When I was a regular church goer, I was an active member in the buddhist discussion and meditation groups. Of the many Buddhist principles, the most difficult to understand and practice was detachment. In my years of reading Thich Nhat Hahn, Pema Chodron and other buddhist teachers, I found this was the most critical, yet most difficult lesson to practice.
But the other day, I had an epiphany – thanks to pottery I was practicing detachment. The uncertainty and many opportunities for failure in ceramics, had made detachment real. Whether it be a dropped pot, a cracked plate, a collapsing kiln post (see pic above), or a canceled wood-firing just before the holiday shows, I realized that I have learned to detach from the result and accept uncertainty as the way of a potter. Mishaps no longer upset me. Of course, I might be disappointed when a pot breaks or doesn’t come out of the kiln as I had hoped. But I don’t hold onto that feeling because I almost immediately start thinking about making another one. And since I learn from every error or mishap, I have become grateful for the learning experience.
This practice of detachment is not just limited to my studio time, but spills over into the rest of my life. I realized this when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis just before Christmas. Oh, yes, I freaked out at the doc’s office. And I freaked again when I learned that all the treatment options involved self-injections (I have a needle phobia). But I noticed that my doctor kept talking about uncertainty. Now this bed side manner may freak out some patients, but I knew a thing or two about uncertainty, as any potter does. By repeating the word , my doctor unknowingly helped focus me on a principle that I had accepted – detach from the result. If the pot doesn’t work, try again. If today is a bad day, you’ll get another chance tomorrow.
Sound like Polly Anna? Not really. I’m not saying everything is going to be great everyday. I always imagined that I would be throwing into my nineties. MS may or may not keep me from doing that. Maybe something else will prevent me from throwing. But since I can’t control that, why attach to any result?
Don’t misunderstand, I have shed a few tears since leaving the doctor’s office. I still loose it when it all seems too much handle. However, the anger, frustration, fear, etc. passes when I return to the truth. Life – like making pottery – is uncertain.
Approaching Buddhism from a Western results oriented perspective, detachment seems to mean that you don’t care about anything. I now understand that detachment is quite the opposite. I see detachment as caring so much about yourself that you don’t let the pain of attaching to a certain outcome eat at you. And that is what attachment does – it eats at you. What benefit is there in staying angry over a broken pot? or a diagnosis? It only keeps you from making another pot or having a better day.
Practicing detachment makes me happier. Being detached permits me to pour my soul into every thing I do and then move on to the next pot; the next moment. Being detached, I know that every morning I wake up I have another chance to follow my heart and be true to myself; the only thing that matters about yesterday is that I learned something that will help make today better. I don’t start the day expecting my pots or the day to be perfect. Both will be as they will. At the end of the day, I know I will have infused the world with my spirit because I am not distracted by some strict notion of a desired outcome.
What was once an intellectual exercise, thanks to pottery, is now a daily practice that gives me the space to heal and live life to its fullest.