“Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you. ”
—Ali ibn abi Talib
Have you ever contemplated why there is discontent in your life? You have a decent paying job, an apartment, maybe a house, a nice car and a pretty significant other. What more could you possibly want!? Perhaps you are not quite this fortunate. Maybe you are working several jobs, live in a not so nice apartment, and need to ride public transit to each of these different places of work. In your eyes you have a lot to be dissatisfied with.
Where do these negative feelings come from? There is something inside of your head that is causing a wanting. This wanting causes you to not be satisfied with what it is you currently have. You want a promotion at your job, or you would like a bigger apartment, or perhaps your goal is to own a home. Your desires could be simpler as well. You could want to work one job instead of three, or maybe the desire is just to own your own car or put food on the table with no worry of lack.
The important thing to note here is that desiring more is a fundamental condition of the human mind. It does not matter what you have, you will always want more. Some of the wealthiest, most successful people in the world are miserable! They want more so badly, that they make their own lives a living hell. You might be thinking, “How could this be?”, or maybe your first thought is, “I know that I would be happy if I had a million dollars!”
Where Do We Go?
So, we are stuck with minds that want more no matter what it is that we gain. There are two ways that this can go:
You could be on a one way crazy train to consumer town. After all, buying stuff is the answer to all of our questions and also the place where happiness lies, right? “I just need the newest IPhone, that will make me happy for good.” These are the lies that we are constantly telling ourselves as we consume. These are the messages that advertisers so manipulatively convey to us. If we can take a second to realize that this might not be the way, then we are left asking, well, what is the way?
The second mindset is that of “non-attachment”. This is an often misunderstood term. Many people take non-attachment as not caring, not trying, or giving up. These are all negative connotations and have little to do with the actual root of non-attachment. This term was originally used in Buddhist teachings. The Dalai Lama himself said:
“Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering.” (Hopkins 1988)
Non-attachment simply means to not be attached to people, places, things and situations. The reason for this thing called non-attachment is the constant change that we deal with in our reality. If we become attached to the present moment situation, things we have not attained, or things we have messed up in the past, this will surely bring us suffering.
Now, back to earlier points. It does not matter what it is that you have, you will want more. If you have three jobs and no car, you will surely want one high paying job and a car. If you have a nice house and a nice job, you will surely want a bigger house and a promotion at your current job. The notion of non-attachment is a fine line here. It is to say that we cannot be attached to things in the material world in terms of gaining. We can have goals and dreams, but by not being attached, if they do not come true, we do not suffer. We give our goals our best effort, and if they do not work out, then we adapt. We can have material objects, but if someone steals them from us and we are not attached, then we do not suffer. We can love people in the present moment when they are with us. If these people move away or die, and we are not attached, we do not suffer.
We often do not realize how attached we are until we are required to give something up, or lose something. Perhaps you think that you are not attached to your money, but then someone steals it from you and you get furious. This could be a finer detail too. If you see someone on the street begging for money, perhaps you do not give anything to them. You justify it by saying something like “They will surely spend it on drugs.” But, when you realize that you have no control over others actions, it is clear to see that the true reason you do not give is because you are attached to your money. You may think “I worked hard to earn this money. What did they do to earn anything?” However seemingly benign, these thoughts are still negative and they still arise from your attachment to money. Most people are so attached to money that they derive their very own sense of self worth from it. That is not to say that you should have no sense of self worth, but to be so attached that you think you are better than someone else is a dangerous way to live.
If this way of living leads to suffering, how might we conduct ourselves in such a way as to reduce that suffering as much as possible?
To walk the line of non-attachment is to not be devastated when we lose something, but also to enjoy very much what it is that we have in this present moment. Much like each moment changes, one to the next, so do our lives and the corresponding conditions. We cannot hold onto what was one moment ago, that is gone, forever.
There is a difference between liking something, or working toward a goal and being attached. We can care, and work very hard toward our goals. We can learn to enjoy life to the fullest. Non-attachment simply means to work hard and enjoy life without trying to grasp it so hard that we squeeze all of the fun out of it. Perhaps here a metaphorical story is due.
Lessons From A Lemon Tree
How does a lemon tree grow? There is a seed, which is very distinct from a lemon tree. The lemon seed has the goal of growing into a fruit bearing lemon tree. As it grows, it gets the water it needs from the sky, and the nutrients that it needs from the soil. The lemon tree never grasps for more water or nutrients than it needs. There is no point in the process where the seed is worried about getting nutrients or water. It is simply there. It takes what it needs, nothing more and leaves the rest. It grows little by little, day by day. It does not worry if it is making enough progress.
When the tree is about to bear fruit, it does not worry and squeeze the lemons, trying to make them grow bigger or faster. This is sort of how humans try to lead their lives. They think that if they are rigid enough, try hard enough, or work enough that they will bear fruit in life. If a lemon tree tried to squeeze the fruits in order to make them grow, like humans do in order to try to make their lives grow, they would never bear fruit.
So what can we learn from this lemon tree? How does it grow it’s lemons? It simply does. It sits in perfect stillness day after day. If a hard wind comes along, it simply allows its branches to be bent. It goes with the flow of life, and never tries to struggle against it. In the end, the tree does not worry about how tall it will grow, how fast it will grow, or how long it will live. It simply produces fruit for years, and much like how it grows, it dies. It then returns to the earth without a single mental or intellectual struggle. It knows it was put here to bear fruit, so it does, and then it dies.
It is a silly thought to think that the lemon tree could bring some of its lemons with it when it dies. So it simply drops them when they are ripe. The animals that pass by can be nourished by them. The lemon tree does not try to spread it’s fruit, it’s seed carriers, further than it can naturally. It does not try to take on territory that is far beyond its reach. However, by being and by producing ripe and delicious fruit, it’s reign has become far and wide. Other animals have done the work of spreading the lemon seeds across the land. This is much like how the efforts of humans should be. We each are able to grow into full and fruiting trees of knowledge. We should then drop these fruits to be picked up for the benefit of others. These fruits can also come in the form of monetary or material things. If we drop these, then people passing by can benefit. This knowledge and helpful material for others will spread all about the land.
Go With The Flow
This is the process of going with the nature of reality, the process of flowing with the river. When you go with the river, then things are easy. Your word, your fruit, the results of your work will be spread far and wide with little effort from you. We must remember to be like the lemon tree. Some years it does not fruit. This is okay. Some lemon trees die. This is okay. This is the way of the nature of reality.
If we lead a life of true non-attachment, then the sense of loss would never be there. If we are very attune with the nature of reality, then we know that we never gained anything in the first place, so there can be no loss. However, we after all are human. Everyone forgets the true wisdom of reality and slips back into the illusion of being able to gain and attain. To some degree this is healthy. We should all have goals, dreams and aspirations. However, when those things do not work out, or the dynamic reality of life sets in and delivers some devastating blow, we must step back and realize that these moments are all passing. That life itself is passing, and that we cannot take anything with us when we go.