The real meaning of Buddhist detachment & why most of us get it wrong

Buddhist monk meditating, Buddhist beliefs

If you’ve ever read any Buddhist texts, then you’ve probably heard about detachment or letting go. It’s a powerful concept, but a lot of people tend to misunderstand it.

While some people think it’s negative, non-attachment actually provides several benefits to everyone.

To understand the true meaning, we’ve found a great chapter from mindfulness expert Osho that explains in detail what detachment really means.

We’ve summarized his excellent teachings below.

What detachment really means

The oxford dictionary defines detachment as a “state of being objective or aloof”.

Osho says that being objective is considered powerful in practicing detachment, however being aloof is not terribly useful.

When you become emotionally aloof, you are disconnected from your feelings. You’re not really engaging in life.

However, the true detachment that’s inspired by Zen Buddhism means deep involvement in life – because there is a lack of attachment to the outcome.

As the spiritual author, Ron W. Rathbun wrote, “True detachment isn’t a separation from life but the absolute freedom within your mind to explore living.”

Here Osho explains how to know if you’re experiencing true detachment or indifference:

“It is not difficult to know. How do you know when you have a headache and how do you know when you don’t have a headache? It is simply clear.

“When you are growing in detachment you will become healthier, happier; your life will become a life of joy. That is the criterion of all that is good. Joy is the criterion. If you are growing in joy, you are growing, and you are getting towards home….If you are moving into detachment, love will grow, joy will grow, only attachments will drop — because attachments bring misery, because attachments bring bondage, because attachments destroy your freedom.

“But if you are becoming indifferent…. Indifference is a pseudo-coin, it looks like detachment, but it only LOOKS like detachment. Nothing will be growing in it. You will simply shrink and die…

“Beware. Whenever something goes wrong there are indications in your being. Sadness is an indicator, depression is an indicator; joy, celebration is also an indicator. More songs will happen to you if you are moving towards detachment.

“You will be dancing more and you will become more loving. Remember, love is not attachment, love knows no attachment, and that which knows attachment is not love.

“That is possessiveness, domination, clinging, fear, greed — it may be a thousand and one things, but it is not love. In the name of love other things are parading, in the name of love other things are hiding behind, but on the container the label ‘love’ is stuck. Inside you will find many sorts of things but not love at all.”

How can you tell if you’re attached?

Osho says that when you are attached to an object, a goal, a dream, or another person, there are feelings that tell you “If I don’t have that, I won’t be whole.”

These can be feelings like anxiety, fear, anger, jealously, hopelessness, sadness, disconnection, pride, or vanity.

Why do we attach?

A common misconception about happiness is that if you obtain all the things you desire, you will be happy. However, the reality is the opposite, according to Osho.

In order to acquire something, you have to relinquish your attachment to having it.

When you recognize that the only genuine source of security is living as your true self, you can more easily detach.

How we attach in everyday life

Now it’s all well and good to read about what attachment means, but what does attachment look like in everyday life?

Attachment is connected to the ego. The ego is a construct of yourself that you’ve built through years of conditioning. It is who you believe yourself to be, and it is also what separates yourself from all other things or people.

When you’re attached to your ego, you’re attached to how you see yourself to be.

So when reality doesn’t match up to that image, your attachment causes you pain.

For example:

– When you’re unable to reach your personal goals at work that you’ve set for yourself, you question the abilities you thought you had.

– When you find out your partner has cheated on you, your idea of what your future family was going to look like is shattered.

Attachment in life is a lot like expectations. When your life doesn’t live up to the expectations, you feel pain.

6 steps to detach and let go

It’s important to remember that detachment is a state of mind, and that you’ll always be threatened by attachment. As a human, it’s natural.

But the detached mindset is one that realizes the importance of living with the natural flow of things and respecting the impermanence of all life.

There are many ways to go about adopting this mindset more consistently in your daily life.

Here are 6 ways:

1. Observe your mind

Try to take a step back from your mind and observe your thoughts. What are you identifying with the most? What are your conditioned thought patterns? You’ll begin to notice that the mind, or the ego, isn’t really you which will give you enormous liberation.

Recognize that when a negative emotion comes, it’s probably from attachment. Observing is the first step to change.

Here is a great passage from Eckhart Tolle on observing the mind:

“Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you. Become aware not only of the emotional pain but also of “the one who observes,” the silent watcher. This is the power of the Now, the power of your own conscious presence. Then see what happens.”

