These few ruminations were prompted by a comment from someone whom I will call ‘the correspondent’. He or she was worried that much of contemporary ‘spiritual’ practice seemed to encourage a level of self-absorption and worldly detachment that, to the correspondent, seemed little different to the state of depression. Thus, here I am trying to tackle several topics at once, and therefore they may seem to be a bit jumbled up, for which I apologise.
The original comment opened a deep chasm, suggesting that practices of detachment could lead to a state not dissimilar to depression. To this, my first response is that among the defining characteristics of depression are a sense of despair and a sense isolation in some cases, and in others such an emotional numbness that even feelings of isolation and despair are beyond reach. As I understand the spiritual exercises designed to achieve detachment these are not the desired outcomes, although if one becomes too detached this in itself can lead to a form of depression.
But detachment, when interpreted in the Buddhist sense of non-attachment, can have beneficial results. Buddhist detachment, however, is not detachment from the world per se, but more about detachment from the emotions and expectations that we routinely ascribe to the world. When practising non-attachment it is perfectly possible, for example, to experience anger, know that one is angry, and allow the anger to be just as it is without suppressing it. But one does not dwell on the anger, instead simply letting it be and allowing it to pass without clinging onto it further. Thus the Zen and Taoist insistence on seeing the ‘world in itself’ rather than the ‘world as we think it’ or ‘world as we wish it to be’ is really an insistence on opening our eyes and not clouding them with presumptions. This is far from being detached, in the sense of isolated from (and armoured against) the world in which we live, and can, in fact be extremely helpful to those who suffer from depression, although it can also be a very painful process (I know, I’ve been through it many times in my own struggle with clinical depression).
As to the ‘escape’ mode, in which we seek to escape to a ‘better world’ divorced from the gross world in which we must live (because that is the state of being alive), there are several possible dangers attendant upon ‘spiritual’ practice. To seek the ‘Faery Realm’ (as an example) can only lead to one of two outcomes: utter despair and cynicism when it is not found; or utter loss of all perspective on the ‘real’ world (i.e. the world of consensus reality). Here I will share a brief personal version of this. I used to consult the I Ching on a regular basis. On the one hand this made me miserable, because I never got the readings I ‘wanted’, and was not affirmed by what I read. On the other hand I became gradually incapable of making decisions without the I Ching. Similar dangers attend all ‘oracles’ including the Tarot. Eventually I weaned myself off the I Ching, but it was a struggle, and while I still esteem the book, I am wary of using it too much these days and prefer to meditate instead. This is, I think, part of what the correspondent was alluding to about detachment from the ‘real’ world.
As to depression itself, when one is aware of going into a ‘downer’ there is a sense of being on a tilted surface covered in slippery oil, and feeling oneself sliding inexorably to where one really doesn’t want to go. Weirdly, however, depression is sometimes paradoxically comforting, because familiar, and it is nowhere near as threatening as the outside world which is not under one’s control. A strange paradoxical comfort in misery, which can also be quite seductive. And the other paradox of depression that I am aware of is that it is the seat of creativity, at least it has always been the great engine underlying my creativity, such as it is.
Here are some definitions that I work to: Religion comprises doctrine, and prescribes a series of more or less obligatory observances, behaviours and attitudes, many of them completely divorced from anything remotely spiritual. It is therefore possible to be religious without being spiritual. Spirituality is a sense of, or an attempt to achieve, a sense of connectedness to ‘something greater’ than oneself. Note that this can also include connectedness with, say, the idea of ‘art’, or ‘social justice’ or ‘beauty’ or ‘nature’, and it does not necessarily entail any form of religion (I think this should make it very clear where I am coming from). The sense of connectedness seems to be what people are describing when they report ‘peak experiences’, those moments when everything seems to fall into place.
Thus, working to these definitions, spirituality should never result in ‘detachment’ in the negative sense. Indeed complete detachment is a form of self-induced schizophrenia. Non-attachment, however, is perfectly possible within a sense of spiritual connectedness; being connected, but not oneself the centre of the connectedness is an interesting experience, and one to be valued.
For me spirituality and negative detachment are polar opposites and more or less mutually exclusive (except that we are exceedingly complex animals who seem to be able to achieve all sorts of impossible mental gymnastics). The sense of being egoless is not that of permanently losing oneself in the vastness of either reality or fantasy. I do not believe that it is possible to lose the ego entirely; we are always the centre of the (our own) universe, but it is healthy to be reminded from time to time that we are only the centre of our own perceptions. The phrase ‘get over yourself’ captures the necessity of being reminded that we are not, in point of fact, the centre of any universe except our own. The correspondent seemed to be worried that new-age ‘spirituality’ is really about bolstering the sense of the self-centred universe, and thus losing oneself in a morass of self-absorbed non-reality (detachment from consensus reality). But, and I think this is really important, spirituality, as I understand it, is about being aware of the vastness of reality, and a sense of where we locate within that vastness.