74 – Goals, Relationships, and Non-Attachment

If we’re practicing non-attachment, how should we approach things like goals and relationships? Should we avoid such things? I don’t think so. Goals are great and so are relationships. So how should we approach goals and relationships in the context of non-attachment? These are the ideas I will explore in this podcast episode.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 74. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about goals, relationships, and non-attachment. Quick reminder, the Dalai Lama once said, “Do not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Before I jump into this podcast episode, I want to give you a couple of quick updates. First of all, I’m excited to announce that the podcast has now officially had over 2 million downloads, which is an exciting milestone, considering that this started out as a fun experiment. The podcast is being downloaded all over the world, and that’s exciting for me to see and to know that the topics and the ideas that are shared through the podcast are being well received and benefiting people all over the place. So that’s exciting for me, and I wanted to share that with you and to say thank you to all of you who listen to the podcast, especially those who listen regularly. I know many of you have been listening from the very beginning and have followed along with all of the episodes. It’s just been a really exciting journey, and I want to thank each of you for being a part of that journey with me. So that’s the first update.

The second update is concerning upcoming workshops. One of the goals that I have for later this year, the first goal is to make my workshop, the workshop that I’ve been putting on in person for several years now, the Introduction to Mindfulness … It’s kind of a Buddhism 101 or a Mindfulness 101 type workshop. The only way I’ve been able to do that in the past is to go somewhere and to host this in person, and I’ve had the goal and the plan for quite some time now to be able to host an online version of it that would be available for free and available for any time that you could take it at your own pace and on your own time. That, to me, is really important. It’s like a workshop version of the book. It’s why I put that book out there, because I feel like understanding the foundational concepts and teachings of Buddhism is really important as a first step to being able to understand a lot of the topics that are discussed in the podcast. It all starts with understanding the background of this way of thinking first. So that is a workshop that you can expect to see at some point, hopefully not too distant in the future.

Along with that, this is the exciting part, I’ve wanted to make that workshop available so that I could spend time doing other, more specialized workshops and more specialized topics. The first in this series that I’ve been experimenting with is my idea is to partner with someone who’s an expert in a specific field or topic and then co-present mindfulness in that field. For example, the mindful eating workshop that I’ve been doing with Paige Smathers. She’s an expert in nutrition. Partnering with her and talking about mindful eating has been really fun, and that’s a workshop that was really well received. We’re doing another one, and that’s been exciting. I hope to eventually have an online version of that. The other topics I want to do are mindful parenting. I have an exciting possible partnership in the works from someone who reached out that is an expert in parenting. I think that would be really fun, to have a series of topics, whether it be on the podcast or workshops—I’d like to make these more workshop-based—on mindful parenting, introducing these concepts of mindfulness and the latest information on best parenting.

Then, another one on relationships. So those are the three that I have in the works right now—mindful eating, mindful parenting, and eventually mindful relationships. Again, partnerships between myself and someone who’s an expert in that specific field, but presenting these ideas through the lens of mindfulness, through the lens of Buddhist thinking. So you can look forward to that and look for more information on that. I’ll be posting it. I’ll be mentioning it on the podcast when those things come to fruition.

So now, let’s just jump into this topic real quick—goals, relationships, and non-attachment. I want to bring this up, because it does seem to be a recurring topic. I get emails all the time about advice or questions about how can mindfulness help me with relationships, for example? How should I feel about the attraction I have to my partner or my spouse? Is it wrong to feel that sense of attraction or the desire to be with this person? Should I let go or be unattached to them? Questions of that nature. Same with goals. It comes up with goals all the time. Should I not have goals? Does going with the flow mean you don’t set any goals, and you’re just figuring out the game of life as Tetris as it comes? Is it pointless to have goals? I know that I’ve clarified this in a few different podcast episodes, specifically the one on non-attachment, but I do want to talk about this one more time, specifically in the context of goals and relationships, with a little bit of insight into my own approach and my own life stories and how this has been relevant for me, this concept of non-attachment, when applied to goals and relationships.

