What is non-attachment, exactly, and why does it matter? How do we cultivate it?
Every time I use the term non-attachment in my counseling session – which is a lot these days – my counselor replaces it with the word detachment in his response. Instead of just letting it slide, I correct him, pointing out what I’m contemplating and experiencing is not detachment. It’s non-attachment, which is an entirely different thing.
I suspect he thinks I’m being nit-picky about words. For him, the two terms seem to be interchangeable. But I see a vast gulf between these two concepts (experiences). One is far healthier and more supportive of overall well-being, so the difference matters.
For many, confusing non-attachment with detachment creates an obstacle to practicing non-attachment. It can summon images of a life devoid of emotions – wherein connection in relationships gets shut down, and life’s pleasures and joys get numbed. And that’s a shame, because that’s not at all what it’s about. While detachment can have that effect, non-attachment actually enriches our lives and relationships in powerful ways.
When we embody the principle of non-attachment, we find peace and balance. We conquer the fear, anxiety, and suffering that can arise with the reality of impermanence and loss. It’s a beautiful gift that has the power to set us free from so many psychological ailments. And when it fully matures, it transforms our experience of life from black-and-white to full, vibrant color.
The Gift Of Non-Attachment
If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you know I initiated divorce six months ago. It’s why I’ve been working with a counselor regularly. And it’s why non-attachment has been pushed to the forefront of my life. Letting go of someone I have loved for thirty years has been a difficult process. However, that process has offered me some powerful lessons.
It was teaching me to love unconditionally – outside the boundaries of a defined and long-held relationship and in the context of deep hurt, grief, and sometimes confusion. Then out of the blue, my whole process shifted. I found out my husband was in the hospital with organ failure. Without a transplant, he had only a matter of days to live.
Instantly, I set aside everything I (and we) had been going through and began working to get him a transplant. But unfortunately, his condition declined so rapidly he became ineligible for the procedure. The only option left was to take him home for hospice.
As he slipped into the haze of palliative medications, I was granted only a matter of hours – broken up in spurts here and there – during which he was alert enough to talk. In that precious time, we made our peace. Over the next few days, I held his hand for hours as he slept. In his very last moments, his eyes opened and looked into mine. I told him go with God, and then I love you over and over again, until life left his eyes.
Ashes To Ashes
It’s been nine weeks now – time spent in a whirlwind of activity I never planned to be undertaking. Like wrapping up his businesses, packing up the house, preparing his memorial, and transferring his ashes to the beautiful blue urn I picked out for him.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The phrase takes on deeper, more real meaning when you see the love of your life reduced to a bag of ash.
My husband and I had the kind of relationship in which we always acknowledged each other’s souls. To put it more accurately, we returned again and again to the awareness we were two souls in human form teaching each other soul-level lessons. Sometimes nicely and neatly, other times painfully and messily. So lately, I’ve been pondering a lot the final lesson he taught me, which I believe is the maturation of my capacity for non-attachment.
I’ve long practiced the principle. But recently, I’ve realized how much it’s something we must learn and embody in layers. Meaning, it doesn’t happen all at once with a big aha moment. We get it in stages, as we learn to let go of our attachments to different people, experiences, and things we cling to with varying degrees of intensity.
Non-Attachment In Layers
Jason, my husband, was my big whopper of an attachment. Reflecting on that, I can see I let go of my attachment to him in layers over a period of years. It began with releasing the idealized version of him I’d created in my young mind, which he could never live up to. It grew into acknowledging the innate value of his life path – which wasn’t bound to our relationship or the life we built together – even when that path caused me pain.
Bit by bit, my attachment unraveled. Until finally towards the end, I began looking at him through the lens of spirit. At the spirit-level – untouched by our ego entanglements – I could trust our love. I could believe our souls were still teaching us both something we needed to learn. Even if I didn’t yet fully understand it.
But in watching the last flicker of awareness leave his eyes, I was confronted with what I know I will never be able to hide from again. That is, the absolute reality of the impermanence of every person, place, thing, and experience that has and will ever arise in my life.
For his sake, and for the sake of my incredible love for him, I didn’t turn away or even blink in those last moments when our eyes were locked. I embraced those seconds in pure and total awareness. Because I knew they would be my last with him, and his last on this earth.
