Diabetes: An Exercise in Detached Commitment

Years ago, someone asked me about the process of music composition. More specifically, he wanted to understand what is involved from a psychological standpoint. I thought about this for a while, and finally came back to him with the idea of “detached commitment.” The idea is very Zen, and anyone who reads this column with any regularity will know that I find a lot of value in the wisdom of Zen and the Eastern enlightenment tradition (in spite of my spotty record of actually putting said philosophy into real action by meditating regularly — though recently that’s been pretty consistent and I’m finding my daily life filled with considerably less angst…).

But back to this idea I had. When I said composition required “detached commitment,” here’s what I was getting at: In order to create something like a musical composition, you have to be open, in a state of “fluid intelligence.” You have to maintain a certain “anything goes” state that can allow ideas to naturally form, dissolve, and reform until they finally seem to find their final alignment. It’s that “dissolving and reforming” that can be tricky. Because in order to let ideas dissolve, you have to be able to let go of them; you have to be willing to watch something you might have spent considerable time building up break apart and fall back into a state of ambiguity. It can be tough for the ego, and quite a test for one’s faith in the process. So that’s the “detached” part.

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The “commitment” part is just as important, because without the commitment to seeing the impulse through, nothing will happen. You have to be willing to watch idea after idea dissolve, but nevertheless stick with the process and keep pushing on based on nothing but your own faith and commitment to a final outcome that you have no guarantee will ever materialize.

A little while later, I realized that this idea (which I shouldn’t be taking credit for, really — it’s a pretty mainstream Buddhist idea, but it seemed revelatory to me at the time) extended far beyond artistic endeavors. And it was particularly well suited to living with diabetes.

Think about the last time you had surging and/or falling blood sugar you didn’t expect (mine was about four days ago). What was your reaction to that event? If you’re like me, you probably had a strong instinct to turn toward anger; to feel hopeless (at least momentarily), and to generally let your whole physical and emotional self “tighten up” internally, gritting your teeth, tightening your muscles, quickening your breath, and fighting against this moment of ambiguity with any semblance of certainty you could muster.

But in doing that, what was gained? Nothing. We gain nothing when we respond to these moments of “dissolving” with an impossible push against them. We have to let them go. That’s the “detached” part. We have to process the ups and downs of diabetes with a detachment that allows us to keep our focus on the larger picture. You see, as long as we’re fixated on the little peaks and valleys, we can’t take a step back and see the patterns involved in the larger picture. And it is this larger picture that will help us correct what went wrong so that it can be avoided next time.

That “bigger picture,” of course, is the “commitment” part of the equation. While we let go of the anger and feeling of attachment connected with those little peaks and valleys, we must always keep our commitment to overall stability and health. And that commitment has to remain in place, even when things are going badly. That’s the really hard part, but the more we can practice detachment, the more we can avoid letting that hopelessness, anger, and tightening up impede our ability to maintain our commitment and view of the larger picture.

I don’t always succeed in maintaining this approach, of course. None of us do. I know I do a much better job of it when I’m meditating regularly, which is why it’s not only on my list of “things that make me calmer,” but “things that I need to do for the sake of my future health as a Diabetian.” But I can say from experience that when I’m able to maintain this perspective, I’m calmer and more content when things aren’t going well, and on the whole I tend to have vastly better control because my focus is where it should be.

After-meal blood sugar spikes can be a significant issue for people with diabetes. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to find out the simple step researchers say can help reduce these spikes!