How do I detach myself from superficial objects and circumstances?

Starting on the path of non-attachment.

05 March 2020

A young woman with her arms spread looking at an ocean during a sunset

Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering - The Dalai Lama

Dear Maddi,

I am constantly checking my Instagram or spending money to make myself feel better. How can I detach myself from superficial objects/circumstances?

—Attached Andy

Dear Andy,

You are not alone. For thousands of years human beings have been working towards non-attachment, a central tenet to Buddhism. There are practical applications you can use from Buddhism’s teachings. Non-attachment teaches that pain and distress do not come from change itself, but from our attachment to the events/objects/circumstances that are changing.

How many times have you reasoned with yourself by saying “when ‘__’ happens, then I’ll be happy.” Reasoning like this can sometimes be helpful as it instills hope and motivation, but what’s problematic is the expectation that it will make us happy. There is a high cost to this type of happiness. We might reach our goal, but only cherish it for a short period of time. Then we want more. So what can we do if our lifestyle fosters a sense of “not enough?”  We can practice non-attachment.

Non-attachment does not mean giving up your identity or living a life of indifference. It does not mean never having a goal or desires again. Non-attachment means letting go of our loyalty to a particular desire/outcome that we tell ourselves will make us happy. 

This path is not easy nor straightforward, but it is possible. Non-attachment can provide a sense of peace, more emotional stability, a greater sense of control and can build empathy. 

Here’s where to start:

Get in the Zone

Prepare yourself by learning relaxation and energy releasing techniques. Exercise and athletics can release endorphins, quell anxiety, and provide time for meditative reflection. Deep breathing techniques and meditation can also be a great way to reduce stress and anxiety. You can try apps like Headspace to help.

List your Values and Ask Yourself Why

Focus on living by your values rather than outcomes.  Outcome-based goals might look like “I want to become a software engineer and work at Facebook so I can make $300,000k a year.” A value-based goal might be “I want a career that keeps me engaged and motivated to continue to learn, while financially supporting me to meet my needs.” The specifics loosen in the value-based goal, which allows for flexibility and more possibilities. This makes it easier to accept outcomes when things don’t go as planned and to move on quicker.

If you’re unsure what you value, check out this article on Ways to Discover and Choose Your Core Values.

Focus on the Present

When you are attached to wants, your mind is living in the future. This can lead to feelings of anxiety and dissatisfaction. Staying present allows you to listen to what you and your body need in the moment. 

Wondering what you can do for your contentment and happiness right now? Try a mindfulness exercise today

Be Flexible

Thought I was going to talk about yoga, didn’t you? Being flexible means not getting too caught up in the hows. Of course, as students, everything is about the how. How to get good grades, how to hack your way through life, but it is also important to learn to be open to opportunities as they arise, and learn from the process and the experience of being a student. And yes, also yoga. Counselling and Clinical Services offers FREE weekly yoga and mindfulness classes on Mondays and Thursdays: Yoga for Peace of Mind and Yoga for Mental Hygiene. 

Learn to Accept Uncertainty

The more we crave certainty, the more rigid our outlook on life can be. We can become overly attached to how we want things to unfold and feel anxious when life doesn’t go as planned. Try replacing rigid beliefs with more realistic and compassionate ones. Remember that you have experienced uncertainty before and you made it through. Take time to reflect on what helped you before and practice some of those ideas. When we stop fearing the unknown, we can start to appreciate possibilities.

Stay Curious

View life as the ultimate teacher. Everything that is happening to you is a chance to learn and grow. Ask yourself, “what is this trying to teach me?” instead of focusing on the negative. This helps you stay resilient in the face of adversity and creates moments of happiness in tough times.

Practice Acceptance

The final piece of the puzzle. Practice accepting people, things and events just as they are, without wanting to fix, change or judge anything. Part of the path of non-attachment is practicing patience, trust and faith in yourself and others. 

If you want to learn more, there are many great books, podcasts and articles on non-attachment, but the real power is in the experience of it. The hope in practicing non-attachment is not to become more like someone else, but to become a more content and intentional version of yourself. There is no one else better to be.   

Written by Rachel Greenley, University of Alberta Counselling and Clinical Services Mental Health Consultant.

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