Detachment as a tool for Self-Observation

Rishin Chakraborty

Outline

  1. What is self observation?
  2. What is detachment?
    • Is detachment the opposite of attachment?
      -Non-attachment
      -Detachment
    • Is detachment an emotional state?
    • Is it a negative or positive thing?
    • What are the negative connotations of detachment?
  3. How are self observation and detachment related?
  4. What Indian tradition says about self observation and detachment?
  5. Is there a place for self observation and detachment in Western tradition?
    • With reference to Self observation and detachment, is there a similarity between Indian and Western philosophies?
  6. Can Indian Philosophy contribute to the understanding of these concepts?
  7. How can one learn to detach oneself?
  8. Which are the areas where detachment is most effective?
  9. Which are the major Indian scriptures to have referred to detachment?

Self Observation

At a time, when the world is talking about inclusive prosperity, why should we be discussing something that is centered on self? When there is so much to be done for comprehensive growth of mankind, what prompts us to focus on self. Isn’t that a selfish thing to do? Doesn’t that go against the very idea of human evolution? Well, not exactly.

Before even one should start thinking about human evolution, one should consider evolution of self. As, in a pack of apples or in a bunch of grapes, single rotten piece would not qualify the pack or bunch for superior grade, it becomes necessary for every single human being to work towards collective evolution. But this macro evolution would only be possible until there is a conscious effort put for micro evolution. Micro evolution, here, translates to self evolution.

Observing self doesn’t just mean looking within or inward, but it is about being aware of self; to become aware by putting directed attention on oneself and strive for development. Merriam-Webster's dictionary has the word Introspection as a meaning for ‘Self Observation’. One other popular online dictionary defines ‘Self Observation’ as observation of one's own thoughts or emotions. They are correct in their definitions and that is where this discussion starts. As you would have realized, the outline of this discussion is a set of questions that begins with “What is self observation?” And then there is second question and some more follows. The primary goal of this article is to find answers to these questions. And as I come anywhere close to an answer, it opens up vistas for further questions. Like an onion, where there is a whole new onion inside when we peel off the outer layer, there are more questions that appear as answers to these questions.

Every person has an inner world that is largely unknown to them - the hidden world of thoughts, feelings, and inner states. These inner states come from the subconscious - influencing decisions, motivating actions, and shaping the experiences of life. However, they are seldom seen or consciously understood.

Self-observation allows one to see and understand these inner states. It is a natural faculty, common to all people, which can be strengthened and developed with practice.
Using this simple but powerful tool, one can discover the inner workings of the mind and explore the hidden depths of our psychology. One can gain knowledge of self and others, changing the whole way one interacts with life. Self-observation is the foundation of practical inner change, leading to profound peace, understanding and wisdom.

There are many ways of observing self. In this article, we look at “detachment” as one of the ways of self observation. In the following section, we try to understand what is detachment, how is it related to attachment and its various connotations.

Detachment and Attachment

I would have rather liked to put a title such as Detachment vs. Attachment for this section. Etymologically, attachment and detachment are meant to be antonyms; words which are exactly opposite in meaning. So, ‘versus’ makes sense. We will see during the course of our discussion that these are not exactly opposite words from a philosophical point of view.

Leading dictionaries define detachment as:

  • The act or process of disconnecting or detaching; separation.
  • The state of being separate or detached.
  • Indifference to or remoteness from the concerns of others; aloofness
  • Indifference to worldly concerns
  • Absence of prejudice or bias; disinterest

Attachment, whereas, has a totally opposite meaning:

  • The act of attaching or the condition of being attached.
  • Something, such as a tie, band, or fastener that attaches one thing to another.
  • A bond, as of affection or loyalty; fond regard.

Ancient Indian scriptures such as Vedas and Upanishads have talked in great length about detachment. It is one of the main ideas put forward in Bhagavad-Gita. We shall see more of it within the context of these scriptures in the following sections.

In my quest to find a similar term for detachment in ancient Indian languages, I came across Vairāgya. Vairāgya (also spelt as Vairagya) is a Sanskrit term used in ancient Indian philosophy that roughly translates as dispassion, detachment, or renunciation, in particular renunciation from the pains and pleasures in the material world. The Hindu philosophers who advocated vairāgya told their followers that it is a means to achieve moksha (salvation).

Etymologically, Vairāgya is a compound word joining vai meaning "to dry, be dried" + rāga meaning "color, passion, feeling, emotion, interest" (and a range of other usages). This sense of "drying up of the passions" gives vairāgya a general meaning of ascetic disinterest in things that would cause attachment in most people. It is a "dis-passionate" stance on life. An ascetic who has subdued all passions and desires is called a vairāgika.

There is another term nivṛtti. Nivrtti denotes disengagement with worldly conventions. According to Vedantic philosophy, Nivrtti-Marga (the Path of Inward Movement) is the path to self realization through detachment. 

Then there are Sanskrit terms such as nissangtva (meaning detachment) and nihsprha (nispriha, meaning devoid of desire) which carry the essence of detachment.

Now, we know what detachment stands for (at least, etymologically) and its references in ancient Indian texts. Let's find out whether it's a positive thing or there exist some negative connotation to it as well.

