The Misunderstandings around Non-Attachment: Detachment and Aversion
Not nakedness, not platted hair, not dirt, not fasting, or lying on the earth, not rubbing with dust, not sitting motionless, can purify a mortal who has not overcome desires.
~ The Dhammapada
A long time ago, there was a man who saw through to the very root of our suffering. It was attachment and desire. The more we grasp at something – or someone – the more we are setting ourselves up for pain.
This concept, however, is not without important misunderstandings. I am far from an expert, but in this article I try to clarify some of these.
What is Attachment?
To discuss attachment, one has to define it first. Attachment can be seen as an exaggerated seeking and clinging. We devote large amounts of mental and physical energy to the object of our desires. If we don’t have it, we obsess about it, try to get it, or constantly mourn its absence. And if we have it, we fear we will lose it and desperately try to hold on to it. Our minds will never find rest, as long as this grasping exists.
At the root of attachment is wrong perception. Whether it is an object or a person, we give it meanings and values that do not exist. Let’s discuss romance as an example – it is one of the most common in our society.
Imagine a man who has spent his entire life without a lover. The world will tell him it is not right, that there must be something wrong with him. Maybe he is too ugly, maybe he is too shy. Doesn’t he get lonely? Isn’t life too painful to travel alone? Doesn’t he need a shoulder to cry on?
If he agrees with them, he begins to feel lonely and sad, and his efforts are directed towards trying to find a wife. And what if he finds one? The poor woman – he begins to burden her with all his years of unfulfilled needs and desires. No longer can she simply be who she is; her humanity has been denied. If she fulfils his needs, he might try to control her or hold on to her for fear of losing her. If she doesn’t, his unhappiness returns – but this time she is blamed for it. If she leaves, he plunges back into his despair, and again she will be blamed for it.
But she is not at fault – the despair and insecurities have always been there. His pain comes from his internal attachments, not her.
Detachment and Non-attachment
And so – one of the wisest gifts we can give ourselves is to gently let go of our attachments. As we do so, we feel progressively lighter and freer. Without any fear of losing what we have, without being pushed and pulled by our inner likes and dislikes, we begin to find increased equanimity and genuine affection.
However, many people resist this concept. They believe that letting go of their attachments means letting go of the object or the person, and their lives will turn drab and gray. Will a woman who lets go of her attachment to a lover be alone forever? Will she turn into a hermit? Will a man who lets go of his attachment to money live in a cardboard box?
A few might choose to, but that is their choice and not a must. In my experience, one is able to enjoy what they have for the first time. One can keep striving for what they want, but it is a game they cannot lose, for they are unattached to the outcome. They can participate without unwise or desperate behaviour, without undue stress and frustration.
When our single man is as happy alone as he is with someone, he will no longer have to manipulate or “people-please” to win the heart of the woman he likes. If he does have a wife, he is able to love her for whom she is, and not for what she can do for him. Is this not the basis of a genuine, mature love?
Any fear about losing vibrancy in life likely comes from confusion between non-attachment and detachment. Many teachers speak of detachment as a form of self-protection, based on hidden fear. The woman who cannot find a lover might give up. A man who has been hurt many times might withdraw and never open his heart again. They lead a life of sadness, but they deny it, sometimes with clever rationalizations – No one is good enough for me. I have much more important things to do. Love is for weaklings.
How do we tell the difference between non-attachment and detachment? This can be difficult. We check in with our thoughts and feelings regularly with unflinching honesty. Often, detachment leads to withdrawal. We become indifferent and lifeless. If we are alert, we will find a subtle negativity and judgement behind our detachment. Non-attachment is non-judgemental. The less we are pushed and pulled around by our exaggerated inner likes and dislikes, the more clearly we can see the world. This is tremendously freeing, and leads to increased compassion, tranquillity and lightness.
Again, while we have been using romance as an example, attachments could be to anything. Please apply this to your own life. The old series on attachment contains exercises on finding out what you are attached to, and what lies underneath them.
Aversion Can Create Guilt and Fear
There is another important misunderstanding, which often results in far stronger suffering – such as guilt, hatred, and fear. What follows can be slightly controversial, so please let me repeat that this, like everything else, is my opinion only. You’re more than welcome to disagree in the comments section.
We know that extreme attachments lead to unwise and hurtful behaviour. A money-hungry business might indulge in lies and cheating; they might treat employees and clients as less than human. But there isn’t anything inherently wrong with money – it is one’s uncontrolled desire for it that causes all the pain.
Another thing we know is that if we are trying to stop eating chocolate cake, it is a good idea to keep a good distance from it. Therefore, some teachers might suggest abstinence from the major desires – sex and money, amongst others – in order to practice spiritually.
However, this suggestion is often misinterpreted and taken to an extreme. Instead of focusing on the attachments, we then focus on avoiding the object of our attachments, so much that we begin to hate them. In turn, this creates guilt and fear – the opposite of what non-attachment achieves.
As a light-hearted example, I remember when I was a child about seven. My Sunday school teacher had always told me that cigarettes and alcohol were evil. One day, my father brought me along to a party, and jokingly gave me a tiny sip of whatever he was drinking. Not only did I hate the taste, but for days afterwards, I was wracked with guilt and fear – I was going to hell!
Further, many teachers call aversion – a strong feeling of dislike – just another form of attachment. At first glance, this might make no sense. Isn’t aversion the opposite of what we have been discussing? But think about the symptoms of an exaggerated hatred. Even when the person or object is nowhere near us, they dominate our thoughts. A lot of our activity – or even our entire lives – can revolve around avoiding or destroying the target of our hatred. Are the effects really that different from attachment?
Again, one might wonder if releasing our aversions might lead us to unwise behaviour. Please keep in mind that attachments and aversions are an internal process. We do not have to hate anything to avoid it. I know very well that driving at 300 miles per hour will put me in a horrific crash, and I simply choose not to do it – but there isn’t any hatred or exaggerated fear involved (as opposed to rational fear – I would definitely be scared if I saw a car coming at me at that speed).
I hope that has addressed some of the confusions around the concept of attachment. In writing this article I have compiled a lot of half-written ideas about attachment. If people are interested I will put those into a proper article, as an update to the older series. The links again: