One of the concepts I have struggled to understand over the last few years is that of “detachment” as it sometimes comes up when I’m reading about Eastern religions, like Zen Buddhism or the philosophy behind yoga. Not that I am planning on becoming a Buddhist or going deeper into yoga than is necessary to avoid further back trouble. But these concepts seem so important, and to have permeated popular consciousness so much, that I want to at least understand what it’s about. I know that “detachment” doesn’t really mean that the ideal is to get to a state where we don’t care about anything, but I can’t help having a negative reaction to it. I’m not detached, I’m attached — to my family, my job, my friends, my writing, my home. Why shouldn’t I be? I’ve wondered, over the years, whether this is one of the areas where Eastern and Western religion are fundamentally disparate. Does Christianity call us to attachment, while Buddhism and Hinduism strive for detachment?
Earlier this week, I had the beginnings of a sore throat. I have a lot of allergies in summer, which I’ve pretty much learned to live with, and along with the sneezing and watery eyes I sometimes have a scratchy throat. I realized the other day that I was expending a lot of mental energy trying to figure out whether my scratchy throat was due to a cold or allergies.
Why am I worrying about this? I wondered. Whether it’s caused by allergies or a cold, my throat feels the same — ticklish, but bearable. Why do I care so much what’s causing it?
I knew the answer to that one immediately: If it was a cold, then it was going to get worse. My mental anguish was caused, not by the very minor and manageable tickle in my throat, but by the fear of a possibly worse sore throat in a few days. It was the suffering that I might (theoretically) endure later, and the inconvenience this would cause to my week’s plans, that was worrying me. It was as perfect an illustration as I could hope for of how our fears, our thoughts about the future, create suffering when the reality of the present moment is not, actually, all that bad.
Stay in the moment. That’s all it’s about. I’m starting to get it.
I did have a sore throat for a day or so, but it wasn’t that bad, as long as I just lived with it rather than projecting about how bad it might get. I’m lucky — I’m not a hardcore worrier like many people I know. I feel really sorry for the people who are just haunted and driven by fears of the future, and don’t find it easy to lay those aside and just live in today. It’s a much greater struggle for some people than it is for me, I know. For me it’s mostly a matter of constantly reminding myself: I’m here now. All I have to deal with is what’s happening now — not everything that might possibly happen in the future.
Buddhists say that suffering is caused by fear and desire. OK, I get it about fear, but what’s so bad about desire? Don’t we all want and hope and dream for the future? I know I do.
But I’m starting, very slowly, to learn that emotionally investing in the future — telling yourself, “It’ll all be OK when this happens,” or, “I’ll be happy if that works out,” is the deadly thing.
As it turned out, Emma was the one who came down with a bad cold, maybe even a flu — early this morning, when she crawled into our bed all hot and feverish, complaining of various aches and pains. She’s been a miserable little girl all day, huddled up under a pile of blankets, frequently seeking cuddles with her mom.
I had plans for today. Hopes and dreams, one might even say. Or “visions,” as my mother always put it — I’ve blogged before about I’ve inherited my mom’s tendency to say, “I had visions of us” doing this or that.
Today is the first really warm, sunny weekday we’ve had since school let out. We’ve done a lot of indoor, rainy-day or cold-day activities, and I was so ready for some summer weather. I had “visions” of the kids and I heading off to the pool at Bannerman Park, or up to Manuels River, this afternoon for some much-needed fun in the sun.
When I realized Emma was sick, my first reaction was to feel sorry for her, but my second, quickly following on its heels, was to feel frustrated about the warm, sunny day we weren’t going to enjoy at the pool or the river. My emotional attachment to the way I wanted this day to go was causing me as much suffering as my little girl’s discomfort.
So I made a conscious decision to let go of that vision. Rare as warm sunny days are in a Newfoundland summer, this isn’t going to be the only one. Today I have a sick girl who needs me here at home. While there’s nothing pleasant about her suffering and it is quite real, there is a sort of quiet pleasure, for me, in looking after her, in knowing that she needs me and I can be there for her — and of course in updating my blog and reading Ken Jennings’ Brainiac when she’s napping.
When I let go of my vision of how things should be and ground myself in how they are, the inner struggle stops. Here I am, living this particular day with its own challenges and joys — not the day I hoped to have, or the day I fear might come tomorrow.
Put like that, it sounds a lot like the old “Count your blessings” mantra I was raised on. And while I don’t believe that all religions are fundamentally the same, I do believe some of the same deep truths run through all of them. Though Buddha and the yogis like to talk about detachment, I don’t truly need to go to India to learn about it. It’s all there in the Gospels:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life…? But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Or, as David Bader puts it in Zen Judaism:
“Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated?”