Words, like people, have personalities of different temperature: chilly, warm, and all the degrees of lukewarm. Take the word ‘detach’. There is something chilly and clinical about it – “the wounded surgeon plies the steel.”
Still, it is the word that is used by saints and mystics (or their translators) to describe a movement of the spiritual life. It may be a good thing to be told bluntly – with no euphemisms, no avoidance – that this is what is facing us. Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, Jesus said, than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. We should probably interpret that to mean ‘people attached to their riches’, because there are a few rich people who are very generous in spreading their riches around. Only our essential being can go through the eye of the needle; no attachments will get through.
Our real attachment is to ourselves – to our ego. Wealth would be meaningless if it didn’t pander to the ego. Look at the sky at night; think of all the mineral wealth up there! But it doesn’t do anything for the ego: we can't show it off, and it doesn’t make us feel big and important – so we don’t bother to look up. Look at the beauty of this blue planet, but many people don’t bother to look at things unless they are for sale. In all our attachments it is ourselves we are attached to. Unless you have given yourself up, Meister Eckhart never tires of repeating, you have given up nothing. The Gospel calls us to give ourselves up. Why? Because that is the only way to the kingdom of God (which means the Presence of God). The ego cannot pass through the eye of the needle.
To say it another way: we have to be pushed beyond where we want to go; every move of our own would be a tactical move in the interests of the ego itself. St Peter got this message from the Lord himself: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (Jn 21:18).
Is there anything we can do, then? Yes, we go on with our life – but we try “to take everything evenly from the hand of God” (Meister Eckhart). In other words, we try not to recoil from everything that doesn’t appeal to us, and we try not to grab at everything that does. We try not to be dictated to by our fears and our greed. We try to stay steady – detached from the urges that pull us back and forth like the pendulum of a clock. Fear and greed. Fear makes us go backwards, greed makes us go forward: tick, tock…. This pendulum keeps swinging all day long, every day – and even at night in our dreams.
We are not to be detached from things because we despise them or don’t care about them. The reason is just about the opposite: we love and respect things enough to let them go. The same Eckhart said that something is really ours only when we have let it go free. This came home to me once when I saw a rose garden with a large sign that said ‘Keep out’. I stopped and looked for ages at those roses, which were exceptionally fine. It occurred to me that they belonged more to people like me who saw them than to the people who owned them. The owners were attached to them, and they had all the worries about black spot and greenfly. But any passer-by could enjoy them purely. There’s no rule that says ‘Don’t look’.
Because ‘detachment’ sounds so cold, so unloving, many now prefer the word ‘non-attachment’. It comes to the same thing – yet you could write a poem about non-attachment, but hardly about the other.