Today I want to write about attachment. One aspect of meditation and mindfulness practice encourages us to simply observe our thoughts and feelings in a non-judgemental and non-reactive way – with non-attachment. Perhaps the simplest way to understand non-attachment is by understanding attachment, because the former only exists in the absence of the latter. Therefore, only attachment is real. Yet non-attachment is a word that has been used over and over again within and outside of Buddhist scriptures. So what is it?
Attachment versus connection
First and foremost, non-attachment is not the same thing as detachment. Detachment comes with the connotation of being emotionally uninterested in something (or someone), maybe to the point of choosing to ignore it or expel it from one’s awareness. This is why a lot of people hear non-attachment and think dissociation.
But practicing non-attachment does not mean stepping out of or abandoning one’s feelings and emotions. Rather, it is often practiced in relation to something that is personal and important, and therefore something that we have emotional interest in. Instead of pushing it out of our awareness, we choose to maintain our awareness on this object, thought, or person in a curious and open-minded way, without judgement, craving, or aversion.
Non-attachment encourages us to be mindful and flexible, recognising that our ideas and thoughts may shift and that nothing in life is permanent. Indeed, non-attachment is sometimes referred to as engagement. It may seem like a contradiction, but true non-attachment creates a deep intimacy and interconnection with all things that surround us, because we can see these things as they actually are, without placing our personal expectations upon them.
When we see things as they truly are, we can learn to let go of those things that are not beneficial for us (without aversion) and to embrace what is beneficial to us (without craving or attachment).
But why should we strive for non-attachment?
Nothing worth having comes easy
We have all been brought up with or come across certain “motivational” quotes and sayings, such as “nothing worth having comes easy”, “no pain, no gain”, “victory isn’t a result of spontaneous combustion; you must set yourself on fire”, “no guts, no glory”, “anything worth doing has risks”, “you cannot gain something without sacrificing something in return”, “love is a battlefield”, “you can rest when you are dead”, “sleep is for the weak”, and many others. What these slogans all seem to have in common is that they suggest (sometimes not so tentatively) that we must first suffer to be happy.
But can we not be happy without suffering first? Can we not identify happiness without having experienced pain? Can we not notice the good without the contrasting presence of the bad?
I am not saying that suffering is not a natural part of life. In fact, in Buddhism, suffering is referred to as dukkha – an inherent part of the human condition. Dukkha is outlined in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:
1. All existence is dukkha.
2. The cause of dukkha is craving.
3. The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving.
4. There is a path that leads from dukkha.
So yes, suffering is “normal” (the First Noble Truth). But it is also a choice. And that is the important takeaway here. As human beings, we have a tendency to grasp at things (craving) or push them away (aversion), instead of accepting them as they are (the Second Noble Truth). Moreover, as we are the cause of our own suffering, we are also our own solution. We cannot change or control everything that happens in our lives, but we can control how we respond to what happens and in that sense, change our attachment (or aversion) to it (the Third Noble Truth).
In reality, when something is difficult or harmful to us, we sometimes have the tendency to cling even harder to it. Consider the example of a (bad) relationship. People around us tell us that it’s bad, but we stay. Intuitively we know that it’s bad, but we stay. Not only do we stay, but we fight even harder for it. We talk about it and praise it in the hopes of convincing ourselves and others that it’s not a bad relationship. Maybe we think that fighting for a bad relationship will ultimately change it. But I believe that we continue fighting for a bad relationship simply to justify all the commitment and work that we have already put into it. We are attached to (our perception of) it and so we fight to keep that attachment. Non-attachment therefore requires a mental shift in our perceptions and expectations, but it is not an easy practice.
The more we grasp, the more we are afraid to lose.
This too shall pass
Sometimes letting go can be easy. Sometimes we simply outgrow ideas, beliefs, and people. Other times, however, it comes with all the grief of attachment. Friendships that have spanned years, jobs that are like a second home to us, and places that we have never left behind. Practicing non-attachment is therefore a life-long process, an advanced step in the practice of meditation and mindfulness, and not something that will happen overnight. Practice is the only way (the Fourth Noble Truth).
So make time and space in your life for people who you love and things that are good for you. Don’t neglect your friendships. But don’t cling to people who won’t make time or space for you. Don’t keep things in your life that no longer serve you. And here is the important part: don’t push them away either! Otherwise you are just crossing from craving into aversion and the suffering persists.
Instead, become aware of how things are, try to accept them as they are, and learn to let go. This is what our practice can do for us.
I will leave you with this beautiful quote from Zen Thinking:
“Non-attachment is essentially a practice of presence and mindfulness. It is not allowing your sense of wellbeing to rely upon anything other than your own presence of awareness.”