So that is the topic for today’s podcast episode. I want to start out talking about goals. The idea with goals, goals are great. Goals give us a sense of direction. There’s nothing wrong with goals. The idea of non-attachment, again, as I’ve said various times, is not detachment. It’s not detachment from things. Non-attachment is less about letting go of something and more about letting go of the death grip. You can still have a grip on things. Rather than thinking of it as non-attachment, just reframe it and think of this as the wisdom of adaptability. All of this makes sense in the context of things being impermanent. When you think about it from that angle, if things are impermanent, what does that say about goals? It just means adapt with the goals when the time comes to adapt. Now, you see this in business all the time. Companies that are not capable of adapting go under. You can think of Kodak with film. Think of Blockbuster. Think of, I guess most recently, Toys ‘R’ Us. In every industry, you have change. Change is the constant, right? The ones that can adapt survive. The ones that don’t adapt don’t survive. They eventually go under.

The idea of goals is absolutely have goals if you want to have goals. Just know that you’ve got to be ready to make the changes necessary to those goals when Tetris throws you a new shape. For example, in my own life, one of my goals early on in a career, for example, is I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. That’s always been a childhood dream of mine. Now, it’s still a possibility, although very unlikely, because it’s not high on my priority list anymore, but at one point, it was, to the point where I signed up for flight school. I paid for flight school, and I was well under way with this career path and this goal to be a helicopter pilot. Specifically, my goal was to be a Life Flight pilot or a Coast Guard rescue pilot. I don’t know why. That’s always been a dream of mine. So I found myself in this situation about six or seven months into this process of being in flight school. I had already finished my … The first stage is getting your private pilot’s license. Then, you have to go on to get an instrument rating, which allows you to fly in bad weather conditions or, I guess more appropriately, without seeing. If you want to fly without seeing, you need an instrument rating, so flying at night or flying in storms.

Then, after that, you need to get your commercial. The order can switch around, but you need your commercial license next to be able to work as a pilot. So those are the three requirements, but there’s a typical fourth requirement, which is to become a flight instructor. Your first job is usually going to be to be a flight instructor, and that’s where you build up your hours. You can’t teach if you’re not a flight instructor. Furthermore, if you want to be competitive in the space of being a flight instructor, you should be an instrument-rated flight instructor, so that’s a fifth rating. Now we’ve got private, commercial, instrument, flight instructor, and then instrument flight instructor. Those were five different ratings that I needed to achieve just to get started in the career to build up my hours towards this goal that I had. Each of those certifications, for me, was going to be a milestone in my career path.

I achieved the first one. I got my private license. Around that time, the flight school I was going to went bankrupt. Literally overnight. It surprised everyone. Some of you may have heard about it. It was on the news, because it was a nationwide chain of flight schools that just went under overnight. To get into the flight school, you have to pre-pay it, so I had already paid for my requirements, all five of these things that I was going to do, and the school went under. I had no way to do anything about it. They went bankrupt. The money, the school had it, but the bank funded it, so it’s like a student loan through a bank, like a private student loan. I was out, but the bank was also out. They weren’t going to allow us to just not repay that loan, because they felt that they had been victims of this circumstance, as well. It became a long, drawn-out battle. In the end, this is a loan that I’m still paying. I’ll be paying it for many, many more years.

At this point, this is life happening. There’s the shape that shows up. This is Tetris that’s happening. I had to decide what is the more skillful thing. Do I adapt the goal, or do I persist with the goal? Now, at first, I said, “I am going to do this, or I’m going to die trying,” because I was determined to be a helicopter pilot, and that’s exactly what I did. I moved to a new state, enrolled in a new school, took out a new loan. So here I was, going for round two, paying for this program all over again thinking that maybe the legal system would side with me and forgive the student loans for the first school because it went bankrupt. I took that gamble, I took that risk, and I started over again with a new flight school. I finished my instrument rating and my commercial requirements. I was thinking, okay, there’s three out of the five, but around that point, I had run out of money. I had already paid for this program once. That’s a lot of money. The second time, I borrowed enough to get through each milestone one at a time, but I realized I was in this very serious predicament at that point.

