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Understanding Your Attachments

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by Jayaram V

The concept of non-attachment or detachment (vairagya) is common to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. 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 awareness.

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 relationships? 

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 and knowledge.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Let go of your attachment with money. Participate in some a voluntary work. Make a donation. Help a child in his or her education.
  3. Overcome your attachment with the body. Take a cold bath. Wear simple dress. Practice yoga and exercise.
  4. Deal with your preferences for food. Eat the food you do not like. Fast at least once in a week.
  5. Practice detachment with the usual forms of recreation you are attached to such as watching TV or movies.
  6. 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.
  7. Let go of your attachment with discipline and perfection. Forgive yourself and others for your faults and oversights.
  8. Let go of your possessions. Remove the clutter from your life. Give away the things that you do not need and do not use.
  9. Become aware of the motives behind your actions and words. Overcome the profit motive and the selfish motive.
  10. 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.

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