Each Precious Moment
And then in the days that followed, the full gravity of impermanence set in for me. I began to see with more clarity than ever before, every person and creature I love, every thing and experience I enjoy, is a fleeting occurrence. While this may seem a sad, morbid revelation, it was in fact the opposite. Because to face this truth, without turning from it in the slightest of ways, is to fully embrace the preciousness and beauty of each moment, each experience, each person, creature, and thing.
See, attachment means to cling to something or someone. Which is to say – to fear, dread, or otherwise resist losing it. Non-attachment is to accept that the loss we wish to avoid is absolutely and already inevitable. It always has been, whether we’ve chosen to acknowledge it or not.
The beauty of non-attachment reveals itself when we simply savor the present moment we do have. We experience the happening that is a person or thing’s being-ness without the stain of fear, dread, or resistance to losing it. This eases the suffering we experience around losing someone or something we love, whether that loss is actualized or anticipated. And it awakens us from the sleepy haze that sets in when we take life for granted – when we live as though who and what we love will always be there.
Non-attachment helps us appreciate what’s right in front of us, because we know it is fleeting. In this way, it frees us and encourages us to live more fully.
What Is Non-Attachment
Non-attachment is about more than just accepting the inevitability of loss, though. It’s about letting go of control. Or rather, the illusion of control. Because when we cultivate non-attachment, we learn to release our fixation on how we think things should be. And we develop the capacity to accept what is.
What is includes the unavoidable reality of impermanence, as well as the truth that sometimes life will be pleasurable and easy. And sometimes it will be painful and hard. Sometimes people’s words and actions – our own included – will align with what we wish them to be. Sometimes they won’t.
While most of us know this logically, we tend to live as if we don’t. We operate on the expectation that everything should go as we want it to. When it doesn’t, we get really bothered by it. Or, in anticipation of things going wrong, we chew on anxious, angry, sad, or otherwise disturbing thoughts.
Surrendering To The Flow
In other words, our attachment to how we think things should be – whether in the present, past or future – causes suffering. When we cultivate the capacity to let go of this, we discover we can survive loss. We can get through adversity, from the minor mishaps and annoyances to the bigger challenges life throws our way. If we stop resisting and surrender to the river-like flow that is life (and death), we find (and come to trust) tumultuous rapids are just a section of the river. Downstream, where the flow is always carrying us, calmer waters await.
Continuing this metaphor, we can say non-attachment means not clinging to the river’s bank, because we think we’ve found the best section of the river. It means not freaking out when the waters get turbulent. Rather, it’s staying calm and wise enough to see our best path through them. It also means abiding in the peace that comes with knowing and accepting the river is always carrying us (and all we love) back to the sea.
Non-Attachment Vs. Detachment
As I mentioned at the start of this post, non-attachment often gets confused with detachment. And that’s not surprising. The two terms seem to imply the same concept – not being attached or involved, keeping a distance, or letting go. But there are several key differences between these two ways of being.
First, and most fundamentally, non-attachment is a Buddhist principal intended to be cultivated as part of a path that liberates us from suffering. It’s an essential part of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, because it emphasizes the impermanent nature of all experience. And it highlights how attachment to the experiences we desire perpetuates our suffering.
Detachment, on the other hand, often works as a defense mechanism. It can be employed to distance us from someone or something we think isn’t serving our well-being or will cause us harm. Or, it can arise as a not-so-healthy coping technique that leaves us incapable of feeling our emotions or empathizing with the emotions of others.
Either way, detachment functions as a rejection of some aspect of our life. We either want to push away some person or thing, or we want to suppress an emotional reaction to it.
This brings me to the second way these two ways of being differ. When we cultivate non-attachment, we shift from viewing life through the lens of our desires and aversions to seeing it more objectively as simply what is. Rather than rejecting certain aspects of our experience, we take it all in. This includes uncomfortable emotions, which arise because we are human, and emotions are part of human be-ing.
Whereas detachment seeks to shut down emotions, non-attachment allows them to arise and fall away. We grow in our ability to encounter them as just another aspect of the ever-changing, sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant happening that is life. And because we’re neither resisting nor clinging to them, they follow their natural arc of rising, peaking, and dissipating without getting hung-up.
