Learning to detach starts with simply noticing our own judgmental thoughts. When we find ourselves using words like should or ought, we're courting dirty pain. Obsessing about what should be rather than accepting what is, we may try to control other people in useless, dysfunctional ways. We may impotently rage against nature itself, even—perhaps especially—when that nature is our own.
This amounts to mental suicide. Resisting what we can't control removes us from reality, rendering our emotions, circumstances, and loved ones inaccessible. The result is a terrible emptiness, which we usually blame on our failure to get what we want. Actually, it comes from refusing to accept what we have.
Victory By Surrender
Most of us see yielding as the ultimate failure, but that's absurd when the war is between us and reality. Surrendering our delusions allows the truth to set us free. And how do we surrender? Two words: Observe compassionately.
That's why tiny, placard-bearing folks are marching out of my ear—ACT therapists suggest this as a way of detaching from my controlling thoughts. As instructed, I imagine that my thoughts are written on the placards. "I have jet lag" says one, carried by a weary-looking woman. The next marcher is an angry child whose sign says "I hate jet lag." The next marcher looks very tense; hers says "I won't be able to sleep tonight." And the troubling story continues: "I'll be exhausted tomorrow." "I'll look awful." "I'll blither like an idiot..."
Oh yes, I'm manufacturing plenty of dirty pain. That's just what my brain does. I can't completely control it, any more than I can control my body. That's okay. Right now I'm...not trying to control anything. I'm just watching myself think, and that simple act is teaching me something astonishing: My thoughts aren't the truth, and what's more, they aren't me. I offer each marcher a loving thought ("I understand, honey. I hear you") but nothing more. The effect is downright weird: I can see my worries, but they aren't worrying me. Having stepped back from my mind's story, I've found a self that is deeper and stronger, a self that can care for the marchers in the procession without becoming their slave.
For centuries seekers have taught techniques for achieving this detachment (meditation and prayer are two golden oldies). It loosens the bonds of suffering in subtle but profound ways. Gently, gradually, an unshakable contentment arises from a wellspring at our very center, so that in time, even experiences we once feared and hated may become opportunities to awaken our capacity for joy.
I recently watched television interviews with two actresses, both in their late fifties. Each was asked if she'd found anything good about aging. Both snapped, "No. Nothing. It's horrible." A few days later, I saw Maya Angelou on TV. She said that aging was "great fun" and gleefully described watching her breasts in their "incredible race to see which one will touch my waist first." She was experiencing the same reality as the actresses but choosing to tell herself a different story. "Sure, the body is going," she said. "But so what?" Ms. Angelou has said many wise things, but I thought "So what?" was one of her wisest. It expressed the sweet detachment of someone who has learned how to rest in her real being and knows that it is made not of flesh or thought, but of love.