Presence is Non-Attachment — non-attachment is a hard concept for Westerners, who are taught to look outside for meaning. But true presence is about “simply being there.”
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Let’s talk today about attachments, living our vocation and letting go. Might as well address small, minor topics… that was a joke.
I’ve often said that “non-attachment” is about remembering, “it’s not about me, it’s not personal.” Here’s a note I received years ago, on that very topic:
…On Saturday when I went skiing into a new site, I lost myself. Two hours later I’m far away from my destination, whoops, where I left the car. I have a long ways to go. Another metaphor. I’m getting my knickers in a knot about being ‘so far away’, ‘losing myself’ and blaming me for such a poor sense of direction as I trudge along.
Suddenly the Wayne voice pops up: ‘…or you can breathe,’ which I did. Immediately I was noticing my landscape, giving thanks for the privilege of experiencing snow, woods, old stone buildings, and the light effects of an overcast but calm day.
The car was still there. I had to bribe the dog to get into it. Did she want to spend more time, I wonder? Here I had been thinking she was tired, exhausted, and thirsty. Wrong again. She was happy being in the moment. I need to remember that dog quality.
Far from being lost… or dying in the woods… the writer was actually non-present and very attached.
Her attachment was to an old belief that she often “lost herself.” To get there, she went into her head and thought about “all the times I’ve been lost.”
So, you’re skiing along, miles from home, off in la-la land, enjoying the rhythm of the skis. You’re so “into” the rhythm, the feelings in your body, that you really aren’t “present” in the world.
Suddenly, you come back into “the world” (I hope you realize I keep putting things in quotes to remind you that “the world” is a personal construct, not a fixed reality — right? Whoops. Diversion.)
So, my friend opened her eyes, and then went back into her head, there to concoct a story. Poof. She was “lost and far from her car.” That became her version of “the world.”
Now, imagine another skier passing her, who has skied this trail 20 times. As she stops at the same place as my friend, what “world” does this person see?)
Anyway… you pop back into “the world” and realize that you have not been paying attention, and you are “lost.” The joy of the rhythm — the pleasurable bodily sensation you were giving your sole attention to — has seemingly led to a scary place.
I’m not saying that my friend should have ignored her feelings — I’m saying that by only feeling her feelings, she skied off into oblivion.
I am saying that skiing consciously, in a state of “presence,” will likely be more helpful.
My friend woke up “lost.” Her past experience (and therefore her predilection) was to give herself grief over any perceived failure. In that moment, her focus shifted from the good feelings in her body to her ego, whose only job is to be critical.
Now, she’s really “lost.” Which is actually how people do get lost, out in the bush or anywhere else.
Panic, futility and fear sets in. “I’m dead, I’m toast, woe is me!” This is attachment.
The danger to attachment is that you only see yourself. You see and feel the panic, the lost feeling, and you freeze.
Because you are choosing not to notice the bigger picture (and this is also what got you into this mess in the first place!) you are unable to move. All that’s left is to sit down, tell yourself what a fool you are, make yourself depressed, and die in the snow.
Or… as my friend did, you could have those feelings of “lost and alone” for a moment, then give yourself a shake and have a look around.
Suddenly, you are back in the wider universe again, where life is moving along, the sun is shining, the snow is falling, and you see a path back home.
There is paradox upon paradox here.
My skiing friend had several choices.
- She could have sat down and died.
- She could have skied on in a panic, exhausted herself and died.
- She could have skied desperately to her car (not, of course, knowing where her car was — most people live their lives like this — rushing around blindly, confusing activity with purposeful action.) Or,
- she could have skied along, paying attention to the day, the trail, the terrain, while simply being in the moment while heading back to her car. (In other words, to stay present while heading in a selected direction, without attaching to an outcome.)
I know. That last one seems so counter-intuitive. How will this work?
The alternative — attachment to a specific outcome — is dangerous. As soon as you set your eyes on any one thing (or understanding, or self-definition) you lose the ability to respond to anything else that is happening around you.
Learning to let go of attachment is best achieved by remembering not to personalize what is going on around us — it is not happening “to” us. It simply “is.”
The Real Goal
You have a big head that wants to understand Buddha’s teaching, so we have to talk about it. Then little by little you build up a kind of theoretical buddhology in your head. Maybe you think nirvana is the goal, something you can reach by obeying Buddha’s teaching. But if you attach to such a goal, you are stuck in your concept of nirvana and you cannot move an inch. You cannot find a peaceful life that way because the peaceful life that you are seeking is not a concept. So your real goal is to be free from your goal. Whether you attain enlightenment or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that you keep going. That’s all we can do.
The Light That Shines through Infinity
by Dainin Katagiri,
Again, difficult. So, let’s posit that I have an illness. If I go to “Why is this happening to me?” I divert my energy into my head, and spend hours, days, weeks trying to figure out “why?” Now, even if there was a “why,” how is this exercise contributing to my getting well?
On the other hand, I might say, “Hmm. Interesting. I am experiencing this illness. What resources are available to deal with this?” If I do this, I am much more likely to move past the illness. This latter approach is non-attached and in the moment.
In reality, nothing is happening to us. Life is going on, and we are stepping into it, moment by moment. Rain is. Rain doesn’t “happen to us,” even on our wedding day! We step in, we step out. Thus it is with everything in life.
When seemingly lost, open your eyes and see the beauty around you. Ski in a logical direction, gracefully and smoothly. Breathe. Watch life continue to unfold. Act, by detaching. You will get home. One way or another.