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Do Not Push the River: The Benefit of Practicing Non-Attachment

Many of us would like to experience life as though we were floating down a beautiful river; effortless, placid, and pleasant. This journey can become turbulent, however when our own intentions unexpectedly conflict with someone else’s.

I invite my clients to consider in these moments adopting an attitude and approach of non-attachment.

Though this term is often associated with Buddhism — right-thought arises out of non-attachment along with benevolence and compassion — the principle of non-attachment or detachment is also found within the teachings of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Taoism.

What is non-attachment? Simply the recognition of the impermanence of all things.

There is no permanence in life.

All things exist within their own unique life cycle. Animals, particularly our pets, not only teach us to open our hearts, but can also guide us to make an ally of death. Their lives are shorter than ours and, consequently, we witness their natural progress through old age and death. Yet they leave us better for our relationship with them. We welcome them knowing that we will inevitably be parted yet nonetheless made better — more open-hearted and connected with life — for the joy and companionship they bring us.

Further, that cycle is not predictable. We speak of the average life span of humans, animals, plants, and minerals. Yet a human life may end unexpectedly due to illness, an animal might meet its predator, a plant may die from drought or illness, even a rock may be transform due to earthquake or volcanic activity.

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After weeks of preparation, Buddhists dissolve their intricate sand mandalas to conclude a ceremony, acknowledging the impermanence of all things. As we create beauty in our lives we acknowledge that all things return to the earth, none greater or lesser, all meaningful yet without meaning in themselves.

 

One of our blocks to the peacefulness of non-attachment is Codependency.

Codependency is the belief that our happiness is a consequence of what others do or do not do. Think about this for a moment. Consider the impact of relying upon external, uncontrollable forces — the actions of others — for our own personal happiness.

We live in a culture where we frequently reference happiness to external factors. As children, we express joy in receiving presents, a pattern that continues throughout life; as spouses we seek our partners’ love, as parents we experience pride in our children’s success, as employees we celebrate wage increases, and as seniors our happiness comes from family visits.

This external locus of happiness leaves us attached, fearful of loss.

Consider the alternative that our happiness might be found within our love for our partners, satisfaction in expanding in our own abilities, encouragement and validation for our children, and a joy in the life we continue to live mindfully moment by moment to the end of our days.

Respect, as an alternative to control or rescuing, requires this capacity for non-attachment. For me this is captured by a traditional Hungarian expression, Don’t push the river, it flows by itself.

At a surface level, we understand this to infer not to waste our energy on things we cannot change, similar to the suggestion found within the Serenity Prayer: Grant me the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.

At a deeper level this practice of non-attachment invites us to consider that we do not need to control the river. The world about us has existed for billions of years, civilization for several millennia, our own society a few centuries (more or less, depending upon the society you identify with). The pattern of people over such vast time periods suggest that their behaviors will likely continue both for good and ill along a similar course. We are all at some point on our path to enlightenment, quick to recognize the obstacles others encounter but blind to what impedes our own.

So, should we devote our energy to futile attempts to change others (remember, they are where they are for a reason) or instead focus on our own improvement?

Depending upon our outlook, the course of the river is either our potential joy or else a frustration of our own doing. We will never find serenity by wishing something to be other than what it is.

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And what of the sadness and grief we feel over profound loss?

Grief, that honourable teacher, patiently and reliably steers us to release our attachment after the death of a loved one.

I can’t speak for you, but I know that I am not yet enlightened. Consequently I still have attachments. My goal is to strive to recognize them sooner and release them when I am able.

Sadness, as I have written of previously (see Why Do We Experience Emotions?), is a painful yet necessary emotion. Without it we might hold onto loved ones or events long after they have left us. Sadness plays a role in coercing us, respectfully, to loosen our hold on relationships lost, memories enjoyed, and dreams unfulfilled.

With time, our attachment lessens, our sadness gently shifts into something akin to gratitude and fondness or nostalgia. There are exceptions, of course, and times when grief counselling can play a valuable role in assisting a person struggling with this adjustment.

What are the benefits of non-attachment?

Imagine that you choose not to redirect the river but, instead, to find the place to stand within it that best suites your needs and aspirations.

Instead of wishing under your breath that your boss would take an extended vacation, focus on the part of your job you most enjoy as well as the desired position you are working toward. Instead of cursing traffic that is, well, …predictable, consider where the best place to live might be to satisfy your commuting needs — is there a move needed in either your home or place of employment sometime in the near future? — then make the journey as pleasant as you are able using music, self-calming talk, even an attitude of love and compassion to those commuters fighting to change lanes in front of you.

This would imply, then, that you conserve your energy where it can actually create change — your own behaviors. Benefits will be felt physically through lower blood pressure, the release of tension headaches, and improved digestion as well as greater clarity of mind. Stress and resentment diminish the performance of vital pre-frontal brain functioning. Further, in a remarkable feedback loop from the positive emotions and mindful presence experienced, you may experience improved relations with others who are appreciative of your newfound openness to their differences, amplifying these positive benefits.

You may note the irony that you are more likely to positively influence others by trying to refocus yourself instead.

That places the responsibility squarely back on your shoulders.

If you are dissatisfied with some aspect of your life, how are you continuing a pattern that co-creates it? Sometimes we need to end a relationship, if this is truly the time to do so. Other times, however, we simply need to accept others as they are and, instead, change our relationship to them.

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