Things and people are not yours to possess: practicing non-attachment

Aparigraha or non-attachment is an essential moral guideline in yoga philosophy (yamas). It’s an important principle for me, it changed my views and led me to reconsider my relationship with myself and the world.

Buddha said that the root of suffering is attachment. But what does attachment really mean? Attachment is clinging onto things and people as a way to seek comfort and happiness. I believe that, to truly understand the importance of non attachment, it is important to understand two things:

The inevitable and inherent truth of it all is that nothing is permanent and that everything eventually ends

The world and other people are fundamentally never ours to control

We have only a limited amount of time we get to spend on earth, it is our nature to age a bit more everyday and in the end, to die. Whatever situation we are in today will not remain the exact same tomorrow. This impermanence is a blessing in disguise, it allows us to fully trust that everything can and will change. 

While change is our very own nature, we humans are constantly fighting against impermanence. Impermanence is scary, it means we can never surely know what tomorrow will bring. It also means we can never rest assured of anything. And that’s what we think we need: constant reassurance, stability and security in everything. It makes us cling onto things and people: relationships, jobs, material goods, hoping that they will last forever.

The real reason is simple: deep down we are living in fear. We fear abandonment and loss, as it makes us suffer. We do everything we can to avoid this suffering

“Our journey is about being more deeply involved in life and yet less attached to it”

– Ram dass
Non-attachment in relationships

When we like something or someone we want to make them ours, possibly forever. Why? 

Just like we see a beautiful flower in a park and want to pick it, we meet beautiful people and want to make them ours. We can’t just enjoy them and set them free, we need to have them give us guarantees, we need to possess, to own, to claim rights, to control. We cling and cling and we even call it love. It seems normal to some of us, but it really isn’t. We invest emotions and memories in our possessions, we give them deep meaning. It doesn’t necessarily make us happy, but drives us slightly mad. Why wouldn’t it? We fight for permanence in a forever changing world, it’s a lost battle.

Many of our cultures recognize forms of attachment as established, traditional forms of affirming, guaranteeing, validating relationships or situations. Take marriage for example, if we simplify it it is nothing but two people promising to love each other through everything forever. The idea is sweet and beautiful, but is it truly realistic? Is it truly serving us?

Clinging creates heavy burdens to carry, especially in relationships. It sets unrealistic expectations. When things or people then change, it leaves us with disappointment and hurt. Here we are, suffering after all, when all we did was try to avoid it. 

We want and seek guarantees but there are never any guarantees in life. Absolutely no one knows what their desires and intentions will be months or years from now. We are all that is guaranteed: and ourselves we endlessly change physically, emotionally and spiritually. Unacknowledging the never ending evolving nature of everything is almost an insult to it. 

Non-attachment will set you free

Rather than clinging onto things hoping they will last forever, and onto people hoping our relationships with them will last forever, we need to learn to deal with the moments as they arise. Non-attachment is the only way to truly live and love but it’s very, very, very difficult for us to understand. 

If we do things, get involved with people knowing that everything can and will change, we free ourselves from pressure and expectations. We can easily see how things unfold naturally. We can also easily free ourselves from expectations and disappointments. 

Non attachment is not indifference, it’s rather the absence of fear. Once you understand you only lose what you are attached to, you’ll be able to understand that only non attachment will truly free you. Non attachement is our best shot at avoiding unnecessary sufferings.

How to practice non attachment
  • Live in the present moment 

Welcome what comes, let go of what goes. If something good happens, let it. If something bad happens, let it. When something good happens, enjoy it and don’t overthink it, don’t try to make it last forever. When something bad happens, remember it won’t last forever. Don’t claim ownership or rights over things and people. See how things change around you once you start living mindfully. 

  • Let go of what no longer serves you

Learn to recognize situations or people who no longer serve you. Wish them well and let them go. You can be a kind person and still set boundaries and distance yourself from things / people who don’t do you any good. It is healthy, and it is normal.

