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Empathy, Detachment, and Changing the World

Imagine you are in a crowded movie theater. Suddenly, smoke starts to appear in the back, and starts to spread throughout the theater. Quickly there are screams, with people jumping up and piling into a crowd heading to the familiar back exit of the theater despite the lack of capacity to handle the rush. And the smoke is originating at the back of the theater.

One person stands up on a seat, balancing carefully, and yells several times “Follow me!” and while waving their coat over their head, then moves toward an emergency exit at the front of the theater, near the screen. Many people now see the exit and start to follow this individual. Then, others see the second emergency exit on the other side at the front, and move steadily in that direction as well. Now everyone can exit safely, and no one gets badly injured as often happens in such panics.


I have recently been speaking about Zen and Buddhism (see current offerings here), and thought it might be good to write here about a topic which up to now has not been directly discussed in those webinars. That topic is detachment, also referred to as “non-attachment.” I will be connecting the concept of detachment / non-attachment with the closely-related Western concept of empathy aka compassion.

Empathic nurse taking care of senior womanAs you might guess, the idea detachment in Buddhism differs from the Western interpretation of the word. The OxfordLanguages dictionary equates detachment with being “aloof,” or in other words, putting up a mental wall around oneself to isolate from reacting to anything. Buddhist detachment, however, indicates instead a lack of fixation on any set goal, freeing the mind to deal fully with any real situation in the present, even when that present situation is a dangerous fire.

Some might say the leader in the depicted theater fire situation was not emotional, or was even “cold.” However, that person likely felt a deep need to help rather than worrying about safety, and as a result was alert to real solutions and able to lead others and herself out of that fire. Those who were more conventionally emotional were panicking and were not able to help others or themselves.

Attachments in the mind are experienced as determination to create and hold on to what is considered desirable, and to keep away that which is considered undesirable. Examples of the objects of common attachments-of-attraction are: a spouse or other love interest; money; fame and reputation; safety, children, and life itself. Examples of attachments-of-avoidance include: excessive cold or heat, bad tastes and smells, pain, and of course, death.

That is not to say it is wrong to enjoy the positives or to avoid the negatives. We may have a longer, happier, healthier life by doing so. However, the attachment to these things and experiences is an internal mindset which makes thinking more narrow and rigid, controlled by desire or fear. Attachment means we cannot fully experience the peace and joy of the present moment, and that we are thrown for a loop when there is an undesired change in one of those conditions to which we are attached (or from which we are repelled). And conditions always do change, eventually.

Can you make the decisions and choices in your life without excess worrying, and without violating your own values about how to behave in your life?

Girl holding father's leg, not wanting him to leaveLet’s also be honest: most of the attachments mentioned, and others, are not so easy to let go of. If it was easy, many more people would be enjoying a life without anxiety, and with more good energy and joy flowing. That true freedom can be accomplished, but it requires persistent efforts in alignment with our inner nature in order to grow the spaciousness of mindset which consistently allows for empathetic, detached thought, speech, and action.

Through attunement to others, through thoughtful speech and action that makes life better, and through a way of living and working that is honest and ethical, we can clarify our self-knowledge and develop empathy and detachment. That is the path to enduring peace, joy, and energy, which also allows the dropping of past traumas and neurotic patterns.

The Noble Eightfold Path is an important path outlined in Buddhism, that can help find detachment, true freedom, and compassion. There are three main principles expressed in the Noble Eightfold Path: right understanding, right ethics, and right concentration. Modern mindfulness teaching and personal growth teaching is mostly concerned with the last of those categories, and does a good job with that category of concentration or mindfulness. However, without right understanding and right ethics, those effort towards mindfulness will have only a limited impact. This is a very important distinction.

Freedom signThrough understanding the basics of human existence, such as the transient nature of life, and following ethical principles such as doing good not evil in one’s thoughts, words, and actions, as well as concentrating the mind, a rewarding and meaningful experience of life, and true freedom, can be achieved.

After following the principles of the Noble Eightfold Path, one can effectively apply empathy or detachment in everyday life, in each moment, to provide a calm resting place for others who are caught up in struggles and pain. That is the real value of detachment.

May we all find that peace, and shed light for others and for ourselves.