In Chapter 12 of the Bhagavad-Gita, Sri Krishna describes the qualities of the ideal bhakta, or devotee. The translation is as follows, as paraphrased by Swami Vivekananda:

“‘He who hates none, who is the friend of all, who is merciful to all, who has nothing of his own, who is free from egoism, who is even-minded in pain and pleasure, who is forbearing, who is always satisfied, who works always in Yoga, whose self has become controlled, whose will is firm, whose mind and intellect are given up unto Me, such a one is My beloved Bhakta. From whom comes no disturbance, who cannot be disturbed by others, who is pure and active, who does not care whether good comes or evil, and never becomes miserable, who has given up all efforts for himself; who is the same in praise or in blame, with a silent, thoughtful mind, blessed with what little comes in his way, homeless, for the whole world is his home, and who is steady in his ideas, such a one is My beloved Bhakta” (emphases added).

Detachment can come in many forms — but clearly, if it is interpreted the wrong way, detachment has the potential to be harmful. In this passage from the Gita, Krishna seems to suggest detachment in the form of three main categories:

  1. Detachment from material goods, as seen by his description of the ideal bhakta as one “who has nothing of his own.” 
  2. Detachment from the fruits of our actions, as seen by the references to the ideal devotee as one who “does not care whether good comes nor evil,” and “is the same in praise and blame.”
  3. Detachment from intense emotional response, as evidenced by his description of the perfect bhakta as one who “is even-minded in pain and pleasure.”

The problem is, when any of these three categories are taken to the extreme, they can lead to destructive questions and conclusions, instead of ones that uplift us. For example –

  1. If the ideal is to detach ourselves completely from material needs, this suggests that material goods are not necessary for life. In this case, why should we keep the attachment to food, or to clothing, or to shelter? This may ultimately lead to the idea that in a sense, the body is also material– why stay attached to it? In other words, why live?
  2. If we should not be attached to the fruits of our actions, it is possible to think that we can also be detached from any purpose behind doing action. For example, why bother doing good work, if it doesn’t really matter what comes from the work that I do?
  3. If intense emotional response is bad, why bother to care?

Contemplating such questions can be destructive; instead, maybe it is better to turn the same questions the other way, and analyze how detachment helps us in life. One way of looking at it would be that detachment is nothing but attachment to something higher — whether that something “higher” is God, or an ideal quality we want to incorporate into our life, or an aspiration we have. This idea has helped me to understand and ward off the sometimes scary aforementioned thoughts.

And with the idea that detachment is something to help us in this life, we can turn those questions into something positive:

  1. Perhaps detachment to material things does mean we should not be attached to this body — but that is because attachment to the body means being attached to something which is transient. This doesn’t mean that we should loathe the body, or the idea of life– maybe it means that we should use this transient body as an instrument to do something higher, whether it is selfless service or any other ideal. In the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, the example is given that we should think of our lives as a maid thinks of her master’s children. When she is in her master’s house, she plays with the children like they are her own, and provides the best care for them. But the second her work is over, she leaves without any sign that she was attached to the children. Maybe this is the way we, too should live our lives– use life as an opportunity to serve others and make the world as good as we can make it, while still knowing that it is all transient, so that we do not get attached to that which isn’t ours.
  2. Working without purpose, is very different from working without attachment. So instead of becoming disillusioned about the purpose and outcome of our work, perhaps it is more important to continue to work for good — while at the same time realizing that working is all that we can do; there is no realistic way to control the results of all of our actions.
  3. This seems to be rather tricky point: “How can we afford not to care?” Psychology says, emotional response is a huge part of what makes us human, and plays a role in how we adapt to social situations and make decisions. Without anyemotions, it is difficult, if not impossible, to survive. The problem lies with excessive emotion. The difficulty just lies in defining where exactly the line between appropriate and excessive emotion is.

The idea that seems to prevail is that detachment does not, by any means, mean that we should detach ourselves from having goals. Rather, we should be completely focused on higher goals, while still being detached enough not to get overly upset by failure, or overly confident from success. In that way, detachment is more like attachment to a higher purpose.

Still, the idea of attachment to people remains unclear — to what extent should we be attached to others? If the goal is to be detached, should householders (and not just saints) renounce their ties to their families and friends in order to be equally attached to everyone? Or is the ideal householder one that doesn’t renounce these ties, but continually uses them as a way towards spiritual progress.

Perhaps the ideal householder is one who, despite being attached to family and friends, is able to love others just as much — and in that way, makes the whole world his own by expanding his definition of family and friends to ultimately include every living creature. Somehow, this is the most appealing idea — the idea that it isn’t wrong to be attached to others, as long as we are making the effort to see the God in everyone (not just in those close to us), with the hopes that eventually we will be good enough to love everyone.

Still, there exist doubts in our mind; is it possible to be detached from our loved ones? Is the ideal practitioner of detachment one who isn’t close to anyone? Or is the ideal practitioner of detachment one who is infinitely attached to everyone?

So, does detachment actually mean renunciation; renouncing all the worldly pleasures?

Krishna teaches Arjuna the way to resolve the dilemma of renunciation and action. Freedom lies, not in the renunciation of the world, but in disciplined action (karmayog). Put concretely, all action is to be both performed without attachment to the fruit of the action (karmafalasang) and dedicated with loving devotion to Krishna. Disciplined action within the context of devotion is essential to the religious life envisioned in the Gita.”
Barbara Stoler Miller, Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita

Coming across these lines in this translation of Bhagavad Gita makes me remember Amartya Sens reference to the same verse in The Argumentative Indian - Krishna’s comment to Arjuna that he must “fare forward” rather than “fare well.” This concept of disinterested action (nishkaam karm) challenges any less-than-completely-enlightened soul. Perhaps this underlies why Miller and Sen both choose to dilate upon the point.

