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The Benefits of Non-attachment

Forming attachments has been part of human nature ever since we lived in caves and our lives depended on our attachment to a group. Nowadays, the threat to our survival may be less imminent (the chances of being tackled by a tiger on your way to the fridge are quite small), but the number of our attachments has grown dramatically. Some of these attachments, like those to our family and close friends, our pets, our job, are healthy and provide space for us to thrive.

Other types of attachment though, like the attachment to material possessions, wealth, our mobile devices, certain belief systems, or a specific image of ourselves, act more like thick ropes that we are bound to trip over on our way forward, Unlike the healthy kind of attachment, these unhealthy bonds are mostly formed subconsciously, which means they are much harder to undo. There are countless types and levels of attachment, but I have chosen to look only at those three which I feel we need to dissolve first, before we can spot and dissolve any others.


Three Levels of Attachment

Level 1: Material Possessions

This is perhaps the level of attachment that is most accessible: We all have a tendency to hold on to stuff we never use, clothes that don't fit anymore, tokens from the past that remind us of better times. Every once in a while, we feel an urge to throw it all out, give it away, or maybe just move it to another room where the clutter is out of sight.

We get these urges, as Christophe André explains, because excess creates deficiency. Just like the excessive consumption of highly processed foods creates a deficiency in vitamins and minerals, or the excessive consumption of caffeine creates a deficiency in sleep, the accumulation of too much stuff in our homes creates a deficiency in space – space to move, to breathe, to be. And our hoarding habits have become even worse in the pandemic: It's as if we're trying to fill the gap of social interaction with material objects.

But on top of being a poor substitute for human connection, the piles of stuff also intensify the feeling of captivity so many of us struggle with in lockdown. In my experience, non-attachment to material objects is best practiced as a daily habit: Make sure your space is tidy before you go to sleep at night, put all those empty coffee mugs in the dishwasher, and pick up anything you might trip over on the way to the toilet at night. It's really as simple as that.

Level 2: Results

Giving up our attachment to results and achievements seems impossible bacause it goes against the values of our society. And let me be clear, I'm not asking you to let go of your ambition or your discipline - in fact I highly encourage that you cultivate both. But our attachment to results becomes a problem when it leads us to overlook the steps we need to take to get there.

Imagine you’re hiking up towards the peak of a mountain. With the eyes constantly fixed on the peak, on your desired result, you’ll not only miss out on the beautiful scenery you are surrounded by, but you'll also sooner or later trip over stones in your path, get hurt, or loose your way, all because you are afraid to take your eyes off the goal. What if there’s another peak nearby, which promises even more beautiful views? You’ll never even spot the opportunity.

Of course it’s important to set goals. Without clear goals, you’ll eventually end up in aimless circles. But here’s my challenge for you: Once you’ve set a goal, question it. Why do I want to get there? Who can I help by reaching this goal? How will I feel when I get there? And then, if your goal has proven worthy, you start moving towards it. And because it is a worthy goal, you know you won’t lose sight of it, and you can afford to look around you, to take in the view, examine the alternatives, take a detour, or invite someone along.

To practice this level of non-attachment, every Sunday, I make a list of the results I want to see at the end of the next week and of what I need to do to get there. That way, I remain aware of the mountain peak without having to keep my eyes glued on it.

Level 3: Action

Our attachment to action is undoubtedly the hardest one to dissolve because similar to our focus on results, it is deeply rooted in our western society and has grown even more in the pandemic. As long as we are so attached to action, our minds are denied the opportunity to accomodate reality rather than assimilate it.

This destinction made by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget describes the two options your mind has when faced with a contradiction between reality and your vision of it: It can either assimilate reality by distorting it to fit your beliefs, or it can accommodate reality by modifying your beliefs. But to modify your beliefs, you need to first stop acting on your old beliefs. For a moment or two, you need to suspend all action and make a conscious decision to act differently forthwith.

These moments of stillness and reflection are a luxury we feel we don’t deserve because we should be working, doing, achieving, performing. But if we never create space, create opportunity for our beliefs to be challenged, tested, and perhaps even altered, we are also preventing true and lasting connection with others.

Remember how, at the start of the first covid lockdown, there was this pressure to come out of it fitter, healthier, wiser, and somehow happier than you were before? In other words, you were expected to do, do, do, to deny and resist the enforced break. Then as now, you have a choice to either assimilate reality ("lockdown doesn't change anything and I must continue at the same pace as before"), or acommodate reality ("lockdown has changed the situation I'm in, so maybe I need to adopt a different perspective too").

Practicing non-attachment to action for the sake of greater mental elasticity can be practiced in meditation, in Savasana at the end of a Yoga class, or simply by taking a moment to close your eyes and take a mindful breath before you start working on a task.


Non-attachment in Yoga

Most of the ancient scriptures that Yoga is based on advocate non-attachment in varying extremes: Sometimes, the guideline is to not accumulate too many material possessions, other texts advise against becoming attached even to fellow human beings or indeed anyone other than God. I remember being very upset by these guidelines, which is why I want to point out: Non-attachment does not mean forsaking love. On the contrary, non-attachment to your beliefs, your material possessions, maybe even to certain people, allows you to give and receive love to those who matter. As Deborah Adele puts it: “Aparigraha (Non-attachment) invites us to let go and pack lightly for our journey through life, all the while caring deeply and enjoying fully” (The Yamas & Niyamas, 91).

As always,

Thank you so much for reading,

Elisabeth Xx

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