Tuesday, July 11, 2006

learning to detach

This is an excerpt I really like from the book Tuesdays with Morrie. The book is about Morrie, a professor who in the last moments of his terminal illness imparts his lessons on life and living to one of his students. We have a tendency to fight strong emotions. We all crave drama but when it comes to real emotions, we shy away from them because we're afraid. I think most of the time the reason we're afraid of these emotions is because we feel like if we give in, we'll lose control. Morrie advises Mitch, his student, to just go with the emotions, as they come, to let go, to live them fully... and then, to detach from them.
We want to feel the emotions... but not too much. The problem is that when you keep fighting the emotions, they get bottled up and eventually they burst out of you at the wrong time and in the wrong form. Accepting that at a certain moment you feel a certain emotion, experiencing it completely .... but keeping in the back of your mind the awareness that you are in control, that this is a natural emotion, it has come.. and it will go - when youre ready - allows you to live it fully and then, to let it go and move on. It allows you to regain control and not to be a slave to your emotions.

The small horrors of his illness were growing, and when I finally sat down with Morrie, he was coughing more than usual, a dry, dusty cough that shook his chest and made his head jerk forward. After one violent surge, he stopped, closed his eyes, and took a breath. I sat quietly because I thought he was recovering from his exertion.

“Is the tape on?” he said suddenly, his eyes still closed.

Yes, yes, I quickly said, pressing down the play and record buttons.

“What I’m doing now,” he continued, his eyes still closed, “is detaching myself from the experience.”

Detaching yourself?

“Yes. Detaching myself. And this is important – not just for someone like me, who is dying, but for someone like you, who is perfectly healthy. Learn to detach.”

He opened his eyes. Exhaled.

“You know what the Buddhists say? Don't cling to things, because everything is impermanent.”

But wait, I said. Aren’t you always talking about experiencing life? All the good emotions, all the bad ones?


Well, how can you do that if you’re detached?

“Ah. You’re thinking, Mitch. But detachment doesn’t mean you don’t let the experience penetrate you. On the contrary, you let it penetrate you fully. That's how you're able to leave it.”

I’m lost.

“Take any emotion for example - love for a woman, or grief for a loved one, or fear and pain from a deadly illness. If you hold back on the emotions - if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them - you can never get to being detached. You're too busy being afraid. You're afraid of the pain, you are afraid of the grief. You are afraid of the vulnerability that loving entails. But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely. You know what pain is. You know what love is. You know what grief is. And only then can you say, "All right.i have experienced that emotion. I recognize that emotion. Now i need to detach from that emotion for a moment."

Morrie stopped and looked me over, perhaps to make sure I was getting this right.
“I know you think this is just about dying, “ he said, “but it’s like I keep telling you. When you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

Morrie talked about his most fearful moments, when he felt his chest locked in heaving surges or when he wasn’t sure where his next breath would come from. These were horrifying times, he said, and his first emotions were horror, fear, anxiety. But once he recognized the feel of those emotions, their texture, their moisture, the shiver down the back, the quick flash of heat that crosses your brain- then he was able to say, “Okay. This is fear. Step away from it. Step away.”
I thought about how often this was needed in everyday life. How we feel lonely, sometimes to the point of tears, but we don’t let those tears come because we are not supposed to cry. Or how we feel a surge of love for a partner but we don’t say anything because we're frozen with the fear of what those words might do to the relationship.

Morrie’s approach was exactly the opposite.
Turn on the faucet. Wash yourself with the emotion. It won’t hurt you. It will only help. If you let the fear inside, if you pull it on like a familiar shirt, then you can say to yourself, “Alright, it’s just fear, I don’t have to let it control me. I see it for what it is.”

Same for loneliness: you let go. Let the tears flow, feel it completely – but eventually be able to say, “All right, that was my moment with loneliness, I’m not afraid of feeling lonely, but now I’m going to put that loneliness aside and know that there are other emotions in the world, and I’m going to experience them as well.”

“Detach,” Morrie said again


Finally, in a whisper, he said, “I know how I want to die.”

I waited in silence.

“I want to die serenely. Peacefully. Not like what just happened.

