Sunday, March 21, 2010

Philosophy Cafe: Detachment

On Friday evening, March 19, I participated in a Philosophy Cafe, or Philo Cafe for short, on the topic of detachment at the Hey Coffeehouse in New Orleans. Our discussion of detachment yielded some important insights for me.

First, a word about Philo Cafes. A Philo Cafe is a group of people who meet to discuss a philosophical topic. Members commit to sharing their ideas in an atmosphere of deep, welcoming, respectful listening. Philo Cafes in New Orleans are held at public locations, such as a coffeehouse or a library, and anyone is welcome to drop by and join in. They are usually facilitated by David O'Donaghue, founder of the Lyceum Project, which promotes experiential adult education, usually free or low-cost. (Philo Cafes are free.) You can find more about the Lyceum, David O'Donaghue, Philo Cafes, and other Lyceum events at this website:

Now, for our Philo Cafe of this past Friday on detachment. Here are some of my thoughts as a result of our discussion.

WHAT IS DETACHMENT? Detachment is not withdrawal, it is not indifference, it is not a lack of caring. It is maintaining a healthy separation. To de-tach is to separate. To at-tach is to join, to make one, to enmesh. One can care deeply and yet practice detachment.

To be a good parent, for instance, one must care deeply and yet remain detached. A mother is not her child. A mother must maintain a healthy separation from her child in order to parent the child effectively. An attached mother will not be at peace when her child is fussing; her child's moods become her moods. She cannot effectively calm the child, since she herself becomes one with the child's agitation. A detached mother, on the other hand, will notice that her child is fussing, will care deeply about calming her child, and will maintain her own inner peace as she searches for a way to help the child calm down. The detached mother loves her child deeply and is able to parent well because she remains separate from her child's moods.

The bullet points below show the difference among enmeshment, indifference, and detachment with a loved one - perhaps an adult child, a sister or brother, or a good friend.

  • Enmeshment: I cannot allow a loved one to make her own decisions because I see so clearly what is best for her. I just have to persuade her to take the path that I know is in her best interests. My inner peace is completely destroyed if my loved one does not do what I know is best for her.
  • Indifference: I give up on my loved one. I cease to care what she chooses.
  • Detachment: I offer to explain to my loved one my concerns and observations about her choices, and I honor her freedom to choose her own behavior. If she chooses a path that I see as harmful, I continue to love her. I may feel saddened by her choice, but I don't let it destroy my own inner peace.
I see a fairly simple example of the above in a good friend's experience with her adult son. My friend's son rides his bicycle around New Orleans at night. My friend is concerned that this puts her son in danger. Her son, however, is not going to give up his night-time bicycle riding. My friend has decided to practice detachment. Rather than nag her son or worry incessantly about him (enmeshment), she honors his freedom to ride his bicycle at night, continues to care deeply about him, and retains her own inner peace (detachment).

DETACHMENT FROM FEELINGS, especially "negative" ones. I am enmeshed in my feelings when my feelings become my world. My entire world is then swathed in anger or fear or hopelessness. I can see nothing else. On the other hand, I am detached when I acknowledge my feelings and yet do not let them become my whole world. Or if they have already become my whole world, then I can try to step back enough to acknowledge that fact. Perhaps I can say to myself, Okay, all I can see right now is anger, so I had better withdraw temporarily from this situation until I can be more detached. I am detached when I can experience and acknowledge my feelings and yet choose not to BE my feelings. If I can feel and acknowledge anger, for instance, and yet choose not to embody anger in my behavior but to embody compassion, then I am detached.

THE IDEAL AND THE REAL. In our Philo Cafe discussion, I saw a tension between striving to attain an ideal state of detachment, on the one hand, and on the other, espousing a practice of detachment that forgoes attainment of an ideal. The former seems to focus on "I'm not there yet," while the latter seems to focus on "This is where I am." I find the latter more appealing and accessible.

DETACHMENT FROM DETACHMENT. I think that this is very important. Just as it is said, "Moderation with all things, even with moderation itself," I think we can say, "Detachment with all things, even with detachment itself." Below are some reasons why.