Ultimately, this means we suffer less. But it also means, because we haven’t cut ourselves off from emotions, we don’t miss out on the really good ones, like love, gratitude, and joy.
Detachment In Relationships
When it comes to relationships, the difference between non-attachment and detachment becomes especially important. Detachment in the context of a relationship can simply mean beginning to care less about it. It can mean limiting openness or emotional availability. Or it can be walking away from someone altogether.
Of course, sometimes to preserve our wellbeing, we do need to distance ourselves or walk away. But generally speaking, detachment can lead to dissatisfaction within our relationships. Being emotionally withdrawn can make us miss out on the sense of connectedness healthy relationships are meant to foster.
Non-Attachment In Relationships
On the other hand, non-attachment can deepen our sense of connectedness and lead us to greater appreciation for our relationships. I’ve already discussed how it helps us more fully appreciate the moments we have with our loved ones. So I’m going to focus here on how it supports deeper connection.
Non-attachment asks us to rise above our desires and aversions. This includes our wish to control what our loved ones do and don’t do. When we stop seeing them through the lens of what we think they should or shouldn’t be doing, it frees us to see and love them for who they actually are in each moment.
Furthermore, through our practice of non-attachment, we come to understand the source of our own suffering. That is, our desires and aversions. Naturally, this helps us see the source of our loved one’s suffering too – their own inner struggle with desire and aversion. Perhaps more importantly, we gain insight into how that suffering might translate into the things they say and do. This awareness fosters compassion and a wiser way of relating to the people we love.
Not So Black & White
In other words, our minds open. We recognize things aren’t as black and white as we once thought they were. We see texture and all the gradients of color that make up the emotional landscape of our relationship. Non-attachment asks us to summon emotional maturity and acceptance of complexity when things aren’t going the way we want them to. It calls us to a more holistic view of things, which transcends our own desires, aversions and impulses.
This means, our inner experience – thoughts, feelings, and expectations – matters. And at the same time, their thoughts, feelings, and expectations matter too. Even if they don’t line-up with, or somehow infringe upon, our own experience. Because it’s all a part of what is. And it’s not going to change just because we don’t like it.
It’s our desire to conform the outside world to our inner experience that brings about our suffering. That’s because so often, the world doesn’t bend to that desire. When we stop fixating on that, a wiser perspective reveals itself. We find clarity of heart and mind – a bird’s eye view that shows us which choices (actions and words) will best support our well-being.
But regardless of what those choices may be, we’re more connected to our loved one. Because we haven’t checked-out emotionally. Instead, we’ve checked-in intentionally. Unhindered by self-absorption, no longer blinded by our desires and aversions, we see our self and them more clearly.
Benefits Of Non-Attachment
As the fields of psychology and psychotherapy increasingly recognize the wisdom of Buddhist teachings, topics like mindfulness, self, and non-attachment are making their way into studies, techniques, and theories produced and utilized within the profession. In fact, a scale to measure non-attachment (NAS) has been developed. Not only does it clearly differentiate non-attachment from detachment, but it defines non-attachment as encompassing several attributes known to support psychological well-being. These include:
- psychological flexibility, or lack of fixation
- non-reactivity, or even-mindedness
- more quickly recovering from upsets
- allowing, releasing, and supporting others’ capacity to choose
- a sense of ease
Studies have connected it to reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. And, to increased empathy, kindness, wisdom and self-actualization. Interestingly, it’s been found to be “a more important quality than mindfulness when explaining positive psychological outcomes.”
To cultivate non-attachment is to adopt a healthier way of relating to our inner experience, which includes our emotions, desires, and sense of self. And, to our outer experience of other people, life events, and the cycles of life and death.
How To Practice Non-Attachment
To practice non-attachment, first we have to identify the ways in which we tend to be attached. Once we recognize our attachments, we can begin to practice a different way of relating to them.
For most of us, attachment shows up as a desire to hold onto or avoid the aspects of life described below.
The most obvious way attachment manifests in relation to people is our fear of losing them. However, it can also arise in the form of clinging to a certain idea we have about them, which denies their complex or changing nature. Or, it demands they change their actions or words, maybe even their thoughts and feelings, to suit our desires.
