I live in Boulder, CO where our community is blessed by the peaceful co-mingling of many spiritual traditions. I was raised in the Episcopal Church, a traditional Christian denomination that I often describe as the “Protestant version of Catholicism.” But for most of my adult life I’ve sporadically attended services at a Unity spiritual center, which is an all faiths community. I’m a yogi, and have dabbled in the mysteries of Hinduism, Buddhism and even Sufism. I’m one of those spiritual “seekers” who’s looking for the common thread in all the formal traditions.
One aspect of Buddhism that always put me off is the concept of non-attachment. It felt cold and uncaring to me to imagine detaching my emotions from my daily spiritual practice. Boy was I blind.
It was my now three-year-old daughter who began to illuminate for me how non-attachment can be a doorway to some of the highest states of contentment, generosity and loving kindness.
Here’s how it happened:
When Lexi was in her first year, still riding around in her carrier on my chest, and beginning to speak her first words, we had a routine of walking to our neighborhood grocery store every couple of days. Inevitably, we’d pass people on the sidewalk of our neighborhood, or crossing the parking lot of the shopping center. Every time we passed another person – no exceptions – Lexi would call out, in her sweet little voice, “Hi! Hi!”
She’d keep saying it whether the other person acknowledged her or not. And more than half the time, the person wouldn’t look up, or would duck their head or turn away. You see, most of us aren’t used to that kind of total openness from a “stranger,” even if it’s a little child.
My heart would soar with the beauty of her innocence, and plunge with the knowing that there was a cruel, hard world out there where we don’t all still love each other awaiting her. I dreaded – and still dread – the moment when she is crushed by this realization.
I started to be inspired by Lexi, though. And when we’d hike around the lake near our home, as a bravery and kindness practice, I started saying, “Hi!” to each person we passed, whether they looked happy and inviting or grumpy and pissed off. I’m normally a pretty private and reserved person, so this offered a level of challenge to me.
I was beginning to practice true non-attachment: Offering kindness with no agenda for the outcome.
As Mark Gober says in Episode 32, Science Meets Spirit: An End to Upside Down Living, “We are here in some capacity to evolve at the level of consciousness to learn how to act well, as if others are versions of us, because at this level of consciousness everyone else is us.”
Fast forward a few years, and here we are during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve experienced a lot of stress around differences in practice regarding social distancing with my neighbors. We live in a town home community with many shared outdoor spaces, and tensions have been high between myself and our neighbors.
I’ve watched Lexi navigate all of this in the characteristic way young children do: With absolutely no judgement, and no attachment to any outcome. With the purest grace and a completely neutral tone in her voice, she can ask a neighbor, “You’re not wearing a mask, where is it?” or simply “How’s your day going?” or “Hey, did you know we’re neighbors and I can hear you talking in your house?”
Where I have had to restrain myself from lashing out, scolding, even beating a pillow in frustration, this little being is sailing through life, moment-to-moment with unruffled feathers and I started taking notice.
I watched her behavior during all the ups and downs of the day and the drama and emotions that our family weathered and I noticed that she wasn’t fighting against any of it. If she had an upset, it passed within minutes. Constantly she was returning to a steady-state of curiosity and joy-seeking – no matter what. We could be in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, and she would be saying to the zombies, ‘Hi!, Hi! Wanna play hide-and-seek?”
I thought, “This non-attachment thing has really got something going for it.”
But every time I’d try to let go of my judgements and reactions to people and events, I’d find my old fears and defenses popping up.
And then I had an experience equivalent to a zombie apocalypse in my own life (which I’m not going to get into in this blog), and it blew the doors off all that. Image one of those moments we’ve all been through, that drops your heart through the floor: The kind of time when you get a phone call and learn that someone close to you has unexpectedly died, or a loved one has terminal cancer, or your company just lost its last, best client, and you’re shutting your doors after 10 years. That sort of life event.
What I learned, in my moment of crisis, was to take myself from “Help me! Help me!” to “How is this for me?” to “Thank you for my suffering,” and after hours of meditating on this, to a place where suddenly non-attachment showed up as the only sane way to live.
I was suddenly grateful for my previously irritating neighbors, and I saw how my selfish fear had led me to treat them with unkind judgement. I saw that every work and every action that I had taken “against” others to protect myself was harmful and hurtful to us all, and that – this is the crazy kicker – the more I open my heart the safer I am. (What?!) I’ll share more in Part 2.
Thankfully, I have my daughter to watch every moment of every day as my guide in the “how” of putting non-attachment into practice, and knowing that the ultimate result is contentment and joy.