Monday, January 4, 2010

The joy of detachment

Happy New Year! We trust everyone had a wonderful holiday season (buttressed, of course, by the knowledge it was no more or less meaningful than any other season...)

We have been thinking a lot about detachment lately - in short, the ability to view one's physical (and mental) incarnation as one would view any other individual, rather than believing our self occupies some special and exalted place. We have discussed this many times, as this whole issue of shedding identity is critical to truly embracing the absurd.

For example, have you ever observed someone stuck in traffic - throwing up their hands, pounding on the steering wheel, or even yelling at the cars in front of them - and thought how ridiculous they look? Of course, to the individual who is racing to pick up his kids, or get to a job interview, or to any other "important" appointment, such an attitude seems the height of callousness. And indeed, we (as everyone else) have been in situations where it seemed vitally important to get to...whatever crucial and life-altering event awaited us. (Although now that we think about it we can't recall exactly what was so important - but it sure seemed so at the time!)

The point of detachment, therefore, is to view oneself as we view anyone else - to jettison our "knowledge" of what is or is not "important," and instead move through life with a true sense of equanimity. This, of course, is easier said than done - while the rational part of our brain may know we look ridiculous seething in our car, it is simply not so easy to override the reptilian part that knows we are late for the interview.

One method we have found useful in such situations (and yes, this may be considered a "trick") is to follow events down their ultimate path. For example, why does it bother us that we are late for the job interview? Well, we might not get the job! Which means...we might not be able to pay our mortgage...which will mean we have to move to a smaller place (or live on the streets!)...which will be significantly less comfortable (and more dangerous) than living in our house. The ultimate worry, of course, is that we might have less money with which to buy things such as food...which might endanger our survival (and that of our family). Or perhaps we are worried that not getting the job will affect our wife's opinion of us (or the opinion of women in general), which will restrict our access to sex.

Once we have determined the underlying worry (and this pretty much always comes down to food, sex, and shelter), it is an easy jump to the conclusion that the whole thing is a purely biologically-driven response, with a nod to Richard Dawkins' insight that humans are, essentially, gene-replication machines.

In other words, we are not worried about the job. We are worried (as always) about our ability to survive and reproduce, since these are the features which have enabled our genes themselves to survive. Our belief that the job is "important" is a cover-up of sorts, a culturally-driven abstraction to shield us from the horror that job or no...we (and our family) are eventually going to die.

Consider this: approximately 146,000 people die every day (that's about 100 a minute). Someday it will be you. Do you want to spend your remaining days planning for the "future," trying to craft a "full and meaningful" life that will still, in the final analysis, be no more consequential than dinosaur droppings, or would you rather live each day (and minute) as its own, taking joy from the simple fact of being alive?

Detachment provides a shortcut to this joy...


  1. What a refreshing post to begin the new year with (as arbitrary as a new year is). Another wonderful method to experience the detachment of which you speak is to visualize the insignificance of Earth in comparison to the vastness of space. Here's a great video for doing so:

  2. I used to practice Equanimity (as practiced among the Buddhist circles). It involved trying not to get affected, rather stay calm/unaffected, by the feelings generated by the reptilian brain. Sometimes detachment from uncomfortable feelings do reasonably work (mild lust or irritation, for instance), but sometimes not (intense love for someone).

    What works for me now is minimization of these good (love, compassion) and bad (anger, fear) feelings by replacing them with felicitous feelings of joy, enjoyment, fascination, etc. (by way of the Actualism method).

    Where did you come across the idea of practicing detachment/equanimity? These ideas originated in ancient spiritual traditions .. while they alter one's perception/thinking, they do not evoke any fundamental chance in the psyche (so, for instance, "fear" of losing a job would no longer arise .. instead of arising and getting 'accepted' by the person).


  3. Detachment is extremely difficult in practice. I am realizing lately, as an Absurd Man originally "programmed" with religion, that I've been lacking the basic human need of community. People from my past are religious. But how does one find more substantial absurdist / atheist community? We don't exactly go to church on Sunday and a lot of us who have "broken out" of a religious background are, I'll bet, like me--struggling with isolation and depression. Following this column--and I *never* follow feeds on the Internet--is my first step in trying to figure out how to feed my "anti-Spiritual" needs. My working theory is that the lack of any like-minded community is aggravating my feelings of isolation and depression.

  4. Srid-

    Krishnamurti has probably been our greatest influence in this area - one of the themes he returns to again and again is the concept that identity is ephemeral (and dangerous), and that the capacity to observe oneself and one's emotions, etc. is the path to true freedom.

  5. Anonymous-

    You raise an interesting point - anyone who has come to this view of the world must (or is very likely to) go through exactly what you describe. Because in large part, the recognition of the absurd it that we are all alone, and that all the things we do to shield ourselves from this reality (friends, family, work, etc.) are no more than smokescreens.

    However, if you are able to come to terms with this (and we expect you will), you will find that this aloneness is actually liberating rather than depressing. (Ludwig Bemelmans, who was quite an absurd man in addition to writing children's books, referred to himself as an "alonegoer" - see Inigo's June 4 post "The Professor of Happiness" for more on him.)


  6. Anonymous,

    The need for community and social acceptance is a legitimate need, but it might be helpful to understand why you have this need. It's possible that some of these desires have been manufactured by the dominate social structure.

    An interesting book on this topic (Solitude: A Return to Self - by Anthony Storr) traces some of these desires back to their psychological and social roots, while giving reasons why solitude and aloneness often provide the foundation for some of the most profound human experiences.

  7. I have a question. Does it matter if you see the absurdity of life? I mean you, Rick Bomstein. Does it matter if you see it or forget it? Does it matter if you wake up tomorrow and forgot everything you learned? If you go back to the futile and desparate attempt to find meaning in life. Remember how truly afraid and worried you used to get sometimes about 'important' things. Would it matter at all if you returned to living life that way, starting now? (This is a sincere question that I ask in order to learn something.)

  8. Anonymous-

    No - it doesn't matter more than anything else. We prefer to live this way, but a preference does not confer importance. Either everything matters...or nothing does.

    Your question reminds us of a scene in The Matrix, where a character named Cypher (who has been shown the world outside the Matrix) decides he would rather forget this knowledge and go back to living in the Matrix:

    "Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?
    [Takes a bite of steak]
    Cypher: Ignorance is bliss."

    We have made a different choice, but that it all it is...

  9. Thank you very much. I like that a lot. Going one step further, would the following statement be true, false, or something else: "It does not matter AT ALL if the remainder of the life of Rick Bomstein is full of freedom and joy, or if it is a living hell of pain, regret, fear, and worry. It does not matter one bit." (Note: I just read my question objectively and it almost sounds like I am trying to be Socratic or prove something, but that's not the case at all. It is a sincere question.) So, true, false, or something else? I love this site by the way.

  10. Hello Rick, me again, I hope you don’t mind me posting again. I seem to be full of contradictory views on the absurd condition. As I said before, I will desist if you prefer, but I like the exchange of views myself. So with that said I will continue to express my views concerning your posts.

    You wrote…

    “Do you want to spend your remaining days planning for the "future," trying to craft a "full and meaningful" life that will still, in the final analysis, be no more consequential than dinosaur droppings, or would you rather live each day (and minute) as its own, taking joy from the simple fact of being alive?”

    I fail to see how this is an either/or situation. The recognition of the absurd certainly teaches appreciation of the ‘now’, for the present moment, but equally, the reality of the world, as perceived by our human understanding, teaches a certain appreciation of forethought. I have found that I can easily balance both. I have found that I am more able to appreciate the ‘now’ BECAUSE of my ability to consider the future, and whether or not this has any consequence beyond my life is totally irrelevant to this fact.

    I generally agree with Richard Dawkins’ view that we seem to be merely gene-replication machines, this in large part leads to the realization of the absurd condition, but a major component part of this gene-replication machinery is our ability to be forward looking. It goes hand in hand with the ability to experience the joy of being alive; in fact it seems to me to be the flip side of the exact same coin.

    Genes, by the self organization of chaos, stumbled onto a scheme whereby replication was enhanced. The release of chemicals to affect responses gave rise to ever more complex emergent behavior in the organisms. Refinement of the process continued apace until such time that it gave rise to a meaning making machine as the main mechanism of gene replication, at least in us humans.

    The carrot AND the stick via the release of chemicals to modify behavioral response is inexplicably entwined. What makes life valuable is the carrot portion; those squirts of chemicals that make us feel good, that through our self referential loop of consciousness we associate with pleasure. The pleasure of art and beauty, of companionship and love, and the myriad of other stimuli that makes life preferable to simply not being alive, to which we eventually, consciously or not, assign some meaning or value.