“And this is where detachment comes in. If I die in the middle of a coughing spell like I just had, I need to be able to detach from the horror, I need to say, “This is my moment.”

"I don’t want to leave the world in a state of fright. I want to know what’s happening, accept it, get to a peaceful place, and let go. Do you understand?”

I nodded.

Don’t let go yet, I added quickly.

Morrie forced a smile. “No. Not yet. We still have work to do.”


At Tuesday, July 11, 2006 3:09:00 PM, Blogger pretzels said...

The state of mind described in your post is one discussed many times by many thinkers. The dichotomy is between people that passivly go through life and ones that activly live life. The active ones feel this kind of vitality that is missing from the passive ones.

At Tuesday, July 11, 2006 4:06:00 PM, Blogger Dot Co Dot Il said...

Your clarity of thought is amazing. Great post!

At Tuesday, July 11, 2006 4:08:00 PM, Blogger FrumGirl said...

I am totally working on this concept. It seems so easy but trying to apply it it so darned difficult! I thought it was amazing that you brought up this subject and I didnt know about this book. Now I am sure to buy it. And great pic!

At Tuesday, July 11, 2006 4:18:00 PM, Blogger anonym00kie said...

it makes sense it would be discussed by many, it can be such a huge part of your life once you realize how much of your reality is based on your perception and your attitude. gaining control of one's emotions and learning to experience them fully opens up a whole new world..

dot co dot il:
thanks, but theyre not my words, its an excerpt from a book :)

i dont know if its difficult to apply as much as it is to keep applying it. id like to say that from now on this is how i will live but then id be setting myself up for failure, so all i try to do is keep the concept fresh in my mind and when im faced with a situation i try to apply it. a 'one day at a time' kind of attitude.
regarding the book, its the kind of book u'll read in an afternoon, it has some beautiful lessons, but im sure a lot of it will be obvious to you. anyone who has torah in her life, and is a thinker will be aware of most of these concepts - still worth reading tho! his other book (the 5 poeple you meet in heaven) is more original/creative, but not as deep. enjoy!

At Tuesday, July 11, 2006 5:57:00 PM, Blogger Scraps said...

I have a difficult time with both ends of the advice--experiencing an emotion fully, head-on, without hesitation, and also detachment. They're things I need to work on.

At Tuesday, July 11, 2006 6:09:00 PM, Blogger anonym00kie said...

i hear you. and btw, thats specifically what i was referring to in my comments on your blog. learning to take control of our emotions and not letting them control us - SO HARD to do, but so important to aspire to.
(email me if you'd like)

At Tuesday, July 11, 2006 9:11:00 PM, Blogger socialworker/frustrated mom said...

This is very difficult to do in practice still trying. A rebbetzin I am close with says we have pockets and sometimes it is time to put s/t in the pocket. For ex. the rebbetzin in a course of a day may go to 3 funerals, 4 weddings, and 2 bar mitzvahs. So how can one have the proper emotions for each one? One needs to put the sadness of the funeral away when going to the wedding....This is so difficult and she is able to do this. Of course there is a time to feel the emotion but sometimes it has to be put away.

At Tuesday, July 11, 2006 11:52:00 PM, Blogger flör said...

m00kie- truer words..

frumgirl- try his other book too: The Five People You Meet in Heaven

At Wednesday, July 12, 2006 9:32:00 AM, Blogger Scraps said...

I'm very unskilled at compartmentalizing my emotions. They tend to leak and get messy all over.

At Wednesday, July 12, 2006 10:22:00 AM, Anonymous Eran @ Bangkok said...

I like your post very much.
I like you, too, very much.
You are funny lady and smart.
tuk tuk 10 baht?

At Wednesday, July 12, 2006 10:24:00 AM, Blogger David_on_the_Lake said...

Great way of dealing with things.
I remember a few years back I had tremendous physical pain..and I had read some thing like this..and I put it to use..it was incredible..I basked in the pain and then isolated it...It was almost like an out of body experience..yet I felt in control.

I think thats the key here..feeling in control...thats why u reach a state of peace..when theres fear..you panic..and dont feel any control.

At Wednesday, July 12, 2006 4:19:00 PM, Blogger kasamba said...

Great post!
I'm going to buy this book!

