A Gathering on the Shore
Old Orchard Beach, Maine
"Detachment" can sound cold and aloof. This need not be. Detachment opens a spaciousness for deep connection. Detachment can be an opening to the arising of warmth from the heart.
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A young monastic came to Abba Macarius, one of the desert fathers, and the young brother asked how he could become a holy man. The wise abba told him to go to the nearby cemetery and spend the day abusing the dead. He was to yell at them with all his vigor, even throwing stones. The brother thought this instruction strange but did as told.
The brother returned to the abba, who asked, "What did they say to you?" "Nothing," the brother replied. " Then, go back tomorrow and praise them," said the old man. "Call them apostles, saints, and righteous men and women. Think of every compliment you can." The brother did as told.
The brother returned to the monastery, and Abba Macarius asked him, "What did they say this time?" "They still didn't say a thing," replied the brother. "Ah! they must, indeed, be holy people," said the abba. "You insulted them, and they didn't reply. You praised them, and they didn't speak. Go and do likewise, my friend, taking no account of either the scorn or praise of others, and you'll be a holy man."
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The Early Desert Fathers and Mothers of Christianity sought apatheia - calm abiding, holy indifference. Buddhists speak of this as upeksha, Sanskrit "equanimity," one of the Four Factors of Awakening (Four Limitless Meditations, Four Qualities of Love). These qualities are loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
An area we may be tested is what others say of us. As in the above story, this testing comes through others speaking positively or negatively about us. Abba Macarius and Buddhism agree we are to detach from how others evaluate us, period. If we attach to pleasing words about us, we will attach to displeasing ones.
Do we respond without feeling? Feelings arise. We accept them. When being complimented, likely a pleasing emotion will arise. A smile might come to the face. We might say something like, "Thank you! So kind of you." Being criticized, we may witness an afflictive feeling. We may, for a moment, wish to defend ourselves against what seems an insensitive attack. These responses are conditioned responses.
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A Buddhist story tells of a monk coming to his Teacher. The monk says, "Teacher, I've done what you said; I've learned detachment." "Good," said the Teacher, "now learn attachment." I speak of loving detachment, which is a form of connection. In loving detachment, one might speak of loving attachment.
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When I began preaching in Christian churches, I was very young - a teen. I had the habit of deflecting compliments. Persons would often come by and say something positive about the message I gave during worship. I stopped deflecting those compliments. A teacher told us, his students, that such was not respectful to the compliment givers. Afterward, I would reply with gratitude; I would say something like, "Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it." I allowed myself to enjoy compliments. I recognized, too, they could lead to pride. Pride would sever the humbleness essential to being a means of grace for the people.
I discovered a middle way - welcome, feel, do not cling. The same I learned, more slowly, about others speaking ill of me. In identifying the pain resulting from being ill-spoken of, we do not hold to it. We let it pass through us. While it hurts, it is a feeling, nothing more. As with all feelings, the hurt has no self-substance. The moment before being criticized, you had no pain. Possibly, you were happy. And denying the pain does not help; feeling guilty is not the answer either. We need to practice self-compassion, the same kindness we have toward others who suffer.
When someone speaks well or ill of us, it touches seeds within us. What arises can teach us. We can cultivate seeds like joy, peace, forgiveness, and gratitude; we can give loving attention to those seeds that appear as hurt. In nurturing the feeling of suffering, the light of love brings healing little by little. So, we do not judge our feelings of hurt; we love them. We hold the suffering tenderly, as though saying, "I'm here for you. I know how you feel. It's okay. Feel what you need to feel. We'll get through this together." We can talk to the feeling, if we choose.
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When upset with someone, I back away, look at what the feeling is and work with it in silent prayerfulness. This attending to the emotional means recognizing it is my teacher. The emotion is not I, and it does not define me. You and I are not bad for having a negative feeling, nor do we need to feel selfish for cherishing a pleasing feeling. Compliments and criticisms are equally our teachers. Our aspiration remains the opening of our heart more and more, not only to others but, also, to ourselves.
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*©Brian K. Wilcox, 2021.
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse.