What is Nonattachment?
How letting go of control can set you free.
Posted Jun 12, 2019
What is Nonattachment?
Have you ever spent time in anguish over not getting a job, fixated on an upcoming decision, avoided coming to terms with the fact you’re getting older, or worried that you're not as successful as you should be? In Buddhism, all of these things can be considered attachments. Attachments are our fixated attempts to control our experience, usually through clinging to what we perceive as desirable or aversion to what we perceive as undesirable. The problem is, life usually has its own way of unfolding, quite separate from our attempts to control it, no matter how intense or well-intentioned. Nonattachment, therefore, is what occurs when we can let go of the need to be in dogged control of what is occurring and can reduce our demands on the present moment to be any way in particular.
Far from being a detached state, nonattachment is something which arises when we are truly present and not caught up in the automatic process of fixating on things being better or worse than what they are at any given moment. Nonattachment is aligned with psychological maturity and insight into the ever-changing nature of experience and the futility of trying to control it. Nonattachment is not a passive or apathetic quality, it does not require the renunciation of life or moving to a cave in the Himalayas. Rather, nonattachment involves doing whatever would normally drive you, just without fixation and the accompanied rumination and worry about getting everything right, or adhering to the societal- or self-imposed expectations about what your life should be like.
Our attachments and our disease with the present moment are so ubiquitous, that almost all self-focused thinking involves wanting things to be better, or worrying about things that have happened or will happen. Rarely are they focused on the appreciation of the present moment. For example, we might worry about what we may have said to someone and what they might think about us, thinking things like “what did I say” or “I hope they didn’t think…” These thoughts are often automatic and can bring up feelings associated with the worst possible scenario e.g., “perhaps they thought I didn’t like them...” or “they must think I’m so boring." Although these thoughts and feelings naturally arise, it is our choice to engage with them that can be avoided. This propensity to ruminate and worry about something that has already happened, or when imagining something that may happen, can underlie poor mental health and prevent us from living with a lightness, and sense of ease and flow. Imagine the freedom involved with letting go of your demands on needing your experience to be any way in particular.
Research on nonattachment
In 2010, Sahdra, Shaver, & Brown (2010) created the nonattachment scale to capture the quality of nonattachment and investigate how it relates to other aspects of life. Since then, there has been a growing amount of research in the field of nonattachment, which has found that reducing fixation on the need for experience to be one way or other is extremely healthy. Not only is it related to reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress (Sahdra et al., 2010), it has shown to relate to increased prosocial behaviors such as empathy and kindness (Sahdra et al., 2015) as well as advanced psychological development outcomes of wisdom and self-actualization (Whitehead et al., 2018). Numerous studies have also shown it to be a more important quality than mindfulness when explaining positive psychological outcomes (e.g., Lamis & Dvorak, 2014).
So how do you let go and be more nonattached?
This is an interesting question. Within the Eastern contemplative traditions, the path to building nonattachment involves meditation or monastic life, and research shows nonattachment is stronger in those that meditate. However, recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing individuals that scored very high (and very low) on nonattachment (see Whitehead et al., 2019) and asked them how they had developed and integrated nonattachment in their life. Interestingly, the most common theme was the way they worked through their most difficult moments in life. Almost all of these individuals had moments of intense suffering which had become a catalyst for them to live a different way. They were able to draw strength from these experiences and realize the futility of living a life burdened by everything they could not change. Most were also able to integrate some form of self-reflective practice, such as psychotherapy or meditation that assisted them in their path towards letting go.
I know it is not the easiest thing to let go of your demands on experience. Most of our attachments are automatic, have been around a long time and are there because we feel that letting go of them will result in some sort of apathetic quagmire or spiraling loss of control. However, when we can let go of our need for experience to be one way or other, we don’t cease to make decisions. What occurs is a freedom and a lightness where life unfolds without obstruction, allowing us to be more present, be there for others, take opportunities when they arise and to move on from unhelpful experiences without getting unduly stuck.
Test it for yourself. Remember, life will unfold in its own way whether you try to control it or not.
Lamis, D. A. & Dvorak, R. D. (2013). Mindfulness, nonattachment, and suicide rumination in college students: the mediating role of depressive symptoms. Mindfulness, 5, 5, 487-496.
Sahdra, B., Shaver, P., & Brown, K. (2010) A scale to measure nonattachment: a Buddhist complement to Western research on attachment and adaptive functioning. Journal of Personality Assessment, 92, 2, 116-127.
Sahdra, B., Ciarrochi, J., Parker, P, Marshall, S., & Heaven, P. (2015). Empathy and nonattachment independently predict peer nominations of prosocial behaviour of adolescents. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 263, 1-12.
Whitehead, R., Bates, G., Elphinstone, B. (2019). Growing by letting go: Nonattachment and mindfulness as qualities of advanced psychological development. Journal of Adult Development, 1 -11.
Whitehead, R., Bates, G., & Elphinstone, B. (2019). Stories of suffering and growth: A qualitative investigation of nonattachment. Contemporary Buddhism, 19, 2, 448-475.