Nonattachment isn’t some ethereal, metaphysical, or mystical activity. It’s a down-to-Earth practice for living in the here and now instead of making ourselves unhappy.
Most of us live in some form of attachment. We’re attached to the car we drive, or how much money we make, or the home or neighborhood we live in.
Many of us even come to believe that the things we’re attached to determine who we are. (One of the central tenets of Buddhism is that such a view of who we are is a delusion.) Another common form of attachment involves wanting particular outcomes to occur: getting a particular job, having the perfect party, getting into our preferred college.
Often we’re so attached to a particular person or dream or outcome that we choose to overlook some clear warning signs. Many people who come into my therapy office are unhappy in their marriages. Often they begin by telling me about their partner’s drinking, anger, spending, criticizing, or some other negative trait. I ask them if they saw any warning signs of this behavior while they were dating, or if their own inner wisdom had suggested at the time that there might be problems. Usually the answer is yes. However, they were so attached to the person, or to getting married, that they chose to ignore the warnings. Now they are living with the visible, predictable problems.
Often when we need to make a decision, we can become so attached to a particular choice that we ignore our own inner wisdom, or information from external sources, that would redirect us if only we paid attention to it. This can involve something large and important, such as choosing a partner, buying a house, or taking a new job; it can also involve something as common and everyday as speaking your truth, caring for yourself, or saying no.
Nonattachment is letting go of trying to control the outcome, or the direction things may take. In nonattachment, you live with letting things unfold as they may, trusting that you will be guided and, if you pay attention, it will all be well. Yet most of do just the opposite, trying to control things—and failing, over and over, because actually there is not much in life we can genuinely control.
Letting go of this imaginary control is challenging and scary at first. It also means learning to approach your choices in a different way. Instead of simply trying to wrest control of the situation, you often need to research other options, seek advice, and be realistic about the possible consequences of any choice you make. You also need to accept your disappointment if you are guided in a different or unexpected direction, or if things don’t go the way you hoped.
In nonattachment, you learn to accept and live into unexpected and undesired outcomes. Frequently, though, to your surprise, those outcomes present you with new possibilities and choices. You let things unfold, trusting that if you are present, you will get the guidance you need. You do your best in each situation, while letting go of the outcome. You engage fully with what is happening without trying to control it and make it bend to your will. You stay as present as you can with what is happening in each moment—including your emotions, your impulses, and the events unfolding around you. You understand, deep in your body and heart, that this way of living is essential to your happiness.
Nonattachment is very different from passivity. You don’t refuse to act. You continue to make decisions and take action. However, you let yourself be guided by your wisdom instead of desperately trying to control outcomes.
As you practice nonattachment, you don’t expect everyone (or anyone) else to take care of you. Instead, you take care of yourself as best you can. You listen to the wisdom within you and trust it. You also stay open to guidance from many other sources: your friends; something that stands out in a magazine article; something you notice on TV or a bumper sticker; or any of a thousand others. It might be as simple as Put your book by your purse or you’ll forget it tomorrow morning.
Or it might be as important as I don’t like being around Harry’s anger. He gets so angry so often. I’m starting to feel scared around him. If that doesn’t change, I need to stop dating him. I love him with all my heart, yet his anger is starting to become a serious problem.
This also means allowing yourself to be briefly disappointed when the guidance you receive isn’t what you wanted to hear. Yet if it strikes you as correct or valuable, don’t brush it away because it’s not what you expected. Not listening to guidance that you know in your heart is important usually leads to unhappiness.
As you’ll discover, when you listen and act on the guidance that feels right, you will be much happier in the long run, even if, for the moment, you are disappointed. You may not enjoy getting out of your warm, comfortable bed to put the book by your purse, yet you’ll be glad in the morning that you have it with you. If you end up breaking up with your partner because of their anger, you’ll naturally feel sad; however, not as sad as if you marry that person, and their anger turns into abuse.
Over time, we learn to trust that happiness and serenity are available to us. They are some of the natural results of no longer trying to control the world; instead, we let go and open to it.
Excerpted from Nancy’s recent book, Everyday Narcissism, published in 2017 by Central Recovery Press. Copyright © 2017 by Nancy Van Dyken.