How To Practice Non-Attachment To People
To practice non-attachment to people, take time to regularly contemplate the truth of impermanence. When you’re spending time with someone you love, acknowledge the uncomfortable, yet very real fact that someday – one way or another – you will lose them. This isn’t a fun or enjoyable thought. In fact, it can feel quite painful if you let it sink in. But, it is a beautiful and wise thought in that it is truth. And that truth has the power to make you cherish the moment you have right in front of you in a way you wouldn’t ordinarily do.
Also from time to time, reflect on whether your love, perceptions, and understandings of the people in your life are bound by your expectations of them. Are you seeing them for who they really are? Or, are you seeing them for who you want them to be?
What’s driving their words and actions? If you don’t know what’s driving them, can you acknowledge that? Or, do you make assumptions based on your own emotions, motivations, impulses, etc.?
As you come to understand the complex nature of your own inner landscape, can you allow that their inner world might be just as complex?
Once you’ve gained insight into how you’re relating to other people, the practice of non-attachment becomes one of opening space and allowing. It’s letting go of the desire to control them, releasing them from the bondage of your expectations and ideals, and simply seeing them as they are. It can look like forgiveness, compassion, understanding, or grace. And it can look like walking away, if need be. But no matter what, it transcends any desire to make them something they are not, simply because you desire another version of them.
Attachment to things typically involves not wanting to lose something we value. But it can also mean coveting something we don’t have.
How To Practice Non-Attachment To Things
To practice non-attachment to things, it can be helpful to contemplate what it is you truly need to survive. So often what we fear losing, or what we desire intensely, are things that don’t fulfill essential needs. The disproportionate value we place on them generates distress when we have reason to think we might lose them, or we feel we can’t attain them. But in truth, we could get along just fine without them, if we just let go of our attachment.
An example from my recent life illustrates this perfectly. During my divorce, I moved from a large, beautiful home to a small, 2-bedroom apartment. Not only did this mean I was living in a smaller space, but it also meant I had less room for things. I had to downsize in every way, prioritizing what I really needed.
For many people, this sort of drastic change might have caused significant distress. But it barely fazed me. I remained content, because I realized all my needs are being met here in this apartment. And so many of the things I had in my larger home weren’t necessary at all. So, what did it matter to lose them?
What Do You Really Need?
Tremendous liberation lies on the flip side of attachment to things. Ask yourself, what do you really need to survive, to feel content, to experience the joy of living? It’s probably so much less than what you’re attached to. Non-attachment doesn’t mean you have to get rid of every non-essential thing you have. It just means regularly reminding yourself you could still be fine without those things.
A great, concrete way to practice non-attachment to things is to do a spring cleaning. Go through your home (or maybe just one room or closet to start) and pull-out everything you don’t use or need. Notice when the little voice in your head feeds you some reason why should hold onto something you haven’t used or even appreciated in months. Acknowledge that voice as your desire to cling – Hello, attachment.
Then, imagine this item were to get lost, broken, or stolen. Could you still be happy, content, and find joy in life? If so, why not liberate yourself from the attachment? Consider giving it away to someone who can use it. Even if you choose to keep it, you’ll still gain insight around your attachment, which in some way will create a shift in you. (Remember, non-attachment happens in layers over time.)
Thoughts, Feelings & States of Being
When we get attached to our thoughts, feelings, and other states of being, we lack psychological flexibility. This can mean we’re more rigid, less open to seeing or experiencing things from a different perspective. Or, we’re less tolerant of uncomfortable, not-pleasant states. Though it may seem illogical, sometimes it can even mean clinging to unpleasant states. In these instances, we may be holding onto a belief we deserve suffering. Or, that suffering is all that is possible for us.
Practicing Non-Attachment To Thoughts, Feelings & States Of Being
The most powerful way to practice non-attachment to our thoughts, feelings, and states of being is to train in mindfulness. That’s because mindfulness helps us take a step back to observe our inner world from a more objective distance. We become a witness to what’s happening inside us, without placing any kind of judgment on it. We’re simply acquainting ourselves with what’s happening in the present moment in a focused and intentional way.
