Updated: Apr 22
What does ‘attachment’ even mean?
There are countless teachings on ‘attachment’ and the benefits of ‘non-attachment’, but does anyone actually understand what this means, or how to put it into action?
What is really meant by ‘attachment’ is the process of giving something a meaning.
The problem with giving things meaning, however, is that the meaning is almost always subjective. This is because it comes from personal thoughts and judgements that are based on past experience. Much of the time it can also come from somebody else teaching us what something ‘means’ and how we should perceive or judge it.
Of course, some meanings are objective fact, based on definition rather than opinion. But mostly, if we attach a meaning to an experience in our life, then it’s usually going to be completely subjective and not at all based in truth.
How judgments and preferences create meaning
The base of attachment stems from judgement, which then goes on to create a preference; whether you like or don’t like something. Once you have created a preference, this thing now ‘means’ something to you. It has become something you have an opinion on and that could now be considered to be part of who you are; on some level at least.
Furthermore, when you have an experience, have an emotional response to it and then attach a meaning to it, you then store it as part of you for use later. ‘Storing it’ essentially means that those emotions and the level of meaning or attachment you give it, will always be brought back the next time you are in a similar situation, or an experience that evokes the same thoughts, feelings or preferences. Essentially, you will feel it all over again every time something similar or related occurs.
This repeat of these experiences, creates a repetitive cycle. Each time you feel the judgements that you gave meaning to on their way back from ‘storage’, it solidifies and deepens them until in the end. If unchecked, you start to believe that they are real truths, rather than the subjective opinions that they actually are. This pattern has you keep recycling the same emotional responses, again and again.
Judgement and attachment are inseparable. They work together in creating meaning, often to our own personal detriment. To illustrate this, let’s take blame as an aggressive form of attachment. Blame attaches a huge and often disproportionate meaning to an event, often having it stored forever, and with deep emotion.
We blame people, places, things and even life, all the time. We are then faced with the resistance that comes with recalling that blame, until we forgive and let it go. Ironically, this means that when we blame it is we who feel the resistance, and not the person, place, thing or life circumstance that we blamed. This continues until we forgive and release that blame. This is the process of removing the meaning that we gave to the event, and thus removing the attachment.
Whilst blame is an aggressive form of attachment, often the more detrimental forms are the ones we do often. As we go through life, we judge almost everything. In the following example, not only will we see how subtle attachment can be, we will see that attachment can take the form of giving things both positive and negative meanings.
Blame and Broccoli
Let’s say you’re a child and you eat broccoli for the first time in your life. As with all foods you try, you have associations with colours, types and the look of the food you are eating. You have been conditioned to judge even before you taste, but on tasting the broccoli, the texture and taste is not something you fully enjoyed. Immediately, you made a judgement about it.
Even though it was just a vegetable and was not inedible, you decided that “you really don’t like it”, maybe even to the point that you decided eating it felt traumatic. You might have given broccoli the meaning of being extremely unpleasant and something you could not eat, giving it stored meaning and emotion.
Ultimately, the example is a subtle, seemingly inconsequential one. Yet, you have done something very similar to blaming the broccoli for your experience in eating it. This has now become a stored pseudo truth for you, that means you must now resist and avoid Broccoli for the rest of your life.
Many people do like Broccoli, and of course you may try it again and like it when you are older, but for now the fact is that Broccoli is traumatic to eat for you and must now be resisted and avoided whenever you come across it. This is a negative attachment because you chose to give the Broccoli a negative meaning.
Addiction is a strong preference
Instead of giving something a negative meaning so that your preference is to dislike it, there are also many scenarios you can give meaning to that makes you strongly prefer it. Deciding that you strongly like something can also come with much resistance and a whole plethora of problems.
Addiction is arguably one of the strongest forms of ‘attachment’ you can have, not dissimilar to fear, which is often a very intense dislike. For example, your first experience of drinking, smoking cannabis, taking drugs, having sex, exercise, eating and more, can all result in you choosing to give them disproportionate meaning. This choice is not always made as a fully conscious one, and can be made from a feeling and emotion that the activity gives you.
