Archive for the 'detachment' Category


February 5, 2016

This post picks up where the last one left off, with the issue of the willingness of students.

I suspect I’ve written about the following idea before, because I vaguely remember writing about my experience, as a babysitter decades ago, of a variation on this idea of endless storytelling — one of the children would ask me endless questions, apparently just to keep me seated at the end of her bed.  She actually fell asleep long before her parents got home and I left to go home to sleep myself, so it didn’t really matter too much.  But in other situations it does.  In those situations it’s not a matter of the storyteller averting her demise by storytelling, but the storyteller becoming drained of her life force through the incessant telling.

An unwilling student can be draining on the teacher.  It doesn’t have to be intentional for the demand for continued attention to be a problem.  The student may be unaware that they really aren’t open to following where the learning leads.

Sometimes the teacher sees the student in an unguarded moment and discovers that the student likes the idea of learning, and likes the idea of learning from particular teachers, but doesn’t actually like what the learning requires or has a negative reaction to the actual teacher who appeared when the student indicated they were ready (as in, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”).  For the type of learning the student indicated they wanted, this kind of reaction contradicts the superficial presentation of readiness.  For example, there are some kinds of spiritual learning in which any resistance, whether in the form of fear or anger or judgmentalness or anything else, will turn the enterprise into a catastrophe.

It is no high crime or misdemeanor not to be ready.  But even the most patient of teachers will be harmed by sticking around in a situation involving an unready student that is basically a dressed-up version of giving a servant a pointless and endless task.  Of course, the teacher could perform the otherwise pointless task as work being done for God, not for the student, and through that approach to the task not be consumed by it.  But part and parcel of situations involving unready students, in my experience, is that the student is claiming that they need more of the teacher’s personal involvement than the teacher’s detached approach offers.

It’s part of teacher’s challenge to maintain their own perspective and not become co-opted into the student’s perspective.  It’s also part of the teacher’s challenge to maintain compassionate detachment.  (It may not always be so obvious that the teacher is doing this second thing if the teacher is also mirroring back difficult behavior the student has engaged in.)  What the student’s challenge is is for the student to figure out — I suspect that doing so is a step towards the student’s actually becoming ready for the learning later on.



There’s (always) something wrong

February 13, 2015

I’ve probably written about this before, but I have been thinking about it recently, in part because of the challenges our weather in the Boston area has been bringing.

The difficulties are real, from finding parking at the supermarket because of the snow piles to water damage in the house from ice dams to delays in transportation and communication and to just being able to get stuff done.

So I try to see these difficulties objectively, and when I find part of my mind wanting to see them as more existentially threatening than they are, I start wondering what lies behind that.

For me, it’s the legacy of the Holocaust as my family of origin seemed to process (or not process) it.  “There is always something terribly wrong, threatening, and dangerous, perhaps it is obvious, perhaps it is lurking in the shadows,” was the message.  I think that fundamental attitude results in that part of me trying to tie any new challenge to existential issues.

I didn’t see things this way until I heard of a similar issue in another context.  It was about families struggling with a member’s alcoholism who are pressured to subscribe to the idea that no one can be happy until the alcoholic is happy.  Something like that.  Anyway, it got me thinking about family habits of mind about how to handle the very real suffering of some members.  Putting everyone in an emotional prison does not seem to be a helpful answer to the suffering or to the needs of the others.

The Holocaust issue in my family included the more obvious factors, but it also included a sense of betrayal, and not just by gentiles.  My dad never got over his sense that the rabbis, at the very least, let down their communities, by not adequately reading the writing on the wall and guiding their congregants to plan and take steps while there was still time.  So I grew up with a sense that it could be around the next corner again, something that we are not prepared for and is an existential threat.

I’ve had many personal losses that came quickly and as a shock to me, that were surprising and devastating on that account as well as in their own right.  Some of them also involved people who in the structure of the situation would be thought to know better but dismissed my concerns.  Ultimately what I took from this is that the universe will guide me through these experiences, I may get dinged up, or worse, but if I open myself to the universe, I get through (and I learn, as a consequence, how to mesh with the universe in a way I probably wouldn’t otherwise).  A lot of it for me is learning compassionate detachment and a lot of it is learning to reframe.

