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 (like 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 like 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 like 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 like. 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, like 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 like 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.