What is 'non-attachment'?

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

Non-attachment is a reoccurring theme in Eastern religions and philosophy, including yoga. Rāga is the limitation which occurs from attachment. The dualist thinking that follows is to practice ‘non-attachment’, as attachment is a limitation. Dualist thinking is black and white, whereas in fact life is grey (and a lot more than fifty shades of it!). Here I'll unpack the concept as far as my current understanding goes.

Non-attachment can seem to be being non-materialistic. To not be attached to worldly possessions as they are not the root of our happiness. In fact, they can be the opposite, and the root of our suffering. We work long hours to buy the things we want, creating stress, and not even having enough time to enjoy these things fully. The happiness that we find in these objects- including people, pets etc- can often be fleeting. The big new telly seems ordinary size after a few months and someone else's telly looks bigger. The relationship breaks down and you feel great pain. Those shoes start to wear out and no longer look so sparkly.

Non-attachment can also be applied to ourself, or more accurately, our idea of self. We can have attachment to many aspects of what we deem to be our self; our health; our looks; our mind; our personality. So when inevitable changes occur, they can cause suffering to the mind. It is not the place of this post to go into details of how these aspects aren't our true self anyway, but you may be able to see how attachment can cause suffering.

I'm not going to lie. I thought I had this pretty sussed. I had (and still have) possessions, but my happiness was not attached to them. The same with the self, I wasn't hugely attached to who I was/am in the body. Things just were as they were. In life I had sold nearly all my possessions a few times, and also had times I'd lost huge things in my life, so thought I had learnt this lesson well.

Oh no! The spiritual path is never like that!!! There is always a deeper understanding to be had (just as in time I'm sure my understanding here will seem naive to me).

One of my teachers- Kaya Mindlin- alluded to the term 'non-attachment' being misleading, suggesting that a better translation would be 'appropriate attachment'. The end result seemed the same- not attaching our happiness to anything. In fact, it's not just our happiness. It's also aspects such as the fruits of our labour. Non-expectation would be another way to describe it. The end result 'just is'. No expectation of the result, no thoughts of the result, just witnessing. Again, I thought I somewhat had this.


Erm no! So here comes a big leap. Part of the teachings of non-dualist philosophies, such as those found in yoga are that god (Brahman, the divine, whatever you want to call 'it') is everything/everywhere. You may not believe this, you may even stop reading right now with the 'g' word being seen and that is fine (and thank you for reading this far...ciao for now). You may be thinking 'sounds interesting but I don't quite believe it', or a multitude of different scales of thought all the way to 'Yes yes! I've fully realised this'.

I recently received full realisation of this. At the same time I started to look at my 'possessions' or if you care to ride with me, the manifestations of the divine. My phone's screen was cracked, my iMac's screen was cracked, my car windscreen was cracked, my chip & pin card reader was cracked, my cats eyes were watery and so on. My 'non-attachment' had meant I was ok with these things; the phone still worked, the car still got me to places, the cat still slept and meowed etc. I wasn't attached to them so it was all good to me. But then when viewed in the new light that these are actually manifestations of the divine, or god, what did that really say? Would you want god cracked or in good condition, well looked after and cared for? Well I'm going for the latter.

This concept of non-attachment had led me to the other direction of caring too little. This was where I really began to understand the idea of appropriate attachment, instead of non-attachment. Appropriate attachment has love and care, because every single thing is divine. If you don't believe it or understand it, but want to practice aparigraha to help reduce suffering, then consider what I have said. You don't have to love and care for something because it's divine. You can just love and care for it. And if it goes, it goes. You have loved and cared but without attachment.

This is for so many areas in our lives. Love it or loath it, but money is a huge aspect of our lives. I wasn't overly attached to it, and knew that money was not the path to 'happiness'. In fact I was at the other end of the scale, thinking of it somewhat as a necessary evil. The result was that I was and still am fortunate to live comfortably, but as I didn't really care about money, it was frittered away (far too many good restaurants in Brighton and Hove!). This is not love and care for something which is divine. So now, it is with love and gratitude it is received AND spent or given. There isn't attachment to it, but it most definitely isn't an evil of the world. It just is! You may be the other end of the spectrum and worship money, always wanting more, saving up, storing it away, fearful of losing it. That is absolutely fine but something to be explored. Is love always wanting more of something? Is love controlling? Appropriate attachment wouldn't involve these aspects. It is fine to have a lot of money but appropriate attachment would not involve these aspects, it wouldn't be fearful of its loss.

Our physical self is another great indication. Some take huge amounts of pride in their appearance, but as they age become unhappy at the looks fading. Others don't care about their appearance, and don't attach their happiness to their looks. But notice here how they are opposite ends of the spectrum and neither really proper-attachment. Appropriate attachment to the physical self would involve truly loving and caring for yourself, as YOU ARE DIVINE (and that's not a line out of Ab Fab)! But when the physical self changes that is absolutely fine. There is no attachment to how it is. Can you see the differences?

Sometimes it can be confusing as we see images of yogis living on the streets of India, and then images of teachers such as deceased (and maybe disgraced) Bhagwan Rajneesh (Osho) with Rolls Royces coming out of his ears. Yet both of these circumstances can be the same. Both these extremes can occur with non-attachment and one is not necessarily more spiritual than the other.

I hope this helps explain this somewhat complex subject. But if it doesn't, that's ok too. No attachment to the end result ;)