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15. How to Become Detached

Srila Prabhupada once boldly stated that the guru knows everything. The reporter then asked him how many windows the Empire State Building had. Srila Prabhupada gravely looked back and countered, “How many drops of water in a mirage?” What a brilliant answer! Amidst constant change, can we identify anything in this world to be really real? Although not illusory, this realm is most definitely temporary. For this reason, Vedic scriptures describe this physical world as unreal. Although it can be perceived by our human senses, it is constantly changing and has no endurance in the context of eternity.
In the final chapters of the Bhagavad-Gita, one of Krishna’s prime objectives is to engender a sense of detachment within Arjuna and the reader. In Chapter Fifteen, He compares the material world to the reflection of a banyan tree in water. In Sanskrit, the banyan tree is known as asvattha which etymologically means ‘That which will not be here tomorrow.’ Though discussing the temporality of the world and everything within it may sound depressing, it’s actually incredibly empowering. By awakening this sense of detachment we recalibrate our vision and begin to focus on the enduring spiritual reality.
As spiritual beings we’re not residents of London, Lagos or Los Angeles, but rather residents of the spiritual world. One must undoubtedly attend to the immediate demands, pressures and responsibilities of life, lest we become dysfunctional members of society. One would do well, however, to avoid becoming overly engrossed and captivated by the temporal affairs of daily life. As a wise spiritualist once quipped “Don’t take the illusion too seriously!”
The world teaches us to base our sense of identity and self-worth on transitory, external and artificial considerations. When we identify with our abilities, facilities and positions of responsibility, then we set ourselves up for crisis. Why? Because the indisputable nature of this world is that such things will almost always fade away over time.
We pride ourselves in our ‘unique’ abilities but eventually our faculties decline, we witness our own ineptitude, or we find someone far more qualified and competent who supersedes us. Painful! We treasure our karmic gifts like beauty, physique, learning and wealth – but the waves of time callously carry them away. Painful! We feel valuable because of our reputation, influence and position in society – but everyone has ‘their day,’ after which we all have to make way. Painful! Constant change is the underlying theme of the material phantasmagoria – it’s unstoppable, unpredictable and uncontrollable. Thus, we suffer a subtle ego death every time we falsely identify with the temporary.
Thus, wisdom teachers continually remind us to focus on our eternal and unchanging identity. As spiritual beings, our true ego lies in being a selfless servant of God. Everything we receive in the journey of life is simply a facility and detail in pursuance of this, with any given situation always offering a unique opportunity for selfless service. In such detached spiritual consciousness, all anxiety, fear and dissatisfaction disappears.

“The real form of this tree cannot be perceived in this world. No one can understand where it ends, where it begins, or where its foundation is. But with determination one must cut down this strongly rooted tree with the weapon of detachment.” (Bhagavad-Gita 15.3)

References

15.3-4 – Becoming detached from the material world.