Monday, March 13, 2017

Emotional Detachment

(1)The Four Noble Truths comprise the essence of the Buddha's teaching, a cornerstone of Buddhist ideology(2). They address the innate nature of the world and the human condition. That the cause of suffering(3) is due to attachment, and as such salvation comes through detachment. Many have been enchanted by such a possibility that they have embraced Buddhist teachings to free them from their own ego, the incessant insecurity of an ever-meandering mind, and their self-sabotaging obsessiveness with pertinence.




However, my personal involvement with Buddhism(4) has been an anomalous experiment. Unlike many who suffer from an overly-attached nature, I struggle with a primarily disassociated existence, I naturally detach. I am not troubled by my emotions overpowering me, nor do I feel overly reliant on others. Quite the contrary, too often I find myself lacking an emotional reaction. I too easily find myself returning to the safety of isolationism. I have no issue with the acceptance of death.

“A massive tree whose branches carry fruits & leaves,
with trunks & roots & an abundance of fruits

There the birds find rest.
In that delightful sphere they make their home.
Those seeking shade come to the shade,
those seeking fruit find fruit to eat.
So with the person consummate

in virtue & conviction,humble, sensitive, gentle, delightful, & mild:
To him come those without effluent,
free from passion,
free from aversion,
free from delusion:
the field of merit for the world.
They teach him the Dhamma
that dispels all stress.
And when he understands,
he is freed from effluents, totally unbound.
(5)
There was a period of time when I confused my indifference with a form of enlightenment. I felt that I wasn't fooled by the illusion of a self-absorbed reality. That I had already found myself not tied down or dependent on anything outside of myself.

A cause of this misinterpretation is a translation error. The term attachment in Western culture is predominately directed towards the relation between a person and the world around them: be that other people, objects, or expectations(6). As such, there is significant stress placed on finding “happiness within” or self-sufficiency(8). Therefore, the understanding of Buddhist detachment is confused with self-reliance. In order to properly integrate these ideals, one cannot approach them with preordained demands and expectations(9).

The distinction can be best understood through an example. We all suffer from anxiety and exaggerated uncomfortableness due to fear. Fear of the unknown, of insecurity, of not being in control. A lot of us turn to outside stimulants to manage the fear. We turn to food, to drugs, to sexuality. But we also turn to power or to something to give us an identity and ground us, whether that be nationality, sports team, job position, or even religion. 

One familiar with the idea of detachment will realize the foolish nature of this endeavor. All those "escapes" never really address the fear, they just cover up the pothole with a thin wooden board of mediocre contentment. They therefore decide that the proper and real solution to fear is to battle it internally. That a significant change is when one finds salvation from within. Instead of attending bars and clubs, they start doing yoga and going to meditation classes. They dress themselves up in free flowing clothing, and greet everyone with "Namaste".  

If the Buddha was around and saw this behavior I believe he would ask, "why are you trying to run away from fear?" The reason we run away from fear is because we are afraid of it.(10) Regardless if its an external of internal influence, we are not running towards but running away. Fear can never cure fear. Ego can never cure Ego.

The Buddha’s intention to not have attachments doesn’t simply translate into being an ascetic(11). Not being attached doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions, it means you allow the emotions to be themselves. To observe them without judging them. To truly love oneself and accept what we really are; a deeply delicate and emotional roller-coaster of an organism.
“And this, monks is the noble truth of the origination of dukkha(12): the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.”(13)

Buddhism attempts to tackle our very notion of reality. Many try to prioritize and/or categorize what is important in life in a model similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs(14). Working one’s way through the labyrinth of societies rat race, every turn fervently hoping to reach the goal – self-actualization. That the layers of ego and identity are concealing the true nature of oneself, the super-ego.

Continuing with the Maslow analogy, in his later years, Abraham Maslow amended his model, placing self-transcendence as a motivational step beyond self-actualization(15). The pyramid transforms into a sphere, where the highest actualization of self is the realization of the lack of self. No one can take themselves too seriously anymore, for there is no one to take seriously. To react to reality, is to stop trying to change reality. Even the attempt to “become enlightened” is like mining for pyrite, who is trying to be enlightened?

In Buddhism one does not try to become but to awake(16). The ego is not a wild beast that must be domesticated, it is a venial illusion generated by fear that should be sympathized.



It is through this understanding of the nature of reality that I realized that my lack of attachment was my attachment. I clung onto the notion of aloofness, the sanctity of abstractness. I associated myself with this perception of self, ultimately clinging onto one concept of the ego while disregarding any other. Comically enough, as I work towards detaching myself from my view of detachment, I find myself more connected to the world. My emotions are more accessible and penetrable. The less I try to cling, the more I have to appreciate.  


1.      I am by no means trying to give an official explanation on Buddhism or any of it’s tenants. As in any form of knowledge, greater understanding of a concept redefines it’s core concepts. To such an extent that one looks back at their previous understanding amusingly, indubitably aware of the inaccuracies. I am sharing my current understanding of certain ideas and my experience with them and am very open to hearing critique and corrections.
2.      Different Buddhist traditions emphasize the Truths at varying levels of importance.
3.      Also called Dukkha, see footnote 12.
4.      Primarily within Zen-Buddhism.
5.      Tipitake, Anguttara Nikaya, Fives, Saddha Sutta:
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.038.than.html
6.      As in the attachment theory (Bowlby). This parallels the geo-centric/ego-centric/ceramic(7) model  of the universe that dominates western thinking.
7.      For a further explanation of the ceramic model see ‘Myth and Religion’ by Alan Watts.
8.      The presupposition being that a human being has the potential to be fully autonomous, and absolute self-actualization is when that potential is fully realized. However, our understanding of the human condition, from a biological, chemical, and anthropological perspective is that we are, by very definition, social creatures. We can not exist independent of the world around us. It is not only a misunderstanding of Buddhist ideas, but a lifestyle that is ultimately unattainable.
9.      We approach Eastern Philosophy with an upbringing and confidence in Western ideology, essentially trying to fill in the cracks of a crumbling dogma with an adhesive of whatever we can find that will fit.
10.   “Running away from fear is fear; fighting pain is pain; trying to be brave is being scared.” - Alan Watts
11.  Or the Jewish equivalence – a Porush.
12.  The classic interpretation from the Pali Canon is that Dukkha means suffering, but as referenced in the Dhammapada, “all conditioned things are Dukkha”, suffering isn’t supposed to be taken as a literal definition either.
13.  Tipitaka, Samyutta Nikaya, SN 56: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html
14.   “Maslow's hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization and self-transcendence at the top.”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs
15.  Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification  -Mark E. Koltko-Rivera.
16.  The definition of Buddha is literally ‘The Awakened One’.

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