    On the flip side is the stick, it is the splat of chemicals that leads to feelings of anxiety and nervousness, fear and loathing and the myriad of other stimuli that makes us feel bad.

    But here’s the rub, I do not believe you can divorce the two. To detach from one is to detach from the other, they are the yen and yang of life, inseparable.

    Joy is not the absence of the splat but the abundance of the squirt. As unpleasant as the splat can be at times, it still plays a crucial role in leading us to the condition that we seek, the abundance of squirt. To be detached from those signals is to lose the sign post on the road to that which we seek, those squirts that our self referential frame of reference assigns positive meaning to, and making life worth living.

    Our ability to look ahead, our predictive feedforward loops of awareness, is crucial to the task. And it is as reliant on the splat as much as it is on the squirt. Because of this I do not know if it is a good advice to practice detachment.

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  12. Random Havoc,

    It's true that Rick's post only uses examples of the "splats" to illustrate the positives of detachment, but I think the blog makes it clear that detachment from both "splats" and "squirts" is what it's all about.

    Or, like Srid said, why not try and eliminate them instead?

    (edited to include addressee at beginning)

  13. Modern Man,

    I do not see what the point of life would be in the absence of squirts. Life would seem to be weary, flat, stale, and unprofitable, to paraphrase William, in the absence of the squirt of chemicals that our self referencing loop of consciousness interprets as 'good' and 'pleasurable', and worth being alive for opposed to not being alive.

    When you experience the 'joy' of the singular walk on the beach or the beauty of a sunset or the emotions that a symphony orchestra generates or the love of the simple act of kissing your wife that transcends the mere physical act, what you are in fact experiencing is the squirt that our mind\body generates as a response to that particular stimuli.

    Why anyone would want to detach from that is beyond me. There would truly be no reason to live and in my opinion suicide WOULD be the preferable alternative.


  14. Random Havoc,

    Maybe because, like you said, the squirts are irrevocably tied to the splats? Perhaps that's not a preferable lifestyle choice for some, but for others I can definitely see the draw.


  15. Anonymous (the first one in this thread),

    I think it does indeed help to realize that the isolation you, and many others, feel is in fact a biologically programmed response. That doesn't mean that it is an illusion. In my opinion it is as real as hunger pains and thirst. Man is the most social animal that has ever evolved, studies have shown that social isolation is as dangerous to physical health as is smoking and obesity.

    But the good news is that you can find community in just about anything. While your sense of community was once provided by your religious association, that need not be the only source of fulfillment. With the acceptance of the absurd condition that avenue is now blocked for you, but in my experience you can find community in other aspects of your life.

    My suggestion would be to find something you enjoy doing and find a group of people that share your enjoyment in the activity. If you enjoy books join a reading club, if you enjoy photography join a camera club. Do something creative and share that with others that also enjoy your path of creation. Learn and grow and share with others that value learning and growth. If you get a squirt of pleasure from helping others, do charity work, not because it has some transcendent 'meaning' to help others but, because you enjoy helping others.

    It is only the illusionary frame of reference once provided by religion that has fallen, not the underlying basic fundamental needs for social interaction, meaning and purpose that caused man to invent that fiction in the first place. If their fiction works for them why should any fiction you decide on not work for you?

    My advice would not be to detach from what this splat of chemicals is trying to tell you, but to adjust your perception of what will fulfill that basic need. God will no longer provide that sense of community, you must put on your own mask of meaning and satiate the need yourself, or you will go hungry for want.

    Just keep an eye towards the irony of any fiction you settle on and I think you will find that your feelings of loneliness and depression will abate. Live, love and enjoy, it is all there is, and it seems to me, that is enough.


  16. Couple of things. First, the answer to the question from Anonymous is TRUE!

    To RH - a few points. To begin with, it seems we are talking different languages to some degree. You talk of "squirts" and "splats" in reference to certain experiences - as if there are things that are inherently (objectively) better than others. You also talk of assigning "some meaning of value" based on these assessments.

    We reject this premise. To us, all experience is equivalent (thus our response to Anonymous), and this separation of joy from pain is arbitrary. We would also note the Buddhist concept (to which we subscribe) that all pain is rooted in desire.

    We are further perplexed by your comment that planning for the future enables you to more fully enjoy the present. To cite but one example, our dog lives fully in the present at all times...precisely because she has no conception of the future! If you want to argue that (for example) you sleep better knowing your retirement account is well-funded - well, isn't this just a response to your anxiety about the future in the first place?