When we give attention to our thoughts, feelings, and states of being – without defining them as good/bad or desirable/undesirable – we develop tolerance for the full spectrum of our inner experience. As we develop our capacity for mindfulness, we find we can relax around what’s uncomfortable or unpleasant. And as we do, whatever thoughts, feelings, or states of being are creating that discomfort tend to shift. They become less uncomfortable, less unpleasant. Oftentimes, they dissipate altogether.
The more we experience this cycle of witnessing without judgment, followed by an inner shift toward greater ease, the more we come to trust we can tolerate and even transmute discomfort. In this way, we gradually let go of our attachment to only comfortable and pleasant states of being. We realize, we can hold space for all that arises within us.
In the case of attachment to uncomfortable or unpleasant states – such as negative thought loops, tendencies toward melancholy, or pervasive anxiety – mindfulness can bring awareness to the patterns of our mind. And it can help us identify how our body-states might be contributing to these patterns (i.e., lack of energy, posture, a sense of heaviness, shallow breathing, etc.) When we shine the light of awareness on our inner workings, we create shifts. And shifts help us get un-stuck.
Attachment to outcomes means believing things must turn out a certain way for us to be happy, safe, secure, or okay. Conversely, non-attachment to outcomes is believing no matter what happens, ultimately we’ll still be okay.
Practicing Non-Attachment To Outcomes
This may sound harsh or blunt, but it’s the truth. So I’m going to say it.
In every situation, the absolute worst possible outcome is death. Obviously, the risk of death in most situations is minute. But if we’re worrying about something going wrong, facing the worst possible scenario head-on can free us from our fear. Because once we’ve confronted the worst outcome, all the levels of wrongness that precede it feel more tolerable.
The truth of impermanence is ultimately the truth of death. Nothing will last forever, including us and our loved ones. So when we deeply accept the truth of impermanence, we’re facing the worst possible outcome of every scenario head-on. In doing so, we conquer our fears.
This means, if you want to root-out your attachment to outcomes, contemplating death is a powerful practice. I don’t mean dwelling on death or allowing it to bind you to melancholy. But rather, coming to terms with it in a way that brings you peace. That might include prayer, reading of spiritual texts, meditating on it, or talking with a wise confidant about it.
Fear of death is linked to attachment to life, which of course we’re hard-wired for via our survival instincts. And that’s a good thing. However, it means finding our peace around death is a complex process that takes time, as we gradually override these instincts and come to view death as a natural extension of life.
To overcome attachment to outcomes, we have to cultivate faith at the core of our being. That is, we must learn to trust ourselves to have the fortitude we need to adjust to whatever may happen. At a more spiritual level, when we can find our way to trusting in a higher order of things, we gain access to a well of faith that rises up right when we need it. It buoys us and carries us through any outcome we might face.
When I contemplate non-attachment, I often find my way to thinking about object permanence. In case you don’t know, that’s a big step babies take in their cognitive development around the age of 8 months. We might call it their first aha moment. It’s when they realize people and things still exist, even if they can’t be seen or heard. Object permanence lays the foundation for abstract thinking, symbolism and language development – all hallmarks of the human experience. While we don’t tend to acknowledge or celebrate it, it’s truly an important milestone.
At first glance, it might seem ironic that developing comfort with the opposite concept – impermanence – is so helpful to us as we mature. However, when we consider separation anxiety develops in connection with object permanence, the irony fades. As infants, it’s precisely because we become aware people and things are relatively permanent that we begin to experience anxiety at the prospect of losing them.
Enter attachment, clinging, and the desire to control – the truth of suffering.
It’s like, as adults, we need to unravel this concept of permanence, which once served our growth so well, in order to continue growing. When we look at it that way, it’s easy to see that cultivating non-attachment is just as important a step in our cognitive development as that early milestone was. Perhaps it’s a natural continuation of it – the next big step we need to take. Yet unfortunately, many of us don’t even realize it.
There’s probably a whole other blog post’s worth of content to explore on that last topic. So I’ll just leave it there, as food for thought. But I’m curious to hear what you think. Please let me know in the comments section below.
I do want to say, my practice of non-attachment didn’t take away the pain of my husband’s death. It doesn’t work like that – magically erasing the hurt that comes with loss. But what it did do was ease my suffering, a LOT.
I hope this article supports your journey toward non-attachment in some way. And that we all may find our way to freedom from the suffering of attachment.