Have you ever found yourself in a yoga or meditation class, listening (while you can) to the soporific voice of the teacher waffle on and on about the spiritual merits of ‘letting go.’
The injunction, “Just let go!” ranks high amongst the reigning spiritual cliches. An inner-voice might pugnaciously rebel: “Hello no! I’m clearly a somebody with things to do, people to protect and possessions to guard. Letting go is for people who have nothing worth holding on to!”
And yet, there’s something to it, isn’t there? We’re taught by various spiritual systems that it’s our attachment to things, our attachment to ideas and ourattachment to views that gets our knickers all in a twist, to borrow a particularly colorful Irish expression.
I’m sure we’ve all felt the cloying contraction of holding on to something far longer than good sense would prescribe, whether that object of attachment be material or immaterial.
And from there begins the project to do away with attachment. Ideals of becoming detached and/or non-attached are sought. And we may even find ourselves mumbling unempathic remarks to our friends in distress, “Hmmm, it sounds to me like you’re really attached. Have you tried letting go?”
What bollacks! (to borrow another Irishism).
The Buddha, himself, described one cause of suffering as “the desire to get rid of” or “the desire to annihilate” (vibhava tanha). Any desire to get rid of attachment is, therefore, doomed from the beginning. Rather than get rid of attachment, the Buddha endorsed experiencing the peace of nonattachment, which is very different from detachment.
Joseph Goldstein beautifully describes the difference between the two in One Taste: “Nonattachment is simply not holding on, not grasping, whereas detachment implies a distancing from experience, a pulling away, a stance of someone who is being detached.”
Whenever I hear someone recommend that I “let go” of something, it strikes me that they are suggesting I get rid of it, or kick it to the curb or throw it out with the trash. This is the energy of detachment, a pseudo-path to peace.
Instead, nonattachment simply relaxes the contracted identity that one has formed in relationship to the experience. The thing being attached to might remain unchanged, but with nonattachment one will always experience a taste of spacious relief.
So… just let go, but do it from a place of wisdom 🙂
For further study, check out Ajahn Sucitto’s talk: Nonattachment is Presence, Not Absence.
Originally published on November 16, 2011