Non-Attachment vs. Detachment

At dinner on Sunday night I had a short discussion with a long-time friend about the phrases detachment vs. non-attachment. I don’t remember the specific thing that brought it up, but I stated that I was much more interested in non-attachment in how I react to things. We bounced around words a little and then went back to our Mexican food and the broader conversation with the other people at the table.

I’d been playing around with a framework with my therapist for the concept of attachment, especially around stress and anxiety, and trying to figure out a metaphor around it. I had a long discussion on a car ride to Shambhala Mountain Center with Jerry Colonna about it where he helped me clarify some of the edges of my thinking.

Use the universe as the background for the metaphor.

Attachment is like the activity around a black hole. You are constantly fighting against getting sucked into it. All of your energy is focused on not ending up in the black hole.

Detachment is like being in no gravity. You are just drifting. Nothing exerts any force on you in any direction.

Non-attachment is like being in a swirling galaxy. There is stuff going on everywhere. You interact with it. But none of it pulls on you excessively. You are involved and impact some of it but a lot of it is exogenous to you.

There are many situations that arise that cause me to feel like I’m fighting against being sucked into a black hole. I used to react to these situations as they used to cause immense stress or anxiety, which are different but related things for me. While I have gotten much better at this over the years, one of my motivations for starting to meditate was to try to be more mindful, especially around the anxiety (note – Headspace has a great 30 day meditation routine specifically on anxiety.)

Detachment for me is linked to my struggles with depression. When I’m depressed, I’m completely detached. It’s an extremely uncomfortable feeling for me. I’ve very functional, like I am when I’m non-attached, but nothing about it feels good.

While many people suggest that detachment is the right approach to stress and anxiety, and others feel that it’s the path to enlightenment, it doesn’t work in my case. Now, I’m defining the phrase, so for some detachment might be an awesome way to deal with things, but for me it falls in the category of “indifference” and “disengagement” which I apply to things I don’t care about, but doesn’t work for things I am engaged, interested, or involved in.

Non-attachment ends up being the right word (at least in this framework) for what I’m looking for. I realize that some people view non-attachment as a synonym for detachment, but I like the use of the word, and the notion of “actively non-attaching” to things.

When I apply this filter to a stressful or anxiety-producing situation, where I know that I have to engage with it, but am “non-attached” to it, I’ve found a calm focus comes over me. And that calmness can sustain over a long period of time, even in the face of incredible stress. Like putting your head in the mouth of the demon, it makes the black holes disappear for me.