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The wise ones advised us not to be attached to the attractions and aversions of worldly life.
Because sensory pleasures, relationships, and material possessions are transient, their satisfaction will invariably fade, giving rise to discontent, followed by brand new desires. And when those are satisfied…well, you know the story: the cycle continues. And continues.
The only lasting happiness, we are told, comes from absorption in the limitless “Self,” whose very nature is bliss. So, we are advised to direct our yearning away from external attractions to the inner realm and the eventual liberation of moksha, nirvana, God realization, cosmic consciousness, or whatever term suits you.
Couldn’t be simpler, right? Just practice non-attachment.
Well, not so fast. What does it really mean to be unattached? How does it translate to real life? I have seen many people struggle mightily with these and related questions.
An early Christian mystic observed that someone “who has tasted the sweetness of having no personal possessions” can find that “even the cassock which he wears and the jug of water in his cell are a useless burden, because these things, too, sometimes distract his mind.” If that’s true of monks, what about us, with our walk-in closets, our overstuffed pantries, and our anything-at-a-click technology?
How can we tell the difference between a toxic attachment and a healthy affection for something worthwhile or a passionate commitment to a worthy goal? When is giving something up a valorous spiritual exercise, and when is it an escape from reality, an abandonment of responsibility, or maybe even a masochistic and futile enterprise?
Walk the spiritual path in earnest and you bump up against a lot of things that can be seen as attachments but might not be attachments—not just people and things, but pleasures and enjoyments, rituals and routines, ideas and opinions, organizations and institutions, achievement, control, even the sense of personal self we call the ego.
What does it really mean to be unattached to such things?
Would you want to do without art or music because you’re “attached” to them?
Is it in any way spiritually useful to give up your “attachment” to the loved ones who depend on you?
One of the great challenges of the spiritual path is to discern the difference between clinging to something with angst and cherishing it in a healthy way. In either case, you want it, and you’d be sorry to lose it, but the emotional charge would be vastly different. Perhaps the most revealing clue is how much desperation accompanies the desire, and whether the thought of not getting what you want, or losing it if you already have it, triggers fear. Thinking “I’ll never be happy if I don’t have this” ranks high on the list of spiritual delusions.
We can love selflessly, and we can love possessively. We can have very little and be attached to every bit of it, and we can have more goodies than we ever dreamed of and be attached to none of it.
So, whether it’s a relationship, a professional goal, a pleasurable experience, or a prized possession, asking these questions might help us determine if it’s an attachment we should work to eliminate—or at least tamp down:
>> Would having it serve my spiritual growth or hold me back?
>> Would not having it be mentally, physically, or spiritually debilitating?
>> Does wanting it cause me to cling, grasp, envy, or covet?
>> How much does the prospect of losing it make me fearful or desperate?
>> Will letting it go make me more free or less free?
Let’s be clear about one important distinction: non-attachment is not indifference. Confuse the two and you end up thinking you’re in some high spiritual state when all you’ve achieved is apathy.
Here’s another pitfall: you can get attached to non-attachment. I’ve seen sincere people become so obsessed with letting go of possessions and entanglements that they deny themselves some of life’s finest pleasures and precious joys, or they wallow in self-recrimination because they can’t get unattached enough.
I’ve also seen people turn detachment into an ego trip: “Look how unattached I am! I’m less attached than you are.”
The teachings on non-attachment are reminders that what really counts, like grace and love and inner peace, do not depend on possessing anything outside ourselves. In fact, it can be argued that the ideal of non-attachment is more of a description than a prescription. Rather than imploring us to give things up, it points us to a state of being in which inner joy and contentment remain undisturbed whether or not we satisfy our desires or achieve our worldly goals. Highly advanced yogis, the Bhagavad Gita tells us, have “equanimity in gain and loss, victory and defeat, pleasure and pain.” They are beyond attachment to any of those things.
That’s a state we might all aspire to, but it is not one we should try to imitate or expect ourselves to acquire by an act of will. Faking it would be what one wise—or wise-ass, perhaps—person called “premature immaculation.”
What we can do, and what is spiritually beneficial to do, is reduce the emotional heat on our desires and always remember where true fulfillment resides. We can enjoy the good things in life, and embrace our earthly responsibilities, while at the same time reducing our dependency on them and strengthening our connection to the infinite within, drawing on the inventory of yogic and meditative practices that suit us best. When we do that, over time the attachments that have consumed us come to seem like the toys we couldn’t let go of as children.
Of course, along the way, inner peace comes and goes. And when it goes, we find ourselves back on the treadmill racing after this or clinging to that—but gradually, the effort becomes more of a pastime than a compulsion. In the meantime, let’s be kind to ourselves about the ridiculous attachments that linger.
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