Does Detachment Mean Not Caring?

I wrote this article for White Light magazine 23/7/17:

Emotional detachment – or non-attachment – is a concept that is talked about in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism & Taoism & is often misunderstood by many people. It is defined as a state in which a person overcomes his or her attachment or desire for things, people or concepts of the world and thus attains a heightened  perspective. Often people confuse detachment with being uncaring or apathetic – ie. thinking that whatever happens will happen anyway & they are powerless over anything, so why bother? However this is to completely misunderstand the meaning of detachment.

When you practice detachment you don’t look to the things in this world for your happiness, your identity, or your self worth. When you realize that worldly things are impermanent, it is easier to let go of them, to forgive while still retaining an inner happiness, your sense of self worth & a deep regard for yourself & everyone else.

This is not a state of indifference, and does not mean lack of interest or lack of feeling. People who are indifferent do not care about anything, and are usually passive. True detachment is something else. It is an attitude of calmly accepting what is, open-mindedness and practical behaviour.

People who posses detachment can calmly accept the reality of whatever happens. This doesn’t mean that they judge everything as good & positive, they are still aware that there are positive & negative situations, but they accept the reality of what is happening at the time it is happening. The main prerequisite when practicing detachment is that you relinquish the need to have things happen in a certain way or come to a specific outcome before you feel positive emotions. If you accept what life brings you, you can maintain a level of joy, peace & serenity no matter what happens in your life.

A good indication of whether you are successfully practicing detachment is to check if you are experiencing negative emotions such as anger, resentment, jealousy. If so there is a good chance that you are desiring things to be a certain way – you insist things must be this way, & that’s why you’re not happy. However, even if you achieve your desires – a big house or a measure of fame for example – after a while your mind will start desiring more, & you will become discontented again.

We can still experience deep emotional states like love, passion & joy while practicing detachment– in fact the great teachers say you need a high level of intensity & awareness to live life deeply & fully. They say that you need this intensity in order carry out ‘right action’ – because we are required to act with integrity & discernment in this world. Detachment means we accept the good situations and the bad situations equally, because our minds & emotions are in a state of inner balance and peace. If there is something we cannot do or cannot change, it won’t disturb our inner peace. If we are convinced of the importance of a certain action or goal, we will pursue it with all our heart, ignoring distractions easily.

Practising detachment in your relationships will mean you are more likely to have healthy connections with others. This kind of detachment does not mean complete disengagement or lack of caring for others. It’s just less entangled and dependent emotionally. It starts with the realization that no matter how connected the relationship may be, people are still going to make their own choices for their own reasons, & you detach to allow people the freedom & space to be themselves, without always desiring them to be different. The ability to maintain an emotional bond of love, concern and caring while allowing people to be who they “really are” rather than who you “want them to be is essential for a healthy relationship.

With this kind of attitude, people accept both success and failure. If they succeed, that is fine, and if they don’t they will either try again, or forget the matter and move on to something else. Real emotional detachment is a sign of inner strength, and manifests as the ability to function calmly under all circumstances. With this approach, fewer things bother you, your mind stays clear & you are more able to take positive actions that will improve all aspects of your life.

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