Searching for Detachment, Part Two

As an awkward teen, I turned to Zen Buddhism as a way to detach emotionally. Read part one to see the journey from martial arts to meditation.

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As my attempts to be more spiritual continued to fail, I re-engaged in martial arts. At the time it was two different types of practice – one, a traditional martial art that called itself Kenpo but looked more like Shotokan and the other, grappling as taught by a mixed martial arts fighter. Attempts at meditation faded as the martial arts lessons had a more immediate impact on stress. Looking back from this current vantage point, dumping meditation to go all in on the martial arts was like selling my long term investments for short term, smaller gains in a spiritual sense. With the error of thinking that meditation required withdrawal from the world, I dropped the practice. Even though I’m introverted, I enjoy being around other people. Martial arts provide an opportunity to socialize. Even arts that are typically thought of as solo practice like Tai Chi require a teacher to learn and improve. Plus, the younger me just couldn’t imagine that meditation would pay off. Again, I had missed the lessons in all of those texts that I had read. Mistakenly, I believed that you needed to start as a child to really develop a meditative mind.

sd2-01Glimpses of the meditative mind were possible during practice. In the martial arts, you have to be in the moment or injury is possible. An opponent trying to choke you, punch you, or hit you with a stick is great incentive to be mindful. Sadly, I couldn’t recreate that mental state outside of training. Meditation time lost out to mat time. The easier route has always been more seductive, and self-discipline wasn’t/isn’t my strong suit. At the same time, life was changing. While not yet full of the responsibilities of an adult, the carefree days of high school were gone. Studying was now work, and effort was required to maintain a decent grade. Transferring to an engineering school was the final nail in the meditation coffin for me.

Upon graduating with a master’s in aerospace engineering, a large burden of debt, and stressed to rigidity, I headed up north to my first post-college job, a.k.a. the ‘real’ job. I was an engineer at Ford Motor Company, which taught me that there’s always room for more stress. There were a lot of positive and negatives from the time that I lived in the suburbs of Detroit. It was there that I learned about separation from work. Often, I would go straight home from the job, and tooling around the apartment, doing whatever it was I did in those days, I’d be thinking about work. My body had left the office, but my mind was still there. My days filled with Ford; this includes the days out of the office. As a reader, I started to go to Barnes and Noble after work on Wednesdays. I’d browse for a few minutes, pick an interesting book, head to the café, and read with a root beer. Upon leaving, I’d always feel better. At the apartment, I wasn’t thinking about work. The bookstore between work and home provided a definitive break in the day. I switched my workouts from at the apartment complex to Ford’s gym and immediately between work and home. Without conscious thought, I’d begun to apply the lessons of detachment to improve my stress.

sd2-02While these buffers weren’t full meditation, they had a huge effect on my mental state. Stress is so deadly because its effects are as pronounced as other problems. If a person is having trouble breathing, it is immediately noticeable, but if a person is having a problem with stress, it is difficult to determine. It can manifest in emotional ways, in weight gain, or in long term health problems like heart disease. Like many in modern America, I struggle with managing stress. It’s good to have a little stress, but we can’t let ourselves get overloaded. Those buffers showed me that disconnecting from my job had a huge effect on how I felt. To this day, I still have these little detachment rituals. Most days I go straight from work to the gym, but on days that I go straight home, I’ve found that just sitting for five minutes and petting one of the cats has the same effect.

Looking back on my life, an undercurrent of practical Zen exists. The goal of emotional detachment has never been achieved. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. There are plenty of emotions and experiences that I’m glad I was present for. But there have been lessons from those texts that have bubbled to the surface. The state of mind that martial arts showed me can be practiced every day. It is being present and being mindful. This practice of mindfulness is more about paying attention to the world around me than any spiritual enlightenment. The ironic thing is that paying attention also makes me feel more at peace, but that doesn’t mean emotional detachment is worthless. It just means that my understanding of emotional detachment has changed. My personal goal isn’t to be an emotionless robot but to not let my emotions control my actions.

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Strangely, this pursuit of detaching has come full circle, and I’ve found a better purpose for it than Zen. Check back for part three to see from where the unexpected lessons in emotional detachment came.

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