Detachment as it relates to daily practice is probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of zen discipline. People often ask, “if my goal is to reach a state of detachment, then why wouldn’t I just go hide in a cave somewhere?” After all, isn’t the lazy pot-head or drunkard on the side of the road detached? Isn’t the lazy mother who cares nothing for her children detached? Indeed, detachment is translated as disengagement or disinterest by some dictionaries, which leads people to believe that to practice this “detachment” means to be useless or lazy.
Unfortunately, this misunderstanding of detachment in zen stems from a lack of a better word in English. A better way of describing detachment in zen practice is, “a detachment from outcomes in a state of positive being.” In fact, detachment is a key aspect in success and abundance. This was understood by Jesus, and is a common characteristic of some of the most successful people you may encounter. To experience and enjoy a life of abundance, you must learn detachment from outcomes.
“Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.” (Luke 6:38)
Attachment to outcomes is the enemy of abundance and success. Many people want to achieve a state of success in whatever social or subjective game they may play, but are sabotaged and rendered inept by their intense attachment to outcomes.
Let’s take a woman who has a lifelong dream to own her own business grooming animals. She talks about it with friends, and says to her husband, “if only I could start that pet-grooming business I would be really happy!” She continues to go about this charade for years and years, making little steps here and there, but never really does anything.
Practical and logistical considerations aside, what is preventing her from making her dream a reality is not “detachment” but in fact, “attachment to outcomes.” The fear of the eventual outcome is so debilitating, that she is incapable of focusing her energy in a positive direction to reach her goal.
One thing I have noticed about the successful people I have met along the way is that they put forth a great deal of energy to reach their goals, but when you ask them what will they do if they fail, they have a positive and detached attitude. They say, “oh well, it isn’t the end of the world, at least we gave it a shot.”
This is the essence of the healthy detachment that zen practice helps us nurture.
Abundance, as Jesus taught, is a state of positive being. If you give forth in abundance, whether it be attention, interest, work, money, or even a smile, it will come back to you. This also applies to the directed and focused energy toward your goals and outcomes. The more sustained positive energy you can give, the more abundance and success you will receive! However, if you are too attached to the outcome, you will find that it stifles you and sabotages your efforts.
There was once a big contract that we were trying to win for my web development company. It was a lucrative deal, we needed the money badly and I was very nervous about meeting with them. I could not stop thinking about the outcome: I was obsessed with saying the wrong thing, saying too much, bidding too high, not providing the right solutions — in short, I was VERY attached to the outcomes.
My partner, who is older and more experienced, with years of sales under his belt could tell that I was nervous. Before we went in to the meeting he said, “you can’t go into a negotiation wanting it too badly. You have to put it in God’s hands and let Him take care of it. If we don’t get it: no big deal, it’s just another day at the beach.”
I took his advice to heart and remembered my insights from zen practice. We walked into the conference room and I remembered my “center” from meditation practice. I detached myself from the outcome and my fears faded. I thought about the people I love and the great abundance and joy throughout my life. We proceeded to consult with a very rich and powerful group of people. My ease and relaxed energy must have given them them the impression of confidence. We already had everything we needed, we had gifts of abundance, and they were willing to and eager to pass more where that came from.
These people were not intimidating, they were interesting and beautiful. We shared positive energy and we all walked away from the deal with greater abundance!
Years later, I see this element in business dealings again and again. The party who is too attached to the outcome is not only unable to make the right decisions, but is unable share their wealth and opportunities with others, which is a critical part of business on both sides of the table: you must be willing to give in order to receive. When a business deal gets caught up on principles or minutiae that have no real bearing on the big picture, then there are problems. I am always willing to concede things when necessary, but at the same time, I am never so attached to the outcomes that I am afraid to walk away and pass.
Business aside, this applies to just about every aspect of life I can think of. And as you can see, is completely compatible with hard work and a goal-oriented life.
When the Buddha was asked why he bothered to come back to be with others after he reached enlightenment, he said that the game of life brought him great joy. The only way you can truly enjoy the game of life, and succeed is when you don’t become to attached to the outcomes.
After all, it’s just another day at the beach!