Saturday, April 6, 2013

On Detachment

Last night I was reading a self-help book that isn't based on NVC principles, and I felt myself rise to a very subtle challenge: staying centered while digesting an author's (usually abstract) imperatives.

Most personal growth coaches speak in the language of imperatives: Do this. Don't do that. You've been acting this way, now act that way. Melody Beattie, in Codependent No More, instructs her readers in the art of self-care: "Giving ourselves what we need is not difficult....The formula is simple: In any given situation, detach and ask: "What do I need to do to take care of myself?"

I am annoyed with this abstract phrasing, but before I go into the 'why' of this further, I also want to note that obviously I'm finding enough value in this book to choose to read it. I'll come back to that later.

Beattie uses this word detach throughout her book, with no definition or description of how to actually enact this behavior anywhere. In the chapter on detachment, I found myself thinking that she danced around the word the whole time, giving me as a reader only a blurry, peripheral glimpse of what she means by the term. As someone with 10 years of my life dedicated to holistic wellness and growth, I can relate her abstract concepts to more tangible things, but if I couldn't, I think it would be useless to me. Her paragraphs start, "Detachment is based on the premise..." and "Detachment involves..." rather than a simple, clear, definition. Most painful of all for me was this section:

"How do we detach? How do we extricate our emotions, body, and spirit from the agony of entanglement? As best we can. And probably, a bit clumsily at first."

When I first read this section, I thought, Yay! Finally! She's talking about the how...the tangible guidance I was seeking. Instead she describes a very different type of how than I'd hoped for. Of course readers will be clumsy with this lack of substantive instructions.

I don't mean to single out Beattie and bash on her, but she is a prime example of something that seems to run rampant in the self-help industry: abstract instructions, flung at a reader who is already having difficulty with life, and now they have this new imperative that they don't even know how to do. This seems to me to be a recipe for disaster. I have this vision of a bunch of neurotic, broken people running around trying to live by a code written in a foreign language.

I once heard Miki Kashtan say that if someone has never experienced something before, they are not going to be able to have that experience just by hearing about it. Many self-help books seem to me to commit the logical fallacy of 'begging the question' or answering a question with the question itself. If this model was transposed to other disciplines, it would sound like a music student asking their teacher how to play the piano, and getting only this response: "As best you can." This is not the job of the instructor. The instructor's job is to show the specific steps. The "picture" as Miki Kashtan would say.

Sadly, I have for years fallen prey to this trap that I have never heard anyone articulate: reading an abstract imperative such as "detach," and then stressing out because I don't know how to do it. Feeling guilty for not being able to accomplish it. But this is patently absurd. It is not my fault if I don't know how to do something I haven't been clearly taught how to do. Again, this is like blaming a child for not knowing how to do a math problem if their teacher were to only place their homework in front of them, without a lesson. Sure, some people can teach themselves music and math and emotional maturity, but not everyone.

I see that I am repeating myself, which makes sense, considering the NVC principle that people repeat themselves until they feel understood. I am longing for shared reality around this. My basic point is that when we as individuals have powerful experiences, or learn how to do something, and want to share it, we must figure out how to put that in language we would have understood before we had the understanding we have now, in order for others to benefit from our insight. Ironically, I am not sure if I am doing this myself at this moment. But I hope so.

So, about last night, reading the book. I noticed myself starting to go into shame or guilt for not knowing quite how to follow Beattie's instructions, or if I even wanted to do so. Then, I had a moment of grace, where I came back to myself and resided in the present moment, present with my feelings about the topics she was describing, even allowing myself to disagree or feel frustrated, instead of wishing for approval from this distant author. The irony of this is that I imagine this might fall under her definition of detachment, but I don't think I would have figured that out from reading her book. I think I was capable of having that experience because of many years of practicing NVC style empathy and EFT, both of which teach radical self-awareness and acceptance.

So, the above paragraph was my experience, and now I will try to offer a tangible and clear practice for having a similar experience of your own if you so desire. Take out a self-help book you own and turn to whatever page you are on, or turn to one randomly. Read a few paragraphs. See if your mind is struggling to integrate the concepts or skills you are reading about. Next, tune into your body and notice what sensations and emotions are coursing through you. Are you tense, hopeful, scared, sad, angry, relieved, excited? Sit with these emotions for a while, maybe even journal about them. Journal about what you find inspiring about this book as well as where you disagree with the author.

For a variation, try this practice with this very blog. Go back over a paragraph or two and do the same practice. See what comes up. I would love for you to share your feelings, inspirations, and disagreements on the comments below. What I want more than agreement is to help people connect with themselves.

PS As I said earlier, part of me does like this book. I can sometimes appreciate its abstractions. They help me escape from myself when I'm overwhelmed. I like how they are open to interpretation, when I grow weary of the specific instructions of my main NVC practice. I also like the journaling prompts, because their abstract nature gives a lot of room for interpretation as well, instead of the specific exercises from NVC. It's kind of like TV. It helps me shut down emotionally when I need a break from the intensity of my experience.

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