Understanding Detachment

by Patrick Quanten MD

In health, from ancient writings to modern psychology, detachment is a key word. As with so many other "namings" the word detachment has changed its meaning and its connotations in time, making it difficult for us to put the concept into practice.

On the one hand we understand that detachment has something to do with cutting yourself loose, with "letting go"; but on the other hand, we have the idea that it stands for "not caring". How can a person who is detached from life care about life?

In ancient literature and in world religions we find guidelines to a healthy and "good" life. All indicate what is required to achieve "heaven" or, put in other terms, a balanced and stable life. Purity of mind includes truthfulness, honesty, humility, non-violence, friendliness and compassion to all beings. If we are going to be compassioned then that surely means that we are going to beattached to the life that surrounds us. We can only be compassioned when we care about other forms of life, be it plant, animal or human. If we care about something, that means that we have an attachment to that particular thing and consequently we are not de-tached, as we are led to believe we ought to be.

Once again, we have managed to create confusion in our recommendations for health. We complain about the contradicting advice we receive from the medical authorities of our day, and yet the "alternative scene" is seemingly unable to clarify the matter for us either. No wonder that we shrug our shoulders and carry on under the motto "There is nothing I can do about it!".

The main question we need to find an answer to is: What do the scriptures mean when they talk about detachment and compassion? Let's start with another theme that features massively in the scriptures: to take responsibility for your own life.

Whatever we can do for ourselves to improve our own health will be more effective than what another does for us, because any outside help only acts through our own belief system using our own resources. Efforts from doctors, health care professionals or clinical facilities only have short-term value and are no substitute for the D.I.Y. approach. Want to be healthy? - Do it yourself.

This adagio is now being proven by modern science. It isn't the stress itself that causes all the health problems; it is what we do with the stress. Sometimes stress activates our system and makes it work better, but most of the time we "allow" stress to be destructive. In other articles we have emphasised how our own decision-making regulates our physical and mental functioning. For example, if someone insults you, you are likely to feel hurt and angry. That is a choice, not a necessity. You could choose to ignore it, or even feel happy about the fact that the other person has been able to express their feelings, or you could choose to feel happy about the fact that you now know what the other person feels about you. All those choices are possible reactions and will determine the state your body and mind will be in. It determines how much adrenaline will be flooding your system, how angry you will become, or how calm and contented you will be.

Animals are very good at spotting your state of mind. They use it to determine whether you are a possible threat to them or not. The sheer presence of a lion does not panic the gazelle, but it will "know" when a hungry lion is in the neighbourhood, even when it can't see or smell it. This also indicates quite clearly how the state of mind of one animal influences the surrounding area. In the same way, your aggression or anger or jealousy will determine the state of mind of the people around you. Be aggressive and you will undoubtedly attract more aggression. Have you ever asked yourself the question why some people always seem to have bad luck or have terrible things happening to them?

So, taking responsibility for your own life is an essential tool for health and survival. And this involves making your own choices and becoming aware that indeed you do have a choice. Our emotions are said to be outside of our control, but, as we have just seen, they are most definitely not. You decide whether or not you are going to be angry, or jealous, or happy, or depressed. Youdecide how a particular event is going to affect you. Realising this gives you the freedom to analyse each decision you make. It cuts you loose from the event itself. The event and your reaction to it are two different and separate things. You are detached.

This also means that there is no need for certain things to happen in order for you to be happy. You may want to take the decision that you are going to be happy anyway, regardless.

So, you need to take responsibility for your own life. You need to be aware that you are making decisions all the time and that it is these decisions that are effectively determining whether or not you are contented in life. Implementing that detaches you from the effects of life as it goes on around you. Of course there are circumstances of which the effects will have a major influence regardless, such as natural disasters and group decisions (laws and group beliefs). However, once again your attitude towards this will have a major influence on how you cope with it. Feeling sorry for yourself will rarely help you to find a way forward.

As we have said before, your own state of mind will also influence your surroundings, and consequently the state of mind of others, as well as other events such as the weather, accidents, and so on, will have their influence on your life. But at each junction, it is you who determines how that influence will affect you. Allowing yourself to focus on the negative and destructive side of events will make your more vulnerable to the destruction instigated by those events. On the other hand, a positive outlook, searching for the positive features within a disaster, will allow you to gain strength from the position you find yourself in.

So, where does compassion come into the equation?

We noted earlier that all the world's major religions stress the importance of cultivating love and compassion. At a basic level, compassion is understood mainly in terms of empathy - our ability to enter into and, to some extent, share others' suffering. This, however, can be further developed to such a degree that not only does our compassion arise without any effort, but it is also unconditional, undifferentiated and universal in scope. A feeling of intimacy toward all other sentient beings, including, of course, those who would harm us, is generated. This is likened in the literature to the love a mother has for her only child.

