In a world that often glorifies and encourages emotional attachment and investment, detachment may seem counterintuitive. The Oxford Dictionary describes detachment as “the state of being objective or aloof.” This attitude may be misinterpreted as unsympathetic, distant, impersonal, or uncaring. Paradoxically, it encompasses a deep understanding of the nature of existence and compassion. To understand detachment, we must first understand what attachment is and how it works to cause suffering and bondage in our lives.
What is Attachment?
Attachment exists when we feel the need to possess because we do not realize that everything we seek is within us. Ordinarily, we form strong attachments to material possessions, false identities, relationships, emotions, and specific expectations or outcomes. These attachments may give us what is ultimately a false sense of fulfillment and an unhealthy dependency on external sources. Whatever short-lived happiness we attain from fulfilling these desires soon fades away. It leads to bondage, and we slowly become enslaved to the desires and expectations that rule our lives, like a never-ending vicious cycle. This creates an insatiable number of desires and expectations that, if unfulfilled, cause suffering. All this is a result of countless eons of unconscious conditioning, both on an individual and collective level. Attachment is a major obstacle in achieving a peaceful and fulfilled life; it causes continuous restlessness and worry, and the cycle is continuous and endless.
The Concept of Detachment and How to Cultivate it
In many ancient philosophies, particularly from Asia, detachment has been described as the key to freedom. Vedanta philosophy comes from the Vedas, a large body of religious texts from the Indian subcontinent. There is no academic consensus on when they came into existence, but most historians believe they were committed to writing between c. 1500 and c.150 BCE. The concept of detachment, or vairagya in Sanskrit, has been expounded in various Vedantic texts, including Tattva Boddha, and even in later yogic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The Yoga Sutras describe detachment as “the consciousness of having overcome one’s desires.” Detachment comes from recognizing the transitoriness of the objects of our desires and the accompanying emotions and sensations that often lead to pain and suffering. When we learn to recognize the intrinsic value of objects while simultaneously contemplating on and clarifying what is important to us, detachment dawns. Detachment does not mean indifference; rather, it means cultivating an attitude of objectivity and neutrality by avoiding projecting our own ideas onto situations, relationships, or outcomes. By cultivating this lack of self-motive, we can do things because they are the right thing to do, not because we crave the results.
However, do not be mistaken. Detachment does not mean inaction. Neither does it mean that we should not strive for evolution in our lives, whether that be professional or personal. Instead, it is a shift in attitude that comes from understanding ourselves and the world while simultaneously letting go of grasping onto what we think we need to be happy and fulfilled.
In the Mundaka Upanishad, a philosophical treatise from the Atharva Veda, a story of two birds perched on a tree is told; “Two birds living together, each the friend of the other, perch upon the same tree. Of these two, one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, but the other simply looks on without eating.” This is the story of two birds on the Tree of Life, which represents the individual body or the entire creation. The one bird eating the sweet fruits represents attachment to and involvement in worldly desires. On the contrary, the other bird, looking on as a mere witness, represents detachment. When we cultivate this attitude, we see things as they truly are as we are not engrossed in the play of our minds and the drama of the world, which distracts us and blinds us from things as they are.
What Does it Mean to Be Free?
In our post-modern society, freedom ordinarily means fulfilling all of our desires, whether material, professional, or emotional. It means doing whatever we please, whenever we please, with little regard for consequences. A well-known quote by Elanor Roosevelt says, “With freedom comes responsibility.” What does it mean to be really free?
Absolute freedom comes when we realize that seeking happiness or fulfillment from outside sources is unnecessary. Once we understand and experience that our mundane desires are transitory and do not lead to lasting peace, we can free ourselves from the fetters of attachment and expectation.
Detachment means letting go of strong desires and expectations and accepting things as they are. It means resilience, forbearance, and compassionate understanding. When we detach ourselves from particular outcomes, we open ourselves up to the possibilities in the present moment. In the Bhagavad Gita, in a conversation between the Lord incarnate, Krishna and his disciple Arjuna on the battlefield of dharma, (dharma can be understood as our utmost duty in life. I understand this to mean our duty to facilitate the unfoldment of our authentic selves), Krishna says that “Better than meditation is renunciation of the fruits of actions, for peace immediately follows such renunciation.”
The Symbolism of the Lotus
Our desires, emotions, and expectations usually turn foul and often cause suffering and regret. Unfulfilled desires lead to emotions such as anger, frustration, and sadness. In Eastern philosophies, the lotus holds a symbolic metaphor for attachment and purity. Lotus flowers usually grow in muddy waters where their roots are submerged. Nonetheless, the lotus flower emerges unsullied from the muddy waters. This quality of nonattachment bestows us with a heightened perspective of life.
Detachment is the key to experiencing and achieving inner freedom and inner peace. Peace results from detachment, and peace is the highest manifestation of freedom. By cultivating contentment through understanding the nature of existence and accepting it as it pertains to our own lives, we can free ourselves from unnecessary and attain a state of fulfillment and peace.
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