On the reframing front, since I wrote my fairly recent post about lava, it occurred to me that my struggle with feeling slimed by others dumping their stuff on me and my having to process it (kind of like cleaning up somebody else’s mess) could be reframed so that I take such episodes as indications that I am doing my job and things are going well — if water ends up in my “sump hole,” so to speak and my pump is working, maybe this is evidence that things are in order, not that something is amiss.  If I take it that way, that I am just doing my part, and being given opportunities to do so, my resistance diminishes; it has seemed to me that resistance usually is a large part of the problem, even if the underlying situation is painful and unpleasant and I don’t like it in some way.

I don’t see who it serves, even the innocent who have been slaughtered, if the living are paralyzed and miserable, or angry and belligerent, or bitter and ego-centric, or anything else that cuts us off from the universe and each other — I don’t think that can be the response to which we are called.

“I empathize with you”

September 8, 2014

I was trying to get someone I know to understand the difficulty of something I had gone through, and her response was, “I empathize with you.”

Only I was pretty sure she didn’t.  I didn’t challenge her assertion until she repeated it later in the conversation, at which point I said, “Do you really put yourself in my shoes and feel the feelings that I have gone through, feel what it was like to go through what I went through, like an actor putting themselves into a role, or do you just feel bad in reaction to hearing about what I went through?”

She agreed it was the latter, that she felt bad on my behalf.  But she volunteered a step further in her admission.  She said, “I don’t allow myself to go there, to try to feel what another person may be feeling, either I won’t let myself or I can’t actually do it.  I only appraise the situation through my intellect, I don’t feel it in my [gut].”

I thanked her for saying that, it helped me stop trying to get bread at the hardware store, as they say.  (I think the “bread” I was looking for was acknowledgement of a certain kind.)

But it is too bad that it is the case, both for me and, I think, for her, that she doesn’t put herself in another’s shoes emotionally.  For me, because it means she’s like the person who doesn’t feel pain and burns herself without realizing it, only she does it with respect to others, such as me.  For her, because I think it helps to experience somebody else’s pain or joy, for example, not just to understand what they are going through, but also to learn that all states of emotion, even “our own,” are transient.  It helps with learning detachment, I think.



April 24, 2014

I very much appreciated Richard Rohr’s reminder this morning that “Without all the inner voices of resistance and control, it is amazing how much you can get done and not get tired.”  That’s in today’s Daily Meditation.

Gita and I have talked about this, too — couldn’t do it without “letting go” and “turning it over.”

Now, I am perfectly prepared to believe that I could do this better.  I put up resistance (like a kid pushing the spinach to the side of their plate), I fret, I get ahead of myself, I try to get other people to act in a way to prevent a future problem (like trying to get them to correct, before it is filed, a tax return that has mistakes in it).

I think I see two additional issues, in addition to “letting go” and “turning it over,” but, as I said, I am prepared to discover the issue lies with me.

One is volume.

I just end up with too many things on my plate as a result of being open to and able to do caretaking.  The inflow can feel as if it exceeds my processor’s capacity.

The second is society’s (unreasonable) demands.

The two kind of intertwine.

I once heard someone say that she thought of the nursing home in which her mother lived as being like “one big alcoholic.”  She meant that the institution could be as difficult to deal with as a human alcoholic, and with similar patterns of behavior.  I’ve felt similarly about other institutions, including schools, hospitals, social services, the justice system.  Whether it’s damaging behavior by the institution to a loved one or demands from the institution on me (as a caretaker), it can feel as if what I am called upon to do exceeds the amount of energy I can give it without too much damage to myself.

It’s no secret that patients in hospitals and nursing homes who have caretakers of their own weighing in as case managers do better, get better care, etc.

So where to draw the line between detachment and involvement?

