10/18/2011 09:07 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2011

Do We Need to Detach for Spiritual Growth?

The other day I went into a store to buy some wine. I got three bottles and what I believe was an unprovoked sermon on detachment. I use the word "unprovoked" with deliberation.

I'd never met the man before and we were having a pleasant conversation. We were talking about wines, then about where we lived and where we'd been. He'd spent a lot of time in the southwest, where I had lived for a while. He said he visited several times a year to study with a guru whose name was utterly unpronounceable and unrecognizable. I told him I'd never heard of his teacher, and he said, "Oh, he's world famous."

He asked me why we had moved back to NY and I simply said "family." He looked at me quizzically. I explained we had aging parents and felt the need to be with them. While sometimes challenging and other times cumbersome, it has not been a personal or emotional burden. Both my husband and I feel that it is a gift and a blessing to be able to do this and share what will be their last years on earth. It has not been easy, but it has been right and often joyful.

So, suffice it to say that I did not whine, grumble or pout while I was talking to him. I felt neither needy nor resentful as I described the situation. However, without a second between sentences, he waved his hand, "Oh, you need to detach from all that. I left everyone I know in Europe and I don't think of them at all."

He said this as if it were a model of good behavior, an example for all, particularly me, to follow. I believe he meant well, but I was taken aback.

A bit of history: For much of my early life, detachment was precisely what I needed. I had to learn to see where I began and ended and other people began and ended. I needed to learn what it was I truly longed for and what was the contrivance of a frightened heart. I needed to let go of expectations and deal with what was true about both people and circumstances. In concrete terms this meant I had to stop trying to control others. It is an ongoing lesson, no doubt. But, over the years and with increasing faith in God, I get better at it. For me, letting go has only been possible because I've been able to hand the reins over to someone I believe is better at it than I believe I am. That's how I have learned to accept the circumstances I cannot change, deal with the loves that have been lost, and allow for the sorrows I cannot soothe.

So the idea of detachment -- and its importance in healthy relationships -- is not new to me. But his idea of it was, which was to use it as a weapon of self-negation so that feeling, love and attachment to others in any fashion was unfashionable in that it revealed a gross psychological immaturity.

Is that true? Should we detach in order to feel nothing for friends, family, beloveds who are not with us? Should we cut ourselves off from longing of any kind? Should we exorcise our hearts so we can be more "spiritual?"

Since this encounter I have broached this topic with numerous people whose spiritual stances I particularly respect for their erudition and grounding: a Buddhist, an Orthodox priest, a Hasidic housewife, a Catholic theologian.

I half-expected my Buddhist colleague to agree with my friend at the wine store. But he said, "No, people who say that don't understand what Buddha meant. We are meant to deeply feel each moment, not to use our minds as weapons against ourselves. We are called on to feel sorrow and joy fully, to be fully." Detachment, as he explained it, was a way to see what was true about self and other.

The Orthodox priest had an interesting take on it and agreed that we are asked to feel for others, look to help, and love; that, indeed love was the greatest and highest calling. However, he added, "We are also told to be in the world, but not of it. We are born into a fallen world. And expecting it to be other than it is, is foolish and makes us ineffective. When you know you are in a pig sty, why do you get surprised when you get dirty? You're in a pig sty. It's a mess."

Contrary to my new friend's call to detach, as I grow older I find myself more surefooted in my commitment to be available, to respond when needed, and to love while I have the chance. As I see it, there may be many flaws in trying to control, but there is no failure in love.

But I continued to pursue the thoughts of others on the topic.

When I asked my husband what he thought about detachment, he admitted he found it hard. "Especially," he added, "when it comes to what other people think and how they feel. I always want everyone to be happy. I want to like everyone and everyone to like me."

I brought it to my mother, who in typically no-nonsense fashion, said, "What do you mean by detachment? You mean to let go? Well, then, seems to me you want to detach from evil, but not from good. It's a matter of choice, isn't it?"

All this left me with more questions than I'd started with, and certainly more than I bargained for when I went in to buy a bottle of wine.

What should we detach from or attach to?
Does love mean attachment? Are they distinct?
What about the desire to love (as a verb, not as a fuzzy feeling) and make others happy? Should my husband have not bought me flowers the other day because he knew they would delight me? Should he have detached enough to not care how I felt?

We know that control and manipulation and heartache are the results of a failure to detach when that is what is necessary, but what happens without any attachment whatsoever?

In my experience, the failure to attach is like a house built without struts or support beams. There is no connective tissue and the organism eventually fragments, falls apart. We see this in abandoned or severely abused children who are left to their own devices far too early. Without anyone to depend on -- to attach to, they become like leaves loosed in a gust of wind. They have no sense of who they are, how they feel, or how to deal with those feelings as they arise. They are socially utterly lost. As a result, what they wind up feeling most of the time is a blend of rage and panic. Anyone who's worked with these children comes to understand, if only viscerally, the utter necessity of attachment in order to live. This is not limited to humans. It has been shown to be equally as important in other animals, particularly primates.

The problem, of course, is that attachment -- even a healthy one -- comes with a price tag. When we lose the one to whom we are attached, or the thing (a house, a sentimental picture, a job), we lose a part of ourselves and we grieve. We feel pain. Sometimes the pain is so great that we are forever altered, our lives a limping replica of what they once were. This phenomenon is not limited to humans, either. We see evidence of exquisite attachment and wrenching grief in primates, dogs, sea lions, dolphins, whales, elephants and geese. Attachment -- at some level -- seems to be universal.

I think I know what the fellow at the wine store was trying to say to me -- that he has learned how to avoid that pain. He was saying that he had become self-aware as a spirit who was temporarily occupying a body, that he had successfully conquered his fears, vanquished his needs as the irrelevant yearnings of a feeble psyche, become part of small club of humans who have surpassed their own humanity.

Foible or fortune, for today I remain rather human.