In April of 2015, my brother and I went to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia. I’m an avid golf fan and the Masters is the premiere tournament and the only of the four majors that are played on the same course every year. For decades I had been viewing that iconic course, the Augusta National Golf Club, on television.
In 2015 I actually got to walk the course. I saw the treacherous tee shot on the par 3 12th hole, the brutal second shot down the hill on the long par 4 11th, and “the shoot” of tall pine trees that players have to drive the ball through on the 18th and final hole. I was in heaven.
Mining for Masters merchandise
One of the best benefits of attending the Masters in person is the ability to buy hats, shirts and all sorts of paraphernalia at the gift shop. It’s the only time of year and the only place where this swag can be purchased.
I bought a bunch of things, mostly to give to friends and family. One thing I bought for myself was a Masters mug. And this is where we finally come to the concept of non-attachment.
First, a CYA disclaimer. Non-attachment is a vast, profound subject that is impossible to do justice in a short article. This is my best shot.
Back to our regularly scheduled program. I treasured that mug for six years, keeping it in the freezer as my go-to glass for a nice, cold beer or my favorite post-workout drink, seltzer water with a slice of lemon. I took good care of it, always mindful of its safety as I drank from it, rinsed it and put it in the dishwasher.
My mug mishap
Then last month disaster struck. The freezer-induced, icy bottom caused my precious Masters mug to slide off the counter and smash into a zillion pieces.
How I reacted is a case study in the concept of non-attachment. The short answer is I took it well. And I’m convinced that the reason I did is because of all the spiritual work I’ve done over the past ten years.
So what is non-attachment? It’s about not becoming attached to worldly concerns. What constitutes a worldly concern? A glass mug with a Masters insignia certainly qualifies.
At its most basic, it’s about the fact that things constantly arise and pass away in life. From little things like buying a mug and six years later it shattering into oblivion to big things like we’re born, we live and then we die.
The impermanent nature of life
The Buddhists call this phenomenon impermanence. Nothing lasts forever. Things come and go. Constantly.
So the spiritual life becomes about being present for all these things that come and go. We experience them and let them go.
We coexist with and embrace this reality of the impermanent nature of life. Why? Because it IS reality.
What NOT to do
What we don’t do is experience things and events and then become attached to them. The Buddhists call it clinging and it’s what they believe is the root cause of suffering.
But you don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to realize this as truth. We regular spiritual mortals can see how clinging/attachment plays out in our own lives.
Sure, I did well with the Masters mug misfortune. And I’m good now with things like which restaurant to go to. Which movie to see. I make it a point now to not be attached to any of these things. My stock answer now is, “I’m easy. Wherever you want to eat. Whatever you want to see.”
I find it incredibly freeing. It makes me feel lighter when I don’t attach myself to things needing to be just so.
My embarrassing attachments
That said, I’m still light years away from mastering non-attachment. Here is just one of many embarrassing examples of how that is true.
Since my college, Princeton, has a lousy football team, I’ve adopted my wife’s alma mater, Louisiana State University (LSU), as the team I root for. The LSU Tigers have won three national championships in the past twenty years and are a powerhouse program. I absolutely love watching them play.
The problem is that I lose my shit when they do badly. It literally puts me in a funk. I know, embarrassing.
“It’s only a game!”
But I’m working on it. I will literally say to myself, when a big play is on the line, “Just breathe smoothly. It’s a game. Things will be how they’ll be. Let go.”
This has worked reasonably well, even through an absolutely atrocious 2021 season. But I still catch myself getting angry when some twenty-year old quarterback hangs onto the ball too long and gets sacked.
This example, silly as it is, leads to an enormously important and vexing question about attachment, and spirituality in general: Is the answer that I’m not supposed to care? About LSU football? Masters mugs? Italian or Mexican restaurant?
Shouldn’t I care about my kids?
Those are small potatoes examples of attachments. But what about bigger attachments? Like the ones I have with my three kids? Am I supposed to not care about my kids? What does non-attachment look like in that area? Now you see why my title included the phrase ‘so hard.’
Ram Dass is the teacher who I feel has the best answer to this question. What he would say is that any attachment emanates from the ego and as such is an impediment to liberation.
Conversely, non-attachment comes from a place of conscious presence. And the power and depth coming from that place is vastly stronger and deeper than anything that can possibly spring from the ego.
So when we cling to and attach ourselves to our kids, for example, what they’re getting from us is infinitely less powerful than if we approached them from a place of non-attachment.
It’s about presence over clinging
Getting back to the original question, then, does non-attachment mean we don’t careabout our kids? Of course not. It means that we treat them not from a place of fear and clinging, but from a field of spacious presence.
How does this manifest in real life? Let’s say your kid is heading off to college. The attached, and, frankly, normal parent, would freak out about any number of things. Will junior be okay away from home? Will I be okay with junior out of the nest?
The non-attached parent would exude a sturdy sense of calm. She’d still do everything she could to prepare him — helping him pack, getting him there, etc. But the love she showered on her son would come from a deep and powerful place that transcends fear and attachment, thus making it far more valuable to junior.
I can imagine some of you right now are saying, “F___ YOU! Easier said than done, pal!” I couldn’t agree more. I’m right there with you in feeling that this would be brutally hard.
But just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work toward non-attachment. How do we do that? We continually let go of ourselves and practice the techniques like meditation and mindfulness that help us become more present.
Why is presence so important? Because when we’re present, we don’t feel the need to attach or cling to things like Masters mugs, what restaurant we’re going to or even the well-being of our kids. We experience what life throws our way from a place of presence, then we let those experiences go and treat the next one and the one after that, ad infinitum, the same way.
That’s the spiritual path. No one said it was easily trod. But it’s worth the hard work.
Good luck on your journey.
Oh, and one last thing…
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Reading this made me laugh – so true – each time we experience “losing” something we believe to be of importance, and how we identify with that “thing”, teaches volumes about our ego. Or at least, for me, it is true. Thank you for sharing this gem.
Thanks, Elizabeth. This stuff is so simple, but hard to do at the same time!