    Humans are the only creatures to have any real conception of the future (and of our own mortality), and it is this that causes the stress and tension of the human condition. We know we are going to die, but can do nothing about it! (Thus the absurdity...)

    Planning for the future in order to more fully enjoy the present is not consistent with living the absurd life - in fact, it is just the opposite.


  17. Loved this one! It's delightening to read about the "Trick" to follow events down their ultimate path. because I have also thought of it this way.

  18. Rick,

    It is true that I speak of ‘Squirts’ and ‘Splats’ as if some things are better than others, however it is not true that this infers some objective difference. Since we know that the ways that individuals receive and process data are biological processes which differ from one individual to another, any differences will always be subjective. To throw in the unnecessary (objective) argument is but to present a strawman to be knocked down.

    As for assigning "some meaning of value" based on these subjective value judgments, we ALL do it, all the time, in fact it is the basis of your decision to reject suicide as your answer to the absurd condition, because you find it ‘endless fascinating’, as you described in our last conversation when I asked the ‘why’ question. I would contend that this ‘endless fascination’ you described are squirts that you assigned value to, you made a subjective evaluation and found it preferable (i.e. better) then simply not being alive.

    Your contention that you reject this premise and that ‘all experience is equivalent’ is routinely refuted by the many posts by you on this board. In fact, if you truly rejected that premise you more than likely would be dead by know, and this whole conversation would be moot. If you truly believed that all experience is equal then there would be nothing stopping you from walking off the edge of a building or into a bon fire, as examples, but day in and day out, every single day of your life, you routinely make rational value decisions about experiences you will likely encounter in your environment, and take care to avoid those actions that will lead to experiences you deem less valuable and more likely to cause death (sort of like planning for the future, writ small).

    But it is not only the life and death decisions implicit in your continued postings that belie your contention, but the more explicit examples such as when you recently described the angst and consternation that your wife (and presumably you, albeit to a lesser extent, assuming you are human of course) were experiencing due to the weather interfering with holiday plans. You took it as an opportunity to enjoy some quality time to play with your children in the snow. You made a value decision that the squirt from playing in the snow with your children more than compensated for the splat of ruined plans, it was so significant to you that you made a blog posting about it. If all experience were equal you would have been content to experience the feelings of ruined plans and not sought the squirt of the snow and the kids. This is but one, of many, examples throughout your blog.

    Continued below

  19. Continued from above

    As for the Buddhist concept about desire being the root of all pain, what of it? That seems to me a little like saying the root of all food poisoning is food. Just because food is the root of all food poisoning doesn’t mean that all food causes food poisoning, and just because the root of all pain is desire, it doesn’t automatically follow that all desire causes pain. It seems to me it would be as silly to try to eliminate all food because SOME food gives you food poisoning, as it is to try to eliminate all desire because SOME desire causes pain. I am no expert on Buddhism, however I do have a passing familiarity with it, I think this stems from the common western misinterpretation of what Buddhism is saying about desire. I do not believe that Buddhism seeks to eliminate all desire, that would be emotional suicide (as well as being logically impossible, it would be the desire to eliminate all desire), that is why Buddhism recommends ‘The Middle Path’, to thread needle of desire between fulfillment and pain by way of right action, right thought, etc.

    Additionally, I do not believe living in the moment is the prescription for avoiding pain. After all even the dog from your example, which you attributed to be ‘always living in the moment’, can still feel a full range of physical, emotional and psychological pain. This is not to say that living in the moment isn’t valuable, there are all kinds of squirts that are happening all the time that can be easily overlooked if you do not strive to live in the moment.

    As for your being perplexed by me being forward looking, I have already cited the example of avoiding actions that offer life threatening experiences as example of how planning for the future helps you enjoy any future present moment, and thus be more content in your present moment. It is not because I fear the future that I plan ahead, it is because I enjoy the freedom that it affords to be more conscious of the moment I am in. So yes if any future basic needs are assured by way of my retirement plan, I will be more able to pay attention to my present moment, instead of worrying about how I am going to feed myself, this forward looking does indeed allow me to sleep better, allowing me to more thoroughly enjoy my present moment, as well as any future present, should it arrive. And if by chance it does not arrive what have I lost? Nothing. That is called balance, and I believe it thoroughly consistent with living the absurd life.