On Detachment, Truth and Loving Your Child

Mark and Nathan KenskiMarkus pointed out in his last post that even an emperor of Rome in it’s height, Marcus Aurelius, did not have the luxury of enjoying a profound attachment to his children–a thing most of us take for granted as a natural, even necessary, part of life.

Markus draws great inspiration from the stoics. As do I. One of the core understandings of stoicism–one shared with other wisdom traditions–is this: life is change; attachment to any one detail of life may result in a moment of intense joy, but must inevitably lead to  loss; loss brings suffering. And this suffering is avoidable if we would choose instead to be attached to the flow of change, to the whole song of life, and not any one note.

This concept is a bedrock understanding of reality that can be a firm foundation for reasoning about one’s life. This aspect of reality has not changed since Aurelius’s time and is not likely to change in ours. But. It has it’s limits. Markus’s post is, to me, about finding these limits for one’s self.

One luxurious exception Markus allows himself to this core principle of his own stoic-influenced philosophy is being in love with his children: living with a kind of intense bond that would have been pretty much impossible in the past. To me, this is exactly as it should be.

In the Rome of 180 AD, one could reasonably expect most of their children to die young. Attachment was a recipe for disaster, grief and sorrow. In our time, especially within the core of civilization, one may experience not just a moment of joy, but a lifetime of it. We may well make it to our own death without suffering the loss of a child. It’s a risk each person has to weigh for themselves.

So shall we make a general rule of revising the wisdom of the past to better fit the changed world we find ourselves a part of? Perhaps we should just make it up as we go along?

Many would say no: there are sacred and immutable truths expressed within faiths and philosophies, and opening them to personal interpretation, picking just the shiny pieces without immersion in any faith is the definition of a dilettante. And a fool. Like a diet exclusively of cake and candy, it would be a very bad idea, right?

I have sympathy for this answer, because there are sacred and essentially immutable truths. The existence of our consciousness in time, and the implications of that as they relate to the experience of joy and suffering, is one such immutable. Like death, it is a fact of life.

But the only way you can tell such truths from things that are no longer true is by using all of the capacities and faculties we have at our disposal, particularly reason. Over time, with enough practice, one develops the capacity to accurately discern what is true for one’s self.

Even the truths we hold most dear only come to life as we gain understanding, not from the simple repetition nor logical manipulation of the empty words that package them.

Markus said in his last post “I fail by the standards of the old masters. I am vulnerable.

Perhaps a more precise formulation would be: having studied the best answers that the wisest people across time have been able to derive for themselves, and having undertaken to labor with an honest heart at discerning the realities of my own life, I have–for now–set these standards of my choosing, to which I will strive to be faithful.

As emperor, Marcus Aurelius tried to improve the treatment of slaves by their masters. For his time, he was remarkably enlightened. But he did not abolish slavery in the empire. In his world, some were destined to be slaves and some masters. The world could be no other way. There were things about the reality that he lived within that are just not applicable anymore.

It’s a delicate line. There is positively a danger to merely skimming the dense material in the wisdom traditions. Wisdom traditions are rich with ideas that resemble drugs in their potency more than cake or candy. To be careless in one’s eclecticism is a bit like wandering into a pharmacy and helping ourselves to a few prescriptions because we like the way the pills look. On the other hand, the traditions themselves contain, often overtly, descriptions of the necessity of this attitude of using all our faculties to come up with a wise, realistic, and effective approach to life.

The best example of this I can think of is called the Kalama Sutta. Buddha explains that there are many ways to be confused: tradition, rumor, scripture, surmise, axiom, and so on. There is one way to find truth:

when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.

…when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

Jesus speaks of this when he says, in Matthew 7, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

Marcus Aurelius himself says in book six of the Meditations:

If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.

The truth is that which does no harm, lacking that; the truest does the least harm.

If you accept the freedom to choose, I believe you must also accept the framework that guides you in the effective exercise of that freedom: an experimental, open, honest, rigorous, empirical approach to what leads not to momentary satisfaction, but to deep, lasting happiness and the widest possible benefit. I hasten to add that the empiricism that I speak of admits evidence of the heart and psyche into consideration equally with evidence of the senses. As individuals, we each live in a reality mostly composed of our own mind-stuff–not directly accessible to others–it is absurd to think we can (let alone should) limit ourselves to the objectively verifiable fragments of that larger reality, since those fragments include relatively little of direct relevance to our lives.

This is how to forge your own truth from the raw materials our lives now provide us in such bewildering abundance. It’s hard work and there will be many errors on your way to proficiency. But it is the best way to find your own way in life.

