On Detachment – Sutras 1.15-16 revisited

Sandcastle, St John’s Abbey, MN

Over the summer, I’ve checked one book out from the library five times. Five. When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. The book isn’t a hard read, it’s just deeply reflective, so I’m savoring it. The book consists of 54 “variations on voice,” reflecting on the life and voice of Williams’s mother, who died when she was 54. At the time of writing, Williams herself was 54.

When Williams’s mother died, she left her three shelves of journals to Williams. When Williams went to read them, she found every single journal empty. Nothing written down, not even in invisible ink.

On page 155, Williams writes, “‘Let it go,’ Mother would say whenever I asked her what I should keep or give away. Her answer was always the same. Empty pages become possibilities.”

Right now, my own journals fill up a shelf in our office. Starting around age 10, these journals chronicle my life through age 25 pretty thoroughly, and lately Gmail has been chronicling the rest. I can’t imagine not writing anything down, and I imagine Williams feels the same way, which is why she spends a book reflecting on her mother’s very conscious choice to not chronicle her life, but to keep journals anyway.

Perhaps Williams’s mother was an adept at practicing detachment: “Let it go.”

I am not an adept at practicing detachment, but I want to be.

In addition to all the wonderful things that I’m attached to (like my husband and cat), I’m also attached to complaining. Nothing makes me feel better and uglier than complaining about city buses, my workload, or about non-tenure-stream faculty issues. And I want to move past it: I’m sick of my own complaining.

Often I write my complaints down. Last year, I’m pretty sure that half of my Tweets were about the city buses (smart phones don’t mean smart users).

Maybe this is why I can’t get Yoga Sutras 1.15-16 out of my head. I wrote about them last week, but I want to revisit them again today because there is SO MUCH here.

“Non-attachment is self-mastery; it is freedom from desire for what is seen or heard. When, through knowledge of the Atman, one ceases to desire any manifestation of Nature, then that is the highest kind of non-attachment.” -Prabhavananda & Isherwood

“At the highest level there is an absence of any cravings, either for the fulfillment of the senses or for extraordinary experiences. When an individual has achieved complete understanding of his true self, he will no longer be disturbed by the distracting influences within and around him.” -Desikachar

I’m interested in these phrases: “knowledge of the Atman” and “complete understanding of his true self.” (Atman is individual soul, while Brahman is the oversoul of all things.) What this sutra seems to be saying is that the more we get to know ourselves, the more we will be able to experience detachment…  or some sort of inner freedom.

Desmond Tutu helps me understand this: “We get most upset with those we love the most because they are close to us and we know that they are aware of our weaknesses… If only we could learn to live with our inadequacies, our frailties, our vulnerabilities, we would not need to try so hard to push away those who really know us. We can love others with their failures when we stop despising ourselves because of our failures.”*

In other words, when we pull down the facades inside ourselves that prevent us from seeing who we really are, when we accept who we are–lovely and ugly things alike–we feel more free when we are with others. And we have more compassion for and despite their failures too.

For myself, this is kind of self-compassion is only available because God loves me first, and when God looks at me, God sees Christ’s righteousness, not Renee’s failures and complaints. Because I know God loves me, I can love me too. I’m imperfect, but God sees me as whole. This doesn’t give me a license to complain, but an invitation to move past the complaints.

When I dig into my complaints, I realize that my reason for complaining is that I want life to run perfectly, and it doesn’t. So I am upset when it doesn’t go the way I planned–the bus makes me wait an extra fifteen minutes, for instance. So I acknowledge this about myself, and then work to let go my need for perfection.

Jesus said it differently when he talked about the two most important commandments: “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That “as yourself” bit implies two things: that you actually love yourself, and that you also love your neighbor, and that love is love…  not just tolerance.

I’m such an infant on this journey. When I read about Thomas Merton or St. Ignatius, I realize I’m just scratching the surface of these ideas. All that I understand that it means for me today is to have compassion on myself and the bus driver when the bus is late. And then let it go.

The more I understand what’s going on inside, the more I realize that I can let it go.


*This quote brought to you by the lovely Secret Agent L.

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