Now Let Go

We all experience loss at some time or another: loss through death, divorce, stock market fluctuations, aging.... A few years ago, I experienced a major triple-whammy. Eventually, that blow brought me back to a concept I had learned almost 20 years prior: the principle of detachment.

I had learned about detachment while studying "Religions of the East" in college. We read of monks who went without food for days and weeks, who swore off sexual pleasure, who endured harsh weather with only their faith to protect them from the elements. I could imagine these thin, serious devotees, casting off material comforts, and dedicating their lives to spiritual pursuits. It was fascinating, and impressive; and apparently it was humanly possible.

Like the Olympics, it was inspiring, but definitely for other people—the people you read about. Not the people you can actually BE. Not me, anyway.

Thus, I dismissed it from my personal path, even though spirituality had gained a fairly elevated place in my life. I enjoyed reading about various kinds of religious practice, and I often attended the Unitarian service on Sunday, followed by a nice champagne brunch, which was also uplifting.

Detachment as a Tool for Success

The time came, though, when detachment was not just an academic subject, and not just a concept for the holier-than-me. It actually came through my training for a career as a Personal Life Coach.

As a new Coach, I was taught by experienced Coaches that I should "detach from the outcome"—the client's outcome. I found this difficult to grasp, although it was coming from credible sources. I wondered if they could be completely wrong on this one point. It sounded irresponsible. At the time, I mistook detachment for indifference.

Soon, through my own client work, I learned the difference. I cared greatly about my clients' well-being and success. So much so that detachment was necessary in order to resist obsessing about their actions and results.

And more than just a tool for self-preservation, detachment was key to offering the best possible service and support. To get attached to a planned outcome was to place myself in the path of my client's success, because now I had my own agenda; I risked pursuing "my" goal to the detriment of my client's ultimate growth, experience and right outcome.

Detachment Gets Personal

I had another lesson in detachment when "my life fell apart." In December 1999, my father died, my marriage broke up, and I had to pack up and leave the home I had poured my heart into. Sure enough—I had been attached to my father, to my marriage, and to my home. And to my identity, which was so wrapped up in everything I was now losing. I had never thought that I ought to resist such attachments. They weren't superficial. They were important!

But, that December and during the months that followed, I had no choice: I learned to live with the losses. I survived and got to know myself better. And—incredibly—I learned to truly love the experience of loss that had taught me so much. Now, I willingly detached from all that had previously defined my life. More profoundly, I detached from the wish to define myself by anything outside of me, or outside of my relationship with God.

True, my love for my father, my hopes for my marriage, and my comfort in my home had never been superficial. But superficiality isn't the point. To be attached isn't to be greedy or materialistic or shallow. Detachment is not a judgmental concept. As a spiritual concept, it asks that I detach from everything I know in this material world, whether that be chocolate or shelter, amusement or safety, success or survival.

Detachment For All

And there was more to learn. In September 2001, after thousands were killed in terrorist attacks, my personal struggle to put the pieces in place was dwarfed by our global experience of horror, grief and uncertainty. I angrily wondered, how are we supposed to believe in creating our own lives, our own happiness, when our most basic expectations can be blasted into bits?

Prior to September 11, my personal losses represented important stepping-stones in my own learning. To give the same interpretation to September 11, with its mass destruction and overwhelming grief, seemed disrespectful—even mocking.

I waited to see if my faith would crumble under the pressure. And I was stunned by the understanding that came to me: Detachment means loosening one's grip on everything—even on life and love.

How can that be good? How can that be spiritual or "godly" or healthy?

Because that's where the peace is, in detaching from the belief that life on earth is the goal in and of itself. That long lives are better than short ones. That loss inescapably equals suffering.

Now, It's Intimate.

A couple months later, I decided to become a volunteer caregiver for hospice. During our training, volunteers were led through an experiential exercise in which we anticipated our own deaths.

We were asked to consider coming to terms with specific losses. We went through the mental motions of saying goodbye to our loved ones—to every single loved one. We thought about abandoning our favorite pastimes and our unmet life goals. We faced losing control of our bodily functions. Seeing pity in the eyes of friends who visit. And we imagined never again seeing those friends who just don't visit anymore.

For many in the group, the way death came was far more dreaded than the death itself. The idea of losing our physical vitality was most troubling: The thought of being unable to brush our own hair. Or having no hair. Vomiting constantly, wearing diapers, and having those diapers changed by loved ones who once saw us as bright and capable.

Does detachment once again solve this problem? Yes, it does.

Because I am not my body. These lessons teach me to detach from my self-identification as the physical ME which is perceived by others. (And once my body is on its own course, I must even detach from any concern about whether those "others" know that I am not my body!)

Relaxing into the Generosity of Detachment

The lessons in detachment have been generous! I've grown from them as they've contributed immeasurably to my pursuit of spiritual light and peace. I love that pursuit more every day. But I don't necessarily look forward to more detaching. Loss is still hard. The word "heartbreaking" comes to mind.

There continue to be things I don't want to let go of—my cats, my family, my profession, my clothes, being able to walk and to see, the embrace of loving arms, my favorite lunch buffet, fresh fruit all year round.

In fact, amidst all that I've gained from learning to detach, there is a growing appreciation for material, mundane experiences. I hold beautiful aspects of my life more closely and fondly than ever before.

The Source of Happiness

And there is no contradiction in this. Detachment is not about forgetting worldly comforts and joys—though this is the concept that seemed so foreign when I first read about the monks. I know now that detachment is about relaxing alongside our joys, instead of clinging to them. The Source of Happiness is not in any of the things that we can simply have (and lose). Rather, the Source of Happiness is also the Source of All Those Things, all those joys, all those blessings.

Detachment is about releasing my grip, and being secure in doing so, as I am held in a warm, loving, generous embrace—enveloped by God's love, which has always been the provider of worldly joys and comforts. And always will be.

I relax into detachment. And by doing so, I know I will always have what I need. And I will usually enjoy what I have.

Detachment relaxes the body and the soul, and leaves room for spiritual awareness, the greatest comfort and joy of all.