  • Recognize impermanence around you and allow yourself to change

Slow down if needed, observe and recognize how absolutely everything or everyone arounds you constantly changes. Some changes will appear good, some will appear bad. Sometimes it will be easy, sometimes it will be hard. Sometimes you will suffer, sometimes you’ll feel your suffering being eased. It all works in duality: it’s called balance. Embrace change, allow yourself to change, allow things around you to change.

  • Know yourself and your purpose 

This is a lifelong journey, and it’s only yours. Experience and self awareness will help you. Once you start understanding who you are and what your purpose is, you’ll easier understand the world around you as well. 

  • Use of mantras and self reflection

Self reflection is not only helpful, it is essential. Sit back, observe your thoughts and emotions, see what you already know and what you can improve. Mantras can be very helpful to go through situations, face and accept things by simply affirming them. Let’s say you are hurt and you feel lonely, you may want to repeat yourself the simple affirmation: “I am loved”. Don’t underestimate the power of positive self-talk and mantras. Find what better works for you and give it a try. 

  • Accept and take responsibility for your own happiness

When you place your happiness in the hands of other people, you give them the power to destroy you. Only you are responsible for your own happiness, not anyone else. Repeat. Whatever you need, is already within yourself.

Mindfulness: The art of living the present moment

As this year is ending, I’m reflecting on the experiences of 2019, both the positive and negative ones. I recently told my sister that the well-known saying “living in the present moment” always did sound quite cheesy to me, nothing more. One lesson learned in 2019, probably the most important one, is this one: we shall in fact try to enjoy the present moment. It’s easy to say, more difficult to put in practice. 

I thought I was living in the present moment, trying to make the most of it, feeling content with what I have and taking each day as it comes. I recently came to realize I wasn’t. 

2019 has been a year of self-care. I’ve put the focus on myself, it was very much needed: taking a slow pace, going inwards, taking the time for me to figure things out. 2019 has also been a year of solitude: I’ve embraced it, I’ve accepted that I needed it in order to grow and distance myself from my old patterns. I went on my first solo trip, refused to take part in many social events I would usually attend. I draw the line: I wanted to be alone

Halfway through the year I realized I was maybe closing myself too much. That’s the thing with solitude, with being independent, it shouldn’t mean not inviting others into your life. Isolation can be necessary, yet it’s not necessarily better. By October I figured the walls I had built around myself as a person were very high. It was a good protection, but maybe too much. I figured I was closing my heart and in fact myself to new opportunities. I had refused countless social interactions, but also intimacy with other people. A change occurred and surprisingly enough, I fell in love. That’s not really the point of this article, nor the fact that I got heartbroken. I see this experience as a lesson but mostly as a blessing: I welcome this reminder that my heart works and that I am able to feel

I bring this up because it helped me realize the importance of living in the present moment. My last relationship was easy at first, very much uplifting. It was good times, easy interactions, a deep connection and happy moments. Until it wasn’t anymore. It became all about hopes, fears, projections. What does it mean, how is it going to be in the future, what if it doesn’t work? It ruined everything. As I see each and every experience as a lesson especially the hardest ones, I figured, isn’t it this the biggest lesson of all? At least I see it as another reminder to live my life in a more mindful way.

Here’s the thing: we are constantly running. We run in our daily lives, to catch a bus, to be on time for work, interviews, parties. We run and we are always looking for the next thing to plan, to do. We are hurrying in the search of happiness too. We view  happiness as an ultimate goal, as something we will reach, achieve, by any possible means. If I work hard enough, I’ll have more money, I’ll be more happy. We are looking for happiness in the future, worrying about it constantly. When we aren’t, we’re worrying about the past, letting old things bring us down. We wish we could relive the past, sometimes change it. In all this mess, and all the negativity it brings (overthinking, stressing …) we tend to forget the most important of all: living in the present. Being grateful for what we already have. 

I thought, well…this must be what it’s all about. All the cheesy quotes, the idiotic sayings I overlooked. There must be some truth behind it after all. As I deep-dive into the concept of mindfulness (the “psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment”), it all makes sense to me. We shall indeed focus on the present, on what we have, and seek happiness in it. Being more mindful is a key element for happiness. Being happy now, not in the future. Being more mindful also significantly reduce both rumination and unnecessary worry. Who wouldn’t want that?

