Living with open hands in the face of uncertainty

Image credit: A bird in the hand is worth … by laughingbird, on Flickr. Used via Creative Commons licensing.


I don’t know about you, but the first thing I do when life feels at all out of control is to double down on trying to exert my control on whatever I can, however I can, whenever I can. I cling to the outcomes I want and try to force them into being. I resist with every ounce of my being and will those outcomes that I don’t like.

In my attempt to ease my anxiety in the face of uncertainty, I clench my fists tight and go to battle with reality to try to force it to my will.

If you’ve ever tried that approach yourself, then I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that it never, ever works. Yes, I might manage to gain a little control over small details here and there, but my rigidness only makes weathering the storm of anxiety and chaos that much harder to do without damage to myself and my relationships.

It took me many years to discover that there is an alternative to this way of responding to chaos that works so much better. That alternative is detachment.

What is detachment?

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

My concept of detachment at the time was 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 unhelpful, 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.

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. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

Detachment (at least as I understand it now) is not the opposite of caring; it’s the opposite of clinging. When I am detached, 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.”

It means letting go of any need to try to control the situation or another person.

My preferences, emotions, and stories still exist, of course, but I allow them to simply be what they are. They don’t define me or the other person or the situation. I also don’t try to force anything about them onto myself, others, or the situation as a whole. In detachment, I hold it all with open hands.

(For example, I love being self-employed, and I have a strong preference for my little business surviving the challenges of this time to allow me to continue to be self-employed in the future, but I also know I can’t control that. In detachment, I do what I can to keep things afloat, keep my options open in case my preferences don’t become reality, and do my best to live each day as it comes instead of panicking, clinging, or trying to force anything. I have a preference, but I’m confident that I’ll ultimately be OK even if I don’t get that desired outcome.)

I’ve discovered that I’m actually better at remaining engaged and in relationship when I stay 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.

This time of so much uncertainty for many of us personally and for our larger communities (businesses, economies, governments, etc.), this is an unusually rich time to be exploring living with detachment. There is more than enough chaos, uncertainty, anxiety, and lack of control for all of us to deal with.

In the face of this kind of uncertainty, how do you think of detachment?

What would it look like for you to live with open (or more open) hands than you have been?

If you practice detachment, what does it look like in your life?


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