Detachment Versus Indifference

One of the main ingredients of spiritual practices is to be detached from the objective world. What is detachment really? How is that different from indifference or apathy ?

A couple of years ago in my Babaji’s kriyA yOga (See sanskrit transliteration scheme) initiation class, we were doing an exercise on the identifying of emotions and becoming detached from them. Exercise was that the teacher would say a word and we would write the feelings that come to us on a piece of paper and label them appropriately as anger, happiness, joy, detachment, etc.

The word was money. I wrote down, “Money comes and goes—not permanent. I always got money when needed. I did not have to run after it.” Then, I labeled this as “detachment.” Then, my teacher said, “It is not detachment. It is apathy or indifference” I was shocked, because I thought I was detached from money. I asked him why it was indifference. He just said, “I am not going to give you an answer. You contemplate on it for an answer.”

I contemplated a while (well, it was more than a year) and finally it came to me. Attachment has two polarities—Positive and Negative. When we are positively attached to something we want it and we go after it. At an extreme, greed takes over us and we can’t live without the object of our desire. We are all familiar with this type of attachment and this is very obvious.

When we don’t like, don’t want or don’t care about something, we go to the other end of the spectrum of attachment—the negative attachment. In the extreme, we will resort to hate and even violence. This is what happened to me in the case of my emotion about money. I was showing a “don’t care” attitude, since I was getting it when needed, through timely raises at work or changes in my work situation.

This was compounded by the fact that I was going through—like many of the beginning spiritual seekers—what is called the denial of the world. As the time passed by I had certain realizations that made me realize that only through the body we can achieve Enlightenment. Then, why deny bodily comforts and not have good health.

I questioned, “What is a balanced attitude, especially when it comes to money and comforts?” The conclusion I came to was, “Do not deny what is needed to take care of yourself and your family. Do not be so greedy, that it hurts others and prevents others from having their needs met. Do not worry that you will loose your money or comforts. Do not shun and feel guilty that having comforts is somehow against nature, universe or God. Thus, develop a healthy perspective that creates a balance in your life.”

One litmus test I started using to see if I am detached, or not, from a particular thing at any particular moment is this—if I worry about loosing it, then I am not detached and conversely, if worry that I may not get it, then also I am not detached. This meant that I should just enjoy the process and not worry about the end result of whatever I am doing.

With the above explanation, we can define detachment as, “a state in which you are neither worried about loosing, nor worried about not gaining. You are not worried about success or failure.”

This definition then transfers directly to our daily life. Though we are pure consciousness, since the consciousness is expressing itself through a form, it is bound by the form. When you are enlightened, you may still be aware of your form, though you are not bound to that form. As long as you have a body, you are bound by action. Even maintenance of the body requires action. The whole creation and dissolution of the universe is pure action. If you are already enlightened, then you don’t have to even think about detachment, since it will be your natural state. You may set an outer goal to achieve and may work towards it. But, you are clearly detached from the results—you are the same whether the goal is achieved or not. In many spiritual traditions, detachment is a prerequisite for enlightenment. It is a Catch-22 situation. Only thing for us unenlightened ones to do, is to consciously practice detachment.

How do we practice this? Let’s take the following example. You are going to be appearing for SAT examination. This exam is going to determine whether you will attend your dream school, or not. This surely puts a lot of stress. You get really attached to the outcome—attending your preferred school. You constantly worry whether you will make it. You are studying for your exam, and suddenly your mind wanders and worry creeps in. Can you see how much waste of your vital energy this is? You are not only worrying a lot about it, but also wasting time that you could be using to prepare well for the exam. Once you realize this, you can go to the next step of this realization. “All I can do is to prepare well and do my best in the examination. Outcome is not in my hands. It is in the hands of the person correcting the answer papers or the computer that is automatically evaluating the answers. So, I just need to focus on the preparation and do my best.” Once this realization comes, you should then be able plan your steps to achieve your goal and not think, constantly, about the goal itself. This is detachment. When you are fully present this way and surrender to the present moment a higher intelligence within you starts emerging resulting in true detachment—detachment from the future and past, and the emotions related to them. When this intelligence starts working you will get results that are way better than you anticipated before.

3 Responses

  1. Allison says:

    Thank you for this. I have started a meditation class and this very conundrum crept into my consciousness last night. What is the difference between detachment and apathy? Your explanation gives me much to think about.

    Detachment: Striving for a goal without your happiness depending on the outcome.


  2. Allison,

    You are very welcome. I am glad that this helped in your contemplation. Please stop by again to post your insights to augment this article.


  3. Michael says:

    I have now read this article a few times and I also had to consult my dictionary for getting the best definitions for detachment, indifference etc. in my native tongue which is German.

    It turns out it is not the definiton per se which makes me contemplate a lot about the concept of detachment. So I am giving my thoughts here and perhaps somone wants to comment. In my understanding, I start something or I pursue a goal, because i want something, ergo an outcome. This is also in line with the visualization and affirmation concepts outlined on this site and in the general public.

    Let’s say you want a better paid job. You start contemplating what it is you really want, then you outline it, and finally you kind of plan what you need to do to get the desired result, which is a better paid job. You start your affirmations and visualizations and your other actions (e.g. writing applications, speak to your boss and friends etc.) to fulfill the steps in your plan. I understand and totally agree with the concept of living and feeling in the presence. Thus, you would not concentrate on the outcome, just on doing the action/task in front of you 8I think being in flow is the equivalent).

    BUT I thought that concentrating on the desired outcome would increase the vibrational frequency which in turn attracts the outcome or should I say the energetical frequency of the outcome.

    And here i am confused: I am not sopposed to concentrate on the outcome, but rather getting neutral about it. At the same time i should visualize and affirm the outcome, which apparently increases vibrational frequency.

    if I am detached of the outcome, so I am neutral about it, why would i then want it in the first place?

    Perhaps I am still to rational and head-centred. So I am currious to getting your thoughts so I can grow just a little bit more.

    Many thanks and the warmest greetings from Germany,