“Attachments are our fixated attempts to control our experience, usually through clinging to what we perceive as desirable or aversion to what we perceive as undesirable.”
“Non-attachment, therefore, is what occurs when we can let go of the need to be in dogged control of what is occurring and can reduce our demands on the present moment to be any way in particular.”
“Far from being a detached state, non-attachment is something that arises when we are truly present and not caught up in the automatic process of fixating on things being better or worse than what they are at any given moment.”Psychology Today
These past weeks I have been thinking a lot about the Buddhist idea of non-attachment. I had edited a podcast episode on embracing impermanence and a guided impermanence meditation for work. Then I listened to the Mark Groves podcast with Luke Storey: Spirituality, Addiction, and Personal Transformation. The focus wasn’t on impermanence or non-attachment but that was my main takeaway.
I am new to Buddhism and I’ve learned a bit in the four months working for A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, but I am well aware of how much more I have yet to uncover.
The reason I am so drawn to impermanence and non-attachment at this moment is because I have trouble letting go. I can’t let go of an old relationship, I can’t let go of the fact that I lost all of my old diaries, story ideas, and childhood home, and I can’t let go of certain judgements.
Of course, I can theoretically but sometimes it feels impossible. It is like riding a wave, some days I feel forever free from all these negative attachments; then in the next moment, they all come crashing back, as if they never left. But that is life, everything comes in waves, and with every high comes a low.
This is why the idea of meditating on impermanence is so important. I, like most people, cling to the high moments. But I don’t even enjoy them fully because I am too busy looking down, praying to never feel that low again.
The day after listening to the Mark Groves podcast, I was walking down the street–feeling happy and smiling to myself–when I made eye contact with a girl passing by. She smiled back and it felt as if we shared a brief second of joy and understanding. I thought about this interaction the entire way home.
What if I smiled at everyone? What if everyone smiled back at me? Because that minuscule interaction had really impacted me and I wanted to bring that kind of joy to everyone.
Then I thought, What if they don’t smile back? That would just make me feel embarrassed or annoyed. And then I realized that it really wouldn’t. Sure, in the past it certainly would have, but something had changed; at this moment in life, I’m the most confident I have ever felt.
It struck me that the more confident you are, the less you care about negative comments or interactions. As I write it, it seems painfully obvious, but it was a realization that clicked for me at the moment. If I am confident, I can just be myself and not be so worried about what other’s judgements.
If I smile at someone and they don’t smile back, the only consequence is that I smiled. It doesn’t matter if they think I’m stupid or weird or crazy, I made a nice gesture and the stranger can decide how they react. I can only control my own actions.
Clearly, I have some social anxiety. Not in the way that it is depicted on television, where the girl hides in her room, under her puffy blankets, and refuses to talk to anyone besides the friends she’s made online. I am very sociable, I love making friends, and meeting new people (which is good because as a solo traveler, I do this constantly).
The social anxiety comes in the form of constantly worrying what others think of me. Was I friendly enough? Do they like me? Do they find me boring? Do they think I’m trying to be cool? It’s exhausting and unproductive. But I’ll get back to the point. My social anxiety has improved and I’m feeling the most confident I ever have.
But, what is confidence? Confidence seems inherently attached to my sense of self and ego, whether good or bad. So I took it a step further, I replaced “confidence” with “non-attachment;” the more you practice non-attachment, the less negativity will affect you. When you aren’t attached, you are free from external perception and anxiety.
This all seemed great, until I thought, Sure, this works with negative interactions but what about practicing non-attachment with the positive? The thought of detaching from my parents, friends, material comforts, and more, didn’t make much sense.
Then I remembered the trip to Switzerland I took with my dad when I was 15. We did this incredible 10-day backpacking trek called Le Haute Route, which begins in Chamonix, France, and traverses 10 of the highest peaks in the Alps before reaching Zermatt. To this day, it is my favorite place on earth. I have never seen mountains, lakes, or forests as beautiful as those in the Swiss Alps.
Each day, I felt this incredible high that was inevitably followed by a rush of fear. I was so happy that it brought me sadness because I knew that it would end.
What if I hadn’t been attached to the idea of feeling this happiness forever? What if I had simply allowed myself to experience the moment and release it when the time came?
In the podcast episode, guest Luke Stores said something really beautiful;
See everything as a gift and accept everything with gratitude.
This really connects to the idea of impermanence and non-attachment. How amazing would it be to accept everything that the world throws at you as a gift?
I can see almost everything in my life as a gift if I think about it long enough, the good and the bad. Although, some events, like all of my possessions and childhood home burning, are still hard to see as a gift. Perhaps it gave me the inspiration to become a nomad or made me less attached to material possessions.
These answers aren’t satisfactory to me now, but I know for certain that I will see it as a gift later on. At some point, I will look back and understand how this was a blessing.
Hand in hand with seeing everything as a gift is accepting everything with gratitude. Instead of being obsessed with the idea of loving someone forever, having your looks forever, being wealthy forever, or being healthy forever, just be grateful. Feel gratitude for what you are experiencing now. This is harder to do when it is an unpleasant feeling, but gratitude helps you ground in the present moment. As Eckhart Tolle said in The Power of Now,
“As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease.”