Personal Growth

Detachment: a Skill, a Practice, and a Way of Life

Smiling person in contemplation looking out window
Smiling person in contemplation looking out window

Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached. - Simone Weil

One of the most profoundly transformational life skills we can ever learn is that of detachment. Praised by Zen masters, yogis, coaches, motivational speakers, and even Lord Krishna himself in the Bhagavad Gita, detachment is typically defined as the ability to “let go” or release the need to cling to our desires, positions, or possessions. But above anything else, detachment is a state of mind, a way of relating to the world and ourselves with a sense of allowingness and freedom.

According to Vedanta, one of the 5 Kleshas, or causes of suffering is knowns as Raaga, or attachment. It is our inherent tendency to hold on to things, whether they are material objects (houses, cars, cell phones), mental constructs (beliefs, worldviews, patterns of thought, roles and titles), or emotional states (relationships, moods and feelings). Unfortunately, clinging to any “thing” in a world that is by nature impermanent and constantly changing sets us up for suffering in the form of 1) anxiety over the thought of losing the object of our desire, and 2) the pain caused by the inevitable loss of the object itself.

Attachment can be costly. In India, when catching a monkey, a handful of fruit or nuts is placed in a jar with a small opening. When the monkey reaches in to grab the food, he’s unable to pull his closed fist out of the narrow opening, becoming trapped. If he would simply open his hand, he would be free, but in his clinging, he remains stuck. Similarly, by holding on to the things we have become attached to, we often trap ourselves in a narrow and conditioned existence.

Nature never intended for us to become so trapped by our attachments. For example, your body instinctively knows how to release and let go of what no longer serves it. Old skin cells are sloughed off ever 2-4 weeks; the stomach lining replaces itself every 3-4 days; and you exhale 12-20 times a minute. If we were to override any of these (or countless other) process and hold on to the old, expired pieces of experience produced by the body, it would eventually jeopardize our overall health. Imagine how it feels to hold your breath long past the point at which you need to exhale, and you’ll see that health and wellbeing are dependent upon our ability to let go of what we no longer need.

So why do we get so attached?

It all stems back to the ego. The ego is our false self, the moment-by-moment fabrication that gives us our separate sense of I, me, and mine. In Sanskrit, the ego is known as the ahankara or “I-former”. It’s the nature of the ego to identify itself with the positions and possessions of life. The ego differentiates itself from our true self or soul through the process of object referral. In other words, the ego defines itself in comparison to external factors. Those externals, rooted in the material world of objects, give the ego its sense of worth. Therefore, the more things it has; the more objects it can possess, control, hold onto and identify itself with, the more secure it feels.

This means that attachment is actually an expression of insecurity. Holding onto things that ultimately can’t last is the ego’s attempt to bolster up its own false identity. By the ego’s logic, clinging to positions and possessions is only natural. It defines itself by those things, so the tighter it grips, the more convincing the illusion feels.

But not only is the ego’s attachment agenda an illusion married to a futility, it’s also an enormous waste of energy. By working so hard to maintain a death-grip on everything it’s desperate not to lose it depletes the mental energy that could be put to much better use. In addition, our attachment to any given object or thing creates a sort of tunnel-vision in which we shut out an infinity of alternate possibilities teeming with creative intelligence in favor of one constricted and narrow option.

Break the Chains of Attachment

Having understood the binding nature of attachment, we can begin to dismantle the trap that has held us prisoner for so long. However, it’s important to recognize that detachment isn’t always easy. We’ve been conditioned throughout a lifetime of holding on to resist letting go, making detachment a skill that takes time, practice, and consistency to develop. Here are four key steps to take toward establishing your awareness in detachment.

1. Embrace impermanence

Essential to loosening the grip of attachment in our life is the recognition that impermanence is a foundational principle of the universe. Everything in our material existence has a beginning and an ending. Houses, cars, jobs, institutions, nations, relationships, titles, family, and our physical body all have an expiration date, and until we come to terms with this inevitable truth, detachment will be elusive for us. While accepting impermanence can be a challenge because it forces us to face our mortality and that of those we love, its truth can’t be denied. Once we recognize (and even embrace) the finite nature of our existence, impermanence can become an ally in letting go of our attachments. After all, when we recognize that whatever we’re clinging to will eventually fall victim to entropy and fall away, attachment begins to look like a lot of wasted effort. At first blush, this might seem a little depressing, but ultimately the impermanence-detachment connection becomes incredibly liberating.

2. Reel in the ego

The next step in cultivating detachment is bringing our false self (ego) under control. I’m not saying we should “kill off the ego” as some traditions might suggest. The ego is a part of each of us, and as such, it needs to be understood, embraced, and integrated in a healthy way. “Yoga” means union; it’s the union and integration of all levels of our being, ego included. However, to build our detachment muscle, we need to power-down the ego’s object-referral mechanism that feeds into the attachment network. To do this we don’t have to stomp out the ego, but rather see it in a new way. Instead of identifying yourself with your ego, think of it like a small hut that you can step out of at any time you wish. The true “you” can’t be contained by that hut, but it does hold some of the qualities and experiences that you identify with as “yours”. The hut is ultimately flimsy though, and with each excursion outside it becomes more and more clear that it’s a very cramped space in which to live. The ego hut is also a very serious place; but each time you walk outside, you experience the lightheartedness and joy that makes the ego’s seriousness look rather silly. As each of these layers of illusion start to fall away, and your identity shifts from ego to spirit, detachment becomes a real possibility.

You can only lose something that you have, but you cannot lose something that you are. - Eckhart Tolle

3. Lean into uncertainty

Another foundational principle of the universe is that of uncertainty, or the inherent lack of sureness or predictability about a situation. Let’s face it, the universe is an incredibly complex place, and the more complex a system becomes, the more exponentially difficult it is to foresee a given outcome. This uncertainty is woven into the nature of our reality so it would make sense for us to accept it as a given in life. However, for many of us, uncertainty is difficult to embrace. This stems back to our old friend, the ego. Our ego craves stability, predictability, and certainty to feel secure. It hates the notion of the unknown and will fight to control its environment with everything it has. Yet, it is exactly this resistance that we must be willing to release to step into the unknown and unlock the field of infinite possibilities. We can practice detachment by trusting and leaning into uncertainty. This weakens the bonds of our attachments by letting us release control and have faith in the universe to handle the details.

In detachment lies the wisdom of uncertainty... in the wisdom of uncertainty lies the freedom from our past, from the known, which is the prison of past conditioning. And in our willingness to step into the unknown, the field of all possibilities, we surrender ourselves to the creative mind that orchestrates the dance of the universe. - Deepak Chopra

4. Commit to letting go

The Sanskrit mantra for the Law of Detachment is Om Anandham Namah, which means, My actions are blissfully free from attachment to outcome. This mantra energetically captures the essence in letting go of how we think things should be. It’s the ultimate act of surrender, not in the sense of giving up, but rather releasing our need to control or manipulate the end result. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna teaches Arjuna:

You have the right to work, but never the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. - Chapter 2, V 47

By making the commitment to let go, we release the need to force situations or impose our ideas of how things should be. This can be an incredibly liberating process that allows us to experience the lightness and freedom that detachment brings. We come to recognize that we don’t really own anything – everything we have is just “on loan” from the universe. We learn to detach and let the flow of life carry objects, people, situations, and experiences in and out of our life without resistance.

As you can see, detachment is a superpower, and by practicing these steps, you will not only build the skill of detachment, but make it an ongoing practice that ultimately becomes a part of your life.


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