27 – Understanding Non-Attachment

What does it mean to practice non-attachment? Rather than thinking of non-attachment as not attaching to things, think of it as not allowing things to own you. What things own you? Those are the things you’re attached to. In this episode, I will discuss the concept of non-attachment and I will attempt to make this idea more accessible and easy to understand.

Transcript of the podcast

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 27. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about understanding non-attachment.
Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings, presented for a secular-minded audience.

Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings, presented for a secular minded audience.

The Dalai Lama has said “Do try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” I like to emphasize that at the beginning of every podcast episode, so please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode, and remember if you enjoy the podcast please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. Or if you’re in a position to be able to help, I would really appreciate it if you could make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

The Dalai Lama has said “Do try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” I like to emphasize that at the beginning of every podcast episode, so please keep that in mind as you listen to this episode, and remember if you enjoy the podcast please share it with others, write a review, or give it a rating in iTunes. Or if you’re in a position to be able to help, I would really appreciate it if you could make a one-time donation or become a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com.

So let’s jump into this weeks’ topic “Understanding Non-attachment”. This is a topic I wanted to discuss because it’s come up a few times in recent workshops that I’ve done where the understanding of non-attachment is, I think, a little bit misconstrued. Typically, there’s the response, or asking for clarification, on whether or not it’s okay to be attached. Specifically, usually, referring to loved ones like a spouse, or children, or parents. So I want to clarify this topic a little bit more because non-attachment is a very important part of understanding Buddhist philosophical thought, but I want to be clear about what exactly non-attachment is. Or perhaps more specifically, what it’s not. Because I think when we think of the word attached, and if I were to think I’m attached to my kids or to my wife, we don’t necessarily view that as a negative connotation. And I don’t think we should.

The type of non-attachment that’s being talked about in Buddhist thought has less to do with what you own, or with what you hold on to, versus how that holds onto you. So, for instance, I heard a recent quote that said “Non-attachment doesn’t mean we don’t own things. It means we don’t allow things to own us.” That, in a nutshell, is the type of non-attachment that we’re talking about. A Zen Master put it pretty simply, he said “Everything breaks. Attachment is our unwillingness to face that reality.”

So, I think, non-attachment really stems from misunderstanding of things being impermanent. When we attach to something we suffer, and others suffer, because we’re holding onto things that are past their time. You remember the raft, the parable of the raft, where the Buddha was with his monks and he asks if somebody were to build a raft and they are crossing the river with it, at the time that they finally make it to the other side, is it wise or unwise to continue that raft with them. And I think this lesson really is talking about the understanding of non-attachment. Letting go of the raft, whatever the raft may be, is a lesson of letting go of things that are past their time. That is essentially the understanding of non-attachment.

This can apply to relationships, friends, experiences. Even our moment to moment experience of living, if we’re attached to it, can be the source of a lot of suffering for ourselves and others. By excepting the true nature of things as being impermanent we ease our fears and we open our hearts. Then this understanding of impermanence will not only benefit ourselves but will benefit others as well. So don’t think of non-attachment as a form of indifference or a form of self-denial. Think of non-attachment as a way of not allowing things in your life to own you. Giving up the attachment to the permanence of things is the key understanding here.

Because we understand that all things are constantly changing, that all things are impermanent, and because all things are constantly changing, when you hold onto something, and attach to it, it’s detrimental because that thing changes. It evolves and changes over time. Like that quote “Everything breaks.” Attachment is our unwillingness to face that reality and you can apply that thinking to almost anything.

In terms of relationship, because that one’s brought up quite often, what does non-attachment mean in terms of how I love my spouse, or my partner, or my children, or my parents, or siblings? Thich Nhat Hanh has a really good quote that I like, he says “You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.” I think this goes hand in hand with the understanding of non-attachment. Loving in a non-attached way is loving in a way that the person that you love feels free, and to be loved in way that you feel free is a way of being loved without attachment. So it’s not that there isn’t love, or that you don’t want to be with someone, it’s that you don’t allow that person, or that thing, to own you, because that’s attachment. So letting go of attachment is the secret to really enjoying life and to loving others. It’s a way of freedom.

Think about that with relationships like with your children. If you love your children in a way that they feel free, that’s genuine non-attachment. You’re allowing someone to be completely authentic and free as they are. I think this is very pertinent with relationships but it applies to other things too.

I’ve been asked specifically about goals. Is non-attachment meaning I go through life and I don’t have milestones or goals that I’m going to work towards or aspire to? The goals or milestones are not the problems. It’s when we allow those things to own us that it becomes unhealthy so that same form of thinking applies here. I think it’s completely appropriate to have goals, to have milestones, that you set in life, or in your career, or in various phases of your life. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s when we become trapped because those things own us.

Jack Kornfield had a quote he put on Twitter not too long ago that said “Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.” I think, again, that’s a wonderful understanding of the concept of impermanence. So apply that to something like a goal. Having goals can be fine when you understand that goals are impermanent. You work towards it and you either accomplish it and move on, or something changes and it doesn’t work out, and that’s where the wisdom of adaptability comes into play because the moment life presents something new you can adapt and create a new goal. Because that goal didn’t own you, you used it as a tool for you, not an anchor or not something that makes it more difficult for you.

