One of my acquaintances was telling me recently about detachment and what a huge challenge it is to be “a warrior against the lure of being attached to emotions and material things…” and it is like “fighting against the human nature…” It set me thinking about what detachment really is and our misconceptions and confusions around that. The following is also a constant reminder to myself. I am sharing this because I feel that it might help some of you.
There are numerous mentions in Bhagavad Gita about the importance of detachment to attain peace, happiness and gradually moksha / liberation. Lord Krishna tells Arjuna,
vihāya kāmān yaḥ sarvān
pumāḿś carati niḥspṛhaḥ
sa śāntim adhigacchati
A person who has no desire for sense gratification, who lives free of desires, who has given up all the sense for controls and proprietorship, and is egoless, can alone attain ultimate peace. (Gita 2.71)
In another verse, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna to perform his duty without any attachment to the results of his action;
tasmād asaktaḥ satataḿ
kāryaḿ karma samācara
asakto hy ācaran karma
param āpnoti pūruṣaḥ
Therefore, only those who act without being attached to the fruits of his action, but as a matter of performing his duty, can attain the Supreme. (Gita 3.19)
śreyo hi jñānam abhyāsāj
jñānād dhyānaḿ viśiṣyate
tyāgāc chāntir anantaram
If you cannot take to this practice (practice of Bhakti Yoga), then try to engage yourself in the pursuit of knowledge (jnāna). However, meditation is better than the pursuit of knowledge, and being detached from the fruits of your action (renunciation) is better than meditation, as through such renunciation, one can attain peace of mind. (Gita 12.12)
There are various other references in Bhagavad Gita, Vedas and Upanishads as well as in Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and other faiths on the importance of detachment in order to attain peace and happiness in life.
What is detachment?
Is detachment about being aloof and withdrawing from the world? Is it about being physically detached from people and running away from family, friends and loved ones? Is physical detachment even possible? Vedas tell us that we are all interconnected in this universe, and that we are part and parcel of the Supreme Being (Rig Veda 10.90). If we are so interconnected to each other, how can we be physically detached from others? Is it emotional detachment then? Emotional detachment has a connotation of being emotionless. How can we be emotionless and act like machines? That is not what human beings are meant to be. We have an immense capacity to love and nurture others. Is detachment about having no desires? Desire is Iccha in Sanskrit and it is considered to be one of the greatest Shaktis. According to Vedanta, human beings have three aspects to life: Iccha, jnāna and kriya. Only a purified mind can have access to all the real powers of these three aspects. Among those powers, Iccha Shakti – the willpower – is considered to be one of the Supreme Shaktis. Iccha Shakti helps us in making better decisions, set goals in life and achieve them. The entire Bhagavad Gita is about Krishna’s desire to teach Arjuna, and Arjuna’s desire to learn from Krishna. Thus detachment or non-attachment cannot be all about being physically detached, or being emotionless or being desireless.
There is but one life, one world, one existence.
We are so used to the notion that, “I am afraid to fall in love with you, I don’t want to be hurt again, or I should not have desires if I want to be spiritual, or I should not be affected by whatever is happening around me…etc.” Especially when we are on a spiritual journey, we often mistake and misinterpret detachment or non-attachment altogether and end up believing that detachment is about shunning away from responsibilities, relationships, family and friends, and distancing ourselves from the sufferings of the people and withdrawing from the world. Obviously, such a belief only makes us even more confused about our life.
There is also a belief that, in order to excel in our spiritual journey, we need to withdraw ourselves from the material world. In other words, we believe in two separate worlds – a material world and a spiritual world. Are there really separate worlds? Swami Vivekananda says, “you must always remember that the one central ideal of Vedanta is this oneness. There are no two in anything, no two lives, not even two different kinds of life for the two worlds. You will find the Vedas speaking of heavens and things like that at first; but later on, when they come to highest ideals of their philosophy, they brush away all these things. There is but one life, one world, one existence.” [emphasis added].
Swami Vivekananda continues, “There is only one life and one world, and this one life and one world is appearing to us as manifold. This manifoldness is like a dream. When you dream, one dream passes away and another comes. You do not live in your dreams. The dreams come one after another, scene after scene unfolds before you. So it is in this world of ninety percent misery and ten percent happiness. Perhaps after a while it will appear as ninety percent happiness, and we call it heaven, but a time comes to the sage when the whole thing vanishes, and this world appears as God Himself, and his own soul as God. It is not therefore that there are many worlds, it is not that there are many lives. All this manifoldness is the manifestation of that One. That One is manifesting himself as many, as matter, spirit, mind, thought, and everything else. It is that One, manifesting Himself as many. Therefore the first step for us to take is to teach the truth to ourselves and to others” (from ‘The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda’).
