Woman breaking a chain with her hands / concept of detachment

Over the past few months, I have been writing about ideas and thoughts aimed at helping facilitate subtle transformation among my readers and also offer them an opportunity to lead more fulfilled lives through rational thinking. I have covered ideas such as knowing versus believing, admiring versus imitation, observing versus judging, and tolerating versus suppressing. If there is one underlying idea that is at the root of all the ideas I have discussed, it is the idea of attachment. If we can master attachment, we would have control of our feelings and emotions and, thus, be able to lead happier, more fulfilled lives.

What is attachment?

Attachment can be defined as holding on to other people, places, or things to give your life meaning and direction. When we are attached, we define ourselves, our purpose and our happiness in terms of ideas, values, things, or people, external to us—so much so we allow ourselves and our emotional states to be dictated by them.

I wouldn't be too off-the-mark in saying that the root cause of all human misery is our tendency to become attached. It doesn't matter what kind of attachment we nurture; chances are it's going to hurt us, sooner or later. That's because when we are attached, we allow the locus of our control to be outside of ourselves. Then, when things don't go our way, we become dysfunctional or immobilised.

Attachments breed trouble

Everyone knows how potentially harmful E-mail attachments can be. They come with risk of computer virus and can destroy your valuable data. But, the attachment I am discussing is of a more lethal nature. To prove how self-defeating attachments are, I invite you to engage in a simple visualisation exercise. Think how you feel about some of your most valued possessions, such as your car, wristwatch, jewellery, or mobile phone. Now, imagine if any one of these possessions getting damaged beyond repair or, worse still, getting lost. If you're attached to your possession, you will feel terrible, or at the very least, upset, at such an "unfortunate" event. Yet, rationally speaking, if there is nothing you can do to reverse the happening, there's no point in losing your calm, or feeling sad.

Attachments make you weak

Attachment is a weakness that others can, and often do, exploit. If you're attached to your job/work, you are vulnerable to exploitation by those who can benefit from it. If you're attached to your car, the car mechanic gets the opportunity to take you for a ride.

One of the best illustrations of how attachment becomes a weakness is often visible in the context of sports, when a player, attached to the outcome of winning the game, often ends up losing. The best-known example of choking this way is of former tennis star Jana Novotna, who was labelled as a choke artist, a term for athletes who wilt under pressure. Novotna earned the choker label in the 1993 Wimbledon final against Steffi Graf. The match was evenly poised at 1-1, and Novotna was leading in the third set 5-1. One more game and she would've won the title. Yet she lost the third set, and consequently the match. What happened? The focus shifted from playing to winning. [Also read The Path to Success]

Attachments come in many odd sizes and shapes, and all of them are sticky and immobilising. We can be attached to our judgments, our relationships, our jobs, our possessions, our value or belief systems, our past, our political ideologies, or even our physicality. The scope is endless, both for attachments and the misery it produces. When you are attached, you become powerless in the face of the demands of people, places, or things that have the power to control you.

The only way out of attachments is that we develop a conscious attitude of detachment.

What is detachment?

"Detachment is opposed to attachment, not enjoyment."
The Upanishads

Contrary to the widespread belief, detachment does not imply renunciation of life's pleasures and privileges. It also doesn't mean indifference. What it means is enjoying your life and all its gifts without demanding that they always remain in your life exactly as you want, or desire.

Think about it. When you replace attachment with detachment, nothing changes except your own attitude. You can continue to enjoy and appreciate everything without the accompanying fear of losing it. When you're detached, you place your life in a healthy, rational perspective and acknowledge that there is a need to retreat from those events and circumstances of life over which you have no control.

Attachment versus detachment

In Prefer, don't Demand, I discuss how demands create pitfalls and how reducing them to the level of preferences makes much more sense. In that context, attachment is a demand, whereas detachment is a preference. The difference is in the mind, in the thinking. By replacing attachments [a demand] with detachment [a preference], all you're doing is changing the way you think about certain situations, people or things, while continuing to conduct your life in the same way.