I couldn’t keep borrowing, because I still owed so much. By then, I think a year had gone by, and I realized there was going to be no forgiveness of the first loan, the student loan. So I was stuck, and I had to decide how do I do this. I still needed my instructor rating and my instrument instructor rating. I assessed the situation, and I realized all those pilots, especially the flight instructors from the school that went bankrupt, they were all out there looking for the same jobs I was going to try to get. It was horrible timing in the industry to try to be a helicopter pilot, especially an instructor. They had more hours. Some of them had experience already teaching at the school that had gone under. I think it was 500 locations nationwide. I decided at that point it was unhealthy for me to persist with that goal and it was time to, for this wisdom of adaptability. Now I wish I would have adapted a little earlier. I wish I would have decided soon as the first one went under, I’m going to cool down a bit and just think about this and see what happens. Give it some time and then decide.

But I didn’t. I was stubborn that I was going to go forward and I dug my hole even deeper because now I owed the first school, plus all the student loans I took out for the second school. So long story short, in my situation, I eventually had to adapt the goal. The goal is no longer to be a helicopter pilot. It was, you know, it morphed into things like get a second job so I can one day pay off this loan. That became a new goal. And all of these situations were changing and I was being forced to adapt with them. Now many years have passed since this all went down and I’ve since gotten back into flying. Some of you know, that I’m a paraglider pilot and a para-motor pilot, which is a much more affordable way to satisfy the itch of flying if anyone of you are thinking about that.

So my goal has adapted and here I find myself at this stage in life with different goals. I have goals to do with work and finances and career. You know, my goal is to have a form of income that is stable and a form of passive income. That’s what I’m accomplishing with the books that I’ve written and these workshops that I’m going to be producing. Not free ones obviously, but the more specialized ones. I’ve been doing mindfulness retreats with corporations, visiting the workplace and teaching meditation and mindfulness there that, that is another form of income that I’m bringing in. So I have that, these goals that center around finances. I have goals that center around my hobbies. One of the more recent ones, it’s a 12-month goal, but my goal is to become a certified flight instructor, to be able to teach people to para-motor and to paraglide.

And that has several milestones between now and then, certain certificates that I need to achieve, certain amount of hours, certain styles of flight that I need to learn to do. So what I’m trying to get at with all of this is I have a lot of goals and I’m always assessing my goals and I’m always deciding, is this right or does it need to change?

But the difference now versus earlier stages of my life is I view my goals with a sense of fluidity with this, what I like to say, the wisdom of adaptability. So I’m always asking myself, is this, is this the most skillful goal to have right now? And if it is, I’m still working really hard towards it, but when it’s not, because the combination of shapes in the game of Tetris life has changed, I change with it and I say, “Oh, maybe that’s not the best goal. Oh, but this other thing could be a goal.” Boom, the goal switches. But I always have goals.

So what I’m trying to say is I don’t think that we need to approach the idea of goals and non-attachment and say, oh, I shouldn’t have any goals. I’m not attached to my goals. What we should be doing is saying, “I do have goals, but I understand that life changes.” So I’m always evaluating my goals. That to me is the healthy way. That’s the non-attached way of having goals. I’m not attached to them permanently. It’s only in the context of the present moment and present circumstances that these goals make sense and the moment that that changes, if, and when that changes, how flexible am I to adapt with them to, to not necessarily to eliminate the goal, but maybe it’s just a matter of tweaking the goal, change this, add that eliminate this part of the goal, you know, we can adjust our goals in the same way that life is constantly adjusting.

And that would be a non-attached way of having goals. Now, again, if you use business as an example, I think that’s the perfect example. Businesses that adapt to the trends and the technology that evolve within their industry, they survive. Now, it would be silly of us to say, oh, these companies that are thriving, they don’t have any goals, they’re going with the flow. That’s not it. They absolutely have goals and milestones and things they’re trying to achieve, but they’re adapting with life as life changes with the industry as the industry changes.

