Not Attached, But Not Cut Off

"The basic sources of happiness are a good heart, compassion, and love. If we have these, even if we are surrounded by hostility, we will feel little disturbance."

The Dalai Lama

One of the tricky things about Eastern thought, especially Taoist and Buddhist thought, is the way they deal with the absence of things or actions. We hear about entering the void, no-mind, doing through not doing, non-attachment, non-duality, and so on.

This has given rise to a number of jokes, such as:

How many Zen monks does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Answer: Two. One to screw in the lightbulb, and one not to screw in the lightbulb.
It has also given some people the impression that these are nihilistic philosophies. This is not the case. The truth is that we humans have an easier time describing the concrete, the active, the observable, and have difficulty describing the nature of that which is immaterial, not active, or not observable. Sometime the best we can do is say what something is not.

The idea of attachment and its opposite have been a source of confusion for some. We often hear people say they would like to achieve greater "detachment." This is a worrisome word. It seems to be the opposite of attachment. We wish to avoid attachment, because craving is a cause of suffering. If attachment leads to suffering, then detachment must be part of the answer to suffering. But wait. Detachment has the connotation of being cut off. When you detach something you take it apart. The Buddha never preached that we should cut ourselves off from the world. He didn't teach pulling things apart. On the contrary, the Buddha taught that we are inextricably part of everything else. The illusion of separation is part of the problem.

Instead of being detached, we should seek a state of non-attachment. This is subtly different. Non-attachment is not being stuck to things. It means we are not lost in craving and aversion. We can see the impermanence of everything around us and not be overwhelmed by our desire for it to be otherwise.

When we are non-attached we can rightly be engaged in life, we just aren't rocked by disappointment or compelled by our cravings. The person who is engaged in life and practices non-attachment understands that unsatisfactoriness is inherent in human existence and chooses to focus on the means for overcoming suffering. Without being entangled in our attachments we can still be connected to our families and friends. We can work for peace, protect the planet, and support our communities, and when doing so in a non-attached frame of mind we need not be carried off course by our fears and disappointments.


Sit quietly for several minutes observing the in and out flow of your breath. After you have settled down and quieted your mind a bit, shift your attention to noticing the qualities of your thoughts as they arise and fall away. Try to observe your flow of thought without attaching to the thoughts. Seek to avoid following the thoughts, but watch them as you would the clouds in a blue sky. The clouds drift by and you have no need to guide their course or try to keep them or make them go away. Thoughts drift by and you have no need to grasp at them or force them to stop or go away. Notice, as you sit, when you are having a thought of craving or aversion. Notice when a thought you have is a desire or when it is a fear. You may notice a desire to do something other than sitting and meditating. Take note of the desire. You may notice a thought about something you wish to avoid. Take note of the aversion. Notice that while sitting quietly all you really need to do is to sit quietly, but the mind pushes and pulls with thoughts of aversion and craving. Notice that while you are sitting calmly, mindfully like this you are able to choose not to respond to these thoughts. You can watch them and not attach importance to them or attach behavior to them. You do not need to approach every desire. You do not need to flee from every fear. Practice noticing when thoughts and impulses arise from your wisdom heart and when they arise from attachment.

Nihilism: A doctrine that nothing exists, is knowable, or can be communicated.

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© 2002 Tom Barrett