetary value I decided that once the money got spent that I wouldn’t care about the value. I focused on the utility of the item and knew that at some point it would stop having value to me as an item of utility at which point I would discard it. I have also developed the habit of very quickly accepting reality so that I immediately deal with the aftermath of an event rather than feeling pain over regret and ‘what might have been’ thoughts. Instead I think about what I could do to prevent such an occurrence from happening again, which I consider the real purpose of regret – to prompt the brain into preparing better next time. We feel pain in order to reinforce the message but we can do nothing to change the real event that triggered the feeling so get over that quickly by accepting it and preventing it happening again.
With these different mental interpretations of possessions I feel quite detached from material possessions so that if something gets damaged or broken I don’t feel any pain from that loss. It served its purpose, perhaps a little shorter than I had hoped, but I simply get on with the reality that I need to replace it, repair it, accept the imperfection or do without it.
Detachment as as Aid to Improved Performance
As an example of feeling detached from a result of a more abstract nature we can look at a sports event. If we play a game or match and we have a lot of attachment to the result of winning then any threat to that will cause us to feel emotional pain and disturbance. This will cloud our thinking and will affect our ability. Instead of thinking about performing with excellence we think more and more about ‘not losing’ and if we focus on incorrect things then we tend to get what we focus on.
Conversely, better performance and results often come with detachment because we stay focused on our personal performance and the challenge and enjoyment of that (things that we mostly control) rather than on the result (something also dependent upon the opponent over whom we do not have much control). By focusing on carrying out every small thing (in this case points or advantages) with excellence and mastery we have more chance of building up the small accumulation of things that leads to the excellent final result. If the final result does not end up in a win then we can at least enjoy the process and we know that at that time we performed to the limit of our current abilities and that at that time and with that level of ability to expect any more equates to just useless wishful thinking. Learn how to improve but don’t feel sore as it doesn’t help.
The Key to a Balanced State of Mind
A strong mental attachment to anything that we have little or no control over will create stress because at some point reality may not deliver the result that we want. The difference between our imagined desire and our real result will cause us emotional pain. Whenever we feel that we ‘need’ something this leads to the creation of rules and expectations. Too many rules and too high expectations lead to neurotic behaviour when our reality doesn’t match our imagination. Consequently, developing mental detachment to imagined and real world results removes the opportunities for emotional pain and the consequential debilitating feelings and actions that they bring.
Developing detachment for objects and events can reduce some of the excitement in life that comes from not knowing how things will turn out. As a spectator in a sports match becoming attached to a result can prove exciting as the downside has almost no consequence (unless you’ve bet a whole load of money on the result). However, for the more personally important and influential things in life developing detachment allows us to deal with problems more maturely, with less stress and with better focus on the things that you can control to make a difference.
I don’t have a deep knowledge of Buddhism but I was once married to a Buddhist and she told me that in Buddhism one reaches enlightenment by giving up all attachment to worldly desires and that if anything in life causes you pain then the best solution lies in giving it up. I do not subscribe to this point of view. In my opinion emotional pain comes from experiencing the difference between desired results and real results. If you feel pain then the best way to negate it comes not from giving things up but from accepting the reality of the situation. By changing desires so that they match reality we remove emotional pain. We can then seek improvement in our lives by seeking to make small gains based on real possibilities and probabilities given our current situation and ability. With time we create enormous resourcefulness that means that things once impossible and improbable can now happen for us because we have constructed every foundation and building block necessary to support reaching such heights.
By accepting reality we achieve inner peace and unlock our powers of productivity. Even unconditional love comes from accepting reality and enacting detachment from our desires to control those that we love. You will know when you have made detachment a part of your thinking when you begin to assess things like this: “I prepared as far as I could to control as much as I can within the limits of my current abilities and my current resources. Now I accept that unexpected or uncontrollable misfortune might interfere with my desires and so I also accept the consequences of any such events.” When you think this way and remove your attachment to results you can remain balanced and harmonious in your mind.
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