Another saying pops into my head as I’m writing these lines: “Happiness is a journey, not the destination”. It is very true. There is no way to “find” happiness, nothing in the world can bring it to you on a silver plate. The amount of time, all the means, all the things, all the efforts, all the money in the world will not bring you happiness. Happiness can’t be found, it is already within you. If you are not happy today, chances are you won’t be happy tomorrow either. Simply because there is not even a guarantee that you will be alive by tomorrow. This sounds pretty harsh, but it’s a fact. We should stop running after happiness, and find it in the present moment. Enjoy things as they are, and let them be. Simple to say right? How to put these thoughts into practice?

A good way to do so is firstly to take the time to enjoy things. We can start by slowing down, using mindful practices such as meditation, watching our breath, to help us refocus on the here and now. Then, of course there is yoga and using asanas to refocus. It’s the practice that speaks best to me, but it could be a different one for you. It’s up to you to find a way to practice mindfulness. It’s not easy, but it’s not supposed to be. One thing is sure though, it won’t be harder than living a life on endless dream-chasing and overthinking. 

Gratitude

Growing also means improving, right? Unless you can grow by staying your good old self, which I rather doubt. I personally try to often reflect on my own behavior and habits.

One of the things I noticed is that I’m often ranting. Part of it is I believe, deeply cultural. I’m French and French people like to complain about anything and everything really. It can vary from unleashing a few “i’m so tired” every single morning to a ranting level that could easily lead to another French revolution. I too, like to complain about things on a daily basis. Small things, bigger things.

Complaining is human, we all do it. But complaining is deeply negative, especially if you do it a lot. For sure there are some aspects you can feel unhappy about, and you are allowed to express your feeling of discontentment. Some days are harder than others, life is a mix of ups and downs. The trick is not to fall into a perpetual circle of discontentment. Negativity brings negativity.

As I became more and more aware of my tendency to complain a lot, I really tried to make a change. One thing I’m trying to set as a routine, is to practice being grateful instead.

It seems to be rather an easy thing to do right? In practice it’s not that easy. In our lives we tend to focus harder on the negative things, than on the positive ones. As an example, when someone asks us how our day is going, we tend to highlight negative events first.

“My colleague annoyed me”, “my boss sent me extra work”, “I’ve missed my train and had to wait 30 minutes at the station” are common answers. How many of us would answer “I’ve helped the neighbor take the trash down and it made her happy”, “my lunch was extra delicious today”, “I’ve met an old friend and it was nice catching up on things”. Ranting is easy, it comes naturally.

To help practicing daily gratitude I chose to include this routine in my daily yoga one. I decided to choose to select and reflect on one daily thing I am grateful for doing Shavasana (yoga asana, usually closing the practice). It does not have to be something huge, it can be about anything. Usually I don’t”t even have to think about it, there is one thing naturally popping up in my head. For example, some days I’m grateful for my dog not being sick, for a phone call I had with my mom who lives far away or for a great time with friends. It helps me acknowledge the small, beautiful, ordinary daily things.

It’s quite easy to find and point out the things that aren’t so great, it’s harder to acknowledge the things that are. Some things are taken for granted: our health, well-being, the health of our loved ones. We take such things for granted until they go wrong. Everyday, I’m trying to be grateful for the things I do have, instead of whining about the things I can’t change. There will always be things to rant about, there will be unfortunate events, missed trains, failed interviews, heartbreaks. It’s part of life. If everything was beautiful and easy, in the end we would complain about it as well.

You can choose your own way to practice gratitude: have a personal diary, make it a daily or a weekly routine, do it through random acts of kindness… whatever works better for you. Hopefully it will help you keep things in perspective and be more positive.

If you already do practice gratitude, I would be interested to know more about it. Leave me a comment to let me know what your daily routine is and how beneficial it is for you.