by Jayaram V
The concept of non-attachment or detachment (vairagya) is common to Hinduism, Buddhism
Echoes of similar concept can be found in other major religions
of the world. Non-attachment means not to become enslaved to
anything and live like a lotus leaf in
the waters of life, without being touched by it or polluted by it.
It is living free from the encumbrances of life and the attractions
and distractions it has to offer, not passively by running away
from them, but actively by developing equanimity and self-awareness.
Attachment means holding on to things dearly as if you cannot live
without them or as if your very happiness and existence depend upon
them. These are the mental bonds you develop with things and objects
you believe are important for you and your happiness. They are the
invisible strings that tie you to the external world and its myriad
attractions through your sense organs. You attachments are part
of your consciousness. They bind you to the sensory world and limit
your vision, knowledge and awareness. They determine your actions,
reactions and inactions, your joys and sorrows and your successes
and failures. When you attached to things, they take control of your life, your body, mind and
senses and define your life, personality and destiny. They also limit your freedom and
Our Suffering Comes From Our Attachments
According to the Bhagavadgita contact with sense objects results
in attachment. From attachment arises desires and from desires come
anger. Anger leads to delusion. Delusion causes confusion of memories,
and it ultimately leads to loss of discrimination. When we do not
have right discrimination we lose the ability to choose wisely,
which results in the consequences of karma that bind us to this
world and to the cycle of births and deaths. Influenced by our attachments
and desires, we come under the influence of our sense organs and
distract ourselves from the real purpose of life by seeking and
accumulating things. We live and act as if our lives depend upon
fulfilling our desires and building defenses against pain and suffering.
We desperately strive to secure our lives against the vagaries of
life through our possessions and relationships. This thinking and
attitude become so ingrained in our consciousness that we begin
to accumulate things even when we do not actually need them, a situation
most religions recognize as a serious problem responsible for our
suffering and our bondage to the cycle of births and deaths.
The Buddhist Perspective
Buddhism acknowledges attachment as the root cause of our suffering.
Our attachments results in our cravings. Our cravings lead to suffering
as we fail repeatedly in our attempts to cling to objects of sensual
pleasure and avoid their opposite. The very uncertainty of life
does not guarantee that we can always remain happy, enjoying the
pleasant and avoiding the unpleasant. Somehow, for many its opposite
is what turns out to be true. So, from a Buddhist point of view,
attachment is essentially a problem of wanting and not wanting or
seeking and choosing. It is about preferences and choices and desires
and dreams. Since life does not always happen as expected, we suffer
perpetually from the fear of the unknown, the unpleasant and the
uncertain. Bogged by the weight of the past and the anxieties of
the future, we fail to experience the beauty and serenity of the
present moment and flow with the flow of life.
The Bhagavadgita is A Treatise on Overcoming Attachments
The Bhagavadgita identifies attachment as the root cause of our
deluded behavior. It explains how the triple gunas (qualities of
nature namely sattva or purity, rajas or vitality and tamas or inertia)
influence the nature of our attachments. According to the scripture
our religious knowledge by itself does not guarantee freedom from
desires. What liberates us is freedom from desire and attachment.
When sattva (purity) is predominant, people are attached to virtue.
When rajas (vitality) is predominant they are attached to action
and when tamas (darkness) is predominant they are attached to inaction
or inertia. So in truth we all are attached to something or the
other, irrespective of our virtues, inner disposition and social
status. We experience equanimity only when we practice true detachment
and cultivate divine virtues. Neither the sense objects nor our
actions are by themselves cause our karma. What precipitates our
karma, says the scripture, is our attachment to the sense objects
and our desire for the fruit of our actions. Therefore, we should
perform our duties as a sacrificial offering to God, without the
sense of ownership, self interest or attachment and without seeking
the fruit of our actions. Desireless actions performed with detachment,
devotion and self-surrender are the key to our transcendental experience
and eventual liberation.
Our Attachments Come In Different Shapes and Sizes
Identifying our attachments is the first step towards an unfettered
life of peace and stability. With some practice we can become aware
of our dominant attachments and in the process learn how to deal
with them and become free from them. The following list enumerates
some well known attachments common to us.
- Physical attachments. Attachment to one's body, color,
shape, physical fitness, health, sexual desire. Also included
in this category are attachment to all material things such
as money, house, place, land, nature, clothes, food, people,
pets, possessions, luxury etc.
