There is an old story about a Zen monk who was waiting to greet the emperor of Japan. Just before the emperor arrived, he turned to a fellow monk and said, “I’ll be back later.” “Later” turned about to be 12 years. When his peers asked where he’d been, why he’d left, he explained, “As I waited for the emperor, I felt my palms begin to sweat. I knew that I was attached to social roles because my body was tense. I’ve been meditating to lose that attachment. I came back as soon as I could.”
In our culture, we often think that detaching from something means that we are less devoted to it, that we love it less. The monk’s story comes from the opposite perspective; when we are attached to people’s roles we cannot see them from a place of simple compassion.
I had an interesting experience recently when I flew to NY to tape a segment for a national TV show. In the past, I’ve always been slightly nervous about events like these, but this time, I was strangely detached from the entire process. I reached my hotel late at night to find that my reservation was in a hotel across town. To me it felt like a special treat to sit in one hotel lobby enjoying free wireless internet while a car came to ferry me across town. The limo driver spoke no English and had the wrong address. To me it was an exciting opportunity to use my Mandarin. The next morning, I found that most of the production staff had swine flu or a reasonable facsimile thereof. I lathered up with hand sanitizer, but also felt very relaxed about the possibility that I might become ill. I thoroughly enjoyed coaching the guest, a woman who was burning herself out to take care of her relatives. After the show when people asked me how it had gone, I realized I honestly hadn’t thought about it. History will be the judge but I think it probably went well simply because I was so detached.
I don’t know what gift of grace put me in the detachment zone for this experience. Maybe it’s a combination of meditating, cleaning out my mind with Byron Katie’s Work, associating with my wonderful coaching colleagues, or a slight stroke, but I do know that this was a detachment filled with joy and effectiveness. There is a zone in the mind as narrow and wobbly as a tightrope, but once you learn to walk it, life paradoxically becomes steadier, more grounded. I think that the stability of our lizard brains-which is always a fear-based illusion– makes us reluctant to step on the rope. But that narrow line where love and detachment combine is a solid foundation for the soul.
Today, try stepping back from a situation where you are deeply attached, where your palms are sweating up a storm. Think about how trivial this incident is from the broad perspective of your true self. It really doesn’t matter all that much. If necessary, retire to a cave. But please leave us a forwarding address.