So that’s what I have to say about goals and non-attachment. Absolutely have goals. It’s fine to have goals, just don’t be attached to them permanently. Be attached to them in the context of right here, right now in this configuration of the game of Tetris. But as soon as a new shape shows up, I’m going to ask myself, “Is this still the skillful way to approach this goal?” If it is, keep going. If it’s not, change it, change the goal, adapt the goal. Sometimes you may even have to discard the goal entirely and write down a whole new goal, give it a new direction.

Okay? So the next aspect of this is with relationships. And I want to start this one out with a quote that’s often attributed to the Buddha. And I think this is … it’s funny because a 90% of the goals are of the quotes you’re going to hear out there about anything attributed to the Buddha. They’re usually not real quotes from the Buddha, and this is definitely one of those. So some of you may have come across this one, and there are variations of it, but this is the one I came across: when you like a flower, you just pluck it. But when you love a flower, you water it daily. One who understands this and understands life.

And that’s a quote that circulates on the Internet that’s attributed to the Buddha. So first, let me be clear, that is not a Buddha quote. I don’t know. I don’t know who said it. It’s a great sentiment. I don’t know who said it, but it definitely was not the Buddha. So with relationships, think about that when, when you, the difference between liking a flower and plucking and putting it there on your table versus loving a flower and saying, I want this thing to thrive. I’ll leave it planted and water it. Those are two very different approaches. And I think it’s a good example to how we view our relationships, is the relationship set up in a way to please me? That’s the liking part of it.

Or if I love this relationship and this person, am I doing what benefits the, you know, the partner or the spouse or whoever their relationship is with? Those are two different approaches. Again, I want to correlate this to impermanence because I  believe that non-attachment or at least the idea of non-attachment, it arises naturally when we have proper perspective and the ever-changing nature of reality or impermanence. When we see that, when we see reality as constantly changing, instead of focusing on the goal of saying I need to not be attached or to practice non-attachment. Don’t think of it that way. Instead, think my goal is to try to see impermanence more clearly, to see impermanence in everything. When I see impermanence in the nature of my relationships, non-attachment in my relationship will arise naturally.

There’s a zen story. I believe it’s a zen story or a Zen teaching. Where, we’re given the task of trying to see someone. I think in this teaching specifically, it’s referring to a way of combating lust. So if you, if you feel this, a lustful attraction to someone to try to imagine that person in various configurations like being old, specifically being old, wrinkly skin, withered, maybe in a wheelchair or using a walker or sick, this person is now sick and they’re bedridden.

And the idea here is try to see them in other circumstances, and notice what that does to that attraction. Are you simply attracted to them because of how they look right now? You know, what happens when they look different, what happens when the configuration changes, when the Tetris shapes evolve, what happens to that relationship?

And the invitation here, I believe is that when you’re capable of seeing the other pieces, potential pieces of the puzzle, perhaps you could say the inevitable pieces of that puzzle and how it’s going to change, you can see a little bit more clearly your attraction to that person.

So seeing the changing circumstances of your goals and dreams and relationships I think can be a really helpful practice. You can play with different scenarios and see what happens to the relationship that you have with that person. For example, with a spouse or a partner or someone you’re attracted to, play this game and imagine, okay, what if they were suddenly in a wheelchair or what if they were … they’ve gotten old and they can’t go to the bathroom on their own and I’ve got to bathe them, or you know, all these things, a lot of these things are inevitable situations in a relationship that will eventually happen.

So the idea with this is you start to place yourself in these other circumstances and say,  is this still the person that I would want to be within all these other configurations of potential relationships? Because if you find that you’re not interested in any other scenario other than this one, where this is this attractive person that I want to be with right now, then that gives you the ability to pause and think, “Hmm, what’s wrong with this picture? This is dangerous.” Because the inevitable fact of life is that things will change and when they do, then what?

So with relationships, the idea of non-attachment, the way I see this in my own relationship is I try to picture different scenarios, you know, what would our life be like if we were going through bankruptcy, for example.

