The Gift of Joyful Detachment

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.

26 replies
  1. Marjorie Buscher
    Marjorie Buscher says:

    Hello ‘Martha’

    Thank you for the detachment thoughts, it was so timely I was hurrying off to a networking group and that old feeling I must be there so ‘the’ people involved will know I was sincere. TY for this, “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.” mm cave so gooood!

  2. Marie Bishop
    Marie Bishop says:

    Thank you so much for the timely advice. I will be part of a video shoot tomorrow where some of my work will be featured. I’m not usually in the lime light so nerves do surface and palms do sweat. I’ve been counselling myself to detach from the situation enough to remain calm and collected. Reading your article reinforces the practise.
    Thanks again,

  3. Julie
    Julie says:

    Perfect timing Martha, thank you! I have been stressed about my daughter’s upcoming birthday party. There is a bully in her class that she doesn’t want included, so we have been selective in whom we invite. My lizard has been speaking to me about hurting others’ feelings (parents), what my daughter may encounter at school about not being invited, AND about what sort of message I am sending my daughter by 1. Not inviting and 2. the stress I am exhibiting. Letting go now. Thank you!

  4. Janice
    Janice says:

    Perfect for me this morning as I’m trying to catch a surgeon who is preparing to leave town this afternoon to tell her about allergies I have to products that could be sued in the surgery. She gets back in town next week while I”m out of town and the surgery is the week after. Is my reptile brain screaming? Hell yeah! Detaching? This should be fun.

  5. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    Thank you for this – one question- does the same advice apply when your son’s are becoming regular users of drugs-I fear for their life and future-how can I remain detached from this?

    Thank you for your continued support and wisdom


    • Sheila Bergquist
      Sheila Bergquist says:

      Joanne, I know exactly what you are saying…how do you detach from serious problems? I don’t think you can and sometimes this kind of advice is good only for more minor annoyances in life. I love this site and Martha’s wise words, but I also get frustrated at being told to “let go” and things of that sort when I have a crisis in my life. And then when you can’t, you feel even more anxious and afraid and hopeless! I pray things work themselves out for you…sending you a hug.

      • Louise
        Louise says:

        I have to agree with Pat Becker. Alarming though it is watching someone you love making choices that seem wrong to you, detachment is needed more in these situations than any other. Detaching doesn’t mean you don’t care; you can still love and support your sons. As hard as it is, we have to let our children find their own way. I wish you all the best and hope that things work out well for you and your family.

      • Carmen
        Carmen says:

        Dear Sheila,
        You can't detach from serious problems, or just let your problems go, no one can. But you can investigate your stressful thoughts by doing the work of Byron Katie. That is what Martha is saying and doing herself. The work has helped me enormous, I can't tell you how much. And what happens, is that your stressful thoughts let go of you, you simply cannot believe them anymore. The situation is still there, I still have no job and a lot of debt. But I am not so stressed out about it anymore. I hope you will try the work and see for yourself. Sending you all my best wishes.

    • Pat Becker
      Pat Becker says:

      Dear Joanne, My heart breaks for you. This is one of the most difficult problems in life as I can see it and have experienced it. Unfortunately, the advice of detachment is the only thing that will work. You have to save yourself to have any chance of saving your children. I grew up with a drug addicted brother and had a teenager who was heavily using pot (not the same as hard drugs, but disturbing for a parent). I tried many things to help them, teach them, change them. Really the only thing that ever worked was learning to take care of myself, loving them and not trying to change them. Our children and everyone else has a path they are on in their life and parents are part of the picture. Perhaps you are meant to save them by being in their life. I highly recommend joining ALANON or CODA, especially if you find a group that has a special focus on parents. These are people who know exactly what you are going through. Loving so deeply and feeling helpless; that is a recipe for sadness or an opportunity to learn to let go. In these groups you learn little by little. It took the monk 12 years to accept. Give yourself a break and be kind to yourself. That is the path to healing. It may not change your children, but it is the only thing that might.

  6. Stephanie Culen
    Stephanie Culen says:

    Beautiful reminder to let go and let Be. Opening to what IS gives space for the wonder and curiosity to unfold and allows life to breathe and reveal the magic that is possible. Thank you, Martha Beck.

    • chris
      chris says:

      Hey BurnitBetty—“People” will not be smart enough to let you be in the cave….”People” will maybe even want to prevent you from the peace of the cave….but YOU are in charge! Not other people—-

      Go to the Cave, Betty!!!! : )

  7. Heidi
    Heidi says:

    Hi Julie,

    I think I can understand what you are going through. My son, who is 7, went through a similar situation. I feel as you do about teaching my son how to include and be thoughtful of other peoples feelings. I also believe we need to teach our children that we teach others how to treat us. I hope you will continue to keep the lines of communication with your daughter and help her verbalize to the bully, if she is confronted with the situation, the reason she was not invited to the birthday party.

    Best wishes~


  8. Blueberry Raker
    Blueberry Raker says:

    ” If necessary, retire to a cave. But please leave us a forwarding address.”

    Thank you for reminding me of the letter from my friend ‘lo these many years ago, with the return address:
    “Eastern Maine Trackless Waste
    Third Pine Tree on the Left”

  9. Tessa Bold
    Tessa Bold says:

    I just found you a couple weeks ago, thank you so much for all your help already!!!!!! Best wishes, Tessa

  10. Robbie Gammack
    Robbie Gammack says:

    Wow, I was cleaning out some of my emails and saw that I had not opened this one from you, which is unusual as I always enjoy reading your work. It was a an unopened gift as the message of detachment could not have been more beneficial to me as it was today. I had so many no’s coming my way today and found I was getting very attached to the no’s. As I did my work and read your email I was able to clear my mind and let go of the attachments to have it my way, to know how it should be. Thanks for sharing your experience and your wisdom.

  11. Mellanie
    Mellanie says:

    Thank you. I needed this message today. Financial troubles and dysfunctional family craziness. I like the tightrope analogy as I am taking circus classes. Breathe. Balance. Let go. <3

  12. kd12
    kd12 says:

    I read this column a year or two ago, and enjoyed it very much (as i do with all things Martha), but I did not notice till re-reading it tonight that Martha mentions doing the Work of Byron Katie. It really struck me because I have begun doing this work, and it has utterly blown me away with the most significant shifts in my thinking. I asked myself why I didn’t remember this reference the 1st time I read this column & then the answer came: Because I wasn’t ready to do The Work then. I am now, and I see it here now. So it goes. It is a world of abundance indeed when we get to read and learn from both Martha and Katie:-)

  13. Kari
    Kari says:

    This is so right on. Thank you Martha for the insight, the love and the humor you so kindly share with us all.

  14. Maria
    Maria says:

    That was a great article. So true. Thank you for your always, so perfectly timed articles. Your wit cracks me up as you share you deep feelings, thoughts and actions. You help me in so many ways.

  15. Karen
    Karen says:

    Great story – also luv luv Byron Katie and ask the 4 questions daily —-thanks so much for sharing!

  16. Pat Becker
    Pat Becker says:

    I love this story! It also points out that it can take a bunch of time to change our ways. We sometimes expect to learn something new after reading about it once. Without years of practice! I know it took me more than 12 years to change my life and way of being!!!! I don’t want to tell you how many, but it is a lot. The lovely thing is that I never gave up and it has happened. I am now living with such joy! In a large part due to Martha and doing the Life Coach Training. Thank you Martha, from the bottom of my slow and attached heart!

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