And is it a healthy approach to life?
If you’ve ever heard someone talk about Buddhist principles, you might think they’re pretty far out. And you wouldn’t be wrong. Compared to how we typically think in the West, Buddhism offers an approach to life that is fundamentally opposed to some of our most basic sensibilities.
The concept of “non-attachment” is no exception. To most Westerners, “non-attachment” sounds a lot like “detachment”, which conjures images of someone who can’t connect with others or is emotionally numb. Why would anyone pursue that state of mind?
Of course, no one would. It’s here that a great misunderstanding is found.
The main aim of Buddhism is to end dukkha, which some translate to “unsatisfactoriness.” No matter who you are, you’ve experienced it. Dukkha is present when you lose a loved one, when you’re passed over for a promotion, or when your relationship ends. It’s found in smaller things, too, like a disagreement with your best friend, worrying about a presentation at work, or when you stub your toe.
According to Buddhism, the main cause of dukkha is attachment to our cravings and aversions. Cravings are things that we desire to attain, like a new car. Aversions are things that we desire to avoid, like an illness. Our cravings and aversions cause dukkha is because, despite our fervent wishes, they are often beyond our control to attain or avoid.
We might crave a new car but not have the money to buy one. We might have an aversion to getting sick but catch a cold, anyway. And even when we get what we want or avoid what we don’t want, the pleasure is fleeting, it never lasts.
All of life is like this.
This is why the Buddha believed that “non-attachment” plays a crucial role in ending dukkha.
Actions over outcomes
You might be thinking, I am not supposed to want anything? That’s stupid.
No one would argue against having goals. These help guide us toward a better state, not just for ourselves but also for our families and communities. It also makes sense to try to avoid what will cause us physical and emotional pain, like sickness and injury.
This is where the concept of non-attachment becomes tricky. Buddhism suggests that although we should act to bring about our goals and to avoid sickness and injury, we shouldn’t hold on too tightly to actually succeeding. In other words, it’s the actions that matter, not the outcomes.
This is often the opposite of what we think is important. Let me give you an example.
If your current career goal is to become a vice-president, the focus of your days shouldn’t be ruminating on your past mistakes, wishing the present is different than it is, or endlessly fantasizing about what your life will be like when you’re finally a VP. Instead, your focus should be on what you’re doing right now to move toward your goal.
There’s a great analogy to sports here. If you’ve ever played a sport, you know how crippling it can be to overthink. If you’re analyzing and assessing your performance while you’re performing, you won’t perform at your best. When athletes are “in the zone”, also known as flow state, essentially their conscious minds take a back seat to their performance.
Why is this important? People not only perform better in states of flow, but they also experience increased subjective well-being, productivity at work, and general happiness.
In summary: when the mind isn’t distracted by judgemental thoughts, it performs better and we feel better. But what is needed to enter and sustain a state of flow is the desire to do the activity for its own sake — not in order to achieve something else.
Similarly, Buddhism recommends we stay focused in the present because our lives become better when we do. It isn’t suggesting we stop caring or stop wanting, it’s suggesting that once we decide what we care about or want, we focus on the next step to attain it. Critically, though, whether we are successful in achieving that next step is irrelevant — if we’ve encountered an obstacle or made a mistake, we simply recalculate our approach toward our goal and then take another step.
Notice how simple and brilliant a concept this is. There’s no time or energy wasted asking, Why did this have to happen to me? Is something wrong with me? What are they thinking about me? Thoughts like these mostly just impede our progress toward our goals or healthier states of mind.
The crazy part? We barely notice. The truth is lost in the chaos of our minds.
Non-attachment in relationships
When you think about important relationships in your life, there is likely a strong attachment there. You could feel this attachment to a child, a partner, your parents, or someone else. Is this wrong?
When we think about our loved ones, we have powerful cravings and aversions. We want them to be happy, safe, and successful and we want them to avoid the opposite.
There are a couple of things to notice about this.
First, just like everything else, we cannot control outcomes. We cannot make people happy, safe, or successful, no matter how hard we try. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try — we should try! We have a duty to try. The point is, our efforts might not be enough and this is something we need to come to terms with.
Second, notice that these cravings and aversions you have are all about you and how you would feel if something good or bad happened. We often confuse attachment with love, but they’re different things. Attachments come with strings attached; love does not. Being attached to someone means you need something from them. Loving someone means you’re willing to give everything to them.
Attachment, therefore, is selfish— it’s valuing your fears and insecurities above the person.
Love, on the other hand, is unselfish. It’s about valuing the person for their own sake.
Love, then, isn’t about control and certainty. It’s about appreciation and giving. And non-attachment, paradoxically, leads to this purest form of love — a love that recognizes the inherent beauty and value in the person, while also recognizing that each moment with that person is precious because of the uncertainty of the future.
If you can let go of your attachments to control and certainty, you will notice yourself more at ease in the moment. This will allow you to better enjoy the company of your loved ones and develop deeper, more meaningful relationships with them.
How do we become less attached?
The Buddha noticed that we tend to suffer because things change — nothing is permanent.
At first glance, this is painfully obvious. We all know this. If you asked anyone on the street whether life changes, everyone would answer in the affirmative.
Yet, when we get sick, which we inevitably do, we get angry.
When we age, which we inevitably do, we get sad.
When some piece of equipment breaks, which they inevitably do, we get annoyed.
The problem isn’t that we don’t know this intellectually. The problem is that we don’t know it experientially. We haven’t seen the change for ourselves — we haven’t experience the change, moment to moment.
As a result, when things do change, as they always do, we feel like an injustice has occurred. How could this happen? Why did this have to happen to me?
So, it causes dukkha — it causes unsatisfactoriness.
The remedy for this simple, but not easy. It is to regularly see the changing nature of the world for yourself. How can you do this? Through meditation.
Meditation develops the skill of mindfulness, which sharpens your ability to perceive your mind. Meditation helps you to see the changing nature of reality and in a way habituates you to it. You notice thoughts arising and passing. You notice feelings arising and passing. You notice sensations arising and passing. You notice, for yourself, that all of life is change.
Finally, you understand how your attachment to cravings and aversions bring about dukkha, and finally, you understand how to bring it to an end.
But don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a quick fix. I’ve been meditating daily for three years and I’m still a mess. My mind runs amok regularly. But I have learned and improved, and life feels different. Better.
Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?
Thanks for reading!
The thoughts presented here have been influenced by Joseph Goldstein, Sam Harris, and others.