The Skill Of Detachment
How I learned to let go of attachment to outcomes, people, places, and things.
I live a life of relative peace. I live a life with few regrets (still working down to zero regrets). I have what I need for today. I live a life without existential worry for my future. I’m not rich. I’m not poor. I work a day job (at least until I figure out how to make a living as a writer). I’m not just happy, I’m content with my life. Wherever I go, I can find something to be grateful for. I err on the side of gratitude. All of that is built on a foundation of detachment from outcomes, people, places, and things.
I wasn’t always like this. For much of my life, I was confused, without a rudder, going around in circles, not knowing how to find peace in my life. Through a series of very positive serendipities and happy coincidences, I have fumbled my way to detachment and therefore, happiness. Walk with me to see how I got here and the very simple principles I used to get here.
Long ago, I clung to outcomes as if the end of the world would happen if I didn’t get what I wanted. I worried if the woman I was courting would return my calls. I worried if I could hold onto a job. I worried if I was going to get what I wanted. I worried if I would ever find someone to love. I worried about money. I worried about possessions. I worried that I might be lonely for the rest of my life. All that worry was tiresome.
But someone was kind enough to tell me that I have zero power over people, places, and things. Someone told me that I have no control over outcomes. Someone told me that I can learn to be still.
It’s true. I have no power over people, places, and things. The things that pass before my eyes, every moment of every day, they’re all a curiosity. It’s not possible to know everything about any single thing. Even the best description we could write about a flower is still incomplete knowledge of the flower. It might be enough to serve us at the moment, but it’s still incomplete knowledge. For no matter how much we know about a thing, anything really, there is still more to know. There is still uncertainty.
People are unpredictable. No matter how much you think you know someone, there is still something you don’t know about them. You can live with someone for 10 or 20 years and with some discernment, you can still discover something new about that other person every single day for the rest of your lives together. My knowledge of the people I know is incomplete. There is always more to know. There are still questions to answer. There is uncertainty.
There are places in my life that only exist in my memories. I have been there before, I think. But when I actually return, I still find something there in that place, that doesn’t match the memory that I held so dear. Something always changes. Something always moves. I always see some little thing that has changed upon my return. So even familiar places have some uncertainty, there is always one thing or another that refuses to stay put.
That uncertainty is evidence of my powerlessness over people, places, and things.
All of that uncertainty leads us to outcomes. Since we have incomplete knowledge about everything and just enough knowledge to get us into trouble, we have no certainty over any outcome. We have only probabilities. We can do the math and determine a level of confidence for our expectations, but there is no certainty about anything. There are too many variables to consider, and most of the variables in our lives are unknown variables. Our capacity for perceiving reality is approximate, not absolute.
Our limited perception of reality is a part of our evolution. Consider a hypothetical encounter between a man and a mountain lion. A human who could see everything going on in the space between him and the lion would become the lion’s lunch. There is just too much information to process. There are lightwaves bouncing around everywhere. There are electrons hopping around everywhere. There are billions of almost massless particles called neutrinos passing through us and through the other side of the earth, all the time. There are at least a million other things going on between the human and the lion beyond fear and salivation, respectively. It is not possible for our hypothetical man to comprehend everything that is going on between himself and the lion and still avoid becoming lunch. So our perception of reality is limited for the purpose of survival.
Once I began to consider just how unaware I was of all that is going on, of how much uncertainty there is in my life, and in my immediate surroundings, I found that I had a choice. I could allow myself to become overwhelmed by it all, or detach from it. I chose to detach from it. I chose to stay sane. I chose to roll the ball to see where the ball goes instead of trying to control the ball. I decided that I could let things roll, see what happens next, and decide what to do next when I crossed that bridge.
So I began to consider a mental exercise I like to call, Set Theory. It works like this. In your mind take a piece of paper and draw the small letter “o”, like a small circle. Inside this circle is everything that you know. Relative to the rest of the area within the piece of paper, this circle is small. Our knowledge is very limited.
Now draw a bigger circle, but not much bigger. Let’s make it something like one radius bigger than the first circle. Inside of the bigger circle of knowledge is everything you know you don’t know. You could probably spend a lifetime enumerating all of the things you know you don’t know, but at least you know there is a ton of stuff you don’t know. You might even feel a bit humbled by the things you don’t know. But don’t dwell on them for too long.
For outside of the second circle, there is no boundary for the things you don’t even know you don’t know. The edges of the paper are not the limit of this set. In this sense, there is no edge or limit to the things you don’t even know you don’t know. Ready for the kicker?
What you want is probably out there, beyond what you know, and what you know you don’t know. Life is like that. Our consciousness has limits. It cannot imagine everything that we could ever want because no matter what we know now, there is still more to know. Our tiny little brains are simply no match for the abundance of the universe.
Faith is distinct from belief. Faith is the reservation of judgment. Faith is the act of keeping the mind open in order to accept new information. Faith is the ultimate act of detachment. Faith is waiting to see what happens next, regardless of the outcome. I am always in a state of faith. I remind myself that, “I don’t know”, so that I’m ready with eyes open, to see what happens next.
I have found that in this state of mind, the state of faith, it is easier to notice the gifts of life. In faith, it is easier to accept things as they are. It is easier to find happiness because my happiness is based on something that I already have. I don’t have to go out and get more. And when I’m in this state of mind, I am receptive to new information. Everything is information.
The things I need to live and to enjoy life are made out of information. When I am in a state of faith, not making predictions, not looking for a specific outcome, but waiting to see, my life becomes easier. My mind stays open, waiting to see what happens next, ready to act on information as it comes. I do what I do, not to make things happen. I do what I do to see what will happen next.
Life is revealed to me. It’s hard to accept life the way it is if I have expectations. If I have expectations, I am not in a state of faith. If I have expectations that aren’t met, I am disappointed, not happy.
I let go of my expectations to remain in faith. I keep my prayers as open-ended as possible so as not to limit the possibilities of my existence by my own words. Even the words I use in my self-talk can limit my perception of reality. The words we use to describe reality are only approximations of reality, they are not reality. I use open-ended self talk to keep my mind open. Detachment is about keeping the mind open.
Once the mind is open, we are ready to receive the gifts of life. A new child is born. We find a new home. We make a new friend. We find something to love about a job we thought we hated. We find a subject we enjoy reading about. We find ourselves, in faithful detachment.