Practical Philosophy

Detached Openness

It’s often bandied about that optimism–no, pessimism–no, optimism is the key to being happy. I don’t think either, in the way we commonly understand them, has the potential to be the answer. Both require a unique flavor of delusion to do full time, and all delusion is detrimental.

“Detached openness” is a phrase I invented (or encountered, one can never be certain about such things) a few years ago. It is a shorthand of the disposition I thought (and think) ideal for moving through the world and being happy doing so.

While that alone may be enough for your understanding, let me clarify my understanding of these two words, as the standard definition of each is unlikely to illuminate what I think I mean.

Detachment, Buddhists caution, should not be mistaken for the ideal of non-attachment. While there’s certainly wisdom in that distinction, my understanding of detachment isn’t so narrow. The quickest way to differentiate the cautioned against detachment and what I mean by detachment seems to be these quotes from the Wikipedia pages for emotional detachment and detachment respectively.

[Emotional detachment] refers to an “inability to connect” with others emotionally, as well as a means of dealing with anxiety by preventing certain situations that trigger it; it is often described as “emotional numbing” or dissociation, depersonalization or in its chronic form depersonalization disorder.

Detachment, also expressed as non-attachment, is a state in which a person overcomes his or her attachment to desire for things, people or concepts of the world and thus attains a heightened perspective.

This proper understanding of detachment means knowing that not getting that promotion will not be the end of you. Exercised more strongly, it means knowing that the success or failure in this promotion process should in no way affect your self-worth or career objectives. At best, it means never even entertaining any of those thoughts. In this situation, one should understand the lower form of detachment as refusing to even try to get the promotion for fear of all the mentioned turmoil.

Openness here is understood as not dissimilar from optimism. It is being open to the possibility contained in every minute and seeing the good that can come out of seemingly bad things. It consists in being able to see the beauty in a piece of trash, the possibility in everything. I reach here for a quotation from Henry Miller:

Life moves on, whether we act as cowards or as heroes. Life has no other discipline to impose, if we would but realize it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such.

I fail to see much with which I can supplement that.

The combination of these may be clear to you, but some illumination: detached openness recognizes the beauty in a sunset without striving to make it last in any way. It recognizes that the uncapturable ephemeral should not be held onto jealously or regretted when gone. Neither of those actions it helpful to your current mental health, nor do they enhance what was.

Ideally, we do this with all thing. We strive to see what good is unfolding without seeking to shape or change what we cannot. When something changes over which we have no control, we recognize it and seek to find good in the new order of thing. When something doesn’t change that we want to, we reassess and accept the unchanged situation without getting emotional. (Yes, I did basically steal this from the Serenity Prayer.)

I would make clear that I am no master of this disposition. I am prone to practicing the inferior form of detachment. I regularly find things ugly or infuriating or just plain bad. And I’m not always able to practice detached openness when attempting to correct these flaws.

Nor is this the only thing one needs. Other things certainly matter in life beyond your basic disposition to the world. Staying present for what is happening, to choose just one example, can get you at least as far.

But I feel rather certain that this disposition is the most healthy and useful one I’ve encountered in my life. Beyond pessimism or optimism, I believe detached openness is the secret to what mental balance I have and what happiness I find.

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One thought on “Detached Openness

  1. first of all … i’m really glad to see that you’ve decided to write on your blog. your planned approach is the one that i take … except i’m going for whatever comes, which interestingly has consistently amounted to two posts a month.

    secondly, i have always loved the henry miller quote. i can’t tell you how many lines i frantically highlighted in tropic of cancer.

    i see what you’re talking about manifested simply in the tao te ching. that is one book i go back to frequently and is very accessible and easy to read.

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