5 Ways to Practice Detachment, the Skill That’ll Get You Through the Day
Whenever our elementary school teacher handed out homework, a murmur went through the crowd: “Ugh!” “Oh no!” “Not again!” Inevitably, one kid would shout, “We don’t want to!” and, without fail, she would say: “Then you’ll just have to do it without wanting.”
Part of life is that life sometimes sucks. To accept this and not be swayed by it is a skill you can learn. That skill is called detachment.
Detachment has many benefits, but the biggest one by far is that it’ll get you through any day, no matter how bad that day gets. Even when things look bleak, detachment allows you to go about your day — to go on, and that’s the part that matters.
At its core, detachment is not adding more suffering in imagination to what you endure in reality. It’s not about disconnecting from said reality or ignoring your emotions; the opposite is the case. When you stay in the moment and acknowledge your feelings, it becomes easier to move past whatever that moment brings and however you feel in it.
Here are five ways to practice detachment. I hope they’ll help you get through even the toughest of days.
1. Don’t judge things before they happen…
…especially the things you know will have to happen but don’t want to do — like your homework, for example.
I can waste a great deal of time, thoughts, and energy on the fact that I don’t want to spend yet another three hours staring at my tax spreadsheet — or I can just start staring. Once I make some coffee, play some music, and get going, it might not be so bad. How can I know before I start? I can’t, but I think I do, and that ruins the experience before it’s even begun.
This goes as much for things we’re excited about as it goes for events we deeply fear. When I spend eight hours thinking, “Getting ice cream will be great!” I set myself up for disappointment if the shop happens to be closed. When I worry about my plane crashing, it doesn’t make a plane crash more likely — it just makes me worried.
A judgment made in advance is nothing but an expectation, and when we form expectations about what’ll happen and how it’ll go, reality will always let us down because it never meets those expectations exactly as they are. Don’t judge too early. Don’t have expectations.
2. Don’t interpret events in real-time
You’d think by the time we go through them, we have a good idea of how we feel about the affairs that unfold, but that’s not the case. Judging life in real-time still means judging too early.
One of my favorite zen stories is about a farmer whose horse runs away. The neighbors say: “What bad luck!” The farmer says: “We’ll see.” The next day, the horse returns with a flock of others, and the neighbors are over the moon. The farmer says: “We’ll see.” The next day, the farmer’s son breaks his leg. The neighbors are heartbroken, the farmer “will see.” One day later, the army drafts soldiers, and the farmer’s son is spared. The neighbors are happy, the farmer says: “We’ll see.” You get the idea.
Often, we don’t know the real causes and effects of events until much, much later, yet we spend a lot of time in agony and exhilaration as they happen. Getting fired might suck today but could be the best thing that ever happened to you five years from now. Today’s good fortune could become tomorrow’s curse. Don’t judge too early. Maybe, don’t judge at all. Just wait and see.
3. Use math and logic to make big decisions
William Bruce Cameron once said: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” It’s true that math and reason have their limits, but the point of employing them is not to decide like a computer; it is to counteract your natural tendency to decide solely based on emotions.
Humans are terrible at understanding risk and opportunity costs, and yet, everything you do in life comes at the expense of not doing something else. It bodes well to at least think about that “something else” and try to do so in somewhat objective terms. At the same time, a high, natural tolerance for risk in a certain area can point you towards your ideal path of action.
Weighing options against another, adding perspective with numbers, and assessing risks before taking them don’t just lead to better decisions; they lead to being less impulsive and reacting less emotionally when confronted with the burden of making decisions. That’s what detachment is all about: Thinking clearly so you can do what’s best for you in the long run.
4. Add a few minutes of doing nothing to every task
Before you commence a task you don’t look forward to, do nothing. Sit. Wait. Take some time to acknowledge how you feel. Then, get to work, even while grunting.
Sometimes, it takes me longer to accept the situation around a task than to do the task itself. Is that time wasted? I don’t think so. I’d rather spend 20 minutes mentally preparing and then ten minutes doing the thing than an hour trying to complete it in utter misery and getting nowhere.
As Mark Manson writes: “The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.” Make time to accept your negative experiences, and you’ll have an easier time getting on with completing them.
5. Remember your worst day is someone else’s best
My grandpa ran a small clothing store in a tiny village. On some days, his only interaction with the outside world was to walk to the mailbox, pull out a bunch of bills and late notices, and then trot back back into his house.
Today, we have the world at our fingertips, but most of the time, we don’t use it to give ourselves the perspective we need. Manson makes another example:
Back in Grandpa’s day, he would feel bad and think to himself, “Gee whiz, I sure do feel like a cow turd today. But hey, I guess that’s just life. Back to shoveling hay.” But now? Now if you feel bad for even five minutes, you’re bombarded with 350 images of people totally happy and having amazing lives, and it’s impossible to not feel like there’s something wrong with you.
There is nothing wrong with you. Everyone has their own problems and struggles. Yours are as valid as anyone else’s, but remember: There’s always someone out there whose struggle you’re much less equipped to handle — but you’re probably well equipped to handle the one you’re currently facing. That too is a perspective you can use as motivation.
Detachment is not a recipe for happiness by comparison. It is a habit that makes it easier to go on living while you wait for your happiness to return.
Detachment is being okay when life sucks because you don’t expect it to play out a certain way. You don’t think everything will happen in your favor, but you also don’t await disaster. You just do your best to be ready for both.
You accept the nagging uncertainty that’s all you have until either one — or something else entirely — comes to pass. Detachment allows you to live with ambiguity, and that’s why it allows you to do great things.
Most of the time, the greatest thing we can do is make it through the day, and, often, all that takes is five words; five words that capture the essence of detachment, the philosophy of the people who go on: “I am enough for today.”