Detachment: Living with open hands

A bird in the hand ...

“A bird in the hand is worth …” ( by laughingbird, on Flickr. Used via Creative Commons licensing (

I first encountered the idea of detachment in reading Buddhist thought many years ago. I remember feeling rather put off by the whole idea.

My concept of detachment at the time involved a total lack of emotion, of caring, or involvement with anyone or anything. It sounded to me like a bland and empty way to live, and I couldn’t imagine how that could be beneficial to anyone.

I could see how it might erase the pain, but it seemed to me that it would also erase the joy and the relationships and so many other things that make life worth living.

I was quick to dismiss the idea as irrelevant to me (since I’m not Buddhist), but it kept reappearing in the wisdom of other spiritual traditions, particularly among the mystics whom I admire.

That’s usually a good sign that I need to pay attention, so (eventually) I did.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that my idea of detachment was not at all accurate. I was confusing disinterest with detachment.

Disinterest is indeed a not caring and a lack of emotion, interest, and involvement with something. It’s a complete lack of relationship with the person or situation involved.

Detachment (at least as I understand it now) is not the opposite of caring; it’s the opposite of clinging. When I am detached from something, I can still care and feel and engage and have preferences, but I no longer cling to any of those and no longer try to force the person or situation to fit my idea of “how things should be.”

Even more importantly, detachment means letting go of my stories about why someone did what they did (especially the ones that make the other person look bad) and my stories about what they “should” have done or “should” be doing instead. It means letting go of a need to try to control the situation or the other person.

My preferences, emotions, and stories still exist, but I allow them to simply be what they are. They don’t define me (or the other person or situation).

I am actually better at remaining engaged and in relationship when I am detached because I am not so caught up in my internal whirl of those emotions and stories and preferences that get stirred up.

I’ve gone from thinking of detachment as a bad thing to making it an intentional practice.

Detachment is still something that I am learning to do, and I lose that state of detachment constantly, but I’ve noticed that life consistently works better when I am able to practice it well. (In fact, my conflicts and difficulties consistently stem from the times I lose that detachment and start clinging!)

If disinterest is keeping my hands in my pockets and attachment is clinging so tightly to things that I crush them, detachment is approaching life with open hands outstretched to receive what comes and allowing it to be as it is.

I’ve discovered that only these open hands of detachment truly allow the space for the fragile little birds of joy and peace to come visit.

I have a long way to go to learn to practice this consistently, but this image of the bird in the open hands is a powerful reminder of the way I want to live.

How do you think of detachment? Is it something you find appealing? If you practice detachment, what does it look like in your life?

by Kenetha J. Stanton.

Kenetha Stanton

This essay was first published on Kenetha‘s blog, A Kintsugi Life, and is republished with her permission.

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