It’s not just the wisdom of knowing the difference between what we can change and what we can’t, it’s also putting a boundary on how much of ourselves we can deploy without too much depletion.  Inflow from prayer and meditation certainly helps, but I think outflow can exceed inflow if care is not taken.  On the other hand, there is an instinct or desire to try to prevent or ameliorate suffering of others.  Part of that is wrapped up in trying to avoid pain — something we are encouraged to do by our norms and our survival instinct.  I think there is also a part of helping others in some situations that is from pressure from social norms more directly, regardless of where we think we should be drawing lines and regardless of inner guidance about where to observe boundaries, of what’s ours to do and what’s not.

My sense is that we have with our current social organization shifted around responsibility like a hot potato or like a shell in a game in which something is being hidden beneath one of a number of inverted cups.  Some techniques we seem to me to use to do this include, for example, narrowly defining our piece of the project and expecting others to do more;  littering, on the justification that one little piece won’t hurt;  setting systems up in such a way that requires a person without authority or control to have responsibility.

I don’t know if human free will can “clog up the plumbing” of the system of human interaction and society, or whether it’s the case that any system we devise can work, so long as those who have to use it interface adequately with divine help.  But I admit that sometimes I think we have developed a system that doesn’t work, especially for the long run.

For me, the questions are relevant to the issue of how much better a situation can be expected to go — because I am often hearing from others that things could be better if I just _______.  I have run through a fair number of _______, and I am here to say they do not necessarily work as advertized.  Maybe this is why 12-step programs refrain from advice and why the most general helpful source I found after Willy died was actually Al-Anon, the program for family and friends of alcoholics, although Willy was not a qualifier of mine.

At any rate, I conclude for now that working on my part of the equation, so long as I do it gently, can’t hurt, but that I should also be wary of assuming that optimizing my own part will result in things going better in other ways.

Holding two perspectives

December 29, 2013

Last night my cousin let me know his perspective on my putting a statue of the Buddha in my home.  Not only could I read his words and understand their content, but after I replied to his comment, I could actually see how the statue could look like an idol.

I can’t know whether what I perceived was actually what my cousin sees, but it certainly was a version of seeing the statue as an idol and not seeing the statue as I usually do.

I was reading Father Rohr’s Daily Meditation for today, about holding in tension what we know and what we don’t.

For me, a big lesson and challenge has been to recognize what is my perspective and what is someone else’s, instead of just getting swamped by someone else’s, which I am perfectly capable of doing, just as we are somewhat susceptible to effective sales techniques even when we don’t realize it.  And that’s just it; just as savvy shoppers are aware of advertizing manipulation or sales associates’ techniques, I can become aware of when I am picking up someone else’s perspective.

For me, in my context, what can be difficult is when the other person is completely dismissive of my own point of view, when there is no room in their perspective for mine.  It can happen when I interact with people who hold their atheism strongly, for example, or even with people who judge my family members or my life in strongly negative terms.  It can leave me, in a way, gasping for air; maybe it’s like a guitar player hearing from someone that a guitar is just a wooden box with strings with which they are making noise.

But there is something helpful about this experience.  It shows me how a perspective is just that, a perspective, my own included.  That helps me with detachment and with understanding our world and how we see it.

But with all due respect to feedback from others and from visiting their perspectives, in the end I have to find the view that supports my greatest good, not adopt one that suits somebody else out of people-pleasing or trying to reach some other social goal.

So I go back to seeing my statue as an encouraging reminder of how, while we may go from dust to dust, we also go from enlightenment to enlightenment — we have been enlightened before, we will be so again.  And that is a source of joy, that we can be reborn into that consciousness.  This stream of thought for me gets collapsed into just being thrilled when I see my Buddha statue.  I don’t see it as an idol but as a concrete reminder of an ethereal process in which we each can become a buddha.

I come by my joy not easily, whether that’s intrinsic to me or a result of my experiences.  But when I do encounter joy, the deep, child-like kind, it feels like a blessing.  And part of the ability to encounter it seems to come from having found the perspective that allows me access to it, so I am not in a hurry to give that up in favor of the perspective that allows someone else access to it.  It’s not de gustibus non disputandum est (tastes cannot be argued about) exactly, but that is the phrase that keeps bubbling up in my mind, and I think the concept is something similar.

