The reason why Buddhism is so concerned with detachment is because it frees one, not just in a physical sense, but also to be able to experience. Thomas Merton, in his Asian Journal, was struck by how often he encountered ordinary Tibetans going about their everyday tasks humming a mantra. Normally our minds are filled with trains of discursive thought in a reciprocal dialogue with the senses. Thought initiates feelings and emotions; bodily feelings and emotions initiate thoughts. There is a constant interplay which only ceases when the attention is absorbed by a particular task or social interaction. Even there, habituation often allows thoughts and feelings to gain a foothold and interfere with the task in hand.

In meditation, at the beginning at least, the object is to break the thought-feeling interaction and simply become aware. Focusing the attention on the breath, or the mantra does eventually lead to simple awareness. It also leads to something else much more subtle. This simple awareness is a limit situation.

According to Karl Jaspers limit situations are dramatic events, like the birth of a child, marriage, or death of a loved one, in which we become aware of the limits of existence. The fact that we are aware of the limits as limits means that we have in some obscure way seen beyond them. A horizon is only a horizon because we can see beyond it. We are not normally aware of the limits of our existence just as we are not normally aware of the limits of our field of view.

In that simple awareness of meditation, in that, often boring, non-eventful state, we are aware, very dimly perhaps, of the limits of existence, of the horizon of our being. We have acquired an awareness of transcendence. During the day, whenever we are doing anything which does not require mental attention, the mantra, which has being saying itself quietly in the depths somewhere, surfaces and becomes conscious. Once again we are in touch with transcendence and everything falls into perspective. All this is very gentle, very subtle and is easily swamped by feelings. Hence the need for detachment. To quote Peter Harvey:

The citta of one on the Buddhist path should not be at the mercy of outside stimuli, nor of its own moods etc. but should be an island of calm, imbued with self-control, self-contained. It should no longer be scattered and diffused but should be more integrated and consistently directed towards one goal, nibbhana. (Harvey, P.; The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism, Curzon Press. London 1995 p. 55)

I think this process of becoming one-pointed and detached is a return to innocence. Particular memories, attachments and feelings are all aspects of a component of the personality. They are personality-factors. While they are alive and active they designate something of what we are. Time does not heal the wounds of the bad deeds of the past as long as the roots that gave rise to them are still alive and active, and they are active as long as the memories and attachments still have the power to move us. So they have to be exorcised. The process of detachment involves a review, more or less drawn out, of the past. Memories are paraded before the eye of the mind until we can look at them with neither desire nor loathing. To quote Harvey again,

He or she is thus very self-contained and self-controlled, with a “diamond-like citta”, unperturbed and “unsoiled” by anything. His or her senses are not tied to their objects and he has perfected “dwelling alone” by letting go of everything, such as the personality-factors, with no attachment or repugnance. (op. cit. p. 63)

The result will be to see everything like a child, fresh, new, full of wonder, filled with beauty and joy. This is not an easy process. It will involve much suffering. I think the only thing to do is to take each day as it comes, sometimes perhaps, each hour and look no further than the present moment. There is a very telling comment by William Johnston – ‘Buddhists speak out of the experience of enlightenment, Western theologians talk out of books.’ (William Johnston; letter to The Tablet 21 February 1998)

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