It is indeed a misconception that there are two worlds – a material world and a spiritual world. There is only one world. That is the reality and the truth. It is our lack of understanding of this reality, this truth, that makes us believe in two different worlds. Since we do not understand our own reality that there is only One Being and One World and that we are part and parcel of that Whole existence, we create our own worlds of limitations. It is through this prism of limitations that we perceive everything else around us and come to the misconception that, in order to practice the art of detachment, we need to withdraw ourselves from the world and deny us all the happiness and pleasures of this beautiful world and shun away from its darkness and sufferings. Life is indeed a mixture of both yin and yāng – happiness and sorrows, light and dark, good and bad…
So, it is not possible for us to be emotionless, that is not what is desired of us human beings. We can’t be physically detached as we are all interconnected, or be desireless as iccha shakti is one of the powerful shaktis to possess. Let us now look at detachment from a different angle.
Detachment : The Art of Letting Go
What if we have full control over our emotions rather than trying to be emotionless? What if we can get deeply closer to people, develop meaningful relationships and love them abundantly without having control over them or trying to dictate their life (“I love you, and I know what is best for you!” – how many times we have said this to others!) What if we can have all the desires we want, but we can cultivate the wisdom to know, prioritize and manage all our desires?
I think, the first step towards detachment is to realize that we are the masters of our emotions, our desires and all our attachments. Detachment is not about having no emotions or desires, but having control over our emotions, actions and desires and be able to manage them. Free our emotion of love from the sense of control, and we are free of our emotions! Free our actions from the worry of its results, and we are free of actions! Have as many desires as we want, but have the wisdom to know which desires we want to follow and the ones we do not want to, then we will be free of desires.
Letting go is an art that we need to practice and develop. Letting go is the way to detachment. Detachment is about having freedom. It is beautifully described in the following lines, “Like Buddha before us, letting go is gaining freedom. Once we let go of trying to control everything, life seems to flow with greater ease. It’s not unlike a twig floating down a meandering river. It doesn’t try to stop or force the current into an unrealistic upstream reversal of flow. It just lets go and enjoys the ride. Letting it take it where it will.”
The chapter 18th of the Gita summarizes all about letting go; Lord Krishna says, “Let go, do not cling on to the fruits of your actions. Have no attachments to the result of your actions (do not worry about what is going to happen). Perform your prescribed duty as shunning away from the responsibilities come with your birth is not renunciation, but an illusion due to your ignorance.”
Detachment through Objective Living
Objective living is another way towards detachment. Objective living is about freeing our emotions from our sense of control. It is about understanding our interconnectedness with the universe and acting with that responsibility. It is about being conscious and seeing the reality as it is and not through our own limitedness and judgments.
For example, freeing the sense of control from the emotion of love is objective living. To realize that we are the masters of all our desires and to have the wisdom to recognize and prioritize those desires is objective living. To act without the worry of its results, but only as to perform one’s duty, is objective living.
Arjuna wanted to run away from his duty, which is to fight, as he was a Kshatriya (one of the four varnas in the Varna system in Sanatana Dharma) and retire into quietude, hoping to achieve moksha / liberation. However, Lord Krishna persuades him to fight, to perform his prescribed duty, and face all the challenges in life that comes with the birth, rather than running away from it, in order to attain moksha. Krishna teaches us that, our attachments to actions, desires, emotions, etc. are the result of our ego centered living and self centered thinking.
It is our desire that hold us back and earthbound and it is the same desire that gives the power for us to fly to the higher space, to be our true self – the Atman, the pure happiness – and shine like a star we truly are.
The world around us is unreal – it is māya. It is māya because it is transient and everything is impermanent except our Self, the divine. Since it is ever changing and impermanent, it cannot be relied upon to discover our truth, our purpose in life. If we can come to this understanding, then we can be detached from all the external factors and be free of bondages. That’s the path to everlasting happiness. Clinging on to such an everchanging worldly affairs only drive us nuts, make us angry, anxious and unhappy.
Detachment is not about shunning away from the responsibilities and duties that come with our birth and withdrawing from the world. It is about seeing and experiencing things as they truly are, without clinging on to anything – neither good nor bad, neither action or inaction, neither desires or desirelessness, neither emotions or emotionlessness – but seeing everything as wonderful, without gauging through our mental perceptions and judgments.
This Buddhist philosophy makes perfect sense, “Renunciation [or detachment] is not getting rid of the things of this world, but accepting that they pass away.” Detachment is absolute freedom from compulsive emotional entanglements and focusing on our higher purpose, doing the right thing that are meaningful, and cultivating the ability to focus fully on whatever we do and letting it go completely once we are out of it. Realize that, it is our desire that hold us back and earthbound and it is the same desire that gives the power for us to fly to the higher space, to be our true self – the Atman, the pure happiness – and shine like a star we truly are.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this… 🙂
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This has really helped me to understand none attachment- I also had the misconception that we had to become emotionless robots to reach enlightenment and that really played a conflict within me. are not psychopaths and those that harm others emotionless without conscience?
I now hopefully understand that it is not about having emotions or experiences that make them arrise but not becoming consumed and controlled by them as that leads to suffering. Not to become attached to them and the material world and to practice this by not hiding away – but being in the midst of the material world performing your duty in intense yet relaxed focus for the shear moment of it being the right thing while not being attached to outcomes whether good or bad.
Knowing I have done my/our best to do the right thing regardless of how difficult it may be free from attachment of consequence is liberating.