Rethinking detachment

I discovered mysticism when I was 15.

Having grown up with an unhappy home life I immediately saw it as a way to overcome what I thought was generic suffering and struggle in life.

My approach to mysticism was firmly focused on the negative conditions I wished to overcome, with the promise that if I could just get my unenlightened mind out of the way, then everything would be perfect exactly as it was.

But the mystics I was reading didn’t necessarily envisage dysfunctional conditions as the starting point.

Even theologically: samsara, the vale of tears, the fallen human condition…these include all forms of evil and suffering in life, but more specifically they refer to a systematic spiritual condition.

That’s why Buddhists want to be born into conditions that make it easier to achieve enlightenment. It’s hard to focus on enlightenment when you’re fleeing for your life from war or famine.

Detachment

Detachment was supposed to be the starting point, the necessary condition for the vision of God within all and beyond all.

It was our attachment to worldly things, through our desires and aversions, that rendered us blind to the supreme being behind and above it all.

I practiced detachment to counteract the suffering and negative conditions in my everyday life, with the understanding that if I could first find freedom from those bonds, the Way would then assert itself naturally and gently into my experience.

And then everything would be all right.

But my vision of the goal was a purely negative one: freedom from suffering and affliction and constraints. My ideal was limited to a kind of neutral spiritual ease and flow where I’d be freed from troubles but also empty of self and any kind of satisfaction or personal preference.

I’m now recognising that my lack of personal preference and the goal of neutrality and perfection amidst the conditions that had caused suffering and struggle still reflect unhealthy adaptations to unhappy childhood circumstances.

“There’s no point complaining, nothing is going to change, so just accept it.”

Detachment as a spiritual principle is not supposed to affirm the submissiveness or depersonalisation of a child who feels crushed and bullied. Being good at ignoring one’s own feelings is not the kind of strength that spiritual freedom can grow from.

Nonetheless this was my ideal: to become a spiritual non-person, inspired by the Buddhist themes of “no self” and Christian themes of “dying to self”.

Positive thinking

I don’t want to invalidate those themes that used to inspire me, and I don’t think my inspiration was wholly bad or off course. But combining spiritual ideals with personal dysfunction explains why my path didn’t lead where I thought it should.

Embracing the positive thinking/law of attraction material taught by Esther Hicks under the guise of “Abraham” set me on a course that would redeem my past spiritual ideals without prolonging the dysfunctional aspects of submissiveness and depersonalisation. Sorting the wheat from the chaff, not in the teachings of others but in my own foundational beliefs and self-perception.

I was always good at practicing detachment. But detachment is only the first stage in a spiritual rapprochement with the divine.

Where I went wrong in the past was in asking or expecting the divine to do something impossible – make me happy amidst profoundly unhappy conditions. Or more pointedly, to make me happy despite holding beliefs that ran utterly counter to my happiness.

Just as a minor example: if you believe in divine providence, you should not feel anxious about anything let alone material wealth and comfort. Divine providence conflicts with a stingy, fearful mindset about money.

Yet if we think that being a miser is in fact a good and virtuous way to live, then we cannot fully embrace the divine being in our lives.

Spiritual austerity or the abundance of life?

The way I saw it was that God had created everything in perfection, but humanity somehow went wrong.

That wrongness in us was perpetuated through our desires and aversions to the things of life.

But if we could let go of our desires and aversions we would find God waiting for us with a spiritual perfection that transforms everything.

My mistake was in thinking that desires and aversions had no place in the scheme of things other than as a symptom of our fallen nature.

But our preferences – consisting of desires and aversions – are the material of our individual lives.

The detachment required is not supposed to be our final resting place, but is to be practiced as a means of preparing ourselves for a much greater life.

Jesus said “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

But we cannot accept or receive that abundant life unless we are detached from the constraints and limitations of our present existence, where negative beliefs and expectations keep us mired in the same patterns of behaviour and the same familiar experience.

It’s obvious in the Gospels that the people whom Jesus healed strongly desired healing, and their faith was synonymous with the detachment from their prior condition of sickness.

