Death To Detachment

I love mental health. Not that I have had that much experience with it personally … but theoretically speaking, I’m a fan. The study and industry of mental health captivates me, and I have a (sick) fascination with reading about other people’s issues. Maybe it reassures me that I’m not the only nut in the fruitcake. It’s intriguing to read the theories of behaviorists and psychoanalysts and cognitive therapists and gestalts – especially when accompanied by case studies. (Although I am not terribly familiar on a personal level with mental health, I’m intimately acquainted with ongoing therapy. One of my deep-seated fears is that one day I’ll be reading one of the case studies I enjoy so much, and I’ll think, Wow, that girl’s crazier than a bag of hammers. Hey! Wait a minute … that’s me!” Right now I’m exploring whether this fear is real, or if it is actually a wish in disguise, since I’m just egomaniacal enough to believe that my issues should be fascinating to everyone. Did I mention I’m not personally familiar with mental health?)

Although there is not an overabundance of harmony to be found in the approaches of different schools of psychology to achieving mental health (Behaviorists: “Change your behavior!” Cognitive therapists: “Change your thoughts about your behavior!”), there seems to be consensus on at least one thing: most would agree that balance is a key ingredient. And I agree, at least to a certain extent. (I’ll allow that the fact I’m not sold out to this notion may be a contributor to my limited personal experience with mental health. Maybe.)

Here’s my beef with balance: I think our current ideas about it are the worst of the East and the worst of the West, all stirred up into a tasty batch of bunk. By the worst of the East, I mean the Buddhist idea that a prerequisite for balance is detachment. Many Eastern religious systems – Buddhism chiefly among them – say that “reality” as we know it is an illusion, and the way to be truly happy (mental health) is to transcend it. This is done through the process of detachment. Forthe Buddhists – and I know you’re out there – a word of warning: this is super over-simplified. Space does not permit me to give a full-length treatise on Buddhist practice. Give me some grace, okay?

Buddhist methods for achieving detachment include meditation on conundrums called koans, such as “Bring me the essence of flower,” or “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The idea, in my experience, is that an undoable task or an unanswerable question demonstrates the unreality of reality, making it easier to detach from “reality” – which isn’t real, anyway. This (ideally) leads to complete detachment, which could be characterized by one’s ability to view one’s circumstances from different distances and perspectives, judging objectively what should be done … all the while knowing that neither the circumstances nor one’s participation in them are anywhere close to real.

My problem here is that it’s totally opposite from what I see in Jesus. Now here is a guy who is clearly NOT detached. He’s angry, he’s overjoyed, he’s disappointed, he’s spontaneous, he’s delighted, he’s frustrated, he’s fiery, he’s gentle, he’s grief-stricken, he’s partying. Intense, compassionate, energetic, exhausted and surprise, not detached.

And that’s not to say he didn’t meditate. But after spending a few hours in the presence of his Father, Jesus was right back in the trenches, affecting people … and allowing them to affect him.

Which leads me to the other side of the coin: the “worst of the West” part of my argument. In the West, we’re so obsessed with individual success and self-sufficiency, that the Eastern ideas about balance and detachment are pretty attractive, purely for selfish reasons. We prefer to affect people without having to open ourselves to being affected in return. There’s a pervasive idea that we could do more, be more, and attain more if only we were unencumbered by all the messiness that other people bring into our lives. If only I could transcend the upheaval of entanglements! If only I could detach myself from the results – good or bad – of relationships! If only I could always make objective decisions, never get hurt, and forever escape the inconvenience of all the other people in this illusion called reality! Then I could truly be a success.

Once again, this could not be further from Jesus. His actions over and over indicate he placed the highest premium on people … emotionally fragmented, spiritually bankrupt, physically disabled, sexually ruined, or mentally deranged – the more healing and forgiveness required, the better. Jesus considered intimate relationships with messy, imperfect people the hallmark of true success. And more than that, it’s obvious these relationships deeply affected him. Those closest to him were the primary source of the emotional highs and lows I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago. It’s impossible to love and be loved the way Jesus taught without occasional (or frequent) turmoil.

Lest you think I am making a case for Jesus being highly imbalanced, let me remind you that my issue is with our current, pop understanding of the word “balanced,” which is a classic case of East-meets-West-without-a-compass. It’s detachment and self-centeredness that need to be barred from the game, not balance. I think Jesus was the most balanced person that ever lived, and it would be earth-shaking if we began to pursue balance in the way he demonstrated it. What if we were passionate about the same things as Jesus – God and people – and lived as if those were the only two things that mattered?

See Also

I think the reason I love mental health – objectively, of course – is that it’s so cool to see how Jesus helps people get their heads screwed on straight. (He’s still working on mine.)

[Aly Hawkins lives and goes to therapy in Southern California.]

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