Stories we tell

December 25, 2013

I was talking to Gita about how sometimes recently I become so aware that something that occurs is just what happens when some energy happens to manifest in a certain way, like what happens when the wind meets a flag or a sail and we see the flag wave or the sail billow.  It’s just stuff that happens, the tail wagging on the dog that we happen to be able to perceive far more easily than we are able to perceive the rest of the dog.

Because so often we instead accord these tail-waggings (greater) significance.  We put them into narratives.  Illness occurred in this person because they ate the wrong foods (did the wrong thing), that person met their soul mate because they networked appropriately (did the right thing), this person found a treasure in their attic because they were industrious (were deserving), that person lost their business because they were not industrious (were not deserving).

This isn’t the “you didn’t build that” issue, it’s the “things happens as the result of long and complicated processes most of which we are not aware of.”

Some of us accord even more significance to things.  We see patterns, we see synchronicity, we see metaphor.  I got clobbered in a class once when I tried, with my best technique I had learned elsewhere, to analyze what the monsters in Cavafy’s poem about Odysseus might represent.  Different styles of literary interpretation or criticism use different techniques or assumptions — I think we accept that.  When we apply different techniques to the interpretation of life events, we sometimes get clobbered, too.  Exhibit A is the  label “conspiracy theorists.”  Some secular rationalists clobber people with religious faith, and vice versa.

But what I’ve observed is this.  Our accepted way of combining events into stories is just that, an accepted way of combining events in stories.  To see this, a person has to view what goes on in this world from “outside” of it.  If people do this in some ways, they fall into distress and dysfunction and we have mental illness.  If people do this in other ways, we have witnessing and detachment — which some people also consider pathological.  But once you go there, you can observe that consensus reality is just a group choice, it isn’t necessary or compelled by anything.  You just have to make sure you can toggle back and forth between consensus reality and witnessing it from without, if you want to be able to continue to navigate in society.

Once a person “bursts the bubble” of consensus reality, then they can see that “stuff happens” not in a fatalistic way, but in an observational way; it is that which happens.  It is that which happens that we are adapted to seeing.  Our attempts to make stories out of what happens that we see is more the aberration, more the foreign intrusion, than the occurrence of something that looks like an outlier, that doesn’t quite fit with our storytelling assumptions.

Maybe a person can get to the point of having a perch from which to perceive the world from the outside without first seeing the world through more intensive patterning.  But it is certainly one way to do it.  And once a person does it, then they can see that not just the intensive patterns are an artifact of perception, but that the more widely accepted patterns of most people are, too.  And then a person can process what happens, as simply what happens.  Gita called that “beginner’s mind.”

I sometimes say that I go to Gita when I need to hear what I don’t want to hear.  This time I could see the category is really “what I need an outsider to observe and relay back to me.”

Sometimes Gita  clarifies for me the name for a concept in a different way.  For example, I was using “unisex” where “androgynous” was the more accurate label for what I was referencing, and she corrected me.  We humans do pick one another’s nits, they just aren’t always material nits.

What I personally got out of what Gita observed back to me is not actually the point of this post, but I will end with it anyway.  For me, what she did was to tell me, in effect, that I had arrived on the outskirts of where I was headed, namely my beginnings but with an “I” aware or conscious in a way that I hadn’t had before.

Roast beef sandwich

November 28, 2013

Jordan looked at me sheepishly this morning and said he had something to apologize to me for.

He had eaten a roast beef sandwich he had bought for me.

He had gone out with friends after class yesterday, and at a restaurant they ate at, had ordered a sandwich for me as take-out.  On his way home, he had stopped at the home of a friend he’s known for ages, who was home on break from college, and he stayed there into the evening.

He got hungry while he was at the friend’s house, and “there wasn’t anything to eat,” which was plausible, not so much because of want but because of what I might call “food issues,” so Jordan ate the sandwich he had with him.