2. Distinguish between the voice of the ego and the actual situation

Your mind or your ego might tell you that not getting the job you want has ruined your career.

The actual reason is that you are disappointed over something you never had in the first place. There has been no loss.

Nothing has changed except what you perceived to be your future.

Here are some examples of what the ego might think, and what thought you can instead substitute it with:

Ego: I am a victim of circumstance.
Think instead: I create my own reality.

Ego: I am alive temporarily and that is scary.
Think instead: I am alive temporarily and that is awesome.

Ego: I am in competition with the world.
Think instead: I am in harmony with the world.

3. Embrace uncertainty

Easier said than done, but embracing the unknown actually provides security.

Embracing uncertainty leads to ultimate freedom. When nothing is certain, everything is possible.

To embrace uncertainty, what you need to realize is that you can’t control everything. In fact, in such a complex world like ours, we really have very little control.

There is only one thing we can control, and that is our attitude.

Deepak Chopra has some great words to ponder:

“Those who seek security in the exterior world chase it for a lifetime. By letting go of your attachment to the illusion of security, which is really an attachment to the known, you step into the field of all possibilities. This is where you will find true happiness, abundance, and fulfillment.”

4. Meditate

Meditation is a fantastic practice to take a step back from your mind and observe what’s going on.

Our mind is conditioned to desire and get unhappy when things don’t go our way. You’ll be to observe your mind and take an objective view of the reality of what’s really happening.

If you’re looking to start a meditation practice, it’s easiest to use breathing exercises to get yourself going.

A technique I’m going to share now is called “equal breathing”. There are other breathing techniques you can try, but this is probably the easiest, to begin with.

How it’s done:

To do this breathing technique, firstly inhale through the nose to a count of 4, then exhale from the nose for a count of 4.

If you’re the type who likes to improve at something constantly, then over time you can increase the number seconds you inhale and exhale for. Just make sure it’s equal.

Yogis generally do 6-8 counts per breath. This will help to calm the nervous system and reduce stress.

Remember, the main goal of this technique is to equalize your breathing.

As you become more experienced, you’ll feel more comfortable increasing your inhales and exhales, which will make you even more relaxed.

5. Try to live more in the present moment

There’s only one thing that exists: the present moment.

Yet so many of us spend our days lost in the regrets of the past or worries about the future.

“Focus on opportunities not setbacks. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. Focus on the present moment, not the past or the future. Empower yourself!” ― Akiroq Brost

This is where mindfulness can come in to help live in the present moment. In the book Mindfulness for Creativity, Danny Penman says that mindfulness practices can help you be more open to new ideas, can improve attention, and nurtures courage and resilience in the face of setbacks.

Furthermore, living in the present moment inherently stops you from feeling an attachment to ideas and how things “should be”.

If you followed the above steps and you understand what you want to do with your life, then it’s important to take practical action to make that a reality.

Here are some tips to take meaningful action in the present moment:

  1. Focus only on single tasks, no matter how small it is.
  2. Do your tasks at a slow, relaxed pace. Take it in and enjoy it.
  3. Minimize checking things like Facebook. They’re distractions that take you away from the task you’re doing.
  4. Tell yourself: Now I am…As you do something, simply tell yourself what you’re doing. If you’re brushing your teeth, tell yourself that and only do that.
  5. Start a meditation practice. This is a great way to learn to calm your mind and improve your focus. You’ll find that you’re more productive when your mind is clear and you know what you need to do.

6. Don’t beat yourself up

When you experience negative emotions, don’t get upset with your life. Embrace all the facets of life and be thankful that you’re actually aware of what you’re feeling.

We only get life once – so bask in life in all possible ways – the good, the bad, the bitter-sweet, the heartbreak – everything!

Osho explains why embracing our emotions is so important:

“Sadness gives depth. Happiness gives height. Sadness gives roots. Happiness gives branches. Happiness is like a tree going into the sky, and sadness is like the roots going down into the womb of the earth. Both are needed, and the higher a tree goes, the deeper it goes, simultaneously. The bigger the tree, the bigger will be its roots. In fact, it is always in proportion. That’s its balance.”

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Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 15 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. Check out my latest book on the Hidden Secrets of Buddhism and How it Saved My Life. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

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