Detachment is a difficult skill to master. For the most part, our thoughts are intertwined with our emotions. In fact, our feelings and thoughts are such a tangle that most of us are at a loss to know on what basis we process information and reach decisions.

Detachment gives us a broad perspective, whereas emotion makes us narrow-minded and frequently single-minded. Whatever emotions we are experiencing at the moment create a reality we think will never change.

This phenomenon explains why markets bubble and crash. When markets fall rapidly, panic sets in. People cannot imagine a situation in which prices will go up; even if their brains tell them a rally is inevitable, they just can’t help selling. Fear of a total loss is too powerful to resist.

Another kind of fear, fear of missing out (FOMO), explains why cryptocurrencies exploded in market value last year, far beyond their actual value. Many “herd” investors bought when prices were too high, and then hung on far too long when the market cratered. Fear is an unreliable motivator: People who buy when everyone is selling, and people who sell when everyone is buying, are the people who make the big money. These people practice detachment.

Wishful thinking: Don’t count your chickens ’til the cows come home.

Wishful thinking is fear’s equally evil twin. Some people have an amazing knack for filtering out any cautionary information or experience that might deter them from chasing their impossible dream. And yet actually, the dream could be quite attainable if the dreamer did less filtering and more figuring.

How do you cultivate detachment? Religions emphasize certain types of prayer. Philosophies emphasize meditation. Simple breathing exercises and more advanced biofeedback techniques can be quite effective. It helps to pray and meditate in solitude, but I’ve known experienced practitioners who could experience complete and tranquil detachment in the middle of Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Experience and knowledge also nurture detachment. People who once sold everything in a down market learn what would have happened if they’d held on, making it less likely they will engage in panic selling next time around. People who took the time to understand the intricacies of cryptocurrency put themselves in a position to time their buying and selling to maximize gains and minimize losses.

The point is not merely that emotionally-charged decisions are often bad ones. And certainly the point is not to banish emotion from our decision-making process; we are not robots, but creatures who think and feel our way through a maze of physical, mental and spiritual stimuli.

Master of detachment: St. John of the Cross.

The point is simply this. Detachment, in my view, is the ability to distinguish and manage our emotional and intellectual responses. Acquiring the ability to do this is extraordinarily valuable in any situation.

In good times, detachment keeps us humble and mentally prepared for an eventual and inevitable decline in fortunes. Someone once said, “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down.” Remembering that is a good way to stay up, even when you’re down.

In bad times, detachment gives us hope and comfort. Things may be a terrible mess today, but detachment assures us that our pain is temporary.  We will feel joy again. Only God knows whether it will come in a matter of years or a matter a minutes, but come it will.

(Image credits: Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons)

2 Replies to “Detachment”

  1. Excellent piece, Brad! I admit to struggling with the art of detachment. I think I’ve gotten better as the years have gone by, but I occasionally still encounter moments when logic and emotions collide.

    1. Thanks, Dawn. I wonder if detachment is something that improves with age … part of our natural development. The more experience you have, the broader your perspective becomes. But on the other hand, many older people are “set in their ways.”

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