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Learning to be Detached

I was recently having a discussion with a good friend of mine. He mentioned that people who have had trauma and have learned to detach to protect themselves would make great Buddhists. They may have spent their lives not attaching to things because things or events had hurt them in the past. A trauma survivor may have learned to “turn off” from arguing or painful situations.

First, let’s forget Buddhism and just talk about healthy detachment, which is what this person meant. Secondly, let’s explore what detachment is and is not. Healthy detachment actually has a lot of attachment in it, it’s just what we are attached to that counts.

A detached person can shield themselves from pain and other things attachment leads to. So isn’t detachment what some of the great traditions are teaching? Shouldn’t we all not care about good and bad and learn to fully detach from the material world, etc.? In actuality, detaching at a certain point can be very detrimental to us. But true healthy detachment isn’t the same as trauma induced detachment. True detachment is involved and aware. We are always somewhere, attached at some level to something, so we need to learn what attachment and detachment are.

Moments arise, and they just keep arising. We are capable of accepting part of what is going on: a conversation, a bus coming at us, snow falling, whatever. A healthy brain functions in a state of deletion. There are always billions of things occurring while the present moment creates itself. So that healthy brain chooses what to attach, or pay attention, to in any moment. The thing is, we don’t only have all that’s actually going on in an objective sense to choose to attach to or be a part of, we also have our thoughts.

We can leave being associated, or attached to this moment and go to an imaginary future, or a remembered past. A dysfunctional brain tends toward not being able to manage these attachments. Someone who has been severely traumatized may have a hard time choosing the things it attaches its brain to in a way that society would deem appropriate.

That said, many people who have been abused may learn the ability to detach from an abusive parent. They use their mind to manage a situation and separate from pain. But detaching from what is is not a blanket good or evolved thing to do. In fact, as necessary as that might be in situations of overwhelm, I’d suggest that it’s much more healthy to stay attached to what is going on, and continually widen our capability to attach to more and more of what is going on.

So if I’m saying we should attach to what’s going on, why is the talk called Learning to be Detached? Because it’s actually the opposite of what a trauma survivor might learn to do. We want to attach to what is, and detach from our own desires, expectations, and delusions. We want to learn to be more and more OK with what is, with this moment.

A healthy happy person is in the moment, meaning attached to what is, they are not however attached to how it’s supposed to be. This talk is not selling blind acceptance, and we should move toward our goals, but it is important to not be consumed by them. Accomplishing goals relies on attachment and discernment. In contrast, an unhealthy detachment is just disconnected. No attachment to things that can hurt us, but no attachment to things that bring joy either. No connection with isness.

So the difference is in what we are attached to. We should try to be aware and attached to what is. If we’re attached to a certain outcome, we’re beginning to detach from what is. If we’re completely disconnected, and not interacting with anything that is, then we’re deeply unhealthy. But in contrast, if we detach from unhealthy attachments, which are usually our own beliefs and agendas, then we are tending toward being more awake.

Show song: Satisfied Mind by Jeff Buckley

Dealing with Death – Ours and Others

We lose loved ones all the time. We hope for an afterlife. The self wants to grow and be powerful and young. It is completely opposed to it’s own extinction. So there is fear and panic around the thought of death for many. In fact, many people can’t even discuss it. But all living things seem to pass away. How do we deal with that?

Today we’re going to talk about death of the body, but also death of the self. We’ll talk about how meditation relates to death, and how putting your life in perspective can be meaningful. We’ll talk about the death of others and how to deal with that. We’ll talk about the desire for an afterlife, and how death really makes everything deeply meaningful. Death is a part of life, so let’s talk about it.

We’ve discussed in the past, that we are not only self. We are also in some way connected to everything. Can that other identity help us deal not only with our own death, but also the death of others, and finally other types of change as well?

All living things die. But we can expand the idea of death from there. Situations die, friends change, we get divorced. All of these things are mini-deaths. We “die” in a different way as well. I am not the same 10 year old boy I once was. That boy is gone forever. So we are all changing. Everything is in a state of change. Death s a kind of change.

Meditation actually teaches us a death of self. We are putting down the ego and just identifying with the big mind. You obviously don’t actually die, and you can retain your “self” as much as you wish, but each time you enter this other mind, you will see it is a death of self in that moment. You will find that this type of practice can change you fundamentally. It can make you more able to deal with change, and hence your own death, and the death of others.

Truly being in the Now is about not thinking about the future. The entire thing is to watch the mind that wants to leave this moment. So in that, the Now becomes much fuller. Our entire attention is on it, and it becomes rich and thick. The understanding of this type of mind leads spiritual leaders to talk about eternity. Many talk about no death, in the death of self. So the temporary idea of you, or your ego, dies in that moment. And what is born is a fuller understanding of timelessness, or eternity.

Pulling away from your life and looking at it on a time line is very helpful and can put your life into a different context. Often we find ourselves just drifting along, but all events are precious, so it can be useful to find that context and check in.