The Buddha taught that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent. That all meeting ends in parting. Again, I think, in all these examples what stands out to me is the understanding of non-attachment in terms of our understanding of impermanence because the mistake that we make is seeing life as permanent.

One of my teachers, Koyo Kubose, would say “Don’t put a period on it.” He always says “Just keep going.” Our tendency in life is to freeze it and make permanent things, like we do sentences. Then when this sentence is over there’s the period. That thought is done. It’s locked and now I move onto the next one. I think that makes a lot of sense in some ways, especially with writing, but what if life wasn’t about putting periods on things? What if it was always a comma and then you keep going? Then you add another comma and you keep going, like one infinitely long run-on sentence, which I know is really going to bother some of you who are into grammar, but think about that in terms of life.

I’ve compared life to a river. There’s no aspect of the river that’s permanent. The water that’s flowing is continually changing. The very edges and banks of the river are constantly eroding and sand is being carried away. If a big storm comes, and the water rises, the shape of the river can change. The water finds a new path and that becomes the new path of the river. So there’s not aspect of a river that’s permanent. Life is a lot like that. There’s no aspect of life that’s permanent. It’s when we get caught up in those moments of making things in life seem permanent that we run the risk of becoming attached. So when we attach to the permanence of things, then those things start to own us.

Non-attachment could be said that it’s really about not comparing. When you think about this in terms of time, this could be really powerful because think of the present moment. What if we allowed the present moment to be free as it is? Without comparing the present moment to a previous moment, or to a future moment, we just allow the present moment to be completely free to be what it is. Right here and right now. We’re not very good at that. Our tendency is to compare the present moment to a past moment or to a future moment that we anticipate. In doing that we’re not allowing that to be free and it’s without that sense of freedom that we become slaves to these concepts.

That’s the idea of attachment. Not that we’re attaching but they way we understand it, it attaches and binds us almost like shackles or like chains. So think of non-attachment as a form of freedom. The opposite of non-attachment is … Well, I guess, non-attachment could be synonymous with freedom. So think of it that way and the opposite of non-attachment would be a form of being bound or chained to whatever it is. It could be ideas, relationships, the present moment, there’s several things in life that can come up that non-attachment would be a much healthier way to approach it than the path of attachment, which I think in a lot of cases is more common.

The idea of non-attachment and, as I mentioned earlier, what one of my teachers always talks about “just keep going”. I had the experience last weekend, last Saturday, to get together with some friends and try to do a walk, a 50 mile walk. Fifty miles is 80.46 kilometers for those of you who use the metric system, so just to give an idea of how far of a distance that is. We walked that in one day. We started at five in the morning in one city, and walked to another city, from Provo to Salt Lake City in Utah. It took me just over 19 hours. So I started at 5:00 am and I arrived just after midnight, around 12:30. It was just a long day of non-stop walking and the reason I did it, I was excited to this when I found out that my friend was putting this together, because I knew that at some point I would want to stop. I would want to quit.

I had been studying this concept of “keep going” with my teacher and the idea that sometimes we do things just to do them. Our tendency, I’ve mentioned this in earlier podcasts, is that our utilitarian view of the world is “Well, what’s in it for me? If I’m going to do this there’s got to be a reason why.” Either I get a trophy, or I get even just to be able to say that I did it is still a reason to do it. I thought “What if I did it just to do it?” That’s a long enough walk to where, at some point, you just … Well, I guess you don’t why you’re doing it, but you forget the fact that you’re measuring how long it’s going to be because it’s still so long that you’re not really thinking about that.

I thought it might be a fun exercise to get into the mind set of thinking “I’m just taking one more step. And then one more step. I’m just going to keep going. Practicing this form of understanding and permanence. This moment, this step I’m taking, ends. It ends the moment I take the next step. Then that moment is also impermanent. It ends the moment I take the next step.” Overall, that’s how the entire walk turned out to be for me. This form of walking meditation of just taking one step at a time, having in my mind the attitude of “just keep going”. At times I thought about Dory. I’d gone to see Dory with my kids, from Finding Nemo, and she’s always singing that song Just Keep Swimming. Just Keep Swimming. I had that popping into my mind on multiple occasions during the walk. To just keep going. Just keep swimming.

I finally completed that and for me it was a form of being unattached to the permanence of the situation, of walking. I think it’s easy to think “Okay, here’s the start of the walk and then there’s the end of the walk.” I knew it was going to be about 20 hours was my goal. I think sometimes there’s this attitude, I know that I was certainly thinking this, of enduring. I’m going to endure this. Enduring things in life is one way to view things but I like to think of it as understanding that what I’m going through in the moment is not permanent. This too shall pass. I’ve talked about that. And that ring. The king who was looking for a way to be cheered up when he was down and he was given a ring with the inscription “This too shall pass.” But that also reminded him, when things were good this too shall pass, and it kind of became his curse.