Let me give you an example that most Indian readers would be able to easily identify in our cricket-crazy nation. A few years ago, I was obsessed with cricket. Whenever India played, I wanted the team to win. I was attached to Team India's performance. If they played badly, it would create serious dissonance in me. Like millions of other Indians, I would brood over it endlessly. What's more, I was even attached to my judgments about how the batsmen "should've" batted, bowlers "should've" bowled and so on. In my discussions with other cricket fanatics, I would hold on to my judgments, and get upset if someone held an opposing view. Then, when better sense prevailed, I understood the folly of my attachment.

As I became detached from cricket, nothing changed except that I no longer suffered because of eleven players who I had not even met. I enjoyed when they played well, felt happy about their success and the success of Team India. But, when they performed badly, I reminded myself that it's only a game. Since I was detached, I had only opinions, not judgments, about how they should've played.

My detachment paid off big time in ICC World Cup 2007 when India was ousted in the league stage. Being detached served me, because—while I would've liked India to do better and even win the World Cup—I knew there's nothing I could do about it. So there was no point in fretting over it, or losing even a moment's peace.

Thus, detachment is about giving up attachments, not pleasure.

Detachment in relationships

Attachments in relationships are trickier, and more harmful, than all other attachments. Any relationship that comes with a "conditions apply" tag implies attachment. It means, that, "If you want me to love you, you must first be, or do as I say".

I quite like Wayne Dyer's views on detachment and relationships. In his first book, Your Erroneous Zones, Dyer defines love as following: "The ability and willingness to allow those that you care for to be what they choose for themselves, without any insistence that they satisfy you." What Dyer is saying is that the essence of detachment in love is to love enough to be able to let go. Detachment is freedom—from owing and controlling another, and from being dependent on others for your happiness and fulfilment. In one of his later books, You'll See It When You Believe It, Dyer says, "Detachment in human relationships does not mean an absence of caring. It means caring so much that you suspend your own value judgements about others and relate to them from a position of love rather than attempting to control or judge them."

Detachment in relationships then is the process of de-tagging, and freedom from conditions. It's about giving space to the one we love to be himself/herself and giving space to ourselves too, from being dependent on another for our happiness. I invite you to read Love, Not Obsession from an attachment-detachment perspective. You will find that obsession is about owning and possessing another [attachment], and genuine love is about facilitating and nurturing the growth of the one you love, even at the risk of losing him/her [detachment].

7 steps to inculcate detachment

The following seven steps can help you in your goal of developing detachment:

  • Become conscious of your relationships with the world and identify those in which there is a dependency equation
  • Next, consciously seize control of your emotions from external sources such as people, places, or things
  • In case of circumstances which you wish to change but have no control over, just hand over your situation to God, or a Higher Power you believe in
  • Acknowledge that there is only one person you can control and change - and, that is yourself. This way, you relinquish your need to fix, change, rescue, or heal other persons, places, and things
  • Take charge of your feelings and recognise that your feelings are your responsibility. Don't blame others for the way you feel
  • Reduce the impact of guilt and other irrational beliefs which inhibit your ability to develop detachment in your life
  • Practise "letting go" of the need to correct, fix, or make better the persons, places and things in life over which you have no control, or power to change.

Enjoy, don't fixate

In the tennis illustration cited, of how attachment makes us weak, when we are fixated on winning the game, we lose focus of the game, and consequently play badly. But, if we simply play the game as best as we can, without bothering about the outcome, not only do we enjoy the game, we improve our chances of winning too. Playing to the best of our abilities, without being attached to a specific outcome, is being detached. Detachment, then, is a winning attitude. In my opinion, the Indian cricket team would do well to practise detachment when on the field, and simply play the game to the best of their abilities.

Attachment is a fixation. Detachment is enjoyment. Once we practice detachment, we acknowledge that life is a gift, and we must enjoy it without getting fixated.

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Manoj Khatri
Manoj Khatri likes to call himself an eternal soul disguised, among many things, as a writer. He is the author of more than 1000 published articles — on business management, philosophy and everything in between. He is a certified counsellor and has addressed thousands of students and parents on exam-stress in public seminars. He is the author of What a thought!, a critically acclaimed book based on powerful ideas of some of the greatest thought leaders. Manoj is Editor and Publisher of Complete Wellbeing.

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