Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Detachment, Emotions

A few months ago I attended a silent meditation retreat called a vipassana.  Although there are shorter retreats, the traditional full retreat is 10 days long.  Up at 5am, to bed at 9pm, all vegetarian meals, quiet, solitude, no talking at all for ten days.  No computers, no phones, texting, video games, books, no JOURNALS, no religious items and no vigorous exercise.  And obviously, no drugs or sexual contact (does that even need to be mentioned, at this point?)

The point of these vipassana,  as taught by S.N. Goenka, is of a "mental cleansing".  Yes, participating in ten hours a day of meditating, your brain bucket will tend to purge itself.  Also, there were videotaped lectures every evening, and opportunities to ask the teaching staff questions,  if you made an appointment.  That's the only legal talking that occurred during the retreat.  The crux of the teaching was primarily how we use our own thinking, our own brains to create misery and attachment, depending upon our reactions to events.  And how to control the mind, rather than having it running ramshod with us.

Makes sense.  It's like that saying, "It's not what happens to us, it's our reaction to what happens to us."  But here's the thing I wondered... why did they call it "misery and attachment"?  Why isn't it, misery and bliss?  They explained that when the thing goes away that you have convinced yourself was blissful, then you are back in misery.  So it was just better not to develop attachments to things, people, or events-- at all. Hrm.  Sit with that a second.

I did stay the entire 10 days and I am proud of that.  I didn't do the whole ten days "perfectly" but everyone "does" the vipassana in a way that carries lessons for them.  And as I was warned by one experienced repeat vipassana attendee,  my intuition grew enormously while there.  I'm not sure if it was the lack of talk-distraction, or the wild dreams, the veggie diet, or what - but the "clairs" went bananas from the get-go. That was fun.

And the food was amazing, .. I don't think I have ever eaten that much fruit in the last year, never mind ten days.  It gave me an awareness though, of eating patterns.  After one particularly stressful meditation,  where potent old emotions were surfacing from my grey matter,  I wanted to face-plant into a vat of popcorn, or pasta, something carby,.. because I'd handled stress so many other times in that way.  I've used food to numb out plenty of times.  We were without all the crutches and distractions we normally use.

The first morning of yogurt and granola for breakfast, a molar started aching and trying to give me a reason to skip out on ten days of restrictive solitude. My healing guides and I (been working together for years)  made the toothache go away, and it has not returned in over four months.  The retreat facilitators would say the toothache was the Ego's way of trying to assert control.  In that case, then I guess we won that battle.  The Ego threw a few other snit-fits, and in vipassana style, I observed and recognized the Ego doing it's thing, trying to protect itself.  I believe the true zen masters observe in a detached way, and also have compassion for all the mental machinations that we all go through.   Misery or bliss, detach, detach, detach.  The only meaning an event has, is the meaning we assign it.

However, I never quite got into full agreement with that complete detachment thing.  There are people who work on detachment for an entire lifetime.  I don't mind less misery, but I just couldn't deal with less bliss.  You "Abers" and "Law of Attraction" people know what I am talking about.  We count our blessings, journal what we're grateful for, celebrate the little things and big things. " I found a $5 note, how cool is that!?  A nice man flirted with me, right on!  I had a good hair day.  The boss bought us pizza for lunch.  I caught the last 5 minutes of an amazing sunset.  Isn't that great!? "  We milk the happy stuff for all it's worth, feeling that our good vibes and upbeat attitude attract more of the same.  I couldn't - wouldn't give that up.  It feels awesome when I'm flowing appreciation like that, and yup - things do just seem to snap into place. 

But the other part of it... the misery?  Those days when you just can't seem to dig out of that well?  When big things happen, like the death of a pet, or a car accident.  Granted, we need a little time to appreciate the good in the situation.  (I had twelve great years with that pet.  Or .. I'm so grateful the car accident was only a fender bender. It could have been worse!)   But pretending that I'm not sad or angry .. I'm not sure that is even healthy.  The Law of Attraction people call that "putting a happy face sticker over the empty gas gauge".   Putting a happy face on something that's really hurting is not a solution.  It's not even a bandaid.   Releasing tears, pounding the hell out of a racquetball when I'm angry, sweating it out, .. or writing... sometimes that is the healthiest thing I can do.  Experience the emotions, and then move on.  I feel lighter for it afterwards.

I had an occasion to discuss this emotional conundrum with one of the retreat staff.  The term that is  used for the state of mind they teach us to achieve: equanimous mind.  Balanced, not ruffled by positive or negative events.  So when I asked about .. But what about bliss? What's wrong with milking the positive feelings for all they are worth - the free pizza, the guy that flirted with me, catching a sunset?  His response was "we are not teaching to detach from bliss.  We are teaching that if you get too attached to these events occurring outside of you, then you are basing your feelings on circumstances outside your control.  Because you have no control over the boss buying pizza, the man flirting, the sunset.  You have to make your mind like a still lake. And be serene and equanamous regardless of outside circumstances."

Still doesn't really resonate for me, not totally.  Not that I'm all about drama, I'm not.   But that level of equanimous sounds a wee bit boring!  And in that case, I'll be the first to admit that maybe I am ...  somewhat attached to my emotions. (particularly, the positive ones!)

But I've often wondered if practicing Buddhists and zen masters ever get sick.  There's alot of data that suggests that people who stifle - who don't express their emotions eventually get ill (heart disease, cancer, etc).  But the people who practice detachment, I guess they're in such a zen place that they have no need for the tears or racquetball-pounding?  I don't know.  But I'm sure curious about that.



  1. I also wonder about the 'point' of learning to be quite so detatched from events or circumstances too... like, why would we bother to come here..in physical form, with all this amazing STUFF to play with, & all these amaing people if we weren't planning to utilise it all?
    I mean...the world could look very different if we were all just 'pleasantly detatched' from everything! :)

  2. Thanks Julia. Another artist friend of mine also pointed out that the "contrast' or "flux" of emotions is catalyst for much art, music, ...creation in this world.

    Right after I posted this I read the one word I left out, which was "aversion". I can still hear Goenka saying that in those lectures. "No Attachment. No Aversion"

  3. Hi there. Thanks for commenting so thoughtfully on my blog!

    The whole detachment/aversion/equanimity thing is indeed a conundrum. I don't think the teachings mean that we need to detach from our emotions or from circumstances. It has more to do with being detached from the outcome and exercising the power of letting go in the face of the massive and overwhelming uncertainty of life.

    Detachment allows us to make our wishes, voice our desires, feel our feelings, and then let them go with trust, knowing that things will come together as they will, despite our yearnings and desires.