While I was doing the 50 mile walk I thought about that a lot. Especially towards the end when I was starting to feel really sore, and my muscles were really tight, and I was starting to limp, and I was thinking “this too shall pass”. At the first of the walk “this too shall pass” was my comfort level. I was feeling very comfortable, my legs were fine, and I was telling myself, “well this too shall pass”. At some point in this walk this is going to hurt. Then when it was hurting I was telling myself “this too shall pass” and that was to remind me that once the walk was over, at some point my muscles wouldn’t be sore again. That actually took a full week after the walk, so from Saturday, from the moment I was done, the next day I could barely walk. Then it took almost a full week before I could walk without limping. But throughout this whole ordeal it was fun to try to practice the mindset of not allowing any of it to feel permanent. Every day, I was reminding myself, even after the walk, I’m still sore, thinking “well this too shall pass”.

That’s essentially the attitude of non-attachment. It’s recognizing that everything that I’m experiencing is impermanent. I’m trying to face the reality that everything ends. Every start has an ending. I thought about the parable that I’ve shared before about the two monks who where crossing the river because I think that is a wonderful depiction of detachment. So the two monks arrive at the edge of the river and there’s the young girl in the wedding gown. The senior monk picks her up without even thinking. They cross the river. He puts her down and then at some point on their journey, the young monk is just going nuts trying to figure out what he had just seen. He finally tells the senior monk “Hey, what are you doing? We’ve taken vows to not touch a female and you just picked her up like nothing and carried her across the river.” The senior monk pauses and just tells him “I put her down on the other side of the river. Why do you continue to carry her?”

To me that another wonderful example of attachment. When something has gone beyond its time, it’s past its time, we have a hard time letting go because we’re attached. Non-attachment is being able to do what you need to do in the moment, like the monk putting the girl on his back, and then when it was done it was done and he let her go.

I would invite you to think about this topic and ask yourself “What are you attached to?” Maybe an even stronger way to word this, to make it more clear what I’m trying to get at, is “What are the things that currently own you?” What are the things that control and currently own you? This could be emotions, if you’re still angry at something that happened in the past, or at someone. Take a look at your life and ask yourself “What is it that currently owns me?” Because if you feel a sense of something that owns you there’s attachment there. That’s a great place to start with practicing non-attachment. What can I try to detach from? Well, try to detach from the things that you feel that own you. This doesn’t just have to be the negative things, it can be anything that you feel owns you. With relationships, this is incredibly powerful.

If you are able to have a non-attached loving relationship with your spouse, or with your parents, or with your children, what would that look like to love someone in such a way that the person that you love feels free? What would that look like? What would it look like if you felt like you were loved in a way that you felt free? Start by offering that to someone else. Offering that sense of freedom to the person that you love. That’s a form of non-attachment.

I hope that kind of clarifies the topic a little bit about non-attachment. Rather than thinking of non-attachment as “I don’t own anything.” Or “I’m not going to have anything in my life. I’m going to give everything up.” Consider that non-attachment has more to do with not allowing the things that you do have in your life to possess you, or to own you. Think of it that way and then look for what areas, or things, in your life right now feel like they have a sense of attachment for you.
I’d love to hear about this in the comments and see how it goes for you as you discuss this, or as you explore this a little bit. Then I want to remind everyone, only because we’re getting closer to the date of this humanitarian trip that I’m doing next January. January 26th through February 4th. If you’re interested in learning about that, please reach out to me. You can learn about it on mindfulhumanitarian.org or you can reach out to me, I’ve mentioned this a few times but, you can find me on Facebook. My username is Noah Rasheta, so facebook.com/noahrasheta, or on Twitter, or on Instagram. I have the same username in all those places. Or you can always reach out to me by email, a lot of you do and I really appreciate communicating with you. My email address is [email protected] So you can find me on secularbuddhism.com, of course.

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Good luck with trying to explore in what areas of your life you feel that you could practice non-attachment. I’d love to hear what it does for you to think about it like this and to see if you can start to practice non-attachment in different areas of your life.

I wish you all the best. Have a great week. Until next time.

  • Nancy Hoffman Hing

    This one is HUGE for me! it brings me so much anxiety just thinking about it. Unattaching myself to certain people scares me, and my emotions take over, though I know I need to let go. I’m afraid of losing people and that makes me hold on even more which pushes them away. If I could learn and apply this one concept in my life…I would feel a tremendous sense of freedom…it’s so difficult for me though.

  • My wife really likes this site and I just watched the post on “Understanding Non-Attachment” and was very impressed with both the content and the process of delivery. The flow was conversational and had a sufficiently non-technical language that it is now a model for what I hope to do soon. Well done Noah!

    I write on how leading science is supporting the basic tenets of the better Religions (as Jesuis Laplume, or ‘I am the pen’ and a co-creator with the universe, LoL). I am a Christian by choice but not a single thing that Noah bothered me, although I am a bit more open than some.

  • Tony Blakesley

    I enjoyed your podcast on non attachment! It got me thinking about my recent journey into minimalism and letting go of things. You describe not letting things own you as “non attachment” and I couldn’t agree more. I have realized that every physical item has a time requirement to it. From the time you buy it, you must maintain it, clean it, move it, store it, and one day get rid of if. This process of letting things go has been helpful in not only eliminating physical clutter but mental clutter as well.