Buddhist Non-Attachment

I recall staying at a Buddhist monastery outside of London, UK, in 2001. During an informal class taught by two monks, I gained some understanding of the concept of non-attachment, for the first time. Until then, I had only read about it and had consequently misunderstood the whole thing altogether. Spiritual books are sometimes overly theoretical since their authors lack direct experience of meditation.

Just like you have to study the alphabet before learning to read, it's vital to have a clear understanding of the fundamental spiritual teachings. It's true to say, that living in a spiritual community is one of the best ways to gain insight into spiritual teachings and practices. Buddhist monasticism for example, has cultivated spiritual wisdom for over 2500 years. That gives you an idea of the profound know-how.

This article offers a simple and practical introduction to the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment. Please keep in mind that attachment itself is universal. In other words, it's part of human nature and applies to everyone regardless of religious and cultural background.

I used to think that as a dedicated Buddhist meditator, you should lead a simple and minimalist lifestyle. To the very best of my understanding, non-attachment had to do with letting go of material things such as money, gadgets and cars. I was also convinced that it included parting with pleasures like alcohol, drugs and sex.

The term non-attachment can be quite misleading. Unless someone explains its true meaning, you may end up thinking along the lines of non-materialism and non-pleasure.

Non-Attachment Clearly Explained

The human mind loves to process thoughts and is sticky like glue. That means it attaches to feelings and thoughts, not unlike a prisoner who is holding on to the prison bars. This is the nature of the mind. Non-attachment is about observing, being aware of your feelings and thoughts without grasping them. Let me give you some examples:

- When you smell your favorite food, craving or desire arises. Your mind holds on to it, attaches to it. Clutching on to your feelings and thoughts is attachment. What is more, the mental processes are so subtle and speedy that most of us are unaware of them.

- When you are angry, many times you feed the anger with negative thoughts, not unlike pouring fuel on fire. Feeding and holding on to your anger is attachment.

- When you see a sexy model in the nude, sexual desire is triggered. Again, grasping your feelings and thoughts is attachment.

Please remember that non-attachment is an inner process that chiefly involves feelings and thoughts. That said, it's possible to live in a materialistic world without attaching or identifying with the corresponding feelings and thoughts.

- Imagine a young child that is walking by an ice-cream stand, hand-in-hand with her father. The kid sees the colorful ice-cream poster and starts to crave chocolate ice-cream. Unfortunately, her dad has left his wallet at home so he can't buy her anything. The girl screams and falls to the ground, because she can't accept not getting a scoop of her favorite ice-cream. He tries to reason with her, but to no avail.

This clearly illustrates how attaching to your feelings and thoughts leads to unhappiness or suffering. You may argue that you're not a child, but I'm not sure it makes much difference. Let me take you through a couple of more examples...

- You have just lost your job and get upset with your boss for laying you off. Your negative thoughts feed the anger. Holding on to your feelings and thoughts is attachment, and as you know, anger is an unpleasant mental state.

By not attaching to your negative feelings and thoughts, you could focus wholeheartedly on finding a new job, without experiencing the anger. The truth is that most people are so numb that they don't even recognize that anger is unpleasant.

- You're on a romantic holiday with your girlfriend. It's early in the evening and the two of you are cuddling on the hotel bed. You get sexually aroused and want to make love to her. You are so excited, but she says no.

It's hard to stop while bathing in sexual desire. Can you clearly see how attaching to your feelings and thoughts leads to unpleasant mental states?

Mental processes are as fast as they are subtle, therefore it takes years of practice to become fully aware of them. When the Buddha pointed out not to cling to your feelings and thoughts, he put his finger on the very cause of human unhappiness or suffering. Simple yet deep.

By now you know what non-attachment is and isn't.

The benefits of non-attachment are lofty. Imagine flowing with life without clutching on to your feelings and thoughts. Living in a state of acceptance also makes for a soothing mental state. Everyone you meet enjoy your presence, since you have a pure mind and don't react with negative emotions.

Best of luck!

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