The root of suffering is attachment. —Buddha
In Buddhist teaching, being too tightly attached is what makes us struggle. We cling to possessions, people and outcomes because the “ego” has difficulty letting go. In this post, I’ll discuss the value of detachment as it relates to the Buddhist idea of letting go of our egos so we can be free of the problems they cause.
We tend to think of “ego” as synonymous with “arrogance,” but in Buddhism, the term “ego” means “an erroneous concept of the self.” For most of us, this erroneous concept of who we are is built around the way we view past events, many of which are painful or upsetting. Our painful memories can translate into a distorted self-concept that severs our connection to the wisdom within us. This leads us to cling to ideas, people, things and circumstances that destroy our inner peace and leave us stuck on an endless loop of distress and tension.
In a previous post about wisdom, I talked about the importance of being able to hold your thoughts suspect when you’re upset. This principle applies equally well when we’re remembering upsetting events from the past, especially when recalling incidents that left us feeling victimized.
For example, let’s say that someone you highly respect made an unkind remark that needlessly hurt you. When you recall the incident, you’re thrust back into the past, feeling all the embarrassment and outrage as if the event were happening right now. Your mind starts in on its “story” about what happened, how powerless you were, how mean the other person was, and any number of explanations about how and why it happened (which you really have no way of knowing).
Bottom line: every time you remember the event and launch into the storyline, you come out the loser. It’s really painful, but you just can’t seem to let it go (detach) and move on.
But what if instead of reliving your shame or outrage, you take a moment to notice how you feel? And what if you then notice that the amount of energy you’ve invested in feeling wronged has been excessive for quite some time? What if you were then able to take the next step and detach from your old perception of yourself, and let go of that person you imagine from the past?
Granted, this is easier to do with minor emotional triggers. But even if the event was really traumatic, and the memories of it haunt us years later, it is still possible to develop a detached perspective.
Studies in Emotional Processing
Stanley Jack Rachman, professor emeritus at the University of Vancouver, specializes in OCD and PTSD. Through his work as a psychiatrist and researcher, he discovered that people with high levels of anxiety were processing their emotions about traumatic events all the time, but they weren’t making any headway in moving on from what happened. As they reexperienced the traumatic event, over and over again, Rachman realized they weren’t letting any new information in. This locked their emotional processing in a continuous, closed loop, which meant they weren’t gaining any new understanding that would allow them to detach enough to come to terms with what happened to them.
Rachman’s breakthroughs in treating PTSD came through engaging his patients with the trigger, then helping them reprocess what happened in order to see it differently. Rachman’s goal wasn’t to have the patient create a new story about what happened, but to view the events from a more neutral perspective. Reprocessing traumatic events through a more factual, neutral lens helped Rachman’s patients deescalate their emotional reactions to the past and move on from what happened in an empowered way.
Even if we’re not struggling with PTSD, unresolved issues from the past are usually anchored by a narrative we have created about what happened. When similar events occur, we just add them to the story to reinforce its explanation about why we suffer. If we’ve been reliving the narrative for decades, we’ve become attached to it because we confuse it with who we really are, instead of seeing it from the perspective of an “erroneous concept of the self.” And in doing this, we lose connection to the wisdom within.
Rachman’s work shows that we can regain this connection to wisdom. We can resolve past issues by reprocessing those events from a more neutral or detached perspective. This starts with challenging the validity of our “story” about what happened and why.
Detachment requires looking at our perception of what happened with enough objectivity to be able to say, “Here are the facts about what happened. This is what I believe about what happened and what I think it implies about me, others, etc.” From a more detached perspective, we can see that our distorted perceptions create a memory more like an opinion piece than a news article. And once we are wise to this, we can let time work its wonders and loosen the story’s grip because…
That was then. This is now.
Once you’ve unhooked from the story, you’ll be able to encounter painful experiences from a more neutral place. When you get really triggered, it can help to remind yourself that the force of your reaction is tied to your story, not to the wisdom within you.
This won’t become a habit overnight. Learning to successfully connect to our inner wisdom and keep it engaged when we’re under pressure takes work. But with practice, we can reprogram our reactions to emotional triggers. We can access neutrality, objectivity and detachment more often, which will go a long way toward helping us coexist peacefully with really painful things.
I recommend practicing detachment with smaller triggers first. Think of something that makes you a little angry, or maybe slightly frustrated or annoyed. Maybe it’s someone talking loudly on their cell phone or littering.
See if you can identify the story you tell yourself when confronted with this situation. They have absolutely no regard for others! Why does this always happen to me? Now my peaceful walk is ruined again. Notice how the story builds in your head to connect with past experiences and create a more intense emotional reaction.
Then, the next time you’re faced with this minor trigger, practice being conscious of that storyline revving up in your head. Instead of getting dragged off by the story, engage your inner wisdom by trying to view the situation from a more neutral perspective that is free of speculation and judgment. This doesn’t mean you like the situation, or that you’re okay with it. It just means that you aren’t going to let your annoyance escalate. The goal isn’t to come up with a better story that makes excuses for anyone. The goal is to stop retelling the story, and just sit with your emotions from a detached perspective.
Overall, I find that I’m a happier, more peaceful person when I can be neutral about what happened in the past and whatever is triggering me in the present moment. More than that, I can be so much more effective at change-making when I can view the things that are wrong, awful and disturbing as they are. Neutrality gives me the best chance of identifying an appropriate response and keeps me from launching into a reaction that robs me of my inner peace and severs my connection to the wisdom within me.
Try practicing detachment to bring more peace into your life, too.
Take good care : )