Letting go of attachment

Most spiritual traditions teach us that letting go of attachment is a necessary part of our spiritual practice. And yet, when we really look at our lives, we realize that this “letting go” is no small thing, to put it mildly.

When we engage in some sincere self inquiry, we see that our attachments run very deep indeed, and embrace most aspects of our lives. We see that we are attached to our image, our possessions, our loved ones, our jobs, our homes, our pets, our status, our roles, our emotions, our views, our beliefs, our bodies, our achievements, our habits, our memories, our money – the list goes on and on.

When we look at the reality of the multitude of attachments in our lives, we might start to wonder what’s wrong with this picture. What is it we don’t understand. Are we really supposed to just “let go of attachment”? What does it mean to “let go”? What actually is “attachment”?

We usually think of attachment as an attachment to things, and as we can see from the list above, these things can be part of either our inner or outer worlds.

Attachment is attachment to pleasure

But as we look a little deeper, we see that the fundamental glue that attaches us to these things is actually the desire to feel good, or at least better than we do now. The things we are attached to all give us pleasure, and if they don’t exactly give us pleasure, then they help us avoid discomfort in some way. The fundamental attachment is to the pleasure itself, rather than the things that create the pleasure.

For example, the things we’re attached to may give us the pleasure of familiarity, as with old habits and old friends, or the pleasure of predictability, as with roles and patterns of relating, or the pleasure of the loving feelings we share with those close to us. Alternatively, they may help us avoid the discomfort of the anxiety we would feel without our social standing, or the discomfort of the physical suffering we would have without sufficient money.

The origins of attachment to pleasure

The origins of attachment to pleasure are profound, as they lie in both the physical and the spiritual realm.

In the physical realm, our bodies are hard wired for survival, and pleasure and pain are crucial parts of the evolutionary survival signaling system. When we experience physical pain, it’s signal that our survival is threatened by illness of injury, and our instinctual response is to do whatever we can to stop the pain and the threat. On the other hand, we are also instinctually driven towards pleasurable physical states such as a full belly, sexual expression, and the relaxation inherent in belonging, because they each enhance our bodily survival.

But it’s not just our physical instincts that drive us to attach to pleasure. One aspect of our true spiritual Being is actually a complete and delicate fulfillment and contentment, and at some level we all know this, even if this knowledge is largely unconscious. Somewhere inside we all feel the drive towards this state of sweet, complete contentment. But inevitably we misinterpret it, and imagine that our fulfillment resides in the states of our psyche and the things of the world.

So we see that the drive to attach is motivated by extremely powerful forces, both physical and spiritual, and that we are all in the same boat, getting attached to almost anything that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain.

However, there is a very basic problem with this way of being, in that any time we desire a state more pleasurable than the one we’re in, we are rejecting ourselves as we actually are in this moment. Similarly, it is not possible to get rid of our attachments without rejecting the innate parts of ourselves that are deeply and fundamentally attached to pleasure.

The problem with “letting go”

In trying to reject our attachments, we actually compound the problem and cause ourselves immense suffering. And in this deep self rejection we move even further from the true fulfillment of living in Being.

Once we recognize this truth, then we see that striving to make ourselves happy in the old familiar ways is actually pointless and self defeating. We can start to feel as though we are in a no-win situation – attachment is inevitable, and keeps us from the true fulfillment of Being, but trying to get rid of it also keeps us from that fulfillment.

The true solution

There is an answer to this dilemma, a third way, which we may not see at first. It is the compassionate acceptance of out situation exactly as it is.

We can simply accept that as human beings, sometimes we feel pain, and sometimes we feel pleasure. We can recognize that we have a preference for pleasure and the things that seem to bring us pleasure. We can just be with these truths, without trying to change anything, and without trying to hang on to the pleasure or avoid the pain. We can understand that rejecting or trying to change any part of ourselves or our experience can only lead to suffering.

So “letting go of attachment” becomes letting go of needing to be any particular way. Nothing more, and nothing less.

We start to see that true “letting go” consists of bringing as much acceptance as we can to what we are actually experiencing in the moment, be it pleasurable or painful. It means embracing and inquiring into the attachments to the things and pleasures we have, without trying to change them, so that we can simply be with them as deeply as possible.

Eventually, as we come to understand more and more deeply the truth of our desires, they do start to lose their hold on us, and we naturally unattach from them. But unfortunately we cannot push or control or speed up this process. All we can do is keep sincerely inquiring into our truth in the moment.

As we do this, we slowly but inevitably move closer and closer to Being. We eventually discover for ourselves that residing in Being is the very deepest desire of our heart, and the true and profound fulfillment of our soul. In this place, there is no need to be attached to anything. We find ourselves bathed in a deliciousness that is far beyond anything the ego could imagine.

Last night my teacher taught me

The lesson of poverty:

Having nothing and wanting nothing.


I am a naked man standing

Inside a mine of rubies,

Clothed in red silk. – Rumi


With grateful acknowledgement to A.H.Almaas, especially Diamond Heart Book 2 Ch 4.


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