Detachment and Parenthood
All mystics impress upon spiritual seekers the importance of trying to become detached from the world because union with the Lord occurs only when we are free from the ties binding us to the material world. Detachment, the process of disconnecting the mind from the external world, requires us to live in the world but not to be of the world. Maharaj Charan Singh gives the following analogy in Quest for Light to explain what this means:
A follower of Sant Mat should enjoy life just as a bee sitting on the rim enjoys the honey in the cup. It enjoys the sweetness of the honey and flies away with clean wings. But if that very bee were to sit in the middle of the cup of honey, its wings would be soiled and it would drown, thus giving up its life.
The Master explains that leading a spiritual life does not mean closing ourselves off to all that is enjoyable but neither should we become so engrossed in pleasures, activities and relationships that we neglect cultivating a relationship with the Lord. Whilst it is hard to disagree with the logic of this advice, it is not always easy to put into practice – especially as a parent. Of all our many relationships, the parent-child bond is the strongest, raising the question of how exactly we are to remain detached whilst parenting – a life-long commitment that is second only to our commitment as disciples. This article offers one perspective on managing this tension.
Attachment to material possessions
Although our tastes, desires and lifestyles differ, generally, our attachments fall into three categories, each of which forms a barrier between ourselves and the Lord. First are material possessions and symbols of wealth and status. The amount of time and energy we devote to work often exceeds that which we need to meet our needs comfortably. Sometimes we justify this by saying that we want to pass material benefits on to our children. Yet the best legacy we can leave them is the example of good human values and love for the Lord.
Attachment to family and friends
Attachments to family and friends are yet more powerful because the strength of these bonds directly hinders our progress on the spiritual path. Indeed, in Saint Matthew’s gospel in the Bible Jesus states that “a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” because they command so much of our attention. We have a habit of going beyond the duties required of the familial roles to which we are assigned. Our attachment blinds us to their transitory nature and the realization that all relationships, no matter how deep they appear, are nothing more than the settlement of karmic accounts. As Maharaj Charan Singh explained, “We are like birds that take shelter in a tree in the evening, but with the first light of dawn, each flies off on its own way.” In our illusion, we fail to recognize that our real relationship is with the Lord. This began before time and it is the revival of this connection that should preoccupy our thoughts and efforts.
Attachment to the self
Our third attachment, to the self and the ego, is by far the strongest of all and accordingly constitutes the biggest barrier. Our sense of ‘me’ and ‘I-ness’ – the belief that one has an independent self – is the cause of our entrapment in the cycle of birth and death. In fact, as explained in Buddhism: Path to Nirvana, the concept of the individual self is so detrimental to spiritual practice that in answer to the question of what should be eradicated, the Buddha always replied, “The conceit of I.” It is this conceit of “I-ness” that makes us think in terms of “my husband”, “my wife”, “my daughter”, “my son”. And the sense of ownership, besides being mistaken, can create conflict as children grow up and seek an independent life. Loving should not involve possession.
Why attachments occur
In the Bible, the prophet Ecclesiastes declares that God has “set the world in their heart”, meaning he has created a tendency within us to become attached to the objects and ideas of the world. This instinct is our survival mechanism, a practical response to life on the material plane. Our faculties for acquisition and possession enable us to obtain food, shelter and other necessities, which in turn make it possible for us to live life for its highest purpose – seeking the Lord within. Over time, these instincts have become unbalanced and distorted. The faculty for acquisition has turned to greed, a compulsion to acquire more and more, way beyond the bounds of need. The instinct for possession has turned into an obsessive attachment to the people and objects acquired – we forget that they are gifts, believing instead that they belong to us.
But why exactly have our natural instincts come to dominate? The explanation lies in the illusion created by maya, the dominance of the mind, and the bondage of the soul. From the moment of its separation from the Lord, the soul became inextricably tied to the mind. On the material plane, both are engulfed in a veil of illusion and ignorance, a condition exacerbated by the mind’s relentless pursuit of sensual gratification despite the suffering that ensues. This lethal cocktail of attachment, egotism and maya means that the mind refuses to give up the very attachments that keep it and the soul from attaining liberation. The situation is compounded further as the mind mistakenly tries to mask the soul’s innate yearning with new attachments.
