Life happens. Life teaches. Life is for us to live.
People push back when I express my (now) natural state of non-attachment. “I bet you miss seeing your grandchildren?” a friend may say. “No,” I say, “but it was wonderful being with them.”
“I’m going to miss you,” friends say as we part for a few months or eternity. But I will not miss them because it means to resist what is, the antithesis of joy. It may seem like a “no big deal,” but emotions are powerful, and I’m the gatekeeper of what goes into my consciousness. Missing people or places is to live in the past or the future, ignoring the present where life takes place. Giving away our life’s energy in an attempt to affect inevitable changes goes against the grain of contentment.
On face value, the word non-attachment (or detachment) has negative connotations. Who wants to be detached or separated from loved ones? The family visits over the holidays, and after they leave, grandma’s melancholy moves in. She reminisces about the evenings of playing Bananagrams with the family and wishes she could read the squirrel book for the fifth and sixth time to her toddler granddaughter. If only she could see the eight-year-old sporting her new rollerblades on the sidewalk for the first time. If only.
Humans’ inclination to cling to the past is a major cause of mental suffering. (Physical pain usually has an identifiable cause.) Any deeply rooted behavior is hard to let go of. We learn quickly not to touch a hot stove. But when it comes to emotions, the energy to hold on is incredibly intense and persistent. For example, some of us never let go of wanting to live near all we hold dear. Accepting we may never have the closeness to family members we desire is hard to swallow. It challenges our fixed idea of who we are, a grandma with a loving family. What we give less thought to is that with each event, every year and decade, who we are to our family and the world changes. Grasping to the past shuts doors to contentment.
We are HOME when was are content with all that is. Instead of clinging to people and memories, like a drowning person grasps at any object that flows by, we let go. When we are HOME in our skin, our spirit and body operate optimally. We are kinder, healthier, more energetic, and have fewer accidents. So, when dark clouds hang around for too long, and contentment is not to be found, the question we ask ourselves is WHY. How am I contributing to this malaise? Just as it may take time to diagnose a physical ailment, it can take a while to discover the underlying cause of our angst. It’s a long journey with no shortcuts. Attaching is easy. Detaching is tons tougher and more painful.
Consciousness and awareness are like a tiers with consciousness living in the cellar, and awareness on the first floor where presence resides, where we enjoy our coffee and croissant. But we must go deep into the cellar, inspecting each nook and cranny, to discover what’s blocking the sunlight. It’s scary, and our arachnophobia doesn’t make it easier. We remind ourselves that scorpions don’t live in our state and that the odds of winning the lottery are greater than getting stung and killed by a venomous spider. Facing our fears is the groundwork for true happiness. Non-attachment has the power to transports us out of the cellar and into the sunlight.
South of suffering, there is clarity. The phrase hit rock bottom is a term used to describe when an addict has reached her lowest point. It also applies when we experience great losses. We never think bad things will happen to us. It happens to other people. A husband dies at fifty-one. A child drowns. But then it happens to us. It’s no longer just an obituary or an article about an accident in the paper. This can’t be, we tell ourselves. But it is. It’s panic time. Where are the spikes for our sneakers to help us climb out of this unanticipated dark abyss?
When my turn came, I was already in possession of a few cleats; Unhappiness doesn’t come from the external conditions but by the conditioning of our minds. It was empowering to know I could calm my mind by examining my inclination or habit of clinging to my children. I recalled a beautiful passage in the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s book, The Prophet: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. And though they are with you, they do not belong to you. You may give them your love, but not your thoughts…Because life does not go backwards, nor does it linger with yesterday. You are the bows with which your children, the living arrows, are released.” Intellectually I got it; emotionally was a different story.
Slowly, the grip eased, and my perspective became more detached. I could not spend my life with grief at my side. What purpose would it serve? This mother-of-all-pain had to be evicted. Everything changes, I reminded myself. All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. When I die, all I cherish will be left behind. That’s a scientific truth. The freedom rested in letting go of the attachment that I walked on solid ground, and embracing the reality of shifting sands and groundlessness.
Thoughts beget feelings that beget emotions. Where do thoughts come from? I surely don’t know. Some suggest they are already inside us and come up for air to hook us. Thoughts lead to feelings that pull in emotions like fish on a line. The habit of the human mind is to identify with thoughts, treating them as the real deal. But how can it be that the thoughts in my head are all true, but not the thoughts in Tim’s head? Or vice versa. In any case, this is how we live our lives.
To break this habit requires we examine thoughts instead of surrendering and getting lost in them. If we make them our friends, we will be in sad company of endless drama and no laughter. We strive to watch our thoughts with detachment asking, is it real? Will this puff of energy that has my attention serve me well? Einstein said if we can transcend the perspective of the self, and view things from nowhere in particular—essence and feelings will disappear. The act of non-attachment zaps intruding and unsettling thoughts.
A neighbor, a physically fit woman in her early sixties, an unlikely candidate for a stroke had one —actually, she had two strokes within an hour. Three years later, after making remarkable progress in regaining mobility and independence, she told me her biggest fear was another stroke that would affect the opposite side. Having faced her fears, she set herself a goal of visiting the Galapagos Islands in 2021. Daily exercises and determination remind her to live in the present. Every small step of success is treated as a new Olympic record. Missing who she was in the past or dwelling on what could happen in the future are undesired and uninvited companions. Tessa and I know that bad things can happen to us. They will happen to most of us. “The ability to embody non-fear and non-attachment,” Thich Nhat Han wrote, “is more precious than money or material wealth.” Practicing non-attachment helps us prepare for when it’s our turn.
Living in the past is a black hole that keeps pulling you down deeper. Looking back is a trap that kills the joy we can have in the NOW. Yes, the past can remind you of happy moments, but too often, it holds nightmares. But do we forgo the future for the past? We are grateful for the smiles and scars and the wounds and tears because they helped us grow. But the journey continues, and we keep trekking. We are born without instructions. We make them as we go along. When bad stuff happens, we figure out how to get through it. Life happens. Life teaches. Life can be lived in contentment and happiness.