They did not simply detach from the desire for health or the aversion to sickness and limply or dispassionately observe their change in physical condition.

They did not say “Oh, now that I am no longer caught up in my desires and aversions, I notice that I am healthy.”

No, they were joyful and full of appreciation.

Detachment…and then?

So I think the answer is to practice detachment with the faith and expectation that my desires will be fulfilled – practice detachment so as to desire more strongly, detaching not from the things of love and joy that enlighten my life, but from the restrictions, disbelief, and fears that cast a shadow over it.

It is not detachment into emptiness, but detachment into possibility, promise, and therefore faith, hope, and love.

Practicing (un)Happiness

Working on improving my mood these past months has had some results, but in typical melancholic fashion I’ve resisted doing it systematically because I can’t ‘see’ the whole system clearly yet.

Nonetheless I’ve gotten to a point where I can slightly shift what I call my ‘baseline’ mood. My baseline mood is how I feel about life generally when I’m not focusing on any particular topic.

If I pay attention, I can imagine life being “perfect” exactly as it is right now, and how that would feel. Previously my baseline mood has been dominated by a sense that things are far from perfect, that there are many many aspects of my life that need to change before I can be happy.

But this is the kind of conditional happiness that can never be fulfilled. It’s systemic unhappiness, and I’m beginning to see that my automatic behaviour in everyday life keeps the dissatisfaction alive.

If you feel bad, you will more easily find things to focus on that perpetuate bad feelings.

If you feel good, you will more easily find things that perpetuate good feelings; but for now “feeling good” is the exception rather than the rule.

Expecting bad things to happen

Because I’ve been working on feeling that life is “perfect and getting better”, I’ve been more and more aware of the daily habits of thought and attention that contradict this feeling.

This is a good sign, because it means I’m no longer accepting these thoughts so easily. It’s as if I’ve been going along with a current, and now I’m turning in a different direction.

My baseline mood has previously been influenced by the expectation of bad things happening. Not terrible, awful, objectively bad events; more like repeated irritations, nuisances, and unthinking insults from a world that is essentially unsympathetic.

It’s the kind of feeling you might have if your home had been built and designed without any consideration for human habitation or comfort, and when you went to complain you were told “What did you expect?”

It’s the kind of feeling you might have if you went on to discover that this is just how homes are built…that it’s cheaper and easier and more convenient to build them like this, and everyone else accepts it.

They might have doors that don’t shut, windows that don’t open, uneven floors, kitchen benches too low, shower too small, and a thousand other gratuitous insults to basic use, but what did you expect? You would be a fool to expect any better.

That perspective doesn’t feel very good. The implication is that you don’t matter, that no one cares, and that your complaints are entirely invalid.

This is just the way it is, that’s all. Resisting, complaining, or wanting it to be different is a waste of energy at best and a moral failing at worst. Or so you think.

Do I need to add that this makes for a depressing experience of life?

Expecting good things to happen

Lot’s of people try positive thinking, imagining that if they repeat the right words or try to fake feeling good they’ll magically transform their life.

But if you consider my negative worldview as sketched above, you can see that it’s not just about good things or bad things occurring. It’s more about the deeper orientation of reality toward us.

If you think reality has a persistently corrosive effect on your experience then it doesn’t really matter what isolated “good things” happen to you.

“Positive thinking” is not some new power to be wielded against a callous universe; it’s more a realisation of the thoughts and feelings that make the universe seem callous – or compassionate – in the first place.

In every religious system reality itself is oriented toward the good, toward happiness, toward life. Evil, sin, suffering and death are metaphysically subordinate to good, happiness, life – and existence itself.

The idea that existence or reality itself is callous and unfeeling is not true, and the ensuing expectation that bad things will happen is likewise false.

This belief and expectation is instead  a form of resistance or delusion, and it is kept alive in our own minds with repeated efforts and re-iterations.

If we forgot to keep looking for bad things or disappointments, this belief and expectation would grow weak.