Among most of the communities of this world, the emphasis placed on results is almost absolute. For the forward thinking Hindus, who aspire to become doctors, engineers, consultants, or lawyers, professional aspirations seem to be at odds with this divine religious calling outlined by Krishna. To add, most of our parents, concerned for our welfare, have rather high expectations of the results we put out; many just assume we will employ honest methods to attain these ends, or they do not stress the methods as being of equal importance to the ends. Aside from the basic challenge of disinterested action, such environmental factors make the task even more difficult. In the Adam Smithian world we live in, detaching self-interest from action seems to corrupt one of the foundation stones upon which our society is based.

Should we decide to sacrifice selfish ends, renunciation looks like a better path. By renouncing the material world, we renounce its goods and bads. This culminates in the purging of our souls. Purged souls are clean. By extension, we too are clean. All this is achieved without tackling the paradox of disinterested action and confronting the resolution of the means-ends connection in karmayog. To be sure, this method of purification may be as difficult as or even more so than karmayog. Rejecting love, human connections, pleasures, pain, and attachment require an almost boundless strength of the mind and iron fortitude. There’s a reason why only a very small percentage of Hindu society successfully attains true sannyasi status; the barriers to entry into this “occupation” are extremely high. Perhaps even the sannyasi example is invalid; sannyasis make it their business to teach the general populace how to become aware of God and live virtuously. In doing so, they connect themselves to other human beings and thus do not renounce them completely. Nevertheless, if choosing a goal, the goal of the sannyasi at least seems mildly possible and ultimately successful.

Why then, does Krishna instruct Arjuna otherwise? Why does Arjuna listen to Krishna and help destroy the Kauravas? The answer may lie in the fact that renunciation implies cowardice. By skirting the issue of disinterested action, by not making the effort to extricate means and higher purpose from concrete ends, we fall in the trap of human mediocrity. We choose an easy way out. And as much as Western society and our upbringing ask us to put ourselves and our objectives first, it also teaches us to pursue knowledge wholeheartedly and to contemplate the mysteries and contradictions of life. By pursuing self-improvement through disinterested action, a concept that initially strikes us as at odds with our value system, we stand a greater chance to gain knowledge than we do by rejecting everything.

The insight provided by pursuing disinterested action will outweigh any benefits of renunciation. This method takes a bold stand against a challenge instead of scurrying away from it.

Sri Aurobindo's teachings are also on the similar lines. Traditionally in India, yoga and meditation has been viewed as medium of renunciation but he says that these are not the ways of escaping from life; rather they equip us to be in it.

With reference to Self observation and detachment, is there a similarity between Indian and Western philosophies?

One would be surprised to find striking similarities between the Western and Eastern philosophies. In European mysticism, there are magic formulas which continue to act in perpetually new ways throughout the centuries of the history of ideas. In Greece one such formula was regarded as an oracle of Apollo. It is, “Know thyself.” Such sentences seem to contain an infinite life within them. One meets them in walking the most diverse paths of spiritual life. The more one advances, the more one penetrates to an understanding of all phenomena, the deeper appears the meaning of these formulas.

The aphorism has been attributed to at least six ancient Greek sages:

  • Chilon of Sparta
  • Heraclitus
  • Pythagoras
  • Socrates
  • Solon of Athens
  • Thales of Miletus

Other sources attribute it to Phemonoe, a mythical Greek poetess. In a discussion of moderation and self-awareness, the Roman poet Juvenal quotes the phrase in Greek and states that the precept descended de caelo (from heaven).

Whatever may be the source, in the true theological sense, "Know Thyself" is a fundamental tenet of the question of life's meaning. To truly 'know oneself' in this sense involves a deeply personal, spiritual transformation whereby a person would seek to orient themselves towards understanding their own phenomenological perceptions of reality, so as to gain earnest insight into aspects of one's own existence. Thus the theological sense of "Know Thyself" entails an experiential revolution of spirit in the sense of the Socratic periagoge.

Then there have been people such as George Ivanovich Gurdjieff introduced the idea of what some refer to as "The Work" (connoting work on oneself according to Gurdjieff's principles and instructions). At one point, he described his teaching as "esoteric Christianity"

Gurdjieff claimed that people do not perceive reality, as they are not conscious of themselves, but live in a state of hypnotic "waking sleep". "Man lives his life in sleep, and in sleep he dies." Gurdjieff taught that each person perceived things from a completely subjective perspective. Gurdjieff stated that maleficent events such as wars and so on could not possibly take place if people were more awake. He asserted that people in their typical state function as unconscious automatons, but that a man can wake up and experience life more fully.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Spiritual Laws" has a quotation that reminds us of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita. The quote is:

“I would distinguish what is commonly called choice among men, and which is a partial act, the choice of the hands, of the eyes, of the appetites, and not a whole act of the man. But that, which I call right or goodness, is the choice of my constitution.”

This portrays the same concept as part of Chapter Four of the Bhagavad-Gita:

“You must realize what action is, what wrong action and inaction are as well. The true nature of action is profound, and difficult to fathom. He, who can see inaction in the midst of action, and action in the midst of inaction, is wise and can act in the spirit of yoga.”

This quotation discusses the nature of the Atman as distinct from the body. The actions made by the body are not necessarily the actions of the atman, or the true self. It is interesting to know that Emerson, who was at one point a Unitarian minister, and the Bhagavad-Gita both express, though in very different terms, that the action of the body are not necessarily the actions of one’s true self. It is indeed surprising to find such similar ideas expressed by such different sources.