I told him, that despite the fact that he doesn’t agree with my “karmic nonsense,” I was going to tell him how this was actually great news to me in a way;  my nagging issue that some guy “done me wrong” and took from me something that was mine, had been reduced to my child eating a roast beef sandwich because he was hungry — that scenario didn’t bother me, and, he was apologetic about it (not to mention aware of what he had done — and he said he plans to get me another sandwich).  I have a very strong sense that this pattern of feeling wronged by a guy who doesn’t give back, and takes advantage of my having given to him first, is a very old pattern for me, or possibly for someone I have been helping (I do think I help people clean up their old and difficult karma when they get too stuck).  When the pattern reaches an innocuous iteration, it’s like the last ripple of a wave, or the boat getting close enough to the dock that one can step or jump out onto terra firma.

So I am quite happy, in a way, to hear about my missing roast beef sandwich.  I like feedback that progress has been made.  I feel like I have successfully let go of something that was impeding me, finally.  And I am grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving

Letting go

November 13, 2013

I was walking around the res.  The swans were grooming themselves in the morning sunlight, and the combination of their illumination and their mundane task was interesting.

I was thinking about the “woulda, coulda, shouldas” and letting go of the past — past wrongs, done to me or by me, past hurts, past close misses, past calamities that continue to have consequences to this day.  I then thought that regardless, we are in this moment, and figuring out what it calls for.

So all that old stuff in a very real sense doesn’t matter.

But then, too, from that point of view, none of the positive aspects of the past matter either — they don’t matter to any greater extent than past difficulties.  None of it matters.  And that, I was thinking, might be detachment.

Hawk’s gotta eat

October 3, 2013

So there was a smallish hawk in the tree above my compost heap this morning.  I think it was squawking, it might have been a juvenile, it didn’t have a very broadly developed tail.

There were small birds flying around near it, maybe trying to get it to leave or distract it from a nest?  Then I saw a small critter up in the tree, it looked black in the early morning light, and it seemed confused.  It tried climbing different ways in the tree.  I think its movement may have attracted the hawk’s attention, and the hawk went after it and, I think, got it.  I went inside, reminding myself that hawks have to eat.

I also found myself thinking about the Ralph McTell song “Heron Song,” in which he sings about wishing he had the heron’s wings, as a suggestion for how to rewrite the story I linked to in my post last night.  I think the girl needed to grow her own “spiritual wings” in order to get down safely from where she had inadvertently ended up in a spiritual quest gone awry.

Evening out the highs and lows

September 20, 2013

I don’t disagree with the idea that suffering and love, and great suffering and great love, are related.  I read about that in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation.  I agree that great suffering can break open a human heart, and that as a result, that heart can encounter, and access, great love after.  It’s quite a roller coaster.  Lots of drama.

I don’t, though, think that’s a helpful place to rest ourselves for too long, in that stage.  I think we need to even out those highs and lows, through detachment.  I think Buddhists talk about this a lot.  I got cued to this piece (by Pema Chödrön) recently, and I really liked the idea of “no big deal.”  She writes,

This was one of the biggest teachings from my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche: no big deal. I remember one time going to him with what I thought was a very powerful experience from my practice. I was all excited, and as I was telling him about this experience, he had a look. It was a kind of indescribable look, a very open look. You couldn’t call it compassionate or judgmental or anything. And as I was telling him about this, he touched my hand and said, “No . . . big . . . deal.” He wasn’t saying “bad,” and he wasn’t saying “good.” He was saying that these things happen and they can transform your life, but at the same time don’t make too big a deal of them, because that leads to arrogance and pride, or a sense of specialness. On the other hand, making too big a deal about your difficulties takes you in the other direction; it takes you into poverty, self-denigration, and a low opinion of yourself. So meditation helps us cultivate this feeling of no big deal, not as a cynical statement, but as a statement of humor and flexibility. You’ve seen it all, and seeing it all allows you to love it all.

I think it’s what I’m getting at here.