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Attachment and Detachment

I want to talk about attachment and detachment. These words are commonly used both in Western psychology and in Buddhism, but with very different meaning which has led to a lot of confusion. In Western psychology, attachment means relatedness, the ability to form intimate, loving relationships. Authentic relatedness, or mature attachment is in these terms very difficult to achieve. Our self involvement, narcissistic vulnerabilities and various inner conflicts all lead us to form unhealthy, neurotic attachments in which we use another person to try to meet our own needs, and relieve our particular anxieties, rather than relating to the other person as another whole individual, on a basis of mutuality and respect. Detachment in this schema refers to an individual's giving up on attachment because of an inability to face the vulnerabilities or conflicts relationships entail. The detached person tries to become autonomous, self-sufficient, and to hold on to some inner peace of mind by avoiding entangling relationships. Often these individuals prefer aesthetic, philosophical and religious feelings to the more ordinary and uncontrollable emotions of interpersonal attachments.

Buddhism has nothing against the positive qualities of attachment in this western sense, but traditionally has used the word attachment to refer instead to neurotic clinging and those attempts to control one's inner and outer environment that inevitably backfire and lead to suffering. And Buddhism certainly has recognized the dangers involved in the pathological varieties of detachment. There's an old story that illustrates this point:

Once an old woman, as an act of charity, undertook to support a monk living in a nearby hermitage. The monk was a very austere and seemingly very holy fellow, and needed very little in the way of food clothing or shelter for his support. But after a couple of years, the old woman decided to test the monk. She sent her beautiful daughter out to the hermitage and instructed her to put her arms around his neck and ask, "Mr. Monk do you think I'm beautiful?" Well, the monk just sat there impassively, and after a moment said, "A withered tree doesn't notice the change of seasons." So the beautiful daughter went back to her mother and told her what the monk had said. Whereupon the old lady went out and burnt down his hermitage and drove him away, yelling, I can't believe I've wasted all my hard earned money on a fraud like you!"

This monk was detached in the bad western sense, trying to avoid all feeling, and to retreat into some unchanging state he thought of as pure.

The proper, positive meaning of detachment in Buddhism instead centers on an awareness of impermanence. An old teacher has said that detachment doesn't mean one doesn't care about people or things, just that we understand that they inevitably change and eventually go away. What we "detach" from is our neurotic attempt to make things permanent or to have them go just the way we want for our own selfish motives.

Another common mistake is to think that detachment means we should always just passively accept what's happening. If we're living in a apartment with terrible noisy neighbors, out of control teenagers, barking dogs, and so on, being a good Zen student doesn't mean saying to ourselves,  "Well, I guess I really shouldn't be attached to being able to sleep at night, or to having enough peace and quiet to study..." That isn't spiritual practice, that's just drifting into masochism! Detachment means non-self-centered responsiveness to a situation. Sometimes that will mean enduring unavoidable suffering, but it can also mean taking appropriate action - talk to the neighbors, call the landlord, if you can, move! All it precludes is increasing others suffering in order to minimize your own. Detachment in the proper sense means working through our selfishness so that we can act compassionately, so we can make the genuine attachments that western psychology rightly values.