The Joy in Nonattachment

Nonattachment Baby
Note: Let truth guide you, not us. Our humble disclaimer.

Part of why we love children so easily is because they are authentic. They are raw and unscripted. They just live. They just feel.

Sometimes this feeling is loss.

My 14-month-old goddaughter generally is a good-natured child. She smiles a lot. She doesn’t cry after a fall. She loves the company of others, and she finds joy in the simple things. Life generally is good.

But lately she has started crying more. As she gets older, she has started learning cause and effect. This has led to preferences, which in turn has led to sadness when her preferences are not met.

One preference she has learned is that she enjoys my company. When she sees me, she smiles and is happy. But when I go away for work, she gets upset. She wants more, so she cries when I leave.

This reaction is an unadulterated version of the unhappiness most of us feel on a daily basis. When we like something, we want more. We develop preferences for people, things and situations that make us happy, and we feel sad when we don’t get what we want. This is why we miss people we love.

The love is not the problem. There is nothing wrong with my goddaughter enjoying my company. We have fun, and that’s better than feeling grumpy or indifferent when we are together. Why not enjoy the moment together? Sharing a moment together is a blessing.

Reading to goddaughterThe problem comes when we are attached, which is another way of saying that our sadness comes from preferences unmet.

My goddaughter is around people she loves almost every waking hour of her day. She is authentic and has not learned that people can hurt her, so she lets herself connect and love everyone who enters her life. As a result, she is surrounded by people she loves, and she is never far from joy. Even when she feels physical pain, it is only a momentary frown that quickly turns into a smile again.

As she gets older, however, my goddaughter is enjoying life less. That’s because instead of enjoying the people around her in the moment, going from one person she loves to another as circumstance dictates, she has begun developing attachments. She’s deciding which people make her most happy, and this preference makes her sad because she’s focusing on the fun person who has left the room and not the fun people who still is in the room.

This is a mistake most of us make. In fact, it is all that separates us from lasting happiness.

If the problem is attachment, the solution is nonattachment. But when we hear the word “nonattachment,” we often think that it means non-enjoyment. We think nonattachment is turning off our sense of joy, love and engagement with the world. For many, “nonattachment” is synonymous with apathy or the very inhuman quality of not feeling.

Smiling goddaughterThankfully, nonattachment is not the same thing as becoming a robot. If it were, we would fail and probably not even want nonattachment. The medicine would be worse than the cure, because we are human and we are made to feel. We are made to love.

Every day, we are confronted with loss similar to what my goddaughter feels when I go away. It could be the loss of not having our partner with us when we travel, or the loss of having to work instead of hanging out with friends. It could be the loss of eating pasta when really we want chocolate ice cream, or it could be the loss of living in a small room instead of a big house. On the most fundamental level, daily we have moments when we face the loss of being tired when we want energy, and of having a bodily ache when we want no aches whatsoever.

Nonattachment is contentment with what we have instead of yearning for what we want but don’t have.

A few aches don’t really matter; we only care because we think we can do better and go pain-free. Pasta tastes good; we’ve just decided ice cream tastes better. A small room will meet our basic needs for sleep and shelter; we only become dissatisfied with the room when we see our friends with bigger rooms or more of them.

Most of what we experience is pretty darn nice until we start comparing it with what we think is better. Nonattachment is not ending joy, it is ending the sadness from longing for what we don’t have.

For instance, one of my favorite foods is raw oysters. I love oysters. They are fresh, complex, tasty, individually unique. But if I make the goal of life to eat as many oysters as possible, I will feel unhappy when I’m eating something other than oysters. My strong preference for them will ruin my joy for any meal that is not oysters.

The nonattached approach is enjoying oysters but not being greedy. It is being content even if I never eat another oyster again in my life. I love oysters, and when there is the chance to eat oysters I certainly enjoy the food. But when I eat a bowl of oatmeal, I should enjoy the oatmeal instead of feeling sorry for myself that I am not eating oysters. I need to focus on the joy that comes from eating oatmeal, not the sadness that comes from not eating oysters.

Peter and goddaughterWhatever comes, I should enjoy. Every moment then becomes joy, albeit an endless series of different joys.

Far from non-feeling, nonattachment is feeling everything. It is loving the person you are around in the moment. It is enjoying all work. It is being happy with all food. Ultimately, it is liberation from sadness because we are not trying the futile task of bending the world to our insatiable preferences.

This is the secret of nonattachment, and practicing it does not require years of meditation, self-denial or hard study. It just takes an awareness that whatever we have right this moment is good and should be enjoyed.

One fun adult might have left the room, but there’s still another fun adult in the room. And fun books. And fun balls. And the fun of making funny faces.

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