Nothing to Lose
If you’re like me, when you hear the term “Non-attachment”, you want to sign deeply and roll your eyes, because it calls to mind being okay with losing something you love. However there is so much more to “Apraigraha,” the last Yama (code of conduct) from the Yoga Sutras. Apraigraha is about “non-possessiveness” or “freedom from grasping” and can almost best be described by a feeling. It encompasses many different situations, by they all share this feeling of holding on a little (or a lot) too tight-- that tense, panicky feeling when you want to acquire something, or avoid losing it once you have it. That same type of urgency can be felt when we are trying to avoid something or resist an experience, feeling or person that has come into our lives.
I would like to remind you at the start that needing and wanting are perfectly natural. Abraham Maslow even created a hierarchy for the universal needs/wants that we experience as humans. The most basic is for security, food and sex. Once those are met, we turn to emotional recognition and bonding. Next is mental engagement and creative activity. And finally, we have time and energy for the kind of communion and self-realization we might experience in yoga! Desire is what motivates us. It keeps us eating, going to work, reading books and soul searching. (“Radical Acceptance,” Tara Brach)
When the Buddha said craving causes suffering, he was not talking about our “natural inclination as living beings to have wants and needs, but to our habit of clinging to experience that must, by nature, pass away.” (Tara Brach). Change is inevitable, so suffering will necessarily ensue when we resist it.
“We are uncomfortable because everything in our life keeps changing --- our inner moods, our bodies, our work, the people we love, the world we live in. We can’t hold onto anything --- a beautiful sunset, a sweet taste, an intimate moment with a lover, our very existence as the body/mind we call self -- because all things come and go. Lacking any permanent satisfaction, we continuously need another injection of fuel, stimulation, reassurance from loved ones, medicine, exercise and meditation. We are continually driven to become something more, to experience something else.” - Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
This is where the unhealthy grasping comes into play, where we try to control the uncontrollable. This fear of doing without causes us to strive for unhealthy perfection. There is no room for mistakes. Rather than finding satisfaction in the moment as it is, we look for fulfillment in a future moment, but only if it unfolds as we think it should. Tara Brach calls this the “wanting self.” The wanting self might manifest as an ache or a longing around the heart, or an excitement and openness when we desire. If the answer to our desire is no, we might feel contraction, shame, desire to hide and fear. (If you’re like me, plentiful personal examples are currently popping into your mind). She points out that if we experience this cause and effect over and over, we might associate desire with fear and shame, so we naturally, and often subconsciously decide to numb ourselves to the pain -- enter alcohol, co-dependent relationships, acquisition and the like. These substitutes prop us up and give us momentary pleasant sensations. They shield us for a time from our raw sensations of feeling unloved or unworthy. When our perfectly natural needs and desires morph into addictive craving, the objects of our desire begin to control us. “Food can become an ungovernable craving to comfort or numb our feelings. Our longing for sex and affection can become an anguished dependency on another human to define and please us. Our need for shelter and clothing can turn into insatiable greed.” (Tara Brach) We are no longer present with the people and situations we find ourselves in, and we lose the joy of the moment.
We can turn to Buddhism for some interesting insights on Aparigraha. In classic Buddhist teachings, there are Eight Worldly Dharmas. These are 4 pairs of opposites. Four things we like and become attached to, and four things that we don’t like and try to avoid. When we get caught up in the Eight Worldly Dharmas, we suffer. They are as follows:
Pleasure / Pain
Praise / Criticism and Blame
Fame / Disgrace
Gaining what we want / Losing what we have
However, rather than instructing us to fight these longings and aversions with a healthy case of longing and aversion, aka trying to get rid of them, Buddhism instructs us to get to know them and use them as a tool for growing wise, kinder and more content. In order to do this we lean in -- move toward our difficulties rather than away-- realizing that everything is a means for waking up. (Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are) One such Buddhist practice is Lojong. It instructs us to reverse our usual patterns. We make friends with things we usually reject, and learn to be generous with what we cherish. If it is painful, you become not just willing to endure it, but also let it awaken your heart and soften you… learn to embrace it. In the process we let go of the belief that if we are hurting something is wrong, and that if we only did everything right, we would not experience pain. On the other hand, If we are enjoying what we are experiencing, think of other people and wish for them to feel that as well. We get generous with our possessions and joys. (Pema Chodron)
All that is well and good, but how do we begin to practice Aparigraha in our daily lives? Be the observer. In our meditation practice, and also as we go through our day, just pause and sit with our cravings and aversions. Notice how our emotions and moods are connected to having lost or gained something, having been praised or blamed. Even the most acute cravings eventually subside if you just sit still, name what is happening. Instead of wishing they’d go away, Pema Chodron suggests, just say “This too.” When you sit with your feelings, you may also notice that all your desires and thoughts and feelings are constantly changing. As much as change can be disconcerting, it can also bring us comfort when we are struggling.
We can also take a look at our beliefs and practices around acquisition. Remember, we are stewards, not owners, in this life. We come into this world without anything, and we won’t take anything with us when we leave. We are stewards of the environment, of our relationships, and our material possessions. Marie Kondo, in “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” suggests that our possessions have their own unique energy. And if they are not bringing us “sparkling joy,” they need to move on to someone who will fully utilize and appreciate them. We can also be honest with ourselves about how much we really need. We may have a tendency to hoard or accumulate because it gives us the false illusion of safety. But taking more than we need is a form of stealing from the earth and from others (see article on Asteya).
Remember it is still ok to have and enjoy things! We are asked to let go of the clinging to the thing, not the enjoyment of the thing itself. We can trust that the universe will provide for us. “What we hold onto is often so small… and what wants to come to us is so great.” Clutter can be in our internal space just as much as our external space. Letting go of our rigidly held beliefs can feel disorienting and unfamiliar - like going through withdrawal from a substance. However, images and beliefs about ourselves, about how life should be, about how others should be, keep us from evolving and growing, and having space for the next thing life brings us.
And finally, release control. If there is something you want, take the necessary steps to make that happen, and then let go of your attachment to the outcome. Attachments ruin our day when they aren’t fulfilled and keep us blinded to new opportunities. If you are open to praying, or just consider it a mantra, I recommend the serenity prayer as a way to call yourself back from the precipice of control.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Think of all the great events or happenings of your life. What percentage of them happened because you forced them with the strength of your will? How many of them happened as if invisible hands were helping it to unfold that way… as if doors were opening and you were being led there? You can have aspirations, but avoid being too tense to appreciate the beauty around you, too preoccupied to listen inwardly or to enjoy the people you love. Once you have something, enjoy it! Don’t spend your time and energy fearing its inevitable loss. I say inevitable because it is the nature of things to change. Even if your relationship lasts forever, at some point we will pass away from this earth. All material things eventually fall apart. Every good moment will be followed by a challenging one. Brene Brown talks about “foreboding joy.” You can ruin the full appreciation of the moment by fearing the loss of the thing that brings you joy in the first place.
The Zen master says “I have nothing to lose because I have nothing.” We are going nowhere because there is nowhere to go. All there is is this moment, and the more time we spend there, we start to feel the freedom of nothing to protect, hold onto or identify with. There is nothing to be done-- only things to be recognized, and remember, you have nothing to lose.
* (For further reading, check out The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron, The Power of Vulnerability and the Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, and Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)