What Indian tradition says about self observation and detachment?

Vairagya

The concept of Vairāgya is found in Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras, where it along with practice (abhyāsa), is the key to restraint of the modifications of the mind (YS 1.12, "abhyāsa-vairāgyabhyāṁ tannirodhaḥ"). The term vairāgya appears three times in the Bhagavadgītā (6.35, 13.8, 18.52) where it is recommended as a key means for bringing control to the restless mind.

Vairagya is the opposite of Raga (attachment). Vairagya is dispassion. Vairagya is detachment. Vairagya is indifference to sensual enjoyment here and hereafter. A man of Vairagya has no attraction for the material world. So Vairagya is a supreme, inexhaustible wealth for spiritual aspirants. Vairagya aids concentration of mind (Samadhana) and generates burning Mumukshutwa, or strong yearning for Liberation or Emancipation, or Release.

However, lord Krishna says that He is not in favour of extreme asceticism: "Karshayantah sareerastham bhootagramamachetasah, Mam chaivantahsareerastham tanvidhyasuranischayan"- They torture all the elements in the body and Me also who dwells in the body. Lord Buddha also tortured his body in the beginning but later on he found out that there was not much spiritual progress, and then he came to the golden medium, the middle path. So we should go by the middle path always. The body is an instrument for attaining Self-realization. So you should not torture the body. Whatever is needed for the body, you should have.

Sannyasa

Sannyasa, sannyāsa is the order of life of the renouncer within Hindu scheme of āśramas, or life stages. It is considered the topmost and final stage of the varna and ashram systems and is traditionally taken by men at or beyond the age of fifty years old or by young monks who wish to dedicate their entire life towards spiritual pursuits. In this phase of life, the person develops vairāgya, or a state of dispassion and detachment from material life. He renounces all worldly thoughts and desires, and spends the rest of his life in spiritual contemplation. One within the sannyasa order is known as a sannyasi.

Nivrtti-Marga

According to Vedantic philosophy, Nivrtti-Marga (the Path of Inward Movement) of Jñana (Knowledge ~ the irrefutable intuition of universal unity), which leads directly to the perfect realization of one’s own true Self ~ nothing less than becoming one with the Supreme Spirit. And thus it leads to Moksha, the absolute Liberation of the Soul (Atma or Jiva) from all the limitation and sorrow that it apparently suffers in the plane of phenomenal embodied existence.

Vipassana

Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Goutam Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation. Healing, not merely the curing of diseases, but the essential healing of human suffering, is its purpose.

Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.

The scientific laws that operate one's thoughts, feelings, judgments and sensations become clear. Through direct experience, the nature of how one grows or regresses, how one produces suffering or frees oneself from suffering is understood. Life becomes characterized by increased awareness, non-delusion, self-control and peace.

How can one learn to detach oneself?

Many people are unfortunately under the wrong impression that attachment and devotedness is one and the same thing. Attachment is when we are in the finite, when we are attached to the finite. Devotedness is when we devote ourselves to the Infinite and are liberated by the Infinite.

Detachment is misunderstood. We feel that if someone is detached, he is indifferent. Spiritual seekers also make the same mistake in thinking that when we want to show detachment to someone, we must show him utter indifference, to the point of total neglect. This is not true. When we are indifferent to someone, we do nothing for him. We have nothing to do with his joy or sorrow, his achievement or failure. But when we are truly detached, we work for him devotedly and selflessly.

It does not matter if the result is success or failure. If we are not at all attached to the results, we get an immediate expansion of consciousness. If we do not care for the fruit of our action, the Supreme rewards us in the Supreme's own Way.

Lord Krishna said, "Thou has the right to act, but not to the fruits of action." The Upanishads declare, "Action cleaves not to a man." If we work devotedly and selflessly, action does not bind us. There will be no difficulty in working for God's sake if we work without caring about the result. This is true detachment, this is spiritual detachment. When we can renounce the unlit, non aspiring action, we can enter into the divine action which is our real life; and in this real life, there is always perfection and fulfillment. When we pay all attention to the material world and neglect the inner world, we starve the soul in us. The soul has to be brought to the fore. If we think we can get infinite wealth from the material world, then we are totally mistaken.

Yagnavalka, the great Indian sage, had a wife whose name was Maitreyi. Yagnavalka wanted to spend the evening of his life in meditation and contemplation, so he wanted to give away his earthly possessions. He asked Maitreyi if she wanted his riches. She asked, "Will your riches give me immortal life? Of what use to me are the things that cannot make me immortal?”

We need the material world, undoubtedly, but we cannot give all our energy to it. We feed our body three times a day. Unfortunately we do not have time to feed our soul even once a day.

The soul has divinity, eternity, immortality. The soul wants to offer its world to the body. If the body becomes receptive, it will receive all that the soul wants to offer. The body itself will echo and re echo in the life of aspiration and dedication. It will march along as the most humble servitor of the soul. Its existence will be the existence of glory and divinity, divine service and supreme fulfillment.

In his book, The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo analyses and proposes various levels of detachment; what significance these various levels have and how they affect different parts of our being.

Sri Aurobindo says, we can stand back with a certain detachment and observe the workings of the mental Energy in us; but it is still only its process that we see and not any original source of our mental determinations: we can build theories and hypotheses of the process of Mind, but a veil is still there over the inner secret of ourselves, our consciousness, our total nature. It is only when we follow the yogic process of quieting the mind itself that a profounder result of our self-observation becomes possible.

