Sunday, March 22, 2009

Against Mindful Detachment

I was in the kitchen the other night, looking at the dirty dinner dishes and contemplating my next act, and I thought: I don't want to do these dishes. I want another glass of wine. I want some of that dark chocolate in the fridge. And, hey, while we're at it, could I have those things while reclining on the sofa please?

I got no answer from the universe. Peevishness set in. "What about me, huh? What about my needs? Are you just ignoring me?" Hmph.

It's always a little astonishing to me how limitless my wants and desires are. I mean, this dishes episode came at the end of a pretty pleasant and easy day. I'm a professor, so I spent the morning at the library working on some research. I did some class preparation, and then some email. I went to the gym. I came home and made some simple food, and drank some wine.

A day full of pleasures, and very few privations. And yet, at its end, I was still not satisfied. Reflecting on this as I washed up, I was reminded that what I was experiencing is often thought of as a kind of troubling "attachment." On some philosophical views like Buddhism, the proper aim of life is getting rid of these attachments so you're not constantly beset by wants and desires. Like I tend to be.

I've always been resistant to this kind of thinking. I'm not claiming to have thought it all through, but I've always thought of my attachments to things as one of the better parts of my personality. I like it when people get all into stuff -- into caring about people, or causes, or clothes, or into some obsession with a TV show, or all into some sports team. It's nice when people are like that. I've always thought it was one of the nicer things about human beings that they get all into stuff in that sort of way. It's just not something I'd want to give up, and it's not really something I'd want the people I love to give up either.

It just so happened that just a few days after my dishes evening Judith Warner wrote in her Times blog about her experience with mindfulness. I guess mindfulness is like the hot new thing among a certain group of people -- "all the rage now in psychotherapy, women’s magazines, even business journals," as Warner puts it. Meditation for calm, cool, acceptance of whatever happens to be going on at the time. Mindful detachment.

Warner says in her essay that while mindfulness may be great for the person being mindful, basically it leaves their friends and family in the dust. While you're being all calm, cool, collected and detached, your friends are wondering what happened to the cranky hothead fun best pal they used to love and your kids are . . . well, actually I've never really understood how detachment could apply to your connection to kids anyway, so I don't know. But you get the idea.

Warner puts it in terms of ragged edges -- that part of not being all detached is being human. But in a way, I feel she's kind of still a mindfulness appreciator. She admires mindfulness OK, she just seems to think that being fallible -- in the sense of occasionally flying off the handle, being impatient, or shouting -- is part of what makes us human, even if it is also kind of, well, less than ideal.

In my opinion this gives mindfulness too much credit. At least, it gives this form of mindfulness too much credit. Attachment isn't just a natural human foible. It's part of our best selves. All that wanting, caring, desiring -- even the getting mad, and irritated, and impatient -- it's part of the good life. Without it . . . well, without it, what would be the point of anything? Attachment isn't just necessary. It's great. You know what it is? It's fun, fun, fun. Think about it. How could you have "sex drugs and rock and roll" without attachment? You couldn't.

I'm not saying it can't be good to be calm and collected. It can. But here's the thing: what most of us really want, and need, isn't detachment, it's something else. As I see it, what most people really want, and need, is more like a combination of slowing down and appreciating what they've got. It's true most of us are frazzled and wound up most of the time, and that a few minutes spend on the sofa doing absolutely nothing in total quiet would be benefit us greatly. It's true that most of us get really upset over trivia -- traffic, for example, reduces everyone I know to hurling expletives -- and that spending a little time reflecting on what really matters would help a lot.

But these aren't detachment or mindfulness at all. They're just better ways of being attached to the things you're attached to. Thinking more about the people you love, being good to them, and feeling nice about the things that make you happy. Better attachment.

These things never catch on. Because unlike mindfulness, which sounds all interesting and life-changing and dramatic, taking time to sit quietly, counting your blessings, and refocusing on what you really care about are all boring and incremental. Nobody ever gets excited about stuff like that. Even on my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, the "thanks" part takes about five seconds.

Well, whatever. That's my take on things, take it or leave it. Now if you'll excuse me I have some drinking and reclining to do.

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