If we were really struggling financially, I try to picture myself in these situations. What would that dynamic be like? What would the dynamic be like if I had to care much more for her physically because let’s say she, again, using the example of what if she became paralyzed or she was confined to a wheelchair or things of that nature? I play these scenarios out in my head and I try to … I do the same backwards thinking, “Huh? What would happen if that happened to me?” You know? At what point would I feel like, “Oh no, I’m, I’m a hindrance to her.” Is that going to affect the way that I perceive that she perceives the relationship?

And again, there’s no right or wrong answer here. You’re just exploring scenarios and you want to do that because that’s the guarantee in life, right? Is that whatever scenario you’ve got played out, well, hold it for a minute because in a minute it changes, and you’re going to have a new scenario.

I try to imagine the scenario, the dynamic in our relationship right now as it evolves or revolves around our three young children. Well, what about when the three are teenagers? And one of them’s rebellious and has a lot of conflict with one of us, maybe her or me. What’s that going to do to our relationship or what about when the three are grown up and they’re out of the house? What’s our dynamic going to be like then? I try to play all these scenarios in my head because I want to have a healthy perspective of reality, and the reality is I don’t know which of those scenarios it’ll be. But it could be any of them, and what I have found for me is it develops this sense of comfort with the uncertainty. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but here’s what I do know. This is what it is. And I feel much more content, a sense of contentment with how it is because this is how it is. At least I know this is how it is. I don’t know how it’ll be. It could be much better in the future. It could be much worse in the future. The point is I don’t know, but I do know how it is right now, and I’m happy with how it is right now. That’s what it does for me when I think of it like that in that setting.

Again, nonattachment isn’t saying hey, you shouldn’t have relationships. Quit falling in love. Give up everyone. Don’t have friends. It’s not saying any of that. It’s saying cherish everything the way that it is right now. Maybe cherish isn’t the right word. Find contentment with how things are because how things are, there’s certainty in that right now. I know that’s how things are. They could be better. They could be worse. But right now, it’s like this. And that’s an expression I’ve used before in other podcast episodes. Right now, it’s like this. Whatever this is, it doesn’t matter, the good, the bad, the pleasant or unpleasant aspect of that. That’s not the point. The point is this is what it is. And that’s what I have to work with.

So I would say in terms of relationships and this concept of nonattachment, think of that and don’t be attached to how I think the relationship should be. Instead, focus on how the relationship is. Another small example of this in my own dynamic, in my own relationship, I’ve often heard this I guess a myth almost, that in relationships, the more you have in common, the more healthy the relationship is going to be, and I have found in my own experience that’s simply not true to a certain degree. My wife and I have different political views. We have different religious views. We have different philosophical views of the world. On a lot of these bigger topics that some would say are destined to be doomed if there’s no compatibility, we somehow have broken that mold, and it’s working somehow. That’s not to say it could be better if things were more compatible. It could be worse. I don’t know. The point is I don’t know.

I find a tremendous sense of contentment with how things are right now. That for me has been important in my relationship. I feel like that’s the nonttached aspect of my approach to our relationship. I don’t feel the need to change her. If she views it this way or that way, and I don’t understand how someone could view it this way or that way, that’s fine. That’s just how she views it. And I don’t have a sense of attachment to this would all be better if she just viewed it all the way I view. That to me is a form of attachment in a relationship, wanting the other to be how I think the other should be. That is a sense of attachment. Nonattachment, again, like the flower, right? I don’t need to pluck that flower and put it over here in this vase because the vase is where the flower needs to be. It’s saying the flower is where the flower is. If it’s already in the vase, that’s where it is. How do I make it better? If it’s planted, that’s where it is. How do I keep it healthy? The point is how do I work with it in that nonattached way?

