Many of us have played that toxic “If only” game with ourselves – consciously or subconsciously. You may know the game – it is based on a host of obsessive thoughts constructed by our strong wish that things could be different:
“If only I had more money, I’d be happy… If only I got that promotion, I’d be happy… If only I could meet that special someone, I’d be happy…”
It is such a seductive game, because the attainment of our desired goals and objectives often does make us feel good… for a while. Like a sugar rush, these milestones and things energize and revitalize us for a time, but since they lack the power to make us inherently happy and are subject to all kinds of reversals of fortune, we inevitably come crashing down.
When we hinge our happiness on specific results and outcomes, we set ourselves up for a life of enervating up-and-down emotional cycles, never really being happy and at peace because we make our happiness dependent on specific things that may not happen, or in the blink of an eye, could be taken away from us.
Strong Attachment To Specific Outcomes — A Recipe For Unhappiness
This misguided attitude is not a new phenomenon or a by-product of our modern, consumption-crazy, get-ahead-at-all-cost world. Humans have harboured this weakness for millennia. Most religions have tried to teach us the error of our ways in one way or another, but it was probably Buddha who addressed it in the most direct way: “Desire is the root cause of suffering. The dropping of desire brings an end to suffering.“
This precept is at the core of Buddhist and Hindu teachings of non-attachment, which directs the followers to give up the world and lead a holy life, free from “lust, craving and desires” but really, how many of us are ready to become monk-like and lead a completely ascetic life dedicated to prayer and meditation?
“To love is not to ask anything in return, not even to feel that you are giving something, and it is only such love that can know freedom.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti
Probably not too many. Yet, there is an immeasurably valuable spiritual guidance in this teaching that ordinary people can follow without giving up all the pleasures that life can offer – the joy of relationships for instance!
The gist of this teaching is both wise and logical. When we count on external factors such as jobs, finances — even other people — for our sense of well-being, we have a strong emotional and psychological investment in these things turning out a particular way.
When we become overly attached to these specific results, we open ourselves up to hurt and pain when things don’t go the way we (often feverishly, desperately) envisioned them. And we’ve all had plenty of opportunities to experience and observe that life doesn’t always go the way we want.
To offer a cliché, life is unpredictable. But it’s so true. We can plan specific objectives for our lives all we want, but more often than not, we are thrown a curve ball or a monkey wrench on the way to that imagined, illusory nirvana.
So What Does Non-Attachment Mean, Exactly?
However well the above concepts work when imagined, the idea of not having any goals to achieve in one’s life, not being a contributing member of society, and detaching ourselves from things in life that do give us joy and pleasure, does not resonate well at all. This is where the understanding of the difference between detachment and non-attachment comes into play.
“Detachment is not giving up the things in this world, but accepting the fact and to be continuously aware that nothing is permanent.” ~ Aditya Ajmera
Non-attachment does not mean living a life of aloofness, indifference and apathy; it means an acceptance of life’s unpredictable and uncontrollable ebbs and flows, and its unavoidable, immutable transience. All things must come and go. Our lives will see wins and losses, successes and failures, tragedies and good fortune. Each will arise and recede like an ocean wave.
Fully accepting this reality helps us become less invested in the specific outcomes of our pursuits, and more engaged with the journey itself. Inner peace and happiness lie in detaching ourselves from that which we cannot change– from the outcomes and ‘what-ifs’, and doing our best to just enjoy the ride. As they say, ‘happiness is an inside job’.
Non-Attachment And Living A Purposeful Life
Non-attachment may seem like a passive approach to life to some. How does a working person or anybody whose job it is to produce results in the real world follow the tenets of non-attachment? Non-attachment does NOT mean one shouldn’t work to accomplish one’s responsibilities.
People should be able to count on you to deliver whatever you’re supposed to deliver, and you should always give your best effort in anything you do. Hard work, discipline, and development of one’s talents enable you to be a valuable contributor to society.
Goals are about the short-term result; systems are about the long-term process.
Goals are about the short-term result; systems are about the long-term process.
However, given the quintessential unpredictability of life, it is illogical – and probably just plain hubris — to believe that the outcome of whatever you pursue is completely dependent on your efforts, and you alone know what the best outcome is.
We need to have goals, but we also have to learn not to judge our life by the outcome of our efforts alone. Instead, we need to learn to measure our life by how well we follow the intentions that arise out of our values. In a nutshell, we need to act according to our values and goals, but not get fixated on the outcome.
Practicing Non-Attachment In Your Life
Déesse Indigo is a self help coach. She offers the following 8 steps to practice non-attachment:
- Ask yourself what realistic permanent advantage you should gain if you possessed your desire.
- Let go of your attachment to money by making a donation or helping out someone in need.
- Befriend yourself — your self-worth should come from within you, not from other peoples’ approvals.
- Don’t seek security in people or things.
- Overcome your attachment to entertainment.
- Let go of the need to be dominate or influential over others.
- Stop living in an illusion– don’t overly attach yourself to your possessions or even your hopes and dreams.
- Understand that all things naturally come and go. It’s unavoidable.
And to those of us who seek happiness through accumulation of things and objects, one of the world’s most spiritually influential writers, Eckhart Tolle, says: “How do you let go of attachment to things? Don’t even try. It’s impossible. Attachment to things drops away by itself when you no longer seek to find yourself in them.”
Applying Non-Attachment In Your Pursuits
James Clear is an entrepreneur, weightlifter, and travel photographer in 18 countries. His blog JamesClear.com, offers practical ideas for living a healthy life. He writes that a way to make progress in life without pining for the attainment of goals is to focus on the system/process involved in getting us there. He draws a difference between goals and systems:
If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
Clear says that committing to a process, not a goal, keeps things simple, relieves the stress, and that having a relaxed attitude actually facilitates the attainment of goals. Goals suggest that you can control things that you have no control over.
When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time. Goals are about the short-term result; systems are about the long-term process. In the end, process always wins.
“None of this is to say that goals are useless,” says Clear. “However, I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress. Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.”
This would seem to be a very useful approach to living a purposeful life without attachment to outcomes. So much so that maybe even Buddha would approve!