There is a state of being experienced in Yoga in which we become a double consciousness, one on the surface, small, active, ignorant, swayed by thoughts and feelings, grief and joy and all kinds of reactions, the other within calm, vast, equal, observing the surface being with an immovable detachment or indulgence or, it may be, acting upon its agitation to quiet, enlarge, transform it.

One effective way often used to facilitate entry into the inner self is the separation of the Purusha, the conscious being, from the Prakriti, the formulated nature. If one stands back from the mind and its activities so that they fall silent at will or go on as a surface movement of which one is the detached and disinterested witness, it becomes possible eventually to realize oneself as the inner Self of mind, the true and pure mental being, the Purusha; by similarly standing back from the life activities, it is possible to realize oneself as the inner Self of life, the true and pure vital being, the Purusha; there is even a Self of body of which, by standing back from the body and its demands and activities and entering into a silence of the physical consciousness watching the action of its energy, it is possible to become aware, a true and pure physical being, the Purusha.

To conclude this interim report, let me quote a verse from Ashtavakra Gita. King Janaka asked Master Ashtavakra a simple and important question — how can we be happy? And Master Ashtavakra, whose body was bent (vakra) in eight places (ashta delivered a song of a reply, the Ashtavakra Gita.

Simple truths, delivered simply. In verse 11, Master Ashtavakra states –

If one thinks of oneself as free, one is free, and if one thinks of oneself as bound, one is bound. Here this saying is true, “Thinking makes it so.”

Case Studies

  • Child raising or Parenting
  • Jokers character in the movie Dark Knight

Case study 1: Parenting

To become a parent is a joyous feeling and at the same time it can be overwhelming. It can be overwhelming because of the sense of responsibility that is associated with this role. A parent becomes responsible for moulding the life of a new being, for giving character to a soul. This makes the parent’s role nothing less important than that of God.

The types of challenges parents face today were impossible to even contemplate 25 years ago. Taking parenting for granted is unwise, at best. You’ll find well meaning friends and relatives will sometimes offer you outdated advice. The best way to accept it is graciously, and the best way to use it is judiciously.

In this case study, I have tried to consciously practice the concept of detachment while interfacing with my child. I have a two months old daughter.

Idea of detachment in parenting

Even before the baby was born, I was convinced that detachment parenting is the way to go. Just to get an idea of what other Internet users felt about the concept, I googled "detachment parenting". The large set of matched results that Google threw back at me, got me hooked on in front of computer for quite some time, hopping from one website to another. However, the definition and ideas didn't quite match the notion of detachment I had in mind for parenting. They mostly talked about physically detaching the parent from the child. For example, withdrawal of breast feeding, not co-sleeping, preferring nappy pads over plain cloth diapers and many more.

This was not the kind of detachment parenting I was interested in. In their version of detachment parenting, the emphasis was on making the child independent at a very early age. This, no doubt, is a strong motive but the approach adopted to achieve this is distorted in my opinion. My definition of detachment parenting is different. It is the difference between an advisor and a curious observer; where the detached parent plays the role of a curious observer.

As parents, we share a unique relationship with our child. It’s no different than any other relationship we have. We make it complicated but I really have come to understand that all relationships can be peaceful and effortless.

When we detach from an outcome, when we detach from needing someone to behave in a way that makes us feel good, all the relationship puzzle pieces fall into place.

We read quite a bit these days about how we be, do and have anything we want. I believe that, however the starting place can only be from within. How you react is what sets the tone for the relationship for you, not how the other person behaves.

As human beings, we like to judge. Judge people, judge situations, judge outcomes and judge what not. With judgment comes emotional investment. With emotional investment comes lack of objectivity. With lack of objectivity comes judgment. And we become a part of this vicious cycle.

Understanding the concept of accepting, nay, embracing oneself without judgment can be a bit of a stretch for us. The trouble however with not doing that, is that we end up placing unrealistic expectations on our children, set-ups for disappointing us, without even realizing we are doing so. Insidious implications, this parenting stuff.

Here, I try to emphasize that the entire idea is to detach while creating an even stronger connection with the child. Are we talking attachment here? Yes we are. And that's what we have been talking about throughout: detachment is nothing but attachment to something higher — whether that something “higher” is God, or an ideal quality we want to incorporate into our life, or an aspiration we have.

Suggesting the 'detachment' idea to a friend

I have a good friend whose daughter is just a year old. When I started working on this project, I wanted to share the exciting new ideas I was getting on my mind about detachment with everyone. Like how the ancient concept of detachment could be used in modern day situations.

My friend seemed to agree in principal to what I told about application of detachment in parenting. We had a wonderfully stimulating discussion on the subject. And I thought he would implement all those ideas from the very next day. He might have or might not have!

But later when a situation came up, when he had the best chance to apply the concept, he backed. I tried to assess the thing and advise him what was going wrong. But the whole thing backfired when he confessed that practicing detachment is an entirely different ball game than talking attachment. To him detachment seemed to be nothing more than physically detaching from the child.

Observing a close relative

I realized the fact that baby's don't come with instruction manuals. A thing that works absolutely well with one kid may not work at all for another. If one is aware enough, one can work on creating a manual for the baby and I can bet you that this “documentation” job can be a job for the lifetime.

A noted psychologist observes “To a child his or her parents represent the world. He assumes that the way his parents do things is the way things are done.”

In Dr. Martin Seligman’s studies of optimism and pessimism, he found out the same thing: We learn how to explain the world to ourselves from our parents – and more specifically, our mothers.

“This tells us that young children listen to what their primary caretaker (usually the mother) says about causes,” writes Seligman, “and they tend to make this style their own. If the child has an optimistic mother, this is great, but it can be a disaster for the child if the child has a pessimistic mother.”

It would not be wise to blame the pessimistic mother because she learned her pessimism from her own mother.

A couple, who had two little kids, came down to stay with us for a month. The kids were a seven year old boy and a three year old daughter. The boy was learning his way around the world and was quite positive, but the girl looked absolutely confused. The reason was probably the mother.

From a distance, she looked to be a proud mother whose kids, particularly the younger one, were learning things smart and quick. But, up close, she was not what she appeared from that distance. It seemed to me as if she constantly tried and succeeded in finding ways to irritate her three year old daughter. The three year old ended up sadly crying every now and then. Perhaps, the mother had set too high expectations, which the kid was not able to match.

One starts expecting something back from a relationship when one is attached to it. Sometimes these expectations can become overwhelmingly unrealistic. When such unrealistic expectations are not met, frustration begins to build up. On both the sides! The mother gets upset every time the kid fails to meet the so called expectation. And the kid gets demoralized every time she doesn’t meet the expectation; which in turn leads to frustration in the kid.

Detachment from expectations or outcomes could set things straight in such a scenario. It is important for parents to realize that each time a kid fails to meet an expectation, it leaves a dent on her confidence. Before these dents turn irreparable, parents should either mend their ways or wait for a disaster to happen.

When my baby volunteered to be the guinea pig or did she!

With my baby I had the liberty to try out detachment parenting at multiple levels. The results are astounding and in fact, what I was expecting. I applied the idea on various day-to-day activities ranging from holding the infant, to putting her to sleep, to bathe her, to name her, to see her getting vaccinated, to general hygiene, to swimming. Out of all, teaching her swimming was the most liberating experience. In the following sections, I talk about some of them.

The way nurses handle infants

As I stayed with my wife and the new born in hospital after delivery, it was a good experience to watch the nurses handle the baby. It's well understood that that is their job and they are well trained at it. But there seemed to be a factor beyond these over stated facts.

A thought struck me: can we, the parents, handle the new born the way these nurses handle infants. What is that thing that prevents us from doing so? Is it the nursing training that they have undergone and we haven't? Is it the assuring environment of the hospital that we otherwise would not find at our homes? Is it something else? Answers to all these "Is it's" may be yes, but I think our emotions play a major role in this.

We, as parents, are so emotionally attached to the infant that our actions get affected by them. A simple act of changing diapers sometimes could become complex when we do the job with the thought that it's "my child". This is a very heavy thought as it comes with a lot of baggage. Our actions start getting driven by emotional attachment. And perhaps that's the reason why things get so complicated.

So, the question becomes "how do we uncomplicate it". What if we get emotionally detached from the subject, which in this case is the infant. Can things become a little easier? I have tried it and not to my surprise, it did become easy, a lot easy!

I used my stay in the hospital as an opportunity to learn by observing the nurses. I have read somewhere that the best way to learn something is to observe. Some of the things that I found nurses doing absolutely easily were putting a wrap around the baby so snugly, changing diapers, feeding formula food using a small spatula, bathing the baby, among others. The nurses got a little curious when they found me following them to the nursery every time they took the baby out for something. When I told them that I was trying to learn by observing them, their curiosity turned into a delightful surprise. Later, I understood the reason for delight. Indian society, being a male dominated society, in one way or the other expects a lady, be it the newborns mother or mother's mother or just some other lady, to take lead in such activities. Therefore, they were delighted to see a man taking baby steps in the so called women’s world. They were more than happy to teach me some of their trade secrets and let me do things as I learned.

The kid is now a month and a half old. And as a result of what I observed and learned at the hospital, I have been participating in a good deal of baby care activities ever since we got back to home. The one thing I consciously try and do is to keep aside my emotions while carrying out these activities. I know it works because of the family discussions wherein my folks talk about the ease with which I do these stuffs. This, to some extent, captures my idea of detachment parenting.

Bathing infants

Awe it was, when I first saw the nurse bathing the new born. After handling the baby for a while, I knew how delicate she was. It felt as if all her joints were somehow finely kept in place; so fragile. The temperature of water that the nurses used for bath seemed hot by an adult’s standard. I would definitely not pour that hot water over me. For a moment, I thought of asking the nurse "don't you think this hot water could actually leave third degree burns on the infant". But then I let the moment pass by. I took a step back and reflected on my thoughts. Suddenly, I was at ease to watch the nurse dip that little one in a tub full of 'hot' water. I realized that my emotions were trying to overpower the expertise and experience of that skillful nurse. Instead of suspecting their expertise, my focus turned to observing the way she was holding the baby while giving her a bath.

The result: once we got back to home after delivery, it was I who was giving the baby its daily bath. Both my wife and mother-in-law found it increasingly difficult to bathe the baby. In my opinion, they found it difficult not because of their lack of skill but more due to abundant flow of emotions. The fear of hurting the kid would keep them off from such seemingly tough tasks. For me it came a little naturally with trying out what I observed of the nurses combined with emotional detachment.

Parents could have it easy while doing such delicate tasks if they learn to detach from the situation.

