The Power of Detachment: Brecht, “Annette” and the mysticism of Bill Murray
Or Pandemic Flux Syndrome and Me
After I got divorced it took me a year to read a book again. I couldn’t do anything that involved much focused attention. I could knit. In fact I forced myself to knit 32 hats that I sold the first year to pay for my kids’ Christmas presents. But other than my self-imposed white-knuckled crafting binge, my psyche was pretty limited. Finally reading a book again became the litmus test for feeling safe and (somewhat) grounded.
This summer I’ve moved homes, lost a dear friend and started having full blown hot flashes and all the while the pandemic isn’t ending. It's been hard to go into the space where I can write. That space of interiority and deep reflection for me harbors so many questions and when I think about them, they only elicit more questions. I don’t have any pithy answers. I only have Pandemic Flux Syndrome. (Maybe?)
One of my favorite Anne Lamott quotes is “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk.”
So this post is me practicing walking in the midst of the discomfort.
So where is my attention these days and what do I know ?
Well, in the most basic sense I know that I am, and I know this because my attention is focused on my am’ness. A little Cartesian philosophy with my coffee. But it's true. Part of what makes my existence knowable is my ability to reflect on my existence. When we covered Descartes in History of Philosophy in college “I think, therefore I am” seemed obvious and useless to me. “So what?” I thought.
Thirty years later, however, I see the wisdom in understanding that my being able to think about my thinking is at the core of not only my sense of self, but my sense of connectedness. This is part of the invitation in prayer, in mindfulness practice, in living a contemplative life. In doing a bit of digging around this subject I stumbled upon Dr. Gillie Barton, a British therapist, anthropologist, educator and Quaker, who specializes in the therapeutic benefits of reflective and reflexive writing. (I love the internet)
Here is a link to the first chapter of her book, Reflective Practice: Writing & Professional Development. There’s so much packed into this first chapter but I’ll refrain from quoting ALL of it. In essence, if I’m reading correctly, the difference between reflective and reflexive practice is that the purpose of reflective practice is to name what is already there around an event, to look closely at all aspects. “Reliving and Re Rendering” as Bolton puts it. This practice, while helpful, may just keep us spinning in story though. On the other hand, “reflexivity is finding strategies to question our own attitudes, thought processes, values, assumptions, prejudices and habitual actions, to strive to understand our complex roles in relation to others. To be reflexive involves thinking from within experience.”
“Reflexivity is making aspects of the self strange: focusing close attention upon one’s own actions, thoughts, feelings, values, identity, and their effect upon others, situations, and professional and social structures. This can only be done by somehow becoming separate in order to look at it as if from the outside: not part of habitual experience processing, and not easy.”
“Somehow becoming separate.” The power of detachment - not as a means to escape what one is feeling or thinking but in order to be curious about it and be changed by it. This is what hermits do, what those on retreat do, what we are all capable of doing when we slow down and get very still.
Right now, we might feel like victims of gaslighting. “I thought this thing was supposed to be over!?” “I started feeling hopeful. What happened?” That’s Lamott’s messy discomfort and I have to admit I’ve been avoiding it. No change happens through avoidance, but detachment allows one to think critically and perhaps to wait for the light to return.
This seems like the same kind of detachment that we see in the works of Bertolt Brecht (how’s that for a transition?), the German playwright and director who created the alienation effect. Brecht wanted his audience to always know they were watching a play so that they didn’t get so swept up in the story so as to lose their ability to think critically. The effects of Aristotle’s catharsis or purging of emotion is a reflective act - it names what is there in us as it is mirrored to us on the stage. Brecht’s alienation effect is reflexive in that it asks something of us.
I watched Annette the new film starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. It’s a super weird film and it’s completely steeped in Brecht and his sense of alienation. You can’t watch the film without always being reminded that you’re watching a film. The film is bookended with the actors, musicians and crew singing and marching through the streets looking into the camera. The story starts as the actors pull on their costumes and go their separate ways. This is also a sing through musical, another tool to distance an audience, especially when the actors aren’t traditionally good singers. And the child, the titular character of Annette, is played by a puppet. David Sims from the Atlantic calls it “a bizarre and beautiful child whose entire existence feels like a bespoke nightmare.”
I found the film to be challenging and messy and stunning. So much of our story diet is too easy. It’s meant to numb us out. Annette didn’t always make sense, and it didn’t give us everything we wanted. But I’m not into pithy answers right now, so..
Speaking of detached irony, I stumbled on this amazing little video about Bill Murray a few months ago. I was curious about Bill’s interest in G.I. Gurdjieff, the Armenian philosopher and mystic. I promise that you will not regret watching this video, and it may bring this post into some kind of focus for you.
Amazing right? This dual detachment both from what is happening and from what I think about it so I can think about what I’m thinking about. This doesn’t make me less present, it makes me less judgmental. It makes me more compassionate, maybe more willing to see light in odd places. Maybe why Murray is so often seen showing up where he’s not expected.
I did an exercise with my students yesterday that I learned from Brian McLaren. It’s an exercise in reflexivity and in learning to see with a compassionate gaze.
The exercise goes like this:
Observe an object, perhaps an art object.
Afterward, notice your thoughts. Be reflective. What were they? Were they observations? Judgements?
Ok now look at the same object and this time observe it with a bias towards appreciation.
Afterward, notice your thoughts. Be reflective. How did they change? Were you able to suspend judgement and look for the good?
Now look at a different object, another piece of art perhaps. This time observe the object and observe yourself Observing the object. Reflexive thinking.
Afterward, what did you notice about the piece? About your thinking about the piece?
Finally, observe the object, observe yourself observing but with a bias towards appreciation. Both towards the object and towards yourself.
What did you notice?
Some of the students were able to see with the compassionate gaze, some were resistant and continually wanted to revert to judgements, only considering their preferences and opinions. Most had a tough time being able to observe both the object and themselves simultaneously. As Dr.Barton says above, “somehow becoming separate in order to look at it as if from the outside: [is] not part of habitual experience processing, and not easy.”
This power of separation, of detachment, of reflexivity is a learned skill and probably a skill all of us could use in this world that doesn’t seem to be operating the way that we expect it to. A world where children are played by puppets and Bill Murray shows up in my engagement photo. A world where I start sweating right under the air vent and a world where friends who are still supposed to be here are gone. A world where we’re still scared of getting sick.
Maybe you could spend five minutes today gazing at the world with a bias towards appreciation in spite of all it’s messiness; observe yourself in the midst of this gaze and be curious; and finally, notice how brave you are asking a question for which there is no pithy answer.