Detachment vs. Understanding
Enlightenment is an elusive prize. It is sort of like the very best item of those claw vending machines. A lot of people may claim to have won a diamond necklace in the Wal-Mart lobby, just like a lost of people claim to be enlightened. Most of them are liars.
Also like the claw machine, there are a lot of strategies for enlightenment out there. Strategies that claim to beat the system, exploit loopholes, or find convenient shortcuts. For the most part these strategies fall into two basic camps: Those that promote detachment as the key to enlightenment, and those who promote understanding as the only path. Each of these strategies has its own strengths and weaknesses, and neither one is a sure thing.
Many wise philosophies suggest separating oneself from the world is the best way to enlightenment. This form of detachment keeps a person from getting bogged down by desires and misfortune. Without this weight, a person is free to soar to the highest altitudes of thought. And, from this vantage point the detached person can look upon all creation and discern the Truth.
Unfortunately, stepping outside of everything to see it all is a great way to miss important details. For example, a person can watch football every hour of every day. They can know all the rules, have memorized all the stats, and be a veritable force in the fantasy football league.
But if this same expert has never thrown a ball or been smashed by a 250 pound opponent then they are missing out on the real essence of the game. How can a person claim to be enlightened toward football when, to them, so much of the core experience remains in the dark? How can a person claim to know the truth of living when they spend their time trying to avoid life?
An attitude of detachment is surely a source of knowledge and power. Masters of detachment can maker personal problems disappear, and find things they didn’t even know they were looking for.
However, this detachment might not be the path for you. Maybe you are afraid of missing out on something important, or are simply too passionate to be a cold observer. Then there are other claimed strategies for enlightenment.
People like the Buddha and Lao-Tzu were culture heroes for separating themselves from the world. There is another type of cultural hero. Heroes like Einstein, Newton, and Archimedes. Historic people who, instead of detaching from the world, pursued a policy of deep interest and investment in everything around them. To them, and people of a similar mind, enlightenment doesn’t come from lofty positions far away from everything else. Instead, enlightenment comes from a concentrated attempt to understand every little aspect of the universe.
It is not enough to know that things fall down because of gravity, or even why gravity exists. The most powerful knowledge comes from knowing, without a doubt, exactly how gravity works.
People who choose understanding over detachment can become powerful forces for change in the world. But it is a world they cannot escape from. A person who wants to learn everything must grapple with the knowledge of unpleasant things. There is no cloud they can float to and pretend they aren’t bothered. Anger, frustration, and fear are all wrapped up in the desire for universal understanding.
Like just about everything else the choice between detachment and understanding in the pursuit of enlightenment can relate to Star Wars. On one hand, there are the noble, detached Jedi. These guys are the knights of the galaxy, but are sometimes blinded by their own light. What good is deep knowledge if you can’t see a totalitarian empire forming on your doorstep? What good is enlightenment if it makes you so arrogant you push your best students into the open arms of the enemy?
On the other hand are the Sith. The misunderstood bad guys. While they have a tendency to blow up planets, and in general are not the best galactic citizens, at least they don’t go around acting like they are better then everyone else. Better suited for survival, sure. But not better. The Sith speak of the true knowledge of the Force, that by examining all sides of it directly you can gain great mastery and power.
But for all that mastery and power, every single Sith character comes across like that kid in high school English who though all his poetry was deep and original.
As I think more about detachment vs. understanding, each option seems less appealing. To float in arrogant realms of detachment, or be weighed down trying to understand it all.
Of course, the choice is not necessary. Many people go through their lives with a combination of detachment and understanding. But these folks are not often remembered for great deeds or powerful thoughts. They’re just normal people.
Normal people, though, probably have the best chance of winning the prize of Enlightenment from the claw machine of life.
Great piece! Couldn’t agree with you more. Extremism (whether it be detachment or understanding) for me misses out on the reality of our existence in the right here and the right now. “Moderationalism” is the key, how can you fully understand the meaning of life if you don’t live life, taking what you can (in moderation) from all of the available components and not just one.
Thanks for the comment. I agree, “Moderationalism” is probably best. But my computer underlined that word in red, so it must not be a real thing, right?
The meaning of life is elusive. I’m not sure any of us can ever grasp it, but I wish you luck in your quest.