Naming the baby

I am not sure about other societies of this world, but to christen a name for the newborn in Indian society is considered a big thing. There is an equally big ceremony to celebrate this occasion. And the person, who suggests or coins a name for the baby, is looked up to with great honor. Parents often try to be the owner of this prestigious honor. Sometimes even close relatives and friends vie for this honor.

The stakes are also quite high - one gets associated with the child, or at least with her name, for lifetime. Every time there is a discussion on the child's name, the name-givers name is bound to be mentioned. But often while doing so, while keeping up to one’s ego, there is a risk of not doing justice to the name itself. Since the goal is to conquer honor, not enough thought is put into practicalities associated with a name such as meaning, ease of pronunciation or whether it can be rhymed with slang words.

In my daughter’s case, I sought suggestion for name from everyone I knew. To do this, the only required thing was to detach from the prestigious honor that is associated with the name-giver. I did it and what I got in return is this beautiful name ‘Saachi’ for my daughter. At least, I believe so! It’s a different story if one day Saachi shouts back at me for choosing this name for her.

Baby throws up

There are many reasons why an infant could throw up. One of the common reasons is over feeding. On one occasion, Saachi threw up while being fed. Rajni, the mother, started panicking. She wanted to know from me, again and again, why babies vomit. I could sense the nervousness in her voice. One reason that could be easily attributed to such panic like situation is the ignorance; the lack of knowledge.

It is understood that building up knowledge requires time and will of the person. But to tackle such situation first hand, detachment could be a useful tool. It is important to detach from the event. One should exercise care to not connect such events with some previous event; they must be dealt in isolation. Problem occurs when we try to draw conclusions from unrelated events. Needless to say that most of the time such conclusions are incorrect. In this particular situation, the first step should have been to take it easy and not panic. It is our relationship with the child that forces us in to panicking. Exercising detachment could help in such situation; at least we would try to find out real cause and not get carried away by our emotions.

It’s burping time!

Burping an infant is a very simple thing. But it is of utmost importance as babies are particularly subject to accumulation of gas in the stomach while feeding, and this can cause considerable agitation and/or discomfort to the child unless it is burped. We knew from the experience of one our acquaintances that their two month old kid had to be hospitalized only because they didn’t do proper burping.

It is good to learn from others experience but not always possible to remember the lessons. On one occasion, we forgot to burp the baby. The baby invariably threw up. My wife got so worked up that she wanted to see a doctor. These are classic situations where detachment could be extremely helpful. Our main motivation to react on such situations comes from the fact that we are dealing with our child. Being detached could have certainly helped her to first understand the cause and then act rationally.

First dress

With the first kid, there comes a lot of other firsts; such as the first smile, the first cry, the first dress, the first toy and so many other firsts. Some of them are quite materialistic and others can only be experienced. Dresses are one such material firsts.

Before the kid was born, I and my wife bought a set of overalls for baby's first 3 months. To our pleasant surprise, the baby grew a little faster than we were expecting. At the turn of 1 month, she outgrew these overalls. We decided to do away with all the stuffs that couldn't be used anymore.

We had a friend whose daughter was just a fortnight younger than ours. The responsibility of sorting the stuffs was on my mother in law. She thought that we should retain the first set of dress, at least, as it was the first thing that we had ever bought for the kid; THE FIRST THING!! She put across her idea before me and I outright rejected it. The score now stood leveled at 1-1. My wife could break the tie. When she was consulted, her response was a complete shocker to me. She decided to give it away with an unseen sense of ease. Perhaps she would have thought that there was no use in attaching emotions with such material stuffs; and it's in fact better if it comes to somebody else’s use. She might not have done it consciously, but to me, this was an act of detachment.

Vaccination

It was the time for first vaccination. Every thing went on rather smoothly till baby started feeling restless at night. Her thighs, where she had been injected, stiffened up. The baby couldn’t sleep that night. She also had some fever. Suggestions started pouring in from all direction; ideas from consulting doctor to administering medicines came in.

I stepped back a little and tried to witness the situation. Our reactions originated from the fact that it was our child. We over-reacted! If it were somebody else’s kid, our reaction would have been totally practical. The idea of detachment is exactly that. While interfacing with our own kid, if only we could think of them as others kid, our handling of the situation can become very rational.

Swimming

In Russia, kids are traditionally taught how to swim when they are infants. The practice must be prevalent in many other countries. I was very fascinated by the idea of an infant knowing how to swim even before she could walk. I did a little bit of research and got hold of few videos and books that taught how to teach swimming to a newborn. I knew that in India there was not much awareness about the concept. It only got reinforced when the pediatrician we consult warned me never to submerse the infant under water till she becomes 5-6 years old. It is not ok to blame the pediatrician; in India there isn’t enough knowledge about infant swimming.

I think that just to attempt such a thing needs some amount of courage. I drew a lot of courage through detachment. The fact that the mother and other family members were so skeptical about the whole idea didn’t make things any easier. But my experience of giving the baby bath proved to be really helpful. I had some idea of handling an infant in water.

The swimming lessons got under way. Every session was teaching a lesson or two to the baby and to me; to the baby it was swimming skills and to me life skills. During the initial sessions, I found out that I was expecting too much from the baby. I expected her to pick up a skill every session. But soon I realized that it was not turning out the way I expected; and that led to some disappointment. I changed my approach; I let her do it at her own pace. Soon I could appreciate the fact that both baby and I were enjoying the sessions.

Using this approach I found that baby was picking up skills rather quickly. Perhaps, this is the magic of letting go.

