Why You Need to Let Go of Attachment
January 7, 2016 5 min read This story originally appeared on Lewis Howes
“Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”
— Eckhart Tolle
Letting go is a courageous act of surrender.
No matter who you are, you can lose your home, your job, your business, your family, your investments, your spouse, children, your health…everything and anything can be lost by anyone in any moment.
Human life has a lowest common denominator and we are all subject to it — the greatest equalizer on Earth is the fact that our time here in this body is limited.
We go about most of our days with a schedule and a plan and the rhythm of our life is steady, predictable. Most of us seek stability in our relationships, finances, and the other foundations of our existence.
Sometimes life is so steady that we may start to believe we have it all together and that other people don’t.
But then something happens to disrupt our illusion of security and privilege and we are once again reminded of the great mystery that this life is.
This is why I am such a huge fan of practicing gratitude. So that I may never take any of this for granted.
When you let go of something you are holding onto, you make room for your destiny to move in.
When you let go, you must have faith.
Have faith in the process, trust that you are going to a place you are meant for, a place that might not make sense now but will make plenty of sense later. You will see that because this happened, that happened. And the order of it all, no matter how painful or beautiful, was exactly what it needed to be.
The opposite of letting go is holding on–also known as attachment. Many of us get love confused with attachment.
Yasmin Mogahed said, “Love without attachment is the purest love because it isn’t about what others can give you because you’re empty. It is about what you can give others because you’re already full.”
Love and fear cannot coexist.
When we are fully present, we cannot be attached to the future outcome or the past reality.
Full presence is true love.
Attachment has to do with thinking in the future and past. Love is in the here and now.
Attachment is having expectations. Love is gratitude for this moment together.
We attach to people because we fear that they are going to leave, they will get sick and die one day and we will be left alone.
We are attached to our job because we fear that if we lose it, we won’t be able to support ourselves and our family.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to have your family healthy and alive; there is nothing wrong in wanting to keep your job in order to support your family.
But the key is to accept that it can all come to an end at any time.
This is the difference between love and attachment.
Love your friends, love your family, love your job, your house, your life, but don’t get attached.
Love and let go simultaneously.
Cherish what you have in every moment.
Pain is temporary and suffering is optional. Suffering comes from the story that you make up about the pain.
This old zen parable retold in the children’s book Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth speaks to the ways that we hold onto our attachments:
Two traveling monks reached a town where there was a young woman waiting to step her sedan chair. The rains had made deep puddles and she couldn’t step across without spoiling her silken robes. She stood there, looking very cross and impatient. She was scolding her attendants. They had nowhere to place the packages they held for her, so they couldn’t help her across the puddle.
The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing, and walked by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other side. She didn’t thank the older monk, she just shoved him the way and departed.
As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out.
“That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!
“I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”
What are you carrying that you could have laid down long ago?
When will you decide to let go and truly live in the moment?
Let go and let good things flow to you and through you.
As Buddha said, “In the end only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”
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The Zen Habits Guide to Letting Go of Attachments
I’ve been finding more and more that the Buddha had it right: pretty much all of our struggles, from frustrations to anxiety, from anger to sadness, from grief to worry, all stem from the same thing …
The struggles come from being too tightly attached to something.
When we’re worried, we are tightly attached to how we want things to be, rather than relaxing into accepting whatever might happen when we put forth our best effort.
When we’re frustrated with someone, it’s because we’re attached to how we want them to be, rather than accepting them as the wonderful flawed human they are.
When we procrastinate, we are attached to things being easy and comfortable ( distractions) rather than accepting that to do something important, we have to push into discomfort. And so on.
OK, if you’re ready to accept that being too attached, clinging too tightly, is the cause of our struggles … then the answer is simple, right? Just loosen the attachments. Just let go.
Easier said than done. Any of us who have tried to let go of attachments knows that it’s not so easy in practice. When our minds are clinging tightly, we don’t want to let go. We really, really want things our way.
So what’s the answer, then? In this short guide, we’ll look at a few practices to help with this.
Letting Go Practices
We can help dissolve these attachments with a few different practices:
- Meditation. Meditation is simply sitting still and trying to pay attention to the present moment — whether that’s your breath, your body, or what’s around you right now. What you’ll find is that your mind runs away from the present moment, attaching to worries about the future, planning, remembering things in the past. In meditation, you practice letting go of these mini attachments, by noticing what your mind is doing and letting go, returning to the present moment. This happens again and again, and so you get good at it. It’s muscle memory after doing it hundreds, thousands of times. You learn that whatever you were attached to is simply a story, a narrative, a dream. It’s not so heavy, just a bit of cloud that can be blown away by a breeze.
- Compassion. In this meditation, you wish for an end to your suffering, or an end to the suffering of others. What happens is that this wish transforms you from being stuck in your attachment, to finding a warm heart to melt the attachment and find a way to ease it. You become bigger than your story, when you wish for your own suffering to end. And when you wish for others’ suffering to end, you connect yourself to them, see that your suffering is the same as theirs, understand that you’re in this together. What happens is that your attachments and story become less important, not such a big deal, as you connect with others in this way.
- Interdependence. Try meditating not only on the wish for the suffering of others (and yourself) to end, but for others to be happy. All others, whether you them or not. Again, through doing this, you start to see that you’re all connected in your suffering, and in your desire to be happy. You are not so separate from them. You’re not separate, but interdependence. This connection with others helps you to be less attached and more at ease with life.
- Accepting. At the heart of things, attachment is about not wanting things to be the way they are. You want something different. That’s because there’s something about the present moment, about the person in front of you, about yourself, that you don’t . By meditating, practicing compassion and interdependence, you can start to trust that things are OK just as they are. They might not be “ideal,” but they are just fine. Beautiful even. And you start to become more aware of your continual rejection of the present moment, and open up to the actuality of this moment instead. Over and over, this is the practice, opening and investigating the moment with curiosity, accepting it as it is.
- Expansiveness. All of these practices result in a more expansive mind, that is not so narrowly focused on its little story of how things should be, not so focused on its small desires and aversions, but can see those as part of a bigger picture. The mind can hold these little desires, and much more. It’s a wide open space, a deep blue ocean or dreamy blue sky, and the little attachments are just a part of it, but it can also see the suffering of others and their attachments, it can see the present moment in all its flawed glorious beauty, and be present with all of this at once. Practice this expansiveness right now.
The Zen Habits Method
The way to deal with attachments isn’t simple, and it takes practice.
Meditate daily, focusing on the breath for a couple of minutes every morning. See your suffering and your story and attachments, as you meditate. See this after meditation as well.
After a few weeks, add compassion meditation. Wish for your suffering to end, then expand it to others in your life, then to all living beings.
Learn to see your interconnectedness with others, and practice acceptance of the present moment exactly as it is, in little doses. Small steps. Practice expanding your mind to include these things and all other things in the present moment.
Then, when a difficult attachment arises in your daily life, see the suffering, see the attachment, and expand your mind beyond it, giving yourself compassion while seeing that you are bigger than this attachment. Let it be there a little cloud, floating around in the wide expanse of your mind, and then lightly let it float away, rather than sinking yourself into it.
With practice, this method can result in contentment with the present, awesome relationships, and less procrastination and distraction.
Mindfulness for Beginner’s ebook
If you’d help with mindfulness, check out my new Zen Habits Beginner’s Guide to Mindfulness short ebook.