Letting Go and Non-Attachment

Sylvia Clare

These two teachings the cornerstone of good mental health

Almost all images of the Buddha are a depiction of serenity (there are some when he is laughing a full belly laugh). Never are there any images of his face looking sad or dejected. This is the point of the Buddhas teachings, that life is to be enjoyed and for us to find happiness within our own self, our own mind and emotions.

One of the key teachings involved in this process is non-attachment. It is the one I struggle with the most and forget often, especially when I see someone suffering. I have to remind myself again and again that this is their journey and I cannot ‘save’ them. I am programmed to rescue by my childhood and also have a kind nature so put the two together and I am one of the worlds champion rescuers.

Recently I have had to step right back because I was in so much distress at the suffering of my 96 year old mother in law, yet she puts a brave face on it. Both my husband and I have had to accept we cannot fix it for her and have had to let it go. We are both rescuers in our own right and we need to limit ourselves to each other and ourselves.

This is not selfishn two teachingsess. This is self-care or self-compassion and that is just good common sense. Of course we can do what we need and are able to do for her but we cannot fix her decline and neither can we put her out of her suffering as one would a pet perhaps. This isn’t about ‘not caring’, it is about not getting wound up or upset about it all. It is taking the self out of the story and learning to just be there for her instead.

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My problem is that I read people’s energy more than I trust their spoken declarations, which are more often what they think you want to hear and not how they really feel. I can feel her deep fear and distress, her suffering and her pain, every time I come into the room with her, even though she is putting a brave face on it all.

I have to accept that this is her journey, her challenge in life, her end of life experience. All too soon I shall have mine coming and I have made preparations for that already with a living will. I am not afraid of death but she is. Much of her suffering is attachment to life, and fear of death. I am also aware of the demands she is placing on myself and her son, my husband, (we don’t mind) but I am clear I do not want to do the same to my sons ever.

Her distress is her fear of letting go of life pitted against the pain of her existence nowadays, and I can feel it loud and clear. It is her attachment to life that is making it so hard for her.

Now let me make this clear. Attachment does not mean not caring. It means caring deeply but also looking at things as they are.

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Death is an intrinsic part of living, and no one can escape it. It is what frames the experience of life, non existence before death in a conscious form as ‘us’ and then a return to that state. It’s normal and natural and part of what is real beyond almost everything else.

I have explored that attachment in depth and am not afraid of it but almost excited about the prospect that when I have finished whatever I am here for I can finally go to sleep and be at peace, knowing my body will rot down and release all the elements needed for new growth elsewhere.

I am not in a hurry, I love my life and my family deeply, but they all know how I feel about my own future demise and respect that. I am non attached to life but happy to live in it moment by moment until my time comes. Specifically, I do not want medical treatment to keep me going. In the past nature ended the suffering of old age pain through pneumonia and other conditions which allowed people to slip away painlessly.

Nowadays we expect people to cling to life, pump them full of medications and antibiotics, and urge them to keep going because people are afraid of facing life without them, all based on unexamined fear and attachment. It is a selfishness that stops them being allowed to slip away in peace.

I recall clearly my grandmother in her eighties, when she had almost stopped eating and going out. I had gone to visit her in her flat with my mother who immediately started bullying her to eat and look after herself. She just said ‘I’m tired Lorna and I’ve had enough’. My mother immediately started shouting and bullying her and reprimanding her for being so selfish. I stepped in and said I understood how she felt and we should respect that. Mother glared at me but stopped.

I have no doubt though that next time she saw grandma she would have resumed her tirades. She didn’t want her mother to die, didn’t want to be left an orphan and there was only fear for herself not consideration for her mother involved. Her attachment blinded her to the suffering of another. Attachment makes us clingy and selfish.

Attachment to life is a huge issue but it is also a core one for us to overcome in order to live with serenity and inner peace. What is more it allows us to live without much fear of what might happen in life. It allows us to live adventurously, compassionately and productively. It allows us to live for the greater good of all, not living as a form of avoidance of facing death.

I am at that age when we start to lose friends and family in increasing numbers. Those deaths have been hard. But what I have realised is that those I was most close to have not died inside me.

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I have socks that my dear dead friend Hilary gave me for Christmas years ago. I still wear them. They remind me of her every time I put them on. Inside my head they are Hilary’s socks. And there are many examples of each individual and the mementos of their once presence in my life. But I have let them go in as much as I am not in constant mourning for them either. I think of them, I may feel a pang of sadness, then it passes and I am back to enjoying my own life as much as I can in the present moment.

The present moment is rich and full of life as it always is. There are not huge holes where those people used to be. Life has filled them up almost immediately. Life in the present moment has non-attachment mastered but we are still reluctant to recognise it ourselves.

One of the key elements for me to overcome attachment was to recognise that nothing is permanent, that everything is in constant flux over time, whether that be slow time or fast time in our own lives, but it is all changing all the time.

This is great news.

It means that all the challenging stuff of life will go on too. And that there will always be more great stuff to follow, so we don’t need to cling or hold onto anything ever. It isn’t lonely because the present moment is so full of wonderful things happening if we just notice them, small miracles every second, each breath and each leaf unfurling in spring for instance.

I adore my sons and grandson deeply; my husband is my total soulmate. I look forward to being with them all the time but I am not bereft when I am away from them because where I am is too full of that moment for me to spoil it.

This perspective only comes after deep contemplation over time, through the practices of yoga, meditation and deep observation about these truths of life. They have also been the source of deep healing for me from my childhood trauma and enabled me to have an amazingly happy life in the present.

Non-attachment doesn’t mean that you’re completely void of emotion in regards to that around you, and you can still be sad when someone leaves but you’re more-so compassionate towards yourself and your own journey in this world. Which brings me back to being a rescuer. Letting go and caring compassionately for myself means I am more present for those I do need to care for and can care without rescuing anyone. I just have to earn to turn off the psychic energy reading sometimes, for my own sake

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I write about my lived experiences of relationships, mindfulness, spiritual experiences and aging as a feminist, woman and someone with mental health issues. Happiness in life matters more than anything but how we find happiness is often one of our greatest struggles in life. I have degrees in psychology and prefer to base my writing in verifiable data whenever possible.

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