- Mental attachments. Attachment to particular emotions,
one's identity, family name, family status, family background,
caste, race, nation, gender, language, color, relationships,
social status, power, prestige, fame, habits, hobbies, daily
routine, rules, procedures, religion, scriptures, virtue, morality,
opinions, judgments, beliefs, prejudices etc.
- Spiritual attachments. Attachment to one's guru,
religious leader, beliefs, God, gods and goddesses, saints,
religious tradition, methods of worship, spiritual practices,
places of worship,scriptures, ideals, virtue, morality, spiritual
life, afterlife, knowledge, symbols etc.
It is important to remember that from a spiritual perspective
there are no good and bad attachments. All attachments are binding,
creating karma, and stand in the way of our liberation. In the early
stages of our spiritual journey we may be advised to focus on some
of them. But eventually we have to cut through all our attachments.
Our Attachments Shape Our Lives Individually and Collectively
Our attachments are behind all our motivated behavior, learned
behavior, habits, fears, thoughts, decisions, preferences, choices,
accumulations, intentional behavior and structured relationships.
Our attachments are responsible for the actions we do in order to
gain something, own something, not to lose something, survive, succeed,
avoid failure, overcome fear, perpetuate our identities, prevail
against nature, dominate others or yield to them. Some of our attachments
are also collective in the sense that whole groups and nations have
selective preferences for things and identities that stem from their
collective consciousness and group identity. Thus each group, tribe,
caste, nation, association and community is attached to certain
beliefs, traditions, likes and dislikes, preferences and prejudices
that are part of their collective egos and collective attachments.
Historically, these attachments have shaped our history and civilization
both positively and negatively. They have also caused a great deal
of human suffering through racial abuse, wars and aggression, gender
differences, religious hatred, social and economic inequalities,
ideological and political differences, environmental degradation
and destruction of life and valuable resources.
Spiritually All Attachments Are Part Of Our Delusion
Our attachments aim to perpetuate our individual and collective
identities, egos, interests and values. They are responsible for
our craving and the compulsive need
to accumulate in order to feel complete, fulfilled and
secure. When we are subject to attachments, we react differently
to different situations. We suffer from conflicting emotions. We
live with the fear of loss or the hope of gain. We become defensive
or aggressive. We take positions. We change positions. We seek.
We criticize. We admire. We appreciate. We castigate. We attack.
We cherish. We hope. We become vulnerable, manipulative, selfish
and self-centered. We hold on to things we believe are needed for
our happiness and survival. They become our main driving and motivating
force. We cannot work normally without them. They fill our lives
with hopes and expectations, fears and anxieties. They fill our
minds with conflicting emotions. They lead us. They guide us. They
blur our vision. They take us to the heights of rapture or to the
depths of depression and restlessness, that become so much part
of our being that most of the time we do not even realize that these
conflicting emotions are interfering with our lives.
Our attachments prevent us from being who we are and what we
can be. They do not let us experience reality without coloring our
perceptions and understanding. They hold us back from flowing with
life. We become limited and self-centered because of them. We stop
being truthful, honest and transparent. We wear masks and pretend
what we are not. We seek relationships that serve our interests
or promote our welfare. We lose touch with the reality. We seek
permanence by having things and accumulating them and pursue things
that are inherently harmful and destructive, at the expense of our
own good. We allow ourselves to be guided by our conditioning.
Practice Of Non-Attachment Is The Road To Freedom
Attachment is therefore a fundamental problem, which can be resolved
only by cultivating non-attachment through the practice of various
yogas or disciplines. To be free from attachments, we must be willing
to let go of everything, renounce our attachment to things and embrace
change, without feeling threatened by it. We should practice equanimity
by not seeking security in things and relationships that are by
themselves impermanent, undependable and unpredictable. We have
to become aware of our thoughts, actions, habits by practicing mindfulness.
As the Buddha said, however strong may be our desire to hold on
to things and make them part of our lives, all composite things,
to which we cling so dearly, will eventually come to an end. We
should therefore cultivate an awareness that is impervious to change
and impermanence, that can survive the vicissitudes of life of without
disrupting itself and experience peace and equanimity unconditionally.
