The term “non-attachment” has always confused me, because it seemed synonymous with:
- Not caring
- Being callous or cold
- A state of idiotic, lobotomized bliss
- Not being engaged in life
On a walk this morning, I had some flashes of insight, which made the term make a lot more sense. I want to share them here.
Attachment to Identity
A few weeks ago, I was taking an outdoor shower in a beautiful retreat center on the big island of Hawaii, and I was pissed. Why? Because my girlfriend put my clean clothes in the wash. Why did this bother me so?
- This was a waste of resources
- This was bad for the environment
The fact that I was so angered by such a small thing revealed that I was grasping very tightly my identity as an environmentalist (and my related identity as a frugal person who doesn’t waste). As I think back on this moment, it dawned on me that I have parts of myself that are deeply attached to certain identities, and can get quite upset when these identities are threatened.
Attachment to Outcome
Attachment to outcome is super common for me. When I was making the artwork above, I scoured the apartment for an eraser to get rid of the pencil lines. But I didn’t find one. I got angry. I was attached to the outcome of finding an eraser.
The host of this podcast talks about having a traumatic brain injury and how his attachment to the outcome of feeling good made him suffer much more. When he let go of this, he was able to accept that he was feeling crappy, and then the healing process started.
If I am not happy, I will concern myself with doing something that encourages joy.Brian Cornell
People often think they need to do something about their feelings…Instead, what if you just let the emotion sit there? Accept that it’ll be there for awhile, and trust that it’ll dissipate when ready.Lesley Sim
Caring about process
“But if I’m not attached to outcomes, won’t I stop caring about excellence? Won’t I condemn myself to a life of mediocrity? Won’t I stop accomplishing things?”
These are common anxieties of the ego, but they are not true, because we can take the energy we were wasting on grasping identity and outcome, and invest it into the process. Process happens in the here and now, and it’s all we have control over.
Caring about process is empowering. If we feel down, we should go for a walk, exercise, or give a friend a call. It’s just that we shouldn’t expect that after doing these things, we will feel 100% better. In the words of Modest Mouse, “work a little harder, work another way.”
All too often, my suffering comes from wanting people to be a certain way. I just walked past the house of my friends who moved away in 2017. Part of me still wants things to be the same as they were back then, with them living in the neighborhood. But this is not possible. Change and impermanence are facts of life. Sometimes change brings beauty, and sometimes it brings pain and grief, and that’s OK.
If I try to force the future into the shape of the past, it won’t work. I’ll start trying to control things and people, I won’t stay current with reality, and I will be constantly disappointed.
When I went to Wonder Wander 2021, I implicitly acknowledged that these people were their own people, had their own lives. I appreciated them for who they were, and did not have specific rigid expectations for how they ought to be. I can take this open energy and apply it to all my relationships. People will disappoint if I expect from them an overly specific outcome.
All this is a path. I believe it’s the best path forward in life for me.