ध्यायतो विषयान्पुंसः सङ्गस्तेषूपजायते ।
सङ्गात्संजायते कामः कामात्क्रोधोऽभिजायते ॥२-६२॥
क्रोधाद्भवति संमोहः संमोहात्स्मृतिविभ्रमः ।
स्मृतिभ्रंशाद्बुद्धिनाशो बुद्धिनाशात्प्रणश्यति ॥२-६३॥
From contemplating on objects of the senses arises attachment. From attachment arises desire. From desire arises anger.
From anger arises loss of memory (you forget who you are or what you are, i.e. you lose your frame of reference).
From loss of memory arises irrational thinking (with no frame of reference for thinking, thinking becomes irrational).
With loss of rational thinking comes the destruction of oneself.
— Bhagavad Gita 2.62-2.63
That is, you see or imagine something (a person, a car, a house, a recognition), you become attached to it. The act of seeing something repetitively (through market forces, popularity, or other) causes the attachment of the senses to that object.
Then you begin to want it, and if you don’t get it you develop discontent (an emotional agitated state of mind), which then develops into anger, which causes loss in frame of reference, which causes irrationality, which causes destruction of oneself.
This is the perennial essence of all Hindu spiritual literature: to illustrate the root cause of suffering (along with all the human vices associated with it), and that it arises from desire/attachment, and presenting the means towards removing it: the various yoga disciplines.
जितात्मनः प्रशान्तस्य परमात्मा समाहितः ।
शीतोष्णसुखदुःखेषु तथा मानापमानयोः ॥६-७॥
Of those who have conquered [mastered] their selves, the highest are those who remain content, in cold or heat, pleasure or pain, honor or dishonor.
— Bhagavad Gita, 6.07
With detachment you become an observer at a distance. While there is chaos and politics reigning around you, you are at a better vantage to help yourself and those in need. You develop compassion to those who are entangled in the web of life (the cycle of desire and suffering). In almost any aspect of life, if you become emotionally entangled you are more bound to lose than to succeed. See separate article on Spirituality as to how compassion manifests.
Detachment is often mistaken with being indifferent, insensitive, lacking emotion, lacking affection, or being aloof. Detachment allows you to experience emotions, but of a higher more expansive kind (similar to the ecstasy, inspiration, or beauty of art forms: poetry, music, bhakti). There is peace of mind, clarity, happiness, feeling of fulfillment in whatever one engages in (without really being materially fulfilled). You can still have emotions like love and affection. The Buddha was compassionate, and he took very personal interest in the teaching of his disciples. Some of the younger disciples thought he was being brutal and they did not appreciate his detachment, found it to be cold and insensitive. But in reality he was expressing his love for them, and he experienced the love as well (though it did not seem that way to the observer), and he got the love back from them when they realized what he was doing.
Spirituality for most people, is not about becoming a sadhu/ascetic, but to make your life more fulfilling. While detachment makes your life more contented, the passion for life can be lost without attachment. It is our desires that drive and motivate our life. Whether it is the desire for material comforts, love, peace, or enlightenment, it is the desire that motivates us. Even the simple desire to you keep yourself alive and healthy is a desire.
The Bhagavad Gita and other spiritual texts emphasize moderation. The caveat is that “moderation” is relative. It depends on each individual, and his stage of spiritual development. One man’s moderation is another man’s extreme — there is no single moderation measure that can apply to everyone. You know that you’re at just the right level when you have peace of mind (not agitation). If it becomes agitated, then it is not detachment, not moderation, but denial. Denial also means you are running away from a fear of attachment rather than detaching from it gracefully. Denial is a violent act on your psychology; something you don’t want. Again, the Gita says that for most people it’s better to be living in society and practice with moderation, than to live in a cave while the mind is dwelling on desires.
कर्मेन्द्रियाणि संयम्य य आस्ते मनसा स्मरन् ।
इन्द्रियार्थान्विमूढात्मा मिथ्याचारः स उच्यते ॥३-६॥
He who sits, restraining his sense-actions, while his mind dwells onthe objects of the senses with a deluded mind, is said to be a mythyachaara (hypocrite).
— Bhagavad Gita, 3.6
The only reason you (the jiva-atman) was born again, is to burn any residual desires by either by experiencing it or by learning and detaching from it. My philosophy is just to transmute that which you can, and experience that which you can’t (i.e. deal with things one step at a time; when the time comes, you can deal with that also).
The litmus test of proper detachment is if you feel content, have peace of mind, and not easily agitated. Detachment gives increased awareness, understanding, and compassion (see link below, “Spiritual People”, for the nature of compassion). For most of the millions practicing yoga, this does not happen overnight, but very marked change comes with even a little bit of practice.
If you get what you desire, then you enjoy it. But if you don’t get what you desire, then you don’t mind (it doesn’t agitate you). That is good level of detachment. Just like if the weather is warm you enjoy it. If not, it doesn’t affect you. The same applies to all aspects of life.
विषया विनिवर्तन्ते निराहारस्य देहिनः ।
रसवर्जं रसोऽप्यस्य परं दृष्ट्वा निवर्तते ॥२-५९॥
The objects turn away from one who is abstinent but the taste for them remains.
But the taste also turns away for the one who has seen the Supreme.
— Bhagavad Gita, 2-59
In a even more advanced state of detachment (like when you are enlightened and fully identify yourself to the Supreme Spirit), words like attachment or detachment have no meaning, as there is no subject and object. You are both. That is, you don’t (or can’t) desire the moon, because you are the moon itself. It is said that you don’t see yourself as a small cog in the cosmic wheel of life, but the wheel itself. You maintain a constant state of peace and contentment. For most this level of detachment comes gradually, and for some (less than one in a million) this comes suddenly and fully as Enlightenment.
Some short parables…
It’s like the story of a Westerner who comes across a sadhu/yogi for the first time, and makes the comment “I pity you”. The sadhu replies, “it is you who is to be pitied for being trapped in maya (the web of attachment, desire, suffering, etc), instead of seeing yourself as the vast cosmic Self and being free from such petty worldly things.”.
Conversely it’s like a Westerner who comes across a sadhu for the first time and makes the comment “you are great for making such a sacrifice”. The sadhu replies, “no it is you who is great, to be able to sacrifice your life for all sort of superficial and transient pursuits.”.
A king taking a walk through the forest saw a yogi and asked him, what is to be gained by living in denial like that (from the king’s perspective it was not detachment but denial). The yogi replied, “it is not me who is living in denial, it is you”.