The case for detachment

In my workshop — Difficult Conversations: The art and science of thinking together — we explore how our life experiences — what in the workshop we call our "story" —shape how see the world and our place within it. We then dive into neurological research that shows we equate our story with our sense of self, and as a result react to attacks on our belief system as we would an attack on our physical body.

It's an automated response that can lead to what's known as an "amygdala hijack." Fearing an attack, the ancient emotional centers of our brain trigger our survival drive, overpowering our neocortex (the "thinking brain"), and forcing us into one of three automatic reactions: fight, flee or freeze. The noted psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel calls this "flipping our lid" and has a great short video explaining exactly what's going on.

Needless to say, it's this dynamic more than any other that makes difficult conversations difficult.

So what to do? One answer is to consciously separate our story from our sense of self — to see our story in more objective terms so that when it's challenged, our survival drive won't activate and take over.

This separation of story from self is the essence of detachment, and it becomes possible when we realize that we wear our story, our story does not wear us. We can take it off, notice its condition, and re-tailor it as needed.

Detachment is an essential capacity for anyone wishing to help heal our divide. Unfortunately, in our culture the concept of detachment comes loaded with negative connotations. Star Trek's Spock is the iconic example: To be detached is to be cold and unemotional, robbed of fire, faith, and even intuition, rendering us half human.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Detachment is the process by which we become more human, not less. When we're so attached to a particular belief that we defend it as if our life is at stake, we lose nine critical cognitive capabilities that most clearly distinguish humankind from all other species, severely restricting our capacity for positive and creative engagement. Our field of view narrows, our options diminish and, more often than not, we end up acting counter to our own interests.

Detachment allows us to maintain these higher-level cognitive functions — to keep our whole brain in the game — so that we're able to see more clearly, connect more deeply and act more wisely. In other words, we're better able to love.