Various readings tell us that spiritual maturity includes striving for an attitude of non-attachment. What does this mean?
Well, someone who is attached to a particular outcome has his hopes set on that situation turning out a certain way. He wants to be sure he gets the new job he wants. She wants to be sure it doesn’t rain on the big picnic she has planned for the weekend. They want to be sure their political candidate wins the election. Obviously, on issues overwhich we have little or no control,
attaching ourselves to a particular outcome only leaves us open to massive disappointment and makes little sense. In the worst cases, it may lead a person to want their desired outcome so badly they will lie or do unethical things to try to control the situation. This is especially notable on the United States political scene today. But how can we find a way to avoid this very human tendency to want, or in the worst cases try to force, things to go our way?
Here I want to distinguish between some important terms.
Let’s suppose someone close to you, for example your brother, is having a very serious operation—let’s say coronary bypass surgery. You feel very sure it is important that your brother recover completely from the procedure and return to being the same old brother you have always known. You go to visit, you worry. You feel nervous before the procedure and can hardly sit still during the hours it is going on. You hope, you pray that the surgery will be a success. This is a pretty normal way to react. But this is you having attachment to a successful outcome.
Now lets consider a different response: let’s say you are already under a lot of stress from other issues in your life and you cannot spare any energy at all to deal with your brother’s surgery. You don’t call, you don’t visit. You don’t pray for a good outcome. Instead you go about your everyday business and pretend entirely that your brother’s surgery is not happening. This is detachment – it is NOT healthy.
In both scenarios above, the person is not dealing effectively with reality. The detached person is avoiding dealing with the situation altogether. She is avoiding showing her brother that she cares. But, in not having made any psychological preparations to deal with a poor outcome, she is also setting herself up for major psychological pain if the surgery does not go well. Clearly, detachment is not a healthy way of handling reality.
But the attached person is doing only slightly better in dealing with reality. What if, despite all the prayers and all the hand holding, the brother dies? What if the brother winds up incapacitated in some way? Does the attached person have any way of reframing the situation in her mind to avoid massive disappointment? We can see that attaching ourselves to a particular outcome is not the healthiest response either.
So how does a spiritual person avoid attachment in a healthy way? Well, the healthy alternative to attachment is not detachment, but rather acceptance. And the word acceptance allows us to distinguish between the unhealthy detachment in the scenario above, and the healthy attitude of non-attachment that spiritual masters recognize as a goal.
In acceptance you acknowledge that you fervently hope your brother recovers BUT you also recognize the many ways in which you do not have control over the outcome. You may still pray for his recovery, you may still look forward to having your same old brother back after the surgery. In short, you may STILL CARE.
But the difference between attachment and acceptance (or non-attachment) comes with the realization that you do not have control over the situation and may not know all the factors. Perhaps your brother will have a very long struggle for his life and recover only after many months. It may be that he needed that time out from his regular life to reconsider some issues. Perhaps he will not recover at all and instead some of his organs will be donated to various people who still had a mission to fulfill in their life.
The point is, in acceptance a person realizes that their highest spiritual position is not to specify THEIR desired outcome in any given situation. Even if your brother does not recover, even if he dies in surgery, if you can recognize that at some level some good may have been served, then that is acceptance. That is what the spiritual masters mean by the term non-attachment Rather than rant and rail against the god that “chose” to let your brother die, in acceptance (or non-attachment) you can say “Thy will be done.”