Essential Principles, A – Z: Detachment

detachment haiku

To be able to enjoy fully the many good things the world has to offer, we must be detached from them. To be detached does not mean to be indifferent or uninterested. It means to be non-possessive. Life is a gift to be grateful for and not a property to cling to. Henri Nouwen

Do you consider yourself possessive with regard to the material things in your life?

Do you ever find yourself obsessing or worrying about people, or circumstances, that you have little power over?

How many times have you tried, unsuccessfully, to influence situations that are beyond your control?

How did that make you feel?

I’m guessing it wasn’t a satisfactory experience.

Detachment is related to acceptance, in that it means you have to practice letting things be as they are. Detaching from whatever is beyond your control has nothing to do with being uncaring or unhelpful; it is about releasing ourselves from any stress brought on by undue concern over outcomes that we cannot influence. It’s about disentangling yourself, rather than disengaging, from affairs.

I was brought up in a family that I now know was codependent (in an unhealthy way). Psychological boundaries were weak, unenforceable, particularly where my mum, my sisters and me were concerned. Under the mistaken assumption that we were ‘close’, it was as though we were one and the same person – if my mum could have had her way, she’d have dressed us in the same clothes not just when we were children, but also when we became adults!

Fearful that we might make the same mistake she did (unmarried and pregnant at seventeen, a shameful state in the 1950s), mum constantly worried about what we did, where we went, who we were with… you get the picture. Of course, her concern didn’t stop my sisters and I from doing exactly as we pleased and there were frequent rows about our behaviour (which wasn’t that bad, although mum didn’t actually know the half of it).

If only my mum had been able to detach from her need to control her daughters; we could all have saved an awful lot of time and energy had we not been constantly engaged in power struggles. And no doubt our relationships would have been the better for it.

If you’re overly attached to an outcome then you probably have idealistic expectations which, if unmet, more often than not result in dissatisfaction. For example, at the women’s refuge where I volunteer, residents on the list for social housing have to bid weekly for suitable properties. Unless they’re number one on the list it is unlikely they will be successful, but this hasn’t stopped certain residents from visualising themselves moving in – they’ve decorated and furnished the place before bidding has even stopped. When they fail to win the bid they are devastated.

An ability to detach helps you to view people and situations objectively; this leads to a more realistic perspective and greater peace of mind.

I’ve wondered about fans’ attachment to outcomes of football matches – do we project our frustrations at our own (perceived) failure to achieve onto our favourite teams when they play badly and/or lose; similarly, do we feel a vicarious sense of accomplishment when they play well and/or win?

I love football and feel passionate when watching my beloved Manchester City; dodgy referees’ decisions make me swear and I’m always disappointed when the result doesn’t go City’s way. Once upon a time a bad performance or result would have ruined my day (or longer); however the score doesn’t have the same power over me that it once had. Nowadays, once the beautiful game is over I can let go of the result, be it good or bad, and turn my attention to what I can actually influence.

To detach from conditions you don’t have much say over isn’t about doing nothing, rather it’s about doing what you can appropriate to the situation, then mentally, emotionally and spiritually letting go of any attachment to the outcome. This is incredibly difficult when the unhealthy/neurotic/wounded ego is in charge, but not when acting in accordance with your essence.

If you can’t quite get your head around the idea of detaching then don’t worry. Allow awareness of the concept to sink into your subconscious where it can take root and then flower when you are ready to embrace it.

The ability to detach brings relief; however, even when you totally ‘get’ it, i.e. you can embody it, there is still a need for conscious practice (unless/until it becomes automatic).

Practising detachment is a habit that’s worth cultivating – it is ultimately freeing as it releases you from burdens that don’t belong to you. Relax!

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