  • Enjoying life. Attachment to being or becoming detached diminishes our enjoyment of life now. Focusing on reaching a full state of detachment emphasizes the ideal, the unattained, the future at the expense of the real, the actual experience, the present moment.
  • Emptying oneself of self. In previous posts on Karen Armstrong, I've discussed what Karen says about the ecstasy of self-emptying. Karen emphasizes that self-emptying NEVER occurs when one is pre-occupied with the self, for instance, when one is constantly examining the self to see how detached one has become. Ecstasy occurs when one steps out of the self and into the joy of the other.
  • Hearing others. When one is overly focused on detachment - and on one's ideas about detachment - it is difficult to hear others. If I "know" the "truth" about detachment, there is no room inside me to welcome your ideas. This defeats the whole purpose of a Philo Cafe, or of any free conversation.
  • Telling oneself the truth. If I am attached to embodying an ideal of detachment, I may be tempted to conceal the truth from myself. It may become important for me to appear detached when I am not. I may try to appear detached from a particular outcome when I am actually resentful about what happened. If I can't admit my resentment even to myself, my resentment will probably emerge in some unexpected way, whereas if I can admit to myself, Okay, I really really cared about this outcome. I am not detached in this instance. I am angry that things didn't go the way I wanted, then I can more readily choose how to behave.
  • Experiencing carnival. Carnival provides a creative container for excess. Every so often, we need carnival. An over-emphasis on detachment precludes carnival.
MY FATHER. Our Philo Cafe discussion helped me to understand my father more deeply. My father was very enmeshed with his feelings of rage. There was no separation between his rage and himself. When events triggered his rage, my father BECAME rage. He EMBODIED rage. He WAS rage. Rage was his world - he could see nothing else. He simply could not separate himself from his feeling of rage. Inevitably, therefore, he acted out his rage because he and his rage were one.

My father's rage was, of course, devastating for my mother, my sisters and brothers, and myself. None of us seemed able to detach from my father's rage, either. My enmeshment with my father's rage took this form: My father's rage is my badness. This is how bad I am - so bad as to cause this terrifying fury of uncontrollable rage. This rage is a picture of my badness - and it's off the charts. I'm completely abnormal - no one else is this shamefully bad. These were my conscious thoughts: My father is enraged at me, and this means I am bad. What I could not consciously admit was that I was enraged at my father for hurting me in this way. I could not admit the torrents of rage stored inside me.

It is helpful to understand my father as enmeshed in - really a slave to - his rage. He had no idea how to separate himself from his rageful feelings. Understanding this helps me to detach from my father's rage. An understanding of attachment and detachment clarifies more concretely that the problem was never me or my imagined badness but my father's enmeshment with his own rage.

In a blog post on August 24, 2009, about the family soul, I speculated that a family may have soul wounds that family members can help to heal. I know that my father's father was also enmeshed with his own rage and that my father often experienced rage from his father. I don't know how far back this rage goes or what caused this family soul wound. Perhaps one reason I am here is to help heal the family soul wound of enmeshment in rage by learning to detach from my own feelings. This means to acknowledge when I feel anger or fear or hopelessness, yet not to be those feelings, but to be and act from a place of compassion - something that my father simply could not do when his rage was triggered.


  1. These are wonderful and deep reflections on detachment. I really appreciate the personal examples.

  2. This reminded me of attending Al-Anon meetings to cope with my mother's alcoholism and addiction to pain pills. It was so hard, but I understood it and tried to do it. Detachment helps us survive. I like your definitions above. The definition of enmeshment was thought provoking too. It is not healthy for many situations.
    Wish I could have attended this session at the cafe!

  3. David and Deborah, thank you so much for your comments. David, I'm looking forward to the next Philo Cafe in April. Deborah, I wish you could be here to attend a Philo Cafe, too!

  4. I am really enjoying this post and finding it helpful. I hope to comment more specifically, once I've processed more of it.