Case study 2: Jokers character in the movie 'Dark Knight'

The year 2009 saw a blockbuster in the movie "The Dark Knight". Heath Ledger essayed one of the best roles ever for a negative character.

The Joker, created in 1940 at DC Comics, is Batman’s arch nemesis. Different writers have sculpted him in different ways over the years, varying from an offbeat gangster with a penchant for jokes, to a complete (and thereby shallow) madman. But most vivid and most realistic among all of these approaches was Ledger’s thundering portrayal in The Dark Knight.

The stunning realism of Ledger’s performance is what struck me while watching the film. Somehow, the movie makes us believe that such a psychotic man can exist, and that belief gives the movie its chill. That’s why, when the movie heightens to its rhetorical climax, and the Joker delivers a monologue about scheming and chaos, the words bite.

“Do I really look like a man with a plan, Harvey? I don’t have a plan. The mob has plans, the cops have plans. You know what I am, Harvey? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one. I just do things. I’m a wrench in the gears. I hate plans. Yours, theirs, everyone’s. Maroni has plans. Gordon has plans. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I am not a schemer. I show schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.”

The Joker, no doubt, is a repulsive madman. Somehow, though, here I found a glimpse of ascetic truth, about how much “scheming” I do in my daily life. Thinking about the future, thinking about the past — not thinking about the present, instead thinking about what I can get, where I can go, what I can do. The Joker calls himself a “dog,” doing without scheming — acting without hope for profit. He simply acts without a plan and has no attachment to the future, the past, or to anyone or anything in his present. He is, in that sense, a karma yogi.

This film — this scene in particular — was an artistic call to remember how much more effective we can be when we don’t have a plan, like the Taoist aphorism that the unaimed arrow never misses. With every scene where we see the fruits of karma yoga in the Joker’s twisted brilliance, we are reminded about the power of this yogic force of being detached. As Krishna says in the Gita [BG 2:48], “perform your activities giving up attachment.” Certainly, the Joker has his various plots and connivances in the movie, trying to destroy various things and people, but — and this is where Ledger was brilliant — he never comes across as attached to what’s going to happen. Even when Batman’s beating him up, or his truck is knocked over, or something fails to explode, he keeps on doing, without attachment.

That is where the Joker’s mesmerizing power comes from — everyone else in the film is constantly worrying about what’s going to happen, attached to their loved ones and to notions of justice, doing things and praying to God that they work. But Joker trudges on with a few bullets and oil drums, and wreaks havoc on the schemers. He never fails, because he never cares. Of everyone in Gotham City, Joker is the most ascetic. That is why we are drawn to him.

But the thing with Joker is that he has no rules - no solid moral foundation. This leads me to a question - can complete detachment exist when there is no moral framework? To answer this question, we must first distinguish between two types of detachment in this example:

  1. Detachment from the fruits of one’s actions.
  2. Action without a plan, which is equivalent to detachment from purpose (if there exists a purpose, by definition there must exist a goal, and a goal is the most basic plan possible).

Detachment from the fruits of one’s actions is one part of the Indian concept of detachment. As Krishna tells Arjuna:

You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty. (Bhagavad Gita, 2.47)

While this type of detachment typically receives the most attention, it is not enough:

Not by merely abstaining from work can one achieve freedom from reaction, nor by renunciation alone can one attain perfection. (Bhagavad Gita, 3.4)

In fact, Krishna explicitly warns Arjuna against detachment from fruitive action combined with detachment from purpose:

That action which is regulated, without attachment, like or dislike and done without desiring the result is said to be of goodness. But that work which is done in hot pursuit, identified with the material, or again is done with a lot of pressure; that is said to be in the mode of passion. But that work which is after attachment, is destructive, causes distress and has no regard for the consequences or is begun being mistaken about ones own capacity; that is said to be of ignorance. (Bhagavad Gita, 18.23-25)

In other words, detachment in Indian psychology has two components: detachment from fruitive action guided by attachment to purpose. Of course, any attachment to purpose will not do. Purpose must be aligned with duty — that is, dharma:

But with all these activities must without doubt, performing them out of duty, the association with their results be given up; that, o son of Prithâ, is my last and best word on it. (Bhagavad Gita, 18.6)

Therefore, if we define detachment as detachment from fruitive action guided by attachment to duty, I argue that the answer to our original question is a resounding “no”. So in what sense is the Joker attached?

  1. Detachment from fruitive action. I do not think the Joker is detached from the fruits of his actions. Consider his quote “If you are good at something, never do it for free” — this is hardly what we would expect to hear from someone who performs actions without any hope of gain. Even the rhetorical climax is an example of the Joker’s attachment to fruitive action — he gets pleasure out of showing others the futility of their plans.
  2. Detachment from duty. While the Joker is not detached from purpose — he cannot possibly be attached to fruitive action and detached from purpose — purpose and duty are clearly not aligned since his action lacks morality.

But this is attachment to fruitive action guided by detachment from duty — the exact opposite of detachment in Indian philosophy. Therein lies the horror of the Joker’s character: he is truly the ultimate villain.

References

Merriam-Webster's dictionary
Bhagawad Gita
Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
Sri Aurobindo The Life Divine Amartya Sen The argumentative Indian Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras
Ashtavakra Gita Swami Vivekananda Barbara Stoler Miller Adam Smith Juvenal The Greek writers George Ivanovich Gurdjieff Ralph Waldo Emerson Martin Seligman

Psychology says, emotional response is a huge part of what makes us human, and plays a role in how we adapt to social situations and make decisions.