What is the meaning of non-attachment?

December 14, 2011   |   8 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites


I continue to receive excellent questions from members of The Open Heart Project.

Q: Don’t most schools of Buddhism advise against attachment? Does attaching yourself to other humans make your awareness grow or be clouded, in your opinion?

A: I used to work for a guy who would change direction on our projects without telling me. He kept moving the cheese, as it were. When I expressed upset or confusion, he would often say something like, “you shouldn’t be so attached.” At the time, I actually believed that—partly because he was my boss and I admired him (and he held my paycheck in his hands) and partly because I was confused about what attachment meant.

For a long time, I believed not being attached meant not feeling anything too strongly one way or another, as if becoming sad or angry was a sign of spiritual non-attaintment. I thought that the fruit of spiritual practice was to abide in a permanent state of non-reaction or, if I did feel something “negative” it should somehow magically dissolve in the nectar of unseen equanimity so I could be returned to a state of bliss. Whatever that means.

At the same time, though, no one ever said anything about being too attached when they were happy. In fact, the same people who counseled non-attachment when things went poorly seemed quite happy to attach to things that worked out well. Understandably. I mean, we’re all human. The thing is, if you’re going to practice non-attachment to difficulty, you also have to practice it to joy. This is where it becomes very interesting and also much more human and wonderful.

Non-attachment doesn’t mean not feeling things or always being blase. It means feeling everything while not attributing permanent status to anything.

Non-attachment means something more like feeling what you feel completely—its arising, abiding, and dissolving—without trying to stick in any one phase or move through it disingenuously.

When a feeling is arising, say jealousy, an example of attachment would be to try to rid yourself of it—you’re attached to not feeling jealous. You’d rather feel calm. Or, perhaps you decide to wear jealousy as an ornament because it’s warranted. You are attached to your line of reasoning.

The only thing that would qualify as non-attachment here is to turn toward it and be with it, be with it, be with. Feel it. Be jealous without trying to change it, without acting on it as if it was real; without attaching a story line to it, and without attempting to run away—or toward—it. Just watch it burn, which it will, until it is gone.

When it comes to attaching to other people, it is great, wise, and also often impossible to try to tell the difference between attachment and love. Sometimes we love without attachment, especially our children. (When they are tiny….) Sometimes we think we are loving, but really we are attached to making our relationships look a particular way. Opening your awareness as much as you need to discern the difference IS LOVE. That is what loving is. So please go for it. Depending on how committed we are to this practice of discernment, our relationships have the power to cloud our awareness or liberate it, completely. Word.

In the end, all we have is what we feel and who we are from moment to moment and we don’t even have that because as soon as we turn toward it, it’s gone, gone, gone beyond. Joy, sorrow, rage, jealousy, confusion, tedium, delight—this is our life and it is a good life. We can feel everything fully and completely. The good news and the bad news is that none of it will last and all that is left to us is to feel, deeply, and completely. Nothing is ever going to work out and everything is completely fine. Thus you can relax.

Of course, a meditation practice is the royal road to non-attachment, the kind that spontaneously arises from developing gentleness toward yourself and your experience. And this is exactly what you are practicing when you practice meditation. Please sign up for The Open Heart Project to receive guided meditation instructional videos via my email newsletter.

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  • Posted by:  Mary

    This is one of the best writings on (non) attachment that I’ve read! Thanks for putting it clearly and simply.
    And…I so look forward to getting the Open Heart Project emails. Thank you.

  • Posted by:  Brenda

    I can only second Mary. Thank you so much for the clarity on the subject of attachment, and for your gentle practice reminders in each email that make meditation approachable. Thank you!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      My pleasure, Brenda and Mary.

  • Posted by:  Jeremy

    Wonderful post. And I can’t help feeling that this would make a really great t-shirt: “Nothing is ever going to work out and everything is completely fine.” I am certainly going to print that out and keep it on my desk, in any case. 🙂

  • Posted by:  Jeremy

    By the way, in the fourth and fifth paragraph, did you mean to start the sentences with the word “non-attachment” rather than “attachment”? Or am I confused about something?

  • Posted by:  Susan

    Dude, you are right! I meant non-attachment. Going to change it right now. Thank you and oooops. S

  • Posted by:  Sandra / Always Well Within


  • Posted by:  sabrina

    This calmed me really true sometimes i need to breath and realx stop attaching a story line behind my thoughts thank you for this

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