So I don’t know. Hopefully some of those ideas make sense to you if you’re listening to this and wondering about this concept of nonattachment as it pertains specifically to goals and relationships. So just summarizing, have goals, have relationships. Go with the flow of change. And remember this: Stagnation or permanence, it’s not healthy in goals. You can ask Kodak and Blockbuster and I don’t know. You can probably think of a ton of businesses of the past that had a sense of attachment to their thing, their product, their goal. And they weren’t able to shift and change with reality, change with the industry, and they’re gone.

It’s the same with relationships. Stagnation or permanence in relationships is a guaranteed killer of the relationship because relationships are dynamic. The person that you’re with changes. You change. And if you can’t learn to adapt and continually grow the relationship, there’s going to be stagnation and death in the relationship. The relationship will not thrive. It can’t thrive. It’s extremely unhealthy to think of it that way. One of the most common manifestations of this that I hear in my day to day interactions with people is this concept of you’re not the person that I married or so and so is not the person that I married, and that’s why our relationship is struggling. I want to say, I want to remind them of course they’re not. It cannot be, that person cannot be the same person that you married. From dating to marriage and then the entire process after, not just marriage, any relationship. You don’t have to be married to see this. If the person that you’re with is not the person that they were before, and that’s because the nature of reality is constant change.

So think of this. Impermanence makes relationships beautiful, but it also means they’re changing, they’re evolving. So you need to learn to go with the flow. So the nonattached teaching applied to relationships isn’t saying don’t have relationships. It’s saying let those relationships evolve and grow and flow and picture the various stages. What will our relationship be like in five years, in 10 years, in 20 years? Picture that. Picture the various stages. What will it be like when this changes? What will it be like if that shifts? If this happens or that happens. I think that can be a really healthy way of viewing your relationships.

I recently experienced this with my kids. Last week, we were on vacation, and we were taking surf lessons down in Mexico. My kids are still young, so they’re all signed up and doing whatever we’re doing. Everything that we were signing up to do they were doing with us. I saw other couples with their kids, some of which were teenagers. We were joking at dinner with them just saying I haven’t seen my teenager this whole trip because they were already off doing their own thing. So again, that’s something that I do in those moments. I imagine what will that be like when I’m at that stage and my kids don’t want to come to surf lessons with me. They want to do whatever they’re going to want to do. There’s a tinge of sadness and then there’s a tinge of cherishing well, but right now, they are here. They’re doing this with me. Even though the young one, the smallest one, she’s here digging sand castles and I’m taking care of her so I can’t go surfing with the other one. It’s like but then I just smile and think that this is how it is right now, and it won’t always be like this, and I can find much more contentment in that present moment.

So I try to see the dynamic change that’s happening at any given moment with the relationships that I have with my kids at the stage that they’re at now, how that dynamic is going to change when they’re at a different stage, when I’m at a different stage or when circumstances change it. So that’s the message I wanted to share. Goals, relationships and nonattachment. Rather than thinking of it as nonattachment, my invitation to you is think of it as seeing constant change as the nature of reality because nonattachment is what arises naturally through that proper perspective that life is always changing, I’m always changing, the person that I’m with is always changing. When I really see that and understand that, then nonattachment I think feels natural. It doesn’t feel forced, like oh no, I shouldn’t be attached. It becomes the natural way for your relationship with your goals and with people and with life. It’s naturally going to be a nonattached approach because that’s what makes sense when you see and understand constant change.

So I hope that makes sense. I hope that clarifies that topic a little bit more specifically to those who have emailed me recently asking about this topic. If you want to learn more about Buddhism, check out my book, “No Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners.” It has over 60 questions and answers that center around Buddhist history, concepts, teachings and practices. You can learn more about that book by visiting everydaybuddhism.com. As always, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others. Write a review. Give it a rating in iTunes. You can visit secularbuddhism.com/community to learn more about the online community, which is essentially just our Facebook group. And if you’d like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with this podcast, please visit secularbuddhism.com. Click the donate button.

That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Again, thank you very much to all of you who have been a part of this journey with me throughout this entire time since I started this podcast and through this recent milestone of 2 million downloads. It’s really an exciting time, and I look forward to seeing where this all goes. That’s all I have. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.