There’s an old saying, or it might have been a viral email that went around way back, about filling a jar with a marble for every year of your life expectancy, and removing one on your birthday. It shows the significance of our lives. That could potentially give a deeper context to your life as well.

The desire for an afterlife comes from the mind that that is unhappy and wants salvation. It also may have been used as a carrot and stick for controlling people. But whether that’s true or not, it is really important to expose the mind that craves a better future, the ultimate of which would be a glorious afterlife.

We think that to stay moral, our culture needs to be held in a “proper space” with the appropriate carrot and stick. Meaning, if I were to take away the idea of living a good life being the thing that gets us into heaven, people might begin to behave poorly because there’s no point in behaving well. The idea of putting down the external carrot and stick scares many people. They immediately image anarchy and insanity ensuing from removing those guidelines. But a sincere morality comes from seeing the beauty that’s here, not a future hoped for beauty.

We need to become OK with who we are, without the hope for a prize. Because fear of not getting the prize does not work as our motivation. Fear based morality will not work. The example of extremists who die to get to heaven also cause great pain and suffering. They want the “prize” too much. Their morality is quite different, but also belief based. Either type of morality doesn’t seem to be working. To be clear, I’m not attacking peoples beliefs necessarily, I’m just saying that the mind that thinks about salvation, or hopes for it, or gets attached to it, is not the healthiest mind. It is ego based, and fear based. Seeing the beauty right in front of us, rather than being controlled by fear will work much better.

Death of others is very hard to deal with. It is very hard to lose a family member or loved one. We are attached to permanence, which doesn’t exist. This is a fault of the egoic mind. While losing things we care about will always be hard, I want to point out that the natural desire for permanence can make dealing with death and change even more difficult. If we realize that nothing is permanent, then we don’t have unrealistic expectations around things like a loved one dying. We need to learn to face non-permanence.

Fear of death and the unknown is enormous. But death makes everything matter. Living forever would take value away from lots of things. You’d be able to take literally forever to master things, so being a master chef as an example would have little meaning. We’d constantly be approaching everyone knowing everything, with no risk because we’d have forever to fix any problems, etc. It would be a very different existence for sure. Certainly different than most people would fantasize. Death is a part of life, and it is something we’ll do well to get more comfortable with.

Show Music: Live At Tonic by Christian McBride

The Gift of Trauma

Trauma is horrible, and we shouldn’t forget that. We all have trauma to one degree or another. We all have “our stuff.”

Trauma has the potential to widen and deepen our experience of pain. Which allows us to have a higher “high.” Imagine someone who hasn’t had much stimulation in either direction, good or bad. Their circumstances are not as wide and as varied to draw from. They have a skinnier history to draw from. So something somewhat “bad” seems potentially horrible – like gas prices going up. Whereas, someone who has lived through a rape, or a major car accident, might not be as affected by social issues. They care, they just have a different historical comparison to weight the situation against.

Trauma also allows us to see that we survived. We went through that stuff and are still here. It didn’t kill us.

This is not to say that we should look for trauma, or inflict it on others. Life brings enough of it on its own.

How does pain and trauma allow for growth? Well, let’s look again at someone who is sheltered. They never get the challenges to test themselves. The Buddha is the iconic representation of this. He left his palace to learn about life and pain. He was unsatisfied with being given everything. You, your kids, and loved ones will be equally unsatisfied. Have you seen wealthy kids at the mall who have everything? Nothing surprises them, nothing thrills them. They are bored. These kids may begin looking for trauma. They won’t know that’s what they are doing, but their boredom has the potential to make them look for thrills. Those thrills, in the form of drugs, etc. can end up giving those kids their share of pain. This is a stereotype used only to make the point that pain and growth is a part of life. We can use pain to stimulate our desire to live differently.

Pleasure and pain are related. In the spectrum of self, pleasure and pain mirror one another. To leave the ego realm of pleasure and pain, it can help to go through enough pain to say “I don’t want to live this way any more.”

It is really important that we process our trauma. We need to begin to work with our pain, and process it fully. We need to feel it, rather than run from it.

Our pain is the substance that we are supposed to traverse to grow. The more of it, the more we want to wake up from it. So as we hate it, from a certain point of view it is a blessing.

We can relax a little with our children and loved ones. We can realize that pain is a part of life, and that we need to allow for some of it to grow. It is often a dis-service to over-protect a child. Pain in general is there to wake you up. It’s asking for you to be present. To drop the valuation of the situation. To open your consciousness. This is how we can begin to kill the ego, or wake up from it.

Trauma can jar us free of the ego. It can re-prioritize our lives. Sadness, fear, and anxiety that is the result of trauma can become so loud that we want to put it down. Without that pain, we might never have woken up. We can become sick of being unhappy. That is a very healthy state to be in.

So how do we want to relate to our trauma? Do we want to be fearful of it, or realize that we’ve been through it, and we’ve beaten it? It’s important that we don’t continue the cycle of abuse. It’s our responsibility to end the cycle of abuse.

Show Music: The Shanghai Restoration Project