You Can Be Free If You Let Go
From non-attachment comes true freedom. But how can you arrive
at the state of non-attachment? How can you set yourself free, in
a world and from a world that itself is a mesh of attachments and
You can start the journey by becoming aware of your likes and
dislikes and what you value most in your life. Find out what your
criticize, whom you criticize, what you defend and whom you defend,
what you oppose, what you want to change, what you avoid and what
makes you happy or unhappy or fearful or contended or angry or hurtful.
These are your reactions to different situations, objects and perceptions
caused by your attachments. They are rooted in your past experiences
and shaped by your attachments.
Your attachments are responsible for your hopes and aspirations,
your opinions, judgments, memories, vulnerabilities, feelings, emotions,
passions, beliefs and anxieties. Become aware of them through mindfulness,
detached observation, being a witness of yourself. Know what makes
you happy or unhappy, what drives you crazy, what holds you back
or forces you into desperation. These are the responses you have
learned because of your attachments to objects, people, beliefs
A Few Simple Suggestions To Practice Detachment
When you learn to respond differently or stoically to whatever
that seem to evoke a response in you habitually, you break the shackles
of your past and set yourself free from the illusions of your own
mind. There is nothing wrong in having things or enjoying them.
What is wrong is your attachment with them and your preferences
that prevent you from experiencing life as it comes with unconditional
trust and freedom. It is not an easy process. But by becoming aware
of them, truthfully, honestly and mindfully, you are opening yourself
to the possibility of life without limits. The following suggestions
may help you in your efforts to overcome attachments.
- Start with a few attachments and work on them. It may be
a particular food item you like or dislike, a habit that has
become part of your daily routine, or a relationship that you
have trouble accepting.
- Let go of your attachment with money. Participate in some
a voluntary work. Make a donation. Help a child in his or her
- Overcome your attachment with the body. Take a cold bath.
Wear simple dress. Practice yoga and exercise.
- Deal with your preferences for food. Eat the food you do
not like. Fast at least once in a week.
- Practice detachment with the usual forms of recreation you
are attached to such as watching TV or movies.
- Become aware of your actions arising from your need for
recognition, power and influence. Practice silence when you
are urged by the compulsion to speak in a group or conversation.
Listen to learn. Consider others viewpoints and arguments with
which you disagree.
- Let go of your attachment with discipline and perfection.
Forgive yourself and others for your faults and oversights.
- Let go of your possessions. Remove the clutter from your
life. Give away the things that you do not need and do not use.
- Become aware of the motives behind your actions and words.
Overcome the profit motive and the selfish motive.
- Let go of your need to dominate and influence others.
Detachment Does Not Mean Willful Indifference
To be free from your attachments does not mean you have stopped
being happy or responsive or turned yourself away from all the positive
things in life. Non-attachment does not mean you should not have
the zest for life or lose all your vitality. It only means you have
to be unconditional in what you do, what you seek, what you love
and what you experience. The life of Lord Krishna is a great example
in this regard. He lived a complete and luxurious life, took sides,
waged wars, indulged in mischief and yet remained free from the
fetters of life. The transcendental life that we seek as a solution
to the impermanence of human life is eternally vibrant and yet free
from all the limitations to which we are subject. It does not forsake
action, but attachment with action. It does not forsake enjoyment
but attachment with it. It does not forsake experience, but remains
untouched by it. A detached life is a liberated life, in which the
boundaries of self, the notions of oneself and one's identity dissolve.
Free from the demands of the self-centered and narcissistic ego,
it is dynamic. It excludes nothing by choice or preference. Detached
consciousness is alert, attentive, calm and spontaneous. It responds
to our calls for assistance with compassion and clarity of purpose.
It offers us a chance to be what we truly are, to experience life
without fear or the compulsion of choice. From non-attachment comes
the true joy of living in the now and here. A detached person lives
in the present, unburdened by the memories of his past or the uncertainty
of his future. He does not look far ahead or plan things in advance
meticulously to secure his life. He lives without fear. He is contended
with what life offers to him and accepts life as it comes, without
complaint, without judgment and without striving. He is a traveler
who is on a journey of self-discovery without any baggage and without
any conditions, with complete trust in the reality of the present
moment. He has attained perfection because he has transformed himself
from becoming to being.
Suggested Further Reading