Can the Practice of Buddhist Detachment Make you Feel Happier?
Grasping at things can only yield one of two results: Either the thing you are grasping at disappears, or you yourself disappear. It is only a matter of which occurs first.Goenka
When someone says the word, "detachment" many definitions may come to mind and not all of them are pleasant. Detached behavior can be a symptom of depression for some or can be a sign of a personality disorder for others. In children, detached and emotionally unresponsive behavior towards parents or caregivers can be a warning sign of what is known as Reactive Attachment Disorder. Other pejorative associations to the word "detachment" may include: Aloofness, disconnection from feelings, and emotional coldness.
Just to be clear, the kind of detachment we are going to discuss today has absolutely nothing to do with the clinical or Americanized version of this word as described above. What we are going to be talking about is the Buddhist principle of detachment or perhaps a more accurate term is non-attachment. There are some who say that the practice of Buddhist non-attachment can lead to a happier and more fulfilling life. I am, by no means, an expert in Buddhist philosophy and this post will be more about my personal interpretation of non-attachment and how I have used components of this philosophy in my own life in order to feel happier and more at peace.
One of the core tenets of Buddhism is that suffering has a cause and that cause is sometimes craving and attachment. It is logical to assume, then, when we give up clinging to certain life conditions, the chance for happiness and contentment will increase. There is a myth about Buddhism that true enlightenment only happens when we give up all our worldly possessions and go off to live in a cave. You don’t have to take such drastic action in order to find self fulfillment. The best translation I have found for non-attachment is "the determination to be free." Simple acts of letting go of our emotional clinginess can make a huge difference in improving our mental health.
Here are some real-life ways that I have found to practice non-attachment: -** Stop placing conditions on your happiness.**
Do you say things like, “I will be happy when”" and then insert some condition you feel will make you happy? Some of these conditions might be that you will only be happy if you lose weight, get the perfect job, find the perfect mate, or have no worries. We are imperfect beings living in an imperfect world. It is guaranteed that life will throw you some road blocks and that you may never achieve the conditions you feel will make you happy. And even if you meet some of your goals there is also no guarantee that what you thought would make you happy will actually do so. This does not mean you give up your aspirations and goals. It simply means that you don’t delay contentment and happiness by waiting for the perfect conditions to occur.
- Replace the phrase, "I need" with "I want."
I remember when one of my sons was in grade school the teacher gave the children an assignment of writing down all of their needs. The attachment to material possessions begins early and many of the kids wrote down things which were not really needs but wants such as video games, special toys, or junk food. When the children were instructed to then separate the list by wants vs. needs, the needs list was actually quite small. We are a society of consumption and the focus on material wants can create a feeling of never being quite satisfied as we don’t understand the concept of "enough." The emotional rush that we get from buying things is temporary and in some cases can lead to a shopping addiction. A re-focus on simplicity can give one a feeling of emotional freedom from being sucked into mindless consumption.
- Focus on the journey and not some expected outcome.
One life lesson I have learned the hard way is to let go of any set outcomes I may envision for my future. You may think that you are on a straight line course towards meeting all your goals but life has a way of changing on a dime. For example in my own life I never expected to have a child with a major disability or that I would be diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Things happen we don’t expect. If we set our hearts on certain outcomes of how we expect life to go, we are setting ourselves up for endless disappointment and bitterness. Whether or not our life goes as we planned is less important than finding happiness and contentment despite the challenges. Letting go of our emotional attachment to expected outcomes frees us from misery and allows us to adapt to change.
- Make a conscious choice about which relationships merit an emotional investment.
Do you ever find that you are spending an inordinate amount of time and energy on dysfunctional relationships or upon people who drain you emotionally? If you allow others to dictate how you spend your time, you may be robbed of nurturing relationships which are sustaining and mentally healthy for you. If you are in a relationship where you constantly feel the need to please or do things you do not want to do in order to make the other person happy or to make them love you, the end result may be great disappointment and resentment. Trying to change others or make someone happy is an exercise in futility. When you give in any relationship, make sure it is something you want to do, as opposed to giving to get something expected in return. People are going to be who they are and not who we expect them to be no matter how hard we may try to transform them.
- Accept that there are some things in life we just cannot control.
Many people become anxious or depressed over life circumstances where we have little to no control. It can be all too easy to feel trapped and that we have no choice. Yet while we often do not have control over what happens in life, we do have a choice as to how we react. We can expend tons of emotional energy in worry, neurotic guilt, or other negative feelings or we let go of trying to change the unchangeable. If we give any particular issue in our lives the power to make us suffer, then we will always be a victim in life. One area where a lot of us get stuck is an imbalance of dwelling in the past. For some of us, the past becomes more important than living right now. Letting go does not mean to forget. It simply means that we no longer devote so much emotional energy to it so we have more freedom to enjoy what is happening in our life in the present.
I realize that a lot of this may seem esoteric or lofty. It is one thing to talk in terms of "letting go" or "non-attachment" and it is another to actually put these ideas into practice. For me, it took many years of cumulative life experiences to teach me not only how to take action to regain my mental health but also why it was so important to do so. We only have so much time and emotional energy and if we live a life of unawareness, we may get caught in the never ending cycle of reacting to life’s circumstances. The alternative to reacting is to make a conscious decision to channel our energy towards mental wellness. Be selective about how and when you use your emotional energy and you may find that the world opens up to you with greater opportunities. Happiness can be experienced in the peace of mind one achieves when life is more in balance and harmonious. Defined in this way, happiness no longer seems so elusive a concept.
We would like to hear your thoughts. Do you feel that such a philosophy can improve one’s mental health? How have you used non-attachment in your life? Or do you feel that these are nice ideas on paper but not so applicable to real life? We want to know what you think. Your voice is important here so let it be heard