In the specific case Markus talks about in his story, it is detachment that one must balance carefully. Detachment is a valuable and powerful tool, and therefore it should not be used without care and knowledge. Rather we should use it as a sculptor uses a chisel–with all the artistry and skill we can muster. For it will, just as indelibly, shape our lives.

Detachment allows one to live within the flow without being cast wildly about in the currents. But it can also be a way to avoid living. There will be plenty of time when we are dead for us to take detachment to the hilt.

It seems to me that if we are alive for some purpose, then that purpose necessarily involves living life, not withdrawing from it. Living life necessarily involves some attachment, even some profoundly deep attachments. This must balance the desire to avoid suffering, and drive us to focus on avoiding only avoidable suffering–in ways that do not prevent us from fully living.

It is quite true, in a sense, that “life is suffering.” That’s ok with me. I’ll take it as it is. Because it is just as true that life is joy. And love, and goodness and meaning.

If there is no possibility for suffering, there is no possibility for joy. There is no possibility for meaning or goodness. To the extent you are secure from suffering; you are already dead. I guess I’m too enraptured with the wonder of this gift of life to be ready to seek the type of enlightenment that transcends all suffering just yet.

A large part of what Markus and I want to write about, and discuss with you, is differentiating necessary, natural and unavoidable suffering, from unnecessary and foolish and avoidable suffering. Learning to endure the former with grace, and learning to avoid the latter as much as we’re capable of.

With his dwelling on “probably…” Markus alludes to the way he still clings to a bit of avoidable suffering, but you can see that he is aware of this, and working it out. It may be a price to be paid, but I consider his choice to pay it a wise one, considering it is such a small price to pay for the enduring enjoyment of one of the greatest experiences life has to offer–being a loving parent.

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6 Responses to On Detachment, Truth and Loving Your Child

  1. Fran Sorin says:

    You have written a syllabus for a course. It is a tremendous amount to digest. I certainly have not been able to in a first reading.

    The kernels that I can respond to are as follows:

    1. In age old spiritual traditions, detachment does not mean withdrawing from life or not feeling. It is as you describe as the beginning of your post….the intrinsic belief that life is change. Period.
    You can still feel compassion, love, etc. But there is a ‘knowing’ that this is what it is in the moment. Byron Katie, I think, articulates this way of being in the world better than anyone else I have read.

    Friends of mine who lost their daughter abruptly did mourn her loss. But they were also able to rejoice in her life AND feel that she had finished her work on this earth and it was time for her soul to move on. They allowed their feelings to flow through them. I am in awe of them.

    2. The philosophy that pain is a part of life is what most of us believe. I am one of those people. But I question that validity of it. Buddha didn’t think it was necessary (that’s my interpretation).

    I think that as long as we remain sure about our life is about, we don’t let fresh air infiltrate our emotions and thoughts.

    You have done an immaculate job of questioning and offering some historical perspective with your own philosophy mixed in. Thank you. :) Fran

  2. Mark says:

    First Fran, thank you for taking the time to read, consider and comment.

    I will look up Byron Katie, because my knowledge of the subject would benefit greatly from further deepening. And I’ll let you know what I find out. :)

    The difficulty is, of course, the word ‘detachment’ (like all words) has a simple one-dimensional dictionary definition: “the state of being objective or aloof.” Which is pretty much useless for our purposes; counterproductive in fact. In reading ancient texts (which tend to be translations of what were in many cases originally orally transmitted teachings), no matter the wisdom or skill of the writer, the easiest and most natural thing for us to do is use those definitions to unfold the meaning of what we’ve read. This is what I mean by words being the mere packaging of wisdom. We naturally take things literally. This can lead to two opposite errors: either dismissing it as absurd (because it is when understood literally) and stop there, or putting the absurd literal interpretation into effect.

    I’ll gladly admit that my understanding is, at best, somewhere between that superficial immediate unaware misunderstanding and the deepest comprehension possible by those who have done a lot of work with the concepts. And probably closer to the former. At the place where I am now, detachment is a term I use to talk about an activity of mind that has powerful applications toward the reduction of suffering in my life. But it is something I apply warily.

    I tend to feel that people are too quick to use the admonishment to detachment as an excuse for mental processes that result generally in separation from living. Whether or not this is true in general, I know I have been prone to that error. I think we can agree that it is an advanced detachment that allows for the full appreciation of life’s joys and yet insulates us from the discomfort of the cessation of those joys.

