Attachment Shapes Our Existence
When I speak to others about the Buddhist concept of detachment, sometimes someone will say, ‘that just sounds like repression to me.’ While I certainly understand the thinking there, I do think there is an important difference between repression and detachment.
First, we need to see what is at the root of both of these concepts: the implication of attachment. In many ways, attachment is at the core of all existence. For what is existence but to be attached to some manifestation of being, or reality. As such, we like attachment. We thrive on it. It helps us to organize our lives and has the capacity to increase our sense of self. Yet, it can also be detrimental.
On a materialistic level, we cherish our ‘things.’ The new car, big house, smart phone. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if we lose one of those objects we often feel like some part of our soul has been ripped out (which is not the case). We cause ourselves and others undue pain over these attachments.
On a more meta-physical level we can become attached to a cycle of pain characterized by patterns of thought and emotion; our insecurity, anxiety, self doubt, anger, sorrow, etc. It seems to me that these patterns are at the root of most action. In learning to detach oneself from such patterns, we begin to break the cycle of pain and re-route the ways in which we operate.
The Difference between Repression and Detachment
So maybe you’re asking, “If I detach myself from my emotions isn’t that just not dealing with them, and repressing?” I think the the answer can be both yes and no. As always it depends on the individual. One can’t just decide to be detached from those things. That most likely will lead to repression. We must go about it very consciously.
Detachment occurs when we look at those feelings and thoughts whether positive or negative, acknowledge their presence, and realize that we can sit with these things without them defining us; meaning that they do not need to inform or instigate unconscious action. Whereas, when we repress something, the attachment remains. The thing just moves out of sight into unconscious territory. Then, it does instigate unconscious behavior. It manifests itself in ways that can be extremely detrimental to our well being.
You are a Boat
Think of a boat floating down a river. You’re the boat. The river is life. Now imagine you put your anchor down in the mud at the bottom, but you forget to bring it up. Your anchor is your mind. The current of the river picks up, and starts moving you, but the anchor is dragging at the bottom. You feel the weight, the resistance but you’ve forgotten about the anchor. Repression is like this. It weighs you down and manifests into resistance and struggle.
Now take a step back. You let your anchor down, but you’re very aware that the anchor (mind) is not separate from you; your are in control. As such, you see and feel the muck at the bottom. You’re aware that part of you is sitting in it, and that’s ok. You spend some time there, examining the mud and how it informs your reality. Then, you pull up anchor and allow the current to take you. You’re still very aware that beneath the moving water there is a layer of mud, but you realize that you don’t need to let it inform your movement all the time. This is detachment. You see all the factors, all of the snares. You allow the muck to be there but you do not let it define you.
Unconscious vs. Conscious Behavior
The bottom line is that repression is unconscious behavior while detachment is conscious. I think there can be a fine line between the two but the results of each are night and day. Even if one wants to detach from something, if that person is not conscious enough, it could in fact become repression.
The important thing to remember is that detachment is not just a decision one makes and that’s it. It is a dynamic, versatile thing that requires one to make the decision again and again. Some issue may crop up. It could be something we thought we had put to rest. If that happens we make the decision to examine so that we may detach again. It doesn’t happen over night. It takes time, effort, patience, openness, and above all, practice. We must practice mindfulness if we are to learn detachment.
Agree? Disagree? I welcome your thoughts!
By Terence Stone
Chief Editor and Founder of Urban Spiritual, I’m a classically trained singer and actor living in New York City, who has performed in the U.S. and Europe. I’m also a writer, traveller, meditator, arts-lover, and well-being enthusiast.