At Wednesday, July 12, 2006 5:05:00 PM, Blogger Sorlil said...

I'm not sure I like the concept of 'detatching' oneself from one's emotions, I feel the key thing here is being able to release the emotion then give it up or let it go - there is nothing easier than cherishing one's hurts / fears, the hard thing is letting it go after an appropriate time.

At Thursday, July 13, 2006 11:28:00 AM, Blogger David_on_the_Lake said...


At Thursday, July 13, 2006 2:23:00 PM, Blogger FrumGirl said...

Thanks for the recommendation, flor!

David, you feeling ok?

At Friday, July 14, 2006 7:39:00 AM, Blogger the only way i know said...

I did not read the story part yet -
but i must tell you that just yesterday, I read something about emotions - online - by R Soloveitchik - I will find it and post it to you - it's FULL of depth, insight and absolutely incredible..
I'll read the story soon - it sounds interesting..
shabbat shalom!!

At Friday, July 14, 2006 10:15:00 AM, Blogger anonym00kie said...

socialworker/frustrated mom:
I like that pocket analogy..
I think the message is to feel the emotion – completely – at the appropriate time, but then when that time is over, to realize that we are in control over our emotions, and not the other way around, to take a few minutes to regroup, and to put that emotion away..
It’s the only way to survive without getting burned out.. and without turning heartless..

truth can be found in all kinds of places..

not only you.. it’s really hard.. and most of us weren’t taught the appropriate skills.. but its never too late to learn..
the first step is becoming conscious that one’s emotions can come under control.. once that’s internalized, the skills on how to do that need to be learned.. but that’s much easier once you accept that is it possible..

eran @ Bangkok said...
swadika… so nice to see you here :)
omgomg look behind youuuuuu..
it’s a he..
it’s a she..
its...your new thai buddy??!

david that’s so true.. I had learned that a few years back, in terms of physical pain.. just accepting the pain, an riding the wave, not fighting it, letting it wash over you.. and then out of you..
but I never applied to my emotions.. and its amazing how well it works for both.

it’s pretty inspiring to see someone suffering like that ending his days in such a graceful way.. not something we’re used to seeing. enjoy!

It took me a while to accept it, but I think I used to be scared that detaching meant – not completely experiencing or feeling, and being the intense person I am, I didn’t want to lose that ability.
what I learned is that by learning to eventually detach, or release the emotion, we become less scared to feel it in the first place.

keep your germs on your own blog!!

the only way i know:
i’d love to see it. i love finding torah sources to something I learned elsewhere..

shabbat shalom boys and girls..

At Friday, July 14, 2006 12:06:00 PM, Blogger socialworker/frustrated mom said...

Yes you got it! That is exactly the point.

At Friday, July 14, 2006 1:14:00 PM, Blogger the only way i know said...


Mooks, here's the link i mentioned - hope you enjoy

At Friday, July 14, 2006 1:17:00 PM, Blogger the only way i know said...

david - was that Dr Sorno's book?
I know a few people who've used it effectively -(some from the bungalow colony, i'll admit! lol)

At Tuesday, July 18, 2006 10:44:00 PM, Blogger zenjew said...

hey i know this may sound strange...but i was rereading the tao te ching today and i thought of your post when i hit number 23 in the tao:

"express yourself completely
then keep quiet.
be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.

if you are open to the tao,
you are at one with the tao
and you can embody it completely.
if you open yourself to insight,
you are at one with insight
and you can use it completely.
if you open yourself to loss,
you are at one with loss
and you can accept it completely.

open yourself to the tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place."

live it completely--become it--"express yourself completely"--then detach--because you've expressed it totally, you know what that is, you've held it in your hands, you've let it wash over you--and you know what it is without fear--and you know its not *you*.

"then keep quiet".


At Tuesday, July 18, 2006 10:55:00 PM, Blogger anonym00kie said...

wow zenjew, thats amazing, thank you for sharing that!

At Friday, July 21, 2006 10:01:00 AM, Blogger A Frum Idealist said...

I definitely have difficuty detaching. I get immersed.
It helps though with being able to be "nosei b'ol im chaveri" which is probably one of my greatest strengths.


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