The mind’s attachment to possessions and relationships have three profound consequences. The first is that we cannot escape the cycle of birth and death. In Quest for Light, Maharaj Charan Singh makes clear that even if we practise meditation regularly, our attachments will bring us back to the world. He unequivocally states: “You go where your attachments are and you reap what you sow. These are eternal laws which work in this creation and every soul is bound by them.” The law of karma is paramount. As well as governing the domain of action – as one sows, so one reaps – karmic law functions at the level of the mind by creating an indelible imprint of our entire mental activity in order that every idea, aspiration, desire is fulfilled. Since it is impossible to actualize our multitude of desires in one lifetime, karmic law dictates that we must take birth in another body. Our attachments therefore are responsible for keeping us imprisoned in the cycle of life and death.
Our coming back to the world is not pain-free and this constitutes the second effect. In Buddhist philosophy ‘suffering’ represents a core feature of human life and attachments constitute the primary source. This is not to deny that they may have provided pleasure and happiness for a short period but eventually all attachments, in one way or another, lead to suffering. The pain that we feel upon the death of a loved one is perhaps the clearest example of this.
Our continued separation from the Lord is by far the gravest consequence of all. Attachments make us forget the real purpose of human life. Spirituality is often another item to fit in a busy schedule, rendering concentration at the eye centre virtually impossible, and consequently our inner journey barely begins. Indeed, as recorded in the gospel of Saint Matthew, Jesus says that anyone who is attached primarily to the world is “unworthy of me”. In this context, ‘unworthy’ means we will continue to be bound by our attachments; we will therefore remain in the realm of birth and death, unable to find the spiritual form of the Master inside and thus unable to return to God.
The mystics’ sword: Truth and Love
To rise above our attachments, we must go to a mystic. In the gospel of Saint Matthew, Jesus states, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth, I came not to send peace, but a sword.” And in the gospel of Saint John, he tell us, “For judgement I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.” In these statements, Jesus is emphasizing that the role of the Master is to detach us from the world. Using the sword as a metaphor, he creates a vivid image of the mystics literally severing the roots of all our attachments. This they do by teaching us a spiritual exercise that liberates our soul, reuniting us with the Lord. So, when Jesus states that the mystics make blind those who can see, he means that because some of us are so attached to the world and have all but forgotten the Lord, the mystics impart the gift of love for the Lord, and it is this which finally quenches the desire for possessions and, in effect, makes us blind to materiality.
Parenthood and detachment
Where does this discussion leave us as parents? How do we reconcile the overwhelming love we feel for our children with the spiritual goal of detachment? The foundational principle of spirituality is that our essence is the same as the God that dwells within us – love. Therefore, it is natural for us to both give and receive love. When the mystics encourage us to live in the world without being of the world, they do not expect us to deny the love we feel for children or others. Given that we are driven by a powerful ego, it is love that helps us fulfil our obligations to them. Moreover, detachment cannot be forced – it will happen naturally as our meditation strengthens and love for the Master grows which, in turn, develops in relation to how much effort we put into our meditation.
Remembering the Lord brings us to the crux of what the mystics expect of us in relation to detachment. Whilst enjoying our time with the family, they impress upon us not to forget the Lord. This means practising meditation on a daily basis even when demands on our time are the greatest. In the early years of parenting, on some days this may mean a mere thirty minutes here or an hour there. The important point is to devote some time to meditation every day.
At our level of understanding, we typically view detachment as the end game. However, as our consciousness develops, we transcend the desire for detachment, realizing there was nothing to detach from since nothing ever belonged to us in the first place. As quoted in Concepts and Illusions, “Spiritual maturity lies in the readiness to let go of everything. The giving up is the first step. But the real giving up is in realizing that there is nothing to give up, for nothing is your own.” In other words, once we have removed the shackles of attachment, we will realize that the truth has always been with us.