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Practicing The Subtle Art Of Detachment
Why taking a step back is as necessary as moving forward
From everything that I recall about my life so far, I can say one thing with absolute certainty.
I have been an extremely passionate person.
Passionate about everything. Be it life in general, work, friendships, relationships. Bustling with energy, I have always liked to give my heart, my soul, my mind and my energy completely into things that matter to me.
I take the leap and I go all in like there is no middle spot.
And that always seemed to work for me. I was always on the high wave, getting things done, maintaining the happiest relationships and believing with certainty that I could achieve absolutely anything.
Until, I reached a day when the things that really mattered to me were at a point of collapse and I collapsed along with them.
And my story is not really unique in this sense.
Mental fatigue and burnout is almost like the epidemic of the century. Some of the brightest people with immense energy and passion go through this phase of extreme exhaustion which might last for months if not years.
And that’s because there is a bit of a downside of being too passionate. To put it simply, when you go about attaching your happiness, your existence and your life’s meaning too deeply with your work, your relationships or anything else for that matter, you put yourself at risk.
And why is that?
Because with attachment comes a very strong urge to control the circumstances.
While you can exercise some amount of control over what happens in your life, that will absolutely never eliminate the possibility of things going haywire or the possibility of your plans and ambitions not quite turning into reality.
You put yourself at risk because you put so much of yourself into something unwilling to believe that there is a tiny chance that it might not quite work out the way you plan.
And I don’t deny that this kind of confidence is necessary. It is probably the only reason behind strong risk-taking capabilities and subsequent achievements.
That’s why the problem hasn’t entirely got to do with being passionate alone. Passion is everything, after all. Defined as ‘a strong and barely controllable desire’, feeling passionate is what makes you feel alive.
The problem turns out to be with delusional thinking.
Remember how people say ‘Love is blind’? What they essentially imply there is that feeling too much passion and attachment towards something can skew our perception of it.
It can make us unwilling to accept the possibility of things going wrong. It can make us unwilling to see the flaws in our plan. It can make us oblivious to the truth that is right in front of us. Be it in our work, in our relationships or anything else in our life that we feel strongly passionate about, we all have a tendency to look at it in a skewed manner.
“Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached. ”
― Simone Weil
So if the ceiling breaks and things go wrong one after the other, because sometimes they do despite your best efforts, you might find yourself really struggling to cope up.
But does that mean passion is a bad thing? Should you never give yourself completely into anything? Should you not love unconditionally and whole-heartedly? Should you not embrace life fully with enthusiasm and be ready to take risks?
I don’t think so.
But you should always and always stick to an idea of ‘self’ that is independent of anything else in your life.
Is there anything that remains when I strip your life of your work and your deepest relationships for a while? Is there a core within you that is separate, detached and at peace irrespective of how things go in your life?
Or are you constantly on a roller coaster ride based on what happens? Exhilarated because great things are happening at work, miserable because the last batch of orders didn’t get delivered on time and customers left bad reviews. Exhilarated because things are going well in your relationship, miserable because he/she suddenly stopped giving you enough time.
Letting the things that you feel passionate about dictate your mood, your energy levels and your overall enthusiasm towards life is not a very healthy approach as you are relying over something external, something that is not entirely under your control to dictate your life.
The only difference between people who collapse after failure/loss and those who dust themselves off and start again quickly is that the latter know and practice the art of detachment.
What exactly is the art of detachment?
It’s 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.
Oxymoronic though it may sound, it’s said that you can achieve the greatest heights only through detaching yourself from the things that matter to you to a certain extent and by taking a step back.
And it doesn’t mean that you should always feel detached either. It just means that you should be capable of practicing detachment when required. To be attached is to live in the fear that what you want will not materialise and traps you in a continuous state of desire.
In my experience, I have found it useful to practice detachment in following forms —
- Detachment from Material Goals
To understand this form of detachment, the best example is the story of Joshua and Ryan, the two people behind the concept The Minimalists. They said, “While approaching age 30, we had achieved everything that was supposed to make us happy: great six-figure jobs, luxury cars, oversized houses, and all the stuff to clutter every corner of our consumer-driven lifestyles.
And yet with all that stuff, we weren’t satisfied with our lives. We weren’t happy. There was a gaping void, and working 70–80 hours a week just to buy more stuff didn’t fill the void: it only brought more debt, stress, anxiety, fear, loneliness, guilt, overwhelm, and depression.”
There are just too many people who are too attached to the things they own and too addicted to buying and hoarding more and more things without asking this one simple question — “Is it important enough?”
When you detach yourself from the compulsion of owning things just for the sake of owning them you begin to experience real freedom and joy from things that really matter.
“Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you.”
Remember, less is more.
