Buddhist spiritual philosophy teaches that there are three poisons: attachment, hatred (anger), and ignorance (of how all phenomena exist). Attachment is always named first in this list because it is the most difficult of the three poisons to overcome. Attachment, said the Buddha, is the root of all suffering.
From an Eastern philosophical standpoint, the practice of nonattachment is key to the acceptance of loss and dealing with emotions that come with it. Nonattachment is perhaps the least understood of all the Eastern spiritual concepts. Some confuse it with unattachment or detachment, but they are not quite the same thing. To be unattached or detached is to have had no connection at all, to break away from completely or to have something broken away. By contrast, nonattachment indicates that a connection exists, but that one has made a conscious choice to not attach oneself to the people of things involved.
According to Mahayana Buddhism, nonattachment is a mental factor that opposes attachment; it remedies a state of mind that has been brought on by mistaken appearances. These happen when we believe that the things we see, hear, and touch are inherently real. Attachment to the things we see brings on feelings of desire that bind us to Samsara. Nonattachment liberates us from those mistaken appearances.
One of my teachers said, “We have a lot of attachments – some of which we may not even be award – and are controlled by our attachments. How is this? There are pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. The pleasant feelings generate attachment. We like things a certain way and we don’t recognize how deeply attached we are to these things in Samsara that generate these feelings. We externalize our sources of happiness. We see things as inherently existent and then desire it, and if we get what we desire, we become attached to it because we see it as inherent to our happiness.”
However, we can also become attached to negative circumstances, even to our suffering. Physicist and spiritual teacher Ravi Ravindra points out that we can become attached to our suffering even more than to our happiness; otherwise, we wouldn’t keep doing things that result in suffering. (It’s like that definition of insanity: doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.) “We’re attached to suffering – which is our root problem. Yoga is breaking the bond with suffering through the practice of nonattachment.”
Many believe that people who practice nonattachment are cold, remote, distant, unemotional, and uncaring. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Nonattachment created a greater sense of caring, a greater compassion, by removing the emotions of the ego from the equation. We become attached to people and things because there is an element of the “I” or self-grasping in the attachment. When “I” or “me” or “my” enters the picture, we are attached, because it is suddenly about “me.” That attachment created the delusion that there is some inherent, solid reality, or permanence to the person or thing, or that we can control the outcome of an event. That attachment is the root of suffering.
Nonattachment provides us with the freedom to be loving, caring, and compassionate without regard to the “I,” “me” or “my” feelings, wants, desires, hopes or outcomes. We can be entirely compassionate without being pulled into the drama. We must realize that each person is operating within the framework of his or her own karma. Karmic seeds planted in the mental continuum (mind) over many lifetimes since beginningless time, ripen at various stages and in various lifetimes. We must understand that whatever is happening in a person’s life is the result of this process: the karma is burned off so that the person can progress spiritually toward enlightenment.
That is why, while I feel compassion toward all sentient beings and try my best to help them – to feed the hungry, to help the sick, visit the lonely, and lift the sad – I cannot save them from the implications of their karma. Therefore, I must not become attached to happiness or to sadness. This practice also leads to living a life of equanimity or even-mindedness in all situations.
We must be in possession of our emotions and ego and must be resolute in our actions, but we must engage in our duty and act without any thought of results. We must be in control of our mind and train it so that we do what we do with the right intention. If we enter into action with an eye on results, or with wrong intention, we will not be free to act in the best interest of others – and that is the ultimate reason to act. Attachment to results distracts us from acting in the optimum manner to act on behalf of all sentient beings.
Understanding this truth brings us freedom. Attachment to outcomes limits us to the outcome we have defined as acceptable. Any outcome beyond what we have determined to be the only acceptable one leaves us unhappy, disappointed, and unable to experience spiritual growth from the situation.
Nonattachment helps us to develop meaningful relationships with a pure – unconditional – love, one that is unmixed with attachment and stems entirely from a concern for others’ happiness. We should learn to distinguish between ego attachment and pure love, which wants the other to be happy. When we love without attachment, we truly love. We can then give our loved ones the space to be who they are and walk the part they are meant to walk. We can even allow them to die at their appointed time without inserting our own wants and needs into the picture.
Nonattachment is the path to liberation; the path to a healthy mental, emotional and spiritual attitude that brings us peace.
Adapted from The Illusion of Life and Death: Mind, Consciousness, and Eternal Being by Clare Goldsberry (November 2021). Used with permission from Monkfish Book Publishing Company.