Attachment and Non-Attachment

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Please clarify the difference between attachment and non-attachment. It seems that so many of the world's problems have occurred because we are detached from ourselves, other people and the earth, which leads to violence. How can we fully express ourselves as human beings whilst remaining non-attached, or as actors?

Attachment is an attraction or a like which we express in many different ways to people, situations, possessions and definitely in our own projections and expressions. In fact, we do not know how to live without attachment. The yogic concept has been defined in the Yoga Sutras as a condition that can either create some form of attraction – sensory, sensual, emotional, intellectual, subjective or objective – or some form of repulsion; raga and dwesha, like and dislike. This is the concept of attachment in a nutshell. It is the human tendency to identify with, to link up and to relate to something very intimately from a very personal point of view. We cannot develop objectivity in that situation because we are constantly projecting ourselves.

Detachment is a very strong word. Our understanding of detachment is to repulse something to which we are attached or attracted. This is where the negative qualities of the human mind come to the surface and make a person insensitive and self-centred. Reactions that happen due to the influence of such negative individual traits can often lead to discord and disharmony.

Yoga says no to detachment. Do not avoid situations in life or even in yourself, but learn to accept the existence of the things that are around you. Once you have accepted them and know their nature, then it is possible to become non-attached. The word 'non-attachment' does not really exist in English, but it exists in Sanskrit in the form of vairagya, meaning to to be free from attachment, without rejecting anything. It represents a state of mind that is continuously observing the nature of events and is unaffected. Non-attachment can easily be developed provided we can expand our awareness to see the reality behind things.

The word vairagya is composed of two words: raga meaning attraction and vi meaning not to be affected. Vi is a prefix which in combination with raga means 'not being affected by attraction'. It goes without saying that once we are attracted to something, the possessive qualities of our nature and ego manifest. Sometimes that attraction can be positive, sometimes negative. We have to look at things from their positive as well as their negative aspect. When attraction is negative it is limiting; when attraction is positive it is freeing. It gives a different vision of things.

Positive attraction is known as non-attachment, acceptance of situations without reacting negatively to them. It is like the prayer of St Francis of Assisi: “Lord make me an instrument of Thy peace. Where there is discord let me sow love.” This is not a philosophical statement but a very practical one.

We tend to run away from discord. We do not have the strength to plant the seeds of love where there is absolute discord. What is the state of mind at that time? It is not detachment or attachment, it is not a reaction. It is acceptance of a condition as being real. Discord and anger are real so what is the use of reacting against them? The moment we react we are creating a process within ourselves which recognizes the negativity, and the moment that happens, our mind, nature and behaviour are affected by that impression. Our past impressions and memories bring up the corresponding negative emotion and we project anger, frustration or discord, more so than it actually is.

So, non-attachment is a state of mind which is full of viveka, discrimination. In fact, we can even call it viveka. Have the ability to discriminate and act accordingly. That is the yogic concept of non-attachment.