All that matters is that you have attached the meaning that you want to do lots more of it and ‘like’ the feeling on some level. Then when you are in a situation that recalls the activity, you may feel defenceless to stop yourself from doing it.
Take Cannabis or smoking as an example. A person might give meanings such as: “because it calms me down” “because it makes me feel okay” “because it helps me socialise”. Once this meaning is given to the activity, it is incredibly hard to remove it.
Yet, using the logic we have already unpacked, they have formed this strong preference because they chose at some point to give cannabis that meaning. The judgement has been made that it will have this effect on their emotional state. As a result, this implies that they cannot fulfil that need on their own and if they don’t have any cannabis, they will irrevocably suffer, or not be nearly as calm, happy etc. Clearly this is not the case, it is a meaning given, forming a resulting attachment.
Only you are responsible for your feelings
Addiction is often developed from giving meaning and attachment, and creating a stored experience that is strongly, repetitively returned in circumstances where that stored experience comes to mind. This creates a destructive loop, and as we give in to the attachment, the circumstances to which it is relevant start to broaden, finally making it into an addiction. An addiction that can soon find us and influence us anywhere and in any situation. The more it repeats, the more difficult it becomes to break.
The only way out, is to realise that the meaning we gave is not a fact. It is simply a subjective judgement. Invariably, the meaning we give to attachments is one that suggests that whatever we attach to, is some way in control of how we feel. When we blame we become a victim, and we place whoever or whatever we blame in control of our feelings, giving away all responsibility and power to control our own feelings.
When we attach to an addiction, we do the same. We place the way we feel in the hands of an action or substance, giving it the meaning that we need it in order to feel okay. At the same moment, we give that activity or substance control of how we feel, giving up the responsibility for ourselves, exactly like when we blame.
All Preferences are attachments
The above examples of blame and addiction are the more extreme form of preferences. With fear, they represent strong meaning being given to something which results in either avoidance or chasing. That said, any degree of like and dislike is not only a choice and a judgement, it is also a form of meaning and attachment. The results being the same. To give responsibility for how you feel to someone or something else and to create resistance in your life.
The resistance can be subtle or stark. You may avoid something you dislike or crave something you like. To do either creates needless resistance in life. As we build two polarities, one for what we like and one for that we don’t, we also essentially limit what we can do, eat, experience and where we can go in order to be happy. All because we gave everything needless, subjective meaning.
How do we stop giving things meaning and practise ‘non-attachment’
Equanimity is the state of being neutral and giving nothing subjective meaning, giving nothing control over how you feel. Equanimity is the state of you being in control of your emotional responses at all times. Fundamentally, it is the same thing as practising ‘non-attachment.’
Suffering is defined as being in an uncomfortable state because your circumstances are not as you would choose them to be. Your preferences are a huge factor in that. On giving something meaning and attaching to it, positively or negatively, we can create artificial suffering through not having what we prefer or having that which we do not like.
By giving nothing outside of you any subjective meaning, you take control of how you feel; you simply do not attach to anything. You can still have and feel experiences but need not attach meaning to them in any way, leaving you in control of how you feel at all times. When we give nothing personal, subjective meaning, then suffering ceases to be and only experience prevails.
Equanimity will unveil the power within you
When you have mastered this, your equanimity will unveil the power within you that makes you aligned with your will and completely in control of your own feelings, emotions, responses and decisions.
It is also worth saying that releasing meaning from the places, people, situations and things in your life, by no stretch means that they are ‘meaningless’ in a cold or robotic sense of the word. Merely, that you will be able to move through every single experience in presence, feeling it as it happens, but completely in the now without retaining it with a meaning for the future.
This, almost ironically, will begin to make your life actually feel a lot more meaningful - as you realise that the most value you can give to yourself and life is to not stay wound up in your judgments, preferences, resistance and need for control based on the meaning you think things have. Giving meaning is a choice, so simply choose not to give meaning and not to give away any of your power to control how you feel.
Instead, giving all of your presence and conscious attention to each moment, experience as deeply as possible, letting the past be the past without attaching meaning.
Only then can you treat the future as the beautiful and unpredictable adventure that it really and truly is.