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  • Martha Engeman

The Power of Detachment

I had lunch today with a friend of mine who asked what my attachments are. Our attachments are the areas where we can derive pain. If we were attached to no thing, we would be in equilibrium with all things. There is a parable of the Chinese farmer that speaks to the power of equilibrium and detachment. It goes something like this:

There was a Chinese farmer who had a horse. One day the horse ran away. The farmer’s neighbors reacted saying, “Oh no, that is terrible news.” The farmer replied, “Maybe, maybe not.” Eventually the horse returns with another horse that the farmer gives to his son. Good luck you might say. When the son rides the horse, he is thrown off and breaks his leg. The neighbors commiserate with the farmer on his bad luck and the farmer says, “Maybe, maybe not.” A few weeks later the emperor conscripts the fit young men of the village to go fight a war. The farmer’s son cannot go. The neighbors congratulate the farmer on his luck to which he replies, “Maybe, maybe not.”

Imagine if the farmer had chosen another course. Imagine if he had reacted to each of those events—he would have been in the depths of despair at some points and in the height of delight at others. But the events would still have happened. Our power lies in how we choose to react. Do we choose to live in peace and presence as the farmer did, or do we react to everything that happens in our lives?

Most of us have some attachments: we may be attached to financial security, to family or friends, to staying alive, to a relationship, to a beloved pet, to a home or things. The challenge is being able to love without having to control, to desire without having to have. That is the essence of detachment.

Detachment does not mean not caring. Instead it means caring enough to take appropriate action and then letting go of attachment to the results.

The true path to freedom lies in being honest with ourselves about our attachments and doing the work to transform them so they don’t hold power over us. This is not easy work—it can rock the very foundations of our security and our sense of self. But it also can also be liberating and empowering. We learn that we really can roll with the vicissitudes of life and maintain our equilibrium, no matter what.



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