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Non-Attachment Is Best Understood by Looking at What it Isn’t

Photo by Bruno Aguirre on Unsplash

May 17, 2020

What it isn’t, for starters, is becoming the emotional equivalent of a stone.

Instead of “letting it go,” it’s about “letting it be.”

Like mindfulness, I hear the term non-attachment a lot. To many familiar with these terms, mindfulness and non-attachment both imply something we should be after , and suggest  desirable states to inhabit.

But there’s a problem. Not all varieties of non-attachment are healthy or constructive.

Pseudo-Non-Attachment

Ironically, non-attachment can, in practice, quickly go off the rails, turning into resistance to an experience or a feeling we don’t want to have.

Wikipedia says, “Non-attachment is a state in which a person overcomes his or her attachment or desire for things, people, or concepts of the world, and thus attains a heightened perspective.”

That sounds a bit lofty and “above-it-all” to me, maybe even impossible. Inhuman?

We might be able to achieve that state if we’re sleeping alone in a yurt in an uninhabited area, wearing our one robe and pair of sandals, and subsisting on a plant-based diet of seeds and grasses growing around us. But in the real world, if we’re still above ground and kicking, we are going to be attached to things, people, and ideas.

The problem isn’t figuring out how to distance ourselves from people, places, or things. What we need to figure out is how to manage ourselves when we notice we’ve become attached — to someone or something — in a way that isn’t serving us or others.

The solution does not involve ignoring our feelings or pretending ourselves beyond our current evolution. It doesn’t involve running away, giving up, caving in, or emotionally detaching. Those are all “moving away” behaviors—in a nutshell, resistance.

And since whatever we resist often becomes stronger, moving away is not the answer.

Healthy Non-Attachment

Non-attachment, oddly, is about engaging in “moving toward” behaviors.

In The Essential Guide to the ACT Matrix, Kevin Polk explains that we develop healthy psychological flexibility by turning our normal reactions on their heads. Instead of moving away from uncomfortable feelings, we make a conscious decision to notice and then pay attention to feelings of grasping, or resistance, as they arise.

Healthy non-attachment is the epitome of taking ourselves lightly. It’s about owning our reactions, and then gently, peacefully, and purposefully, choosing to let them be as they are.

A short article, written by an unnamed staff member at Lion’s Roar magazine, “Why it Is Important to Give up Attachment,”  explained it beautifully:

“We suffer, and make others suffer when we try to hold onto things after their time, whether it’s relationships, experiences, or just the previous moment… Nonattachment is neither indifference nor self-denial. Ironically, letting go of attachment is the secret to really enjoying life and loving others. It is freedom.”

A great example is when we are in disagreement with someone. We reiterate our position over and over, maybe getting louder, perhaps using different words but saying the same thing, to make sure the other person gets our perspective. What happens, though, is that the other person got it the first time, and they simply disagree. So no matter how many times we say something, we’re not going to change someone’s mind by saying it yet again. When we stop resisting their disagreement, that’s when the clean feeling shows up.

On the flip side, when we’re not so married to our ideas, we explore the other person’s position to expand our understanding. We ask questions, not to nail someone’s inaccuracies or to call them out on their limited scope of knowledge, but to learn something.

My partner is a genius at that. It makes me nuts because I’m the therapist, and I should know better. What he brings to the table is a genuine curiosity, rather than the need to be right. His natural curiosity eliminates his attachment to a particular position. And it also allows me to soften my stance and open up, which in turn helps me broaden my perspective.

Letting it Be vs. Letting it Go

We often think of non-attachment in tandem with the idea of “letting things go.” My suggestion is to replace letting things go with letting things be.

Letting it go subtly encourages resistance, which can result in some degree of force in trying to get rid of something or to leave it behind. But letting go of something that troubles us is impossible if those troubles are not ready to go. We can end up putting even more attention on the thing we don’t want, which is usually the case with the things we resist.

But when we practice letting it be, whatever “it” is can rest in the background until it’s ready to leave. We don’t have to work so hard. “Letting it be” is grounded in reality. It’s do-able.

Here’s an example. You’re in line at the store and you’re angry about how your six-year-old child is behaving—you’re feeling embarrassed about their behavior, worried what bystanders will think of your parenting. Rather than trying to let it go, you can acknowledge the anger, and the thoughts that fuel it.

But instead of ruminating on it, making it the focus of your attention, and taking it out on your child, you breathe all the way out, soften your body, and remember that this is what six-year-olds do—they embarrass us! You get on with your life and let the anger sit in the background, letting it be and allowing it to wither away with time, or a change in the situation, or a perspective change on your part.

We also recognize that attachment or resistance may come back the same or in another form later. Non-attachment is being okay with that.

How to Let it Be

If non-attachment sounds appealing, think of one disagreement, or one piece of unfinished business, or one loss, of which you’ve been trying to let go. You know, that thing about which you keep saying, “I know, I should just let it go.”

Give yourself a break. Let it be. See what happens when you allow the uncomfortable feelings to just hang around in the background without giving them so much attention, and ultimately so much power.

What often helps me is picturing the issue on a tiny billboard at the back of my head, with print so small I couldn’t read it even if it was directly in front of me. Sometimes, when it’s been sitting back there for a while, I’m surprised to find my psyche offers me new information. Maybe there is a step I want to take or have some amends to make.

Here’s another example of letting it be. I’m sitting with my partner. He innocently says something that, for my own reasons, is a trigger for me. If I try to let it go, try to logic my uncomfortable feelings away, or repress them because I find them unattractive, I can guarantee I’ll either blow up reactively, or they will simmer below the surface until the next time he says something that triggers me. And then watch out! Now I have enough ammo to really build a case.

However, if I consciously decide to just let it be for the moment—sitting on that tiny billboard behind me, I can table it until it has lost its fire and I am able to discuss it with him like the grown-up I can occasionally be. The information or new perspective arrives because I’ve let it be, not in spite of it.

Sometimes, you might notice that with minimal effort on your part, your attachment to a particular idea, thing, person, or outcome, will gently drift away into the ether, where all the other unhelpful attachments reside. Use my billboard, or find your own visual to hold whatever it is gently, with great kindness, until it’s ready to leave.

Much love,

2 comments

  1. Lyle says:

    My biggest challenge to letting it be is when I am in the middle of bickering between my wife and daughter. I try my hardest to be neutral, but even that is without its downside. Invariably, my wife will complain to me afterwards that I “should” back her. That is very difficult, because a good portion of the time, she is in the wrong from my point of view. I often say nothing, but I get called out on that as well. It’s very difficult to just let it be without taking lumps regardless.

    • Robyn says:

      Lyle I can see how difficult it is–between a rock and a hard place. I’m wondering what would happen if you told the truth pretty much as you told it here. “Honey, I can see how important this is to you, and I care about that…AND…the truth for me is that we disagree on how to handle this particular situation. If you are interested in hearing how I would like to see this handled, I’d love to share that with you. If not, I understand, and we can table it for now.”

      I don’t think everything will change on a dime, or that your partner will necessarily be eager to hear your perspective. But I suspect you’ll feel better about yourself when you share your perspective. Or at least that’s my hope.

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