Take a step back to understand what things add value to your lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.
2. Detachment in Relationships
Most people struggle the most with this aspect of detachment and it’s only natural. Most of us misunderstand love to be all about really holding on to the other person, trying to fix them and taking care of them in all ways possible, even if it comes at the cost of neglecting your own well being. It gets even worse when we let our lives revolve around certain relationships.
It might be relationship with your parents, with your spouse, with your best friends or anyone else who has a big influence in your life.
In all relationships, there is a need to practice a certain amount of detachment.
We might wonder why?
The answers are many. Detachment is needed so that you do not take everything personally because you don’t control their reactions. Detachment is needed so that you don’t seek their validation to the extent that your own opinions start to diminish. Detachment is needed to understand that love is about acceptance and not about control.
It is needed to understand that you alone are the master of your own lives and you need to draw boundaries so that others don’t control you.
Detachment in love is necessary to maintain that optimum amount of distance that is most essential for growth. No lines sum up the thought about loving detachment as these lines from Kahlil Gibran’s poem
“But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”
3. Detachment from your experiences
Life is meant to be lived and to not to be over-analysed. Yet, more often than not we find ourselves stuck in our head recounting experiences, mostly unpleasant ones over and over again till they bring us down.
Not only that, we also tend to carry them with us around like a bad weather. They form our prejudices and biases about our view of the world. We tend to over-generalize and assume things when we hold on too tightly to our past experiences.
It’s one thing to take the learnings from an experience and move further in life with new wisdom and it’s totally another thing to carry the bitterness, guilt and regret over the past experiences and letting them taint your present days.
This often happens when we fail to completely accept and let go our bad experiences.
When something bad happens, feel free to feel the pain, grieve and let go. Only through acceptance, you can free yourself from the weight and detach yourself from it.
4. Detachment from your work
“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. You are all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”
Wallace Inmen’s Globe and Mail, “Losing Your Job, Losing Your Identity,” survey 0f 12,000 respondents on the topic reveal that more than 30% define their personal identities through their career.
Does this describe you? You have few interests outside of work; you feel restless when you’re not working; you can’t carry on a conversation without referring to something at work; you make yourself available to people at work 24/7; and when you’re at home with family, your mind is back at work. If it does, you’ve defined yourself too much by your job.
And that’s not good for your mental and physical health.
Detachment from work means that when you leave your workplace you leave your work related worries there. Detachment from work means that you do not define your personal worth too closely to your performance at your workplace or to the validation that you receive at work. Detachment from work means that you do not rely on work alone to give you a feeling of completeness and to provide a meaning to your life.
In fact, detachment from work can lift off the pressure to be at your best all the time, allowing you to take a step back, relax and just focus on the work without any anxieties. It can improve your overall mood, your performance and might even lead to more creative ideas.
5. Detachment from your own thoughts
Out of all forms of practicing detachment, I find this one most profound in the ways it helps me grow. Most of us are too attached to our thoughts and our obsessive thinking patterns.
Very few of us are able to take a step back to exercise a certain amount of control over our thoughts. It turns into a problem when we confuse our thoughts with feelings and end up taking actions on impulse. Somehow, we conclude that every thought needs to be acted upon and it doesn’t turn out very well.
Detachment from thoughts, often practiced through meditation till it becomes a usual practice, allows you to look at your thoughts as an outsider, letting them come and go without allowing yourself to feel too much about them.
This allows you to practice a certain amount of detachment and you begin to see that not all thoughts are important. You realise that most of them are just clouding your head and it will be best to free yourself from them.
Detaching yourself from your thoughts requires an understanding of the fact that — Our thoughts are just thoughts. They are not the ultimate truth or reality.
You enter a state of mind in which you witness, clearly and calmly, with good will, whatever you are seeing, hearing, thinking, enjoying, or suffering. You watch your problems, fears, and challenges as if you are not bound or preoccupied by them but viewing them calmly — a witness.
With practice, your turbulent thoughts and negative emotions will lose their grip on your mind. They will not be able to drive you or distort your inner potential and well being.
“Mind can be your best friend or worst enemy.”
― Kabira, Birthplace of Happiness
6. Detachment from sense of time
A lot of our anxieties are caused by thoughts of not having enough time for all that we want to do. We have huge plans for months and even years whose enormity makes it difficult for us to live our present time in the best way possible today, the only time we have in hand for sure.
Detachment from sense of time can help you become aware of the transient nature of our lives and help you become more and more peaceful as you understand that the only time you have control over is now, this present moment. All that has passed before and all that is coming ahead is immaterial.
All in all, unconditional mental peace should be the only constant in life and practicing detachment can help us achieve it. In my next article, I have written about how to get back up after falling once and start over.