Gain self-confidence

More peace and less stress by detaching yourself

Martine Mussies
by Martine Mussies
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For the umpteenth time, you lie wide awake at night staring at the ceiling. Mulling, grinding. Ruminating about what happened, for example. And/or making up doomsday scenarios for the future. Which leaves you sitting at work like a zombie the next day. That has to change, but how? For reflection, in this blog I share two stories about detachment from the Zen tradition: one about the nonjudgmental attitude and one about letting go. With three rules of thumb and some reflection questions for detachment. Sleep well!

I sit in seiza, the Japanese meditation posture, frantically trying to detach. Meanwhile, my head is spinning overtime. “Yep, my thoughts are clouds in the sky, or yes, leaves in the water, whatever…. but shit, if I don’t make that deadline!” That doesn’t work at all, of course. How do you do that, detach and let go? For me, something finally dawned on me when sensei told me about the Farmer and his Horse. Here it comes:

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Once upon a time… in ancient China … a peasant who owned a horse. “You are so lucky!” said his neighbors, “to have a horse to pull the cart for you.” “Perhaps,” replied the farmer.

One day the farmer did not close the gate properly and the horse ran away. “Oh no! This is terrible news!” his neighbors cried. “Such a terrible accident!” “Perhaps,” replied the farmer.

A few days later, the horse returned and brought back six wild horses. “How fantastic! You are so lucky,” his neighbors told him. “Now you’re rich!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next week, the farmer’s son broke his leg while trying to tame one of the wild horses. “Oh no!” cried the neighbors, “such bad luck!” “Maybe,” replied the farmer.

The next day the soldiers came and took all the young men to fight in the war. The farmer’s son was left behind, for a cripple was of no use to them. “You are so lucky!” cried his neighbors. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

There are different versions of this story, with different situations in which the farmer, his horses and his son find themselves. But the moral of it always remains the same: when we interpret a situation as only negative or, on the contrary, only positive, that shapes the way we feel, and that shapes the way we react.

The story of the Taoist farmer shows that we can never really know how a situation will turn out. The fact is that there are no intrinsic “opportunities” or “disasters”: there is only what happens and how we choose to respond. In other words, it is not the situation that guides us, it is our thoughts about the situation.

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“Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment… Surrender to what is.
Say ‘yes’ to life – and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.” (Tolle)

Looking at it this way, doesn’t it make much more sense to look for the opportunities in every situation? When we do, we take another step where we use change to become stronger. But to do that, then, we have to let go of our previous ideas.

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And detach.

And although I say I want that, something in me doesn’t want that at all. I don’t want to let go, I want to control. And as a result, I am often frustrated, unsatisfied, angry, dissatisfied and disappointed. I hate it when things go differently than I planned them.

Somehow it is not strange that I am not very good at letting go, because holding on is what I have always done. Letting go is new. And growing hurts. On the beach, I grab a handful of sand and the harder I try to squeeze it, the faster it slips through my fingers and out of my hands. Only when I relax and hold my hand open does it stay down. And I even see a small worm. That too is allowed to be there – it is what it is and so it is good.

Practice makes perfect, and in the moments when I succeeded, I felt liberated from ballast. But how can I practice letting go? “Observe, accept, let go,” says sensei. First quietly feel what is alive and happening in me. Then fully accept it as it is, without resistance.

3 Rules of thumb for detachment

And then I can let it go, because I no longer have any influence over it anyway. Easier said than done. And for me, paradoxically, detachment works only with the grip of a few rules of thumb. Herewith my top three:

  1. Put things into perspective. If I don’t meet that deadline, will the world perish? Fortunately, I don’t have that much power.
  2. An alternative. Plan B, C, …Z. If I don’t make that deadline, what do I do? And also: what is the worst that can happen and if that happens, what do I do?
  3. Focus on my bigger goal in life. I am a musician and the stress and pressure at a concert are enormous. Then I try to think of my greater Why. Humanity, the cosmos, needs beauty, and I make music to put people in touch with a glimpse of beauty, to let them enjoy it. And do they really enjoy it significantly less if I play two wrong notes during a two-hour concert? Nope.

These three rules of thumb are mostly about my fear of the future, the unknown. But stress about the past can also get in your way quite a bit. With both, the key remains to stay in the moment. And there is also a beautiful parable about this, that of the Two Monks and the Woman:

An older and a younger monk were traveling together. At one point they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman who was also trying to cross. The young woman asked if she could help her cross over to the other side.

The two monks looked at each other because they had taken a vow not to touch a woman. Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, gently placed her on the other side and continued his journey.

The younger monk could not believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them. Two more hours and then three, and finally the younger monk could not hold back any longer and he spoke out, “As monks we are not allowed to touch women, how can you carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I left her by the river hours ago, why do you still carry her with you?”

This simple Zen story has a beautiful message about living in the present moment. We can choose to ruminate about past actions or events, but that is an energy leak, because the “now” is the only place we are. And if “now” is as unpleasant or difficult, we can ask ourselves what we would say to a loved one if the same thing happened to them.

My tips would be: “focus your attention on your breath, on your body. And focus your attention on what is there, the beauty of imperfection”. Because only in this way do I feel simultaneously present and detached, like in the middle of a hurricane.

Have you experienced “disasters” lately and want to detach yourself more from them? How did you respond? How would – in the moment – the Taoist farmer have reacted? And what – afterwards – would the elderly monk have said? What would you advise a loved one who is in a similar situation to your “disaster”…?

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