Emotional Detachment

It took me a long time to discover that I had learned, from early childhood, to be a detached observer. I was the youngest of five children. My family was in constant turmoil. My parents argued all the time. My two older brothers were always fighting. And my mother’s volatile and often violent mood swings continued to keep the family on pins and needles.

So, kids do what kids do. They protect themselves. They go to their rooms. They stay away from the chaos as much as they can. And when they are in the midst of the family tornadoes, they often withdraw into silent observers. They become recorders, television cameras, quiet witnesses. They learn, very early in the game to passively take in what’s happening and not to participate. It is the only recourse they have; it gives them some kind of order and safety in their lives.

Then they become adolescents and adults. They can’t figure out why others tell them they are “too analytical.” They find themselves observing again as they did when they were children. But the observation mode begins to implode when a friend breaks down after his girlfriend tells him the relationship is over.

The first instinct of the grand observer is to look around for the nearest exit.

The other instinct is to click into the detached mode and calculate all the possible solutions for the friend. “Have you thought about an online dating service?” “Why don’t you go on a trip, get away?” “I’ve got a single friend; I think you guys would really hit it off.”

Detachment from the world, according to many of the medieval Catholic ancients, is one of the highest spiritual goals (celibacy, of course, being one of its many forms). If we are detached, we will never become obsessed, we will avoid all unnecessary and, of course, immoral attachments. We will, in a word, be “free.” From the burdens of desire. From the passions of lust, avarice, greed. From the all the excesses that too many blank checks seductively lead us into.

The monastic movement was the brick-and-mortar extension of the philosophy of detachment. Monks would escape into the cloistered religious life in order to discover all the quiet luxuries of silence and transcendence. They would escape the world’s rabble. They would not be tortured by all the gauntlets of sensuality and sin. They would be purified by the “refiner’s fire” of an isolated cell, prayer, meditation, silence, and work. Their souls would be car-wash clean of all imperfections. They would be ready to meet their Maker.

Leave it to the great Western classic thinkers to have discovered stoicism, the tepid secular philosophy of detachment and the even-tempered. No surprises. No drama. No lows. No highs. The arid land of the flatline.

And then there are Buddha and Gandhi, one telling us to pull back from desire, the other to come down a notch on the belt of our material pursuits.

All this psychological squeezing and belt-tightening aptly describe the world of asceticism, the topographies of the dehydrated in some of the extremes of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity.

Detachment, withdrawal, the simmering of our desires, the holding back of our emotions-all of the mandates of physical and psychological austerity that so many of the great spiritual gurus clearly see as the ideal for all of us to follow.

But what about that kid who learned detachment as a child? What about that little girl who, as an adult, suddenly finds herself always trying to fix things for others because then she doesn’t have to look at herself (observers and fixers often have no internal mirrors)? What about that adult male who can analyze your life into all kinds of solutions but has never grieved? What about that adult scientist who trains herself to objectively observe the outside world but has no emotional energy for any kind of self-examination that would make her a compassionate human being? What about the Yoga expert who can do all the exercises and then goes on a sex binge-a detour into another isolationist act (the paradigm of learning physical techniques that will supposedly give you a sense of “well being” is no guarantee that you will necessarily want to live with “others” in the real world or to empathize with their suffering; it may actually increase one’s already overly-massaged narcissism).

If we have trained ourselves to withdraw, to clinically observe, to pursue self-serving physical regimens, to emotionally isolate, to detach, to search for that chronic silence of the undisturbed, then, I believe we may be taking a toxic journey of egotism and not a path of true emotional stability.

Emotional stability requires psychological connections, relationships, interdependency, opening up to ourselves and to others. When I am connected to others and truly open up, I don’t need facts or logic to support my position, nor do I need to escape into a regimen of physical exercise and self-centered acts of well-being. (I am sure I am offending the meditators, the chanters, the physical fitness buffs, and the yoga practitioners, but I believe that many of these activities only increase the possibility of our self-centeredness. The last thing I want to hear if I’m diagnosed with fourth stage cancer is that I “look great.”)

At a recent AA meeting, one of my old regrets finally surfaced. I put it on the table as a ninth-step amends I needed to make to my father.

After his second wife died, my dad experienced an almost complete psychological meltdown. His rage was often out of control, not just because he lost a wife he absolutely adored, but because he had felt abandoned by the family (that’s too long of a story to elaborate on here).

On our trip to Virginia, he began lashing out at the rest of my family for what he saw as their indifference to his loss and his sense of having been abandoned by my siblings. I immediately went into the withdrawal mode, the same kind of detached-observer mode I learned as a kid. I literally shut down and found myself stone-cold, as the old Westerners would say.

My father died about ten years ago. I miss him terribly. It was at the AA meeting that I finally came out of my emotional closet and told on myself that I regretted not opening up to my dad. Here he was wrapped tightly by his grief and rage, while I stepped seamlessly into the forest of the detached adult, the guy who would wait patiently to see him through without any emotional investment of my own. I would be cool. I would be collected. I would be strong. I would be rational. I would use common sense. I would be objective. I would be the dutiful and loyal son.

But inside, I was still the little kid who observed, who took mental notes, who took in the “facts” of my father’s distress but couldn’t feel the dark tones of his anguish. I would “know” what he was feeling, but I would not invest one dime of my own compassion.

At the meeting, I vowed that I would go to my father’s grave in the next couple of weeks and make my amends. I will weep for that one moment on a road to Virginia lost forever.

It remains one of the great paradoxes to me that three of the leading global religions keep hounding us about the need to psychologically pare down while, at the same time, telling us to be more expansive with our compassion.

Osho calls Buddhism, the religion of “removing obstacles,” while Pema Chodron advises us to expand, to breath out our love to others. Gandhi’s life exemplified the need for social justice while, at the same time, his own personal life exhibited an almost passive and fatalistic acceptance of austerity. And the Catholic Church still prides itself on its cloistered monasteries and its support of celibacy, while, at the same time taking pride in reading St Paul’s famous “the-greatest-of-these-is-love” sermon at every Catholic wedding.

However, no religion that I am aware of will ever tell a kid that she has every right, if not an obligation, to rediscover her essential, authentic, and primal self before she was taught to shut down, to be quiet, to be obedient, to listen, to be the passive observer.

When a child learns to withdraw, to retreat, he is taught to shut down, to close the door of his essence, to extinguish the light of his emotions, to stare blankly at reality like a store’s hidden cameras, to pull the shade down on the sun of his expansiveness, to dismantle all the “instincts” of his own beautiful self.

And when that child becomes an adult, she retreats into logic, into control, into loyalty with resentments, into cerebral acts of trying to get everything factually correct and in order.

Hopefully, those children can overcome the psychological traumas of their learned silences by opening up to their own grief and to the sufferings of others without trying to “fix” the world and to put it back into some kind “order.” When that happens, they will “arrive” where they “started/and know the place for the first time,” as the poet says.