But this sense of equanimity toward all others is not seen as an end in itself. Rather it is seen as the springboard to a love still greater. There is little to be gained from being kind and generous because we hope to win something in return. Actions motivated by the desire to create a good name for ourselves are still selfish, however much they may appear to be acts of kindness. There is nothing exceptional about acts of charity towards those that we already feel close to. The bias we naturally feel toward our families and friends is actually a highly unreliable thing on which to base ethical conduct.

We have a tendency to react badly to all who threaten fulfilment of our cherished desires, though they may be our closest relations. For this reason, compassion and mutual respect offer a much more solid basis for our relations with others. The struggle is thus to overcome these feelings of partiality. Certainly, developing genuine compassion for our loved ones is the obvious and appropriate place to start. Yet we need to recognise that ultimately there are no grounds for discriminating in their favour.

Let us now consider the role of compassionate love and kind-heartedness in our daily lives. Does the ideal of developing it to the point where it is unconditional mean that we must abandon our own interests entirely? Not at all. In fact, it is the best way of serving them. Indeed, it could even be said that this constitutes the wisest course for fulfilling self-interest. If it is correct that those qualities such as love, patience, tolerance and forgiveness are what happiness consists off, and if it is also correct that compassion is both the source and the fruit of these qualities, then the more we are compassionate the more we provide for our own happiness. By entering into other people's suffering and living a life of unconditional compassion we enhance our own happiness. This is not a selfish act and stands totally apart from putting your own needs first, as one does when being selfish.

However, compassion towards all others does not equal having to solve all their problems. Each of us, as said before, is responsible for their own thoughts and actions and it is inappropriate to expect others to take away all our pain. In compassion we share each other's pain because we recognise that each one of us has the same right to happiness and to not suffering. Therefore we will do our utmost not to add to their suffering through actions of selfishness and where possible reduce their suffering. But once again, it is important that we live our own life, have our own goals and aims.

How can we pursue our own goals in life and at the same time be "detached"?

The ultimate goal in life should be to perfect our compassion. And in order to fully realise that others have the same right to happiness as we have, we have to learn to give them the freedom to pursue their own vision of happiness. For us to reach total unconditional compassion we do not need certain professions or living circumstances. It can be achieved anywhere, under any circumstance.

Our daily living also includes more mundane wishes and desires. These, however, are very transient. Once we have achieved the thing that we felt was going to make us happy, it quickly loses its value and we turn our attention to a new desire. Putting all our effort into achieving these kinds of goals, with no regard for the effects our actions may have on others and their right to achieve theirs, now seems like a selfish and short-sighted thing to do. Indeed, one could say that it is a high price to pay for very little and a short-lived happiness. Maybe our focus should be elsewhere.

Attaching ourselves to such goals and their ultimate outcome will distract us from becoming compassionate. And yet, living in this kind of society seems to demand a certain amount of concentrated effort in order to achieve survival and personal comfort. Don't forget that what you feel comfortable with in your life is a feeling, and as we have said before, feelings are generated by yourself and are therefore a choice you make. Consequently, one can feel happy and contented in any situation, independent of your personal desires or the circumstances you live in. It is this attachment that we need to drop if we are to achieve real long-lasting happiness.

Yes, we can make plans and have goals in our lives. However, the more prepared you are to let them go, to change them, to leave them behind, the more free you will be. This freedom will allow you to concentrate on your status today, rather than on what is missing from your dream. By all means have dreams and desires, but don't attach any expectations to them. Whether or not they become reality is irrelevant. Detach yourself from the outcome of your desires. Whatever happens, it is all right. Attach yourself to feeling good, regardless of the situation you are in or the things you would want to change. Have dreams, make plans, but live for today.


We live in this world and each one of us is in the situation he/she is in. This is neither good nor bad, it just is.

Each of us has the same right to happiness and to not suffer, and each of us has the same right to try and achieve that in the way we see fit.

Take responsibility for your own life.

Learn to have unconditional compassion for all other sentient beings.

Live in the world today, but do not attach yourself to it. Allow your desires and wishes to flow away with the tide of change. You do not need anything else to achieve happiness but the state of mind of being happy.

True happiness can only be achieved through the detachment of all personal desires and the total commitment to universal compassion.

Live not to reach your goals, but live for the enjoyment of the journey towards your goals.

August 2004


Patrick Quanten has been a general practitioner since 1983. The combination of medical insight and extensive studies of Complementary Therapies have opened new perspectives on health care, all of which came to fruition when it blended with Yogic and Ayurvedic principles. Patrick gave up his medical licence in November 2001.
Patrick also holds qualifications in Ayurvedic Medicine, Homeopathy, Reiki, Ozon Therapy and Thai Massage. He is an expert on Ear Candling and he is also well-read in the field of other hard sciences. His life's work involves finding similarities between the Ancient Knowledge and modern Western science.

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