Non-Attachment: Hard Work, but Worthwhile

Non-attachment seems to be against everything we’ve learned: ambition, competition, beating out the slower contenders, winning, success, and “we’re #1!”

The eclipse on the 14th was so important to me, but I was in a place with cloud cover. Instead, I made this collage, which helps me imagine it.

The eclipse on the 14th was so important to me, but I was in a place with cloud cover. Instead, I made this collage, which helps me imagine it.

Non-attachment sounds lazy, uncaring, and weird. It’s anything but. Non-attachment does not mean you don’t care, won’t try, or give up. Non-attachment means you care deeply, do your best, and then don’t expect the world to throw money (or fame) at you.  A few examples will help with clarity:

You are in line for a new job. You are asked to take some good-fit behavioral tests. Attachment to outcome move: Instead of answering honestly, you suss out what the company is looking for and answer that way. Outcome: you get the job and are miserable, because the job fit is awful and you have to keep re-programming your authentic self.

Non-attachment to outcome move: You answer honestly. If you get the job, you can behave authentically and be appreciated for your skills. If you don’t get the job, you can be glad that you didn’t waste time trying to force yourself into a bad fit.

You want your creative work accepted into an upcoming gallery show.  Attachment to outcome move: You interview the gallery curator to discover what the show is about. Not exactly your favorite topic or medium, but you are an artist and can do anything.  Outcome: You work very hard and very long to get that theme into a piece of work. You are not chosen. You begin to doubt yourself as an artist. You also start to make snarky comments about the gallery owner.

Non-attachment to outcome move: You interview the gallery curator to discover what the show is about. Not exactly your favorite topic or medium. You thank the curator and ask to be kept on their list for future shows. You have free time to pursue your own creative work and have a piece ready for another show at another time.

Someone you know on Facebook posts her latest (in a long series) humble-brag. You call her on that s**t, because you know the truth behind that story. And you tell her what she should have done to earn real praise. Outcome: you look like you are trying to control the universe (again). Worse, your FB friend feels embarrassed, takes your advice next time and it ends in disaster. She blames you.

Non-attachment to outcome move: You take a deep breath, roll your eyes, and congratulate her.

Non-attachment frees you from the responsibility, outcome and control over work that is not yours to do. It allow you to do your best work without blaming yourself if you don’t win the prize. It allows you more emotional room and freedom.

Non-attachment is hard to learn. If you work in a corporate situation (or ever did), it is harder. But the freedom feels wonderful, and is something worth practicing.

–Quinn McDonald wishes she could hit the stride of non-attachment more often.

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15 thoughts on “Non-Attachment: Hard Work, but Worthwhile

  1. I finally identified what this post reminded me of.

    “Free your mind of the idea of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.”
    -Ursula Le Guin in (I think) The Dispossessed

      • Le Guin’s books, for me, are a weird mix of virtuoso writing and frequently allegory that generally puts me off a little. It’s “science fiction” because the plots are set on other planets, but awfully light on the “science” part — if you’re going to write science fiction, you should calculate plausible orbits for your planets :-). But OMG can she write.

  2. Glad I peeked in today. I struggle with finding a healthy balance between the spiritual philosophies of “following your bliss” and “turning it all over to a Higher Power (detachment)”. As I attempt to finally make a living that is much more creative & spiritual, I find myself being impatient and when I take time to look at it, the root is attachment to others approval so I can finally, at this mid stage of life, have something to “show”. The only thing that saves me is taking time out to reflect and listen, really listen to the signs of the Universe and realign my impatience & desires. Thanks for being one of the many signs of detacment I have been getting lately.

  3. What has been has been taught to me is to let things go but really to stop yourself from resting on your laurels when helping others and to move on to more helping of others. This also applies to creativity and basically holding on to negative thoughts and actions of others and yourself, which you gave great examples of. For some reasons, I feel I had to try to explain it in more detail and actually feel I am going over my head in doing so, but I hope to explain where I am coming from, which is a lapsed- Buddhist perspective. Wow… way to much writing so sorry about this. Have never written this long of a comment!

  4. Awesome. Non-Attachment is a big “deal” in Buddhism and its one of the hardest ones to practice. You hit the heart of the practice. Great explanations of how to practice it.

  5. I think another word for it is “compartmentalizing.” Men do it better, but I’ve learned in the past several years to do it too. At first it felt like I was closing myself off from emotion, but they I realized, like you said, that it wasn’t that at all. It’s just allowing me to take a step back and decide what’s important to focus on at the moment and in the long-term. It’s taking a deep breath, thinking, and acting, not reacting. Looking at short-term versus long-term. Looking at the microcosm versus the big picture. It’s a hard skill to learn and getting good at it takes practice and awareness. But it can be applied to nearly every aspect of your life. Sure, you can allow spontaneity and impulsiveness in…you just can’t let them rule you.

  6. Is detachment about fine-tuning your desires to more suitable jobs, galleries, and — well I don’t know what that third one is about — or is it about turning aside from desire itself?

    • Desire is fine, but when we get hooked by our own ego to control everything around us–people’s opinions, actions, choices–with our own desires and outcomes, well, then we are too attached to our own needs. Attachment is a part of perfectionism and part control, in which, if we don’t get our every need satisfied in the way we want, we feel anger and disappointment.

      • I’m not sure you can go from desire being fine to detachment. It all comes from desire, and I wonder if it’s not about deciding what you should and should not desire, but going deeper to address desire itself and deciding that maybe it’s not fine at all, but the cause of all anger and disappointment, and of the mirror images of those — which may also be, in reflection, the same thing.

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