But instead we practice it more assiduously than anything in life, continually reasserting that the universe itself insists on your being unhappy.

You can try it for yourself: start looking for good things to appreciate in your life, and see how quickly your thoughts turn to problems, mistakes, fears, and failings.

Some people find it easy to practice correcting themselves at this level. For me – maybe for melancholics generally – it feels better to identify the underlying worldview and look to correcting that, before seeking to change the ensuing habits of thought.

Here my background in religious and spiritual systems helps a lot, because I already know intellectually that existence is fundamentally good. My negative belief can’t reconcile itself with my deeper knowledge…the negative can only persist because I tend not to give it my full attention.

Fun with melancholics

A melancholic idealist will typically have a strong sense of being ‘different’ from the majority of people. Both cholerics and melancholics are supposedly less common than phlegmatics and sanguines, yet while cholerics tend to see themselves as superior to the herd, melancholics are usually more self-effacing – interpreting their own differences as faults or flaws.

A melancholic might wonder why he is not more like others, or how to be more like others; yet the details of the differences are quite complicated.

When I was younger I wondered why I didn’t like going out to pubs and clubs with my friends. For some reason the thought of going to such venues for no clear purpose other than to socialise filled me with a general sense of anxiety and fatigue. I don’t know if my friends understood why I hated to go out – I certainly didn’t understand. But from a melancholic perspective it begins to make sense.

Firstly, melancholics do not react strongly to stimuli, but what reactions they have are very enduring.  What this means in the context of the above example is that I was never particularly excited by the positive aspects of going out drinking. I liked drinking, I liked socialising, but I wasn’t as excited by these prospects as a sanguine or a choleric might be, with their highly reactive temperaments.

And if the positive aspects of going out drinking were not especially salient, the negative aspects were almost overwhelming.  Thanks to the melancholic’s enduring impressions, the thought of going out drinking and socialising would immediately bring to mind a (short) lifetime’s catalog of bad and potentially bad, awkward, and dissatisfying experiences, as if to offer a brief reminder of all the things that might go wrong.

Like the melancholic, phlegmatics do not react strongly to stimuli. However, phlegmatics do not have long-lasting impressions either. A phlegmatic might be happy to go out drinking if everyone else is as well. They won’t be put off by an unending stream of bad memories and cautionary tales.

Secondly, the melancholic’s onslaught of mental warnings, bad memories, and careful catastrophising translates almost immediately into fatigue. It is mentally exhausting to have one’s mind suddenly produce a variety of unwanted scenarios without any obvious solution. This mental exhaustion crushes whatever slim enthusiasm or motivation might have remained, and exacerbates the intensity of whatever worries seem most realistic.

Nonetheless, it is hard to avoid the all-encompassing pressure to go out, relax, have fun, and socialise, even if you are temperamentally unsuited to all of the above. A melancholic may be tempted to conclude that with sufficient effort they too can – and therefore should – take part in these hallowed social conventions.

But any genuinely self-respecting answer ought to take into account the peculiarities of the melancholic temperament. We don’t expect sanguines to enjoy endless hours sitting and reading or just thinking to themselves, nor should we expect ourselves to act dramatically against our temperament for the sake of fitting in.

Perhaps the key point – and one I neglected for years – is that it is fundamentally unreasonable to force yourself to do something that other temperaments do for sheer enjoyment.  What a melancholic really needs is not additional effort but greater motivation – that is, a purpose more motivating than drunken socialising to loud music.

Whatever the circumstance, if the purpose is supposed to be ‘enjoyment’ but it feels more like wearying obligation, then perhaps the problem is that it’s simply not enjoyable enough?

The flip-side of the melancholic’s seemingly unhappy nature is that the ideals which motivate us, the things we really do enjoy, can be ecstatic. It just happens that these ideals and sources of enjoyment are not shared by the loud majority.

In the end, that’s all there is to it. It takes more to motivate us because we want more out of life; not more quantity, but more quality. Not more noise, but a more pure note.  We want to be inspired and moved, and it just happens that mainstream culture and society rarely achieve this.