Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Detached Attachment"

I find it ironic that the technologies that link us to millions of others throughout the world also isolate us. Through the internet, we have vast amounts of information and instant communication at our fingertips. Yet, we are usually alone when we're online. The same is true of Blackberry's, cell phones and PDA's.

I discovered a term for this irony in today's New York Times column by David Brooks. His column praised recently deceased neoconservative Irving Kristol ("Three Cheers for Irving"). Brooks characterized Kristol's stance toward the world as "detached attachment."

Buddhism makes much of "detachment" in the service of meditation. If our minds are too busy with concerns and distractions, it is impossible to achieve the mindfulness needed to meditate.

What I like about "detached attachment" is the attachment part. It's easy to become detached by simply withdrawing from the world and its problems. The greater challenge is to become detached from these problems and still be engaged in dealing with them.

The late family systems psychologist Edwin Friedman said that the key to a well functioning family was to have a "non-anxious presence" as part of it. He said that the key word in this phrase is presence. It's easy to be non-anxious when we're absent; being present and non-anxious is the greater challenge.

What does all of this say about the spiritual life? Detachment and low anxiety are surely marks of someone who is spiritually centered and at peace. Yet, engagement and compassion are also marks of a spiritual life. The key is finding the right relationship between detachment and attachment.

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