    Regarding your second point, I agree, most people understand that pain is a part of life. That same understanding can be wisdom and it can be error. It is wisdom when you realize that unavoidable suffering is unavoidable. Therefore, cry, grieve, take time to heal. It is error when pain from avoidable suffering is not taken as a guide to better actions in the future.

    Detachment is definitely a topic of the post and fair game, your comments are well-founded. In my defense, I would say that I am using detachment as an example to make the main point of the post. This is, practical wisdom is something you forge from the raw materials of sources, scriptures, teachings, investigations, and so on. It cannot be “found” except in an interior process of exploration and discovery. Basically if you found something that speaks the truth to you, then you were ready for it, and that is why it could speak the truth to you. Other than that, truth is as much a matter of art as science.

    And this was a reaction to Markus’s story in which he apparently disagrees with one of his favorite mentors. It’s ok. I personally think it is overreacting to kill the Buddha if you meet him on the road, but it is definitely ok to disagree, for now, based on your experience. Likewise, I trust you’ll see that I have great respect for the immeasurable wisdom in buddhist thought. I agonized over the passage where I essentially say I am not interested in enlightenment that detaches me from life because the thought that sentence points to in my mind would take many many more words to adequately convey. Nevertheless it was as good a starting point as any I suppose. I am not rejecting Buddhism per se, just one interpretation I judge to be of no use to me.

    Finally, I agree with your point on undue certainty. I believe Buddha expressed a desire that people consider the possibility that any particular interpretation of his ideas might be quite imperfect. Exactly as Marcus Aurelius does in what I quoted. It has nothing whatsoever to do with whether he was himself right–we’ll never know with precision what he thought, we can only deal with what we can reconstruct from what writings we have. And measure that, as so many teachers have advised, in terms of the good or ill that emerge from a particular understanding.

  3. hmmmm, not really sure, since i don’t have children yet :)
    but i agree, that some suffering is avoidable and foolish, while others will mould us
    Noch Noch

    • Mark says:

      Noch, I think you’ll find, as I did, that having your own children shows you whole worlds in life that you were never aware of before. It’s just like trying to explain to someone who has never fallen in love why something that sounds a lot like agony can be so sublime.

      You know how when you’ve held your breath, how good it feels to breathe again? Your own children tap into feelings that essential and primal. Life carries within it an awareness of mortality, and that is expressed in the fact that our desire to see our children grow and prosper is stronger than even our own desire to live.

  4. Kathryn says:


    I love the new design of Forging Soul! It looks amazing!

    Okay now onto the material…ahhhh, between you and Markus you have left my heart splintered and my mind ignited. I find myself returning to your posts long after I have read them for the first time; playing over the subjects, considering the points and wondering.

    I struggle to accurately explain and express my thoughts and emotions on this particular post, because there is just SO much in it. I may need months, if not years to reply.

    But I’ll try so here goes…I too wish to live this life, not withdraw from it. For a very long time I have been terrified of surrendering to my inner being. Frightened that in the process of forging soul (I just seriously love that phrase), that I would lose the ability to live life. That I would be destined to go off, retire, withdraw from the world. I didn’t want to do that.

    I want to live. I want to connect with others. I want to experience all that I can in and of this world.

    The truth for me, is that I now understand that I can.

    Forging soul, living connected to your inner being is about an awareness. It is about seeing each moment that you are experiencing as simply that…a moment.

    And every moment passes. Every moment teaches us something. Every moment is an experience that helps our souls to grow.

    Detachment doesn’t have to mean that we become numb, or emotionally disconnected, it, to me, is about a my point of clarity. It is about understanding that I can indeed walk through this world with an open heart, unafraid of experiencing pain, because even if I do cross paths with it, or a less than pleasant experience, it too will pass.

    Nothing lasts forever, and yet, everything is timeless.

    Needless suffering to me is when we become ensnared in a moment, trapped in believing that it, and our experience, will never change.

    My truth is that I can walk this world with an open heart, that I can feel, and experience everything, and yet I can allow it all to pass through me, so that I always return to a place, the only place that I long to live in ~ serenity.

    In a sense detachment to me is this about me learning to “love and live no matter what.” To love everyone no matter the outcome, no matter if they return my love, leave me, or write songs about me. And to live no matter what, no matter the outcome of my action.

    Thanks for the insightful, thought provoking, and heart opening writing that you and Markus share with us on Forging Soul.



    • Mark says:

      Kathryn, I have been coming back to this comment for the past few days and re-reading it, and every time I get more out of it. Thanks for taking the time to share the wisdom you have so clearly forged. My real reply to your comment and to the others on this post is in my next post :)

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