When one hears the word dispassion or detachment, especially in spiritual literature, there is a tendency to think of it as seriousness or coolness or unconcernedness or a lack of interest or a lack of involvement, but it is not really about that.
When I was young, having the Buddha as an idol (or at least my idea of the Buddha), that was one of my ideals: being cool, not touched by the world, almost indifferent.
But I was definitely never like that, quite the opposite. I’ve always been quite emotional and attached to things, very moved by things. So I always thought I was not spiritual enough, that I wasn’t doing very well, and I kept trying to toughen up, to look more detached, to be cooler… but I was really never able to do that.
As time went by, I started to understand that detachment or dispassion has nothing to do with this coolness toward the world, but what it really means is that deep inside one understands that what happens at any moment is not under one’s control; one understands that one can – and should – do things in the world, but that the result of that doing is not in one’s hands, that there are so many laws, so many aspects, so many forces coming together to create anything… In some older notes here and here, I go into more detail about who or what is actually in charge.
If one deeply understands that what happens at any moment is not in one hands but in the hands of ‘Life’, detachment follows naturally: there is a dispassion to what we’re doing, to our life, to the people around us, to ourself, to our body.
Of course, a lot of what we do is up to us: we have to make efforts, we have to study, we have to work, we have to make decisions, but in the end – and this is the most important – the result of our work, of our decisions, of our efforts are not up to us.
It is the thought that everything depends on me, that I am responsible for everything, that puts me at the center of the universe, that makes me responsible for what happens.
Of course there is a truth to it, because I can’t just close my eyes and wait for life to happen, for money to rain or for love to come. I have to do many things, continuously. For example, committing to healthy eating is something I can do to be more healthy, to take care of myself.
But the end result of this thought/desire/commitment – “I want to be healthy” – is not up to me. We may have a good diet, exercise habitually, taking good care of ourselves (and we have to do this, it is our duty, our responsibility), but in the end, if we are healthy or not, is not up to us. Me for example, I have always been a very healthy person, but some years ago, out of the blue, I had a thrombosis on my spine that left half my body paralyzed. I did a huge amount of tests and all the doctors could tell me was that I was a very healthy person and they couldn’t find a reason for what happened. And they also told me that I would remain paralyzed. Two months later, I came back to the doctor walking (not perfectly, but walking) and he looked at me and said: “It’s not possible”.
There was no reason why I got sick and no reason why I got better. (Of course there was a reason, there is always a reason, this is a reasonable world; the thing is that the reason of more than 95% of the things in the world are out of reach of my reasonable mind). What happened was for me a very clear confirmation of what I already knew: what happens is not up to me. Of course, it was up to me to continue rehabilitation, to take care of myself… but as I was doing all these things, I was aware that I’m not the boss of my life. There is something much bigger deciding the course of life, and LIVING our everyday life with that understanding is what I call dispassion or detachment.
Dispassion and detachment bring freedom: the freedom of knowing that I am not in charge. To have all the responsibilities on my shoulders, not only is it not true, but it also gives a lot of tension, a lot of pressure, a lot of unnecessary suffering. But if I understand that what happens is not up to me, then there is freedom, there is truth, and there is the power to act without being afraid. If I really think that everything depends on me, I’m always afraid, concerned, worried. But If I know that in the end it’s not up to me, then I act, I do the best I can, and then, depending on the results, I keep going and I keep doing what I have to do, just moving in this world with my deep conviction: it’s not my world, it has been borrowed to me and I am playing my part in it. I can, and should do everything that can be done at any particular moment, but the shape that these efforts may take is not up to me. I do what I have to do and I allow life to do what it has to do… It is a good deal, and I am greatful that it is so.