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Whether it’s your performance at work, your staunch beliefs, or your presence on social media, there can be a lot to cling to. You might feel very attached to those things you believe represent who you are and are a part of your identity. But the problem with having these strong attachments is that when they change, many are left feeling inadequate or empty. Letting go, or non-attachment is one of the foundations of mindfulness. Here’s what it looks like in practice, why it’s beneficial, and tips to help you loosen your grip.
Bonus: Watch The Foundations of Mindfulness: Letting Go, with Muse Meditation Teacher, Lisa Wimberger. Lisa is the Founder of Neurosculpting®, and the author of the book New Beliefs, New Brain. Find her meditations in the Muse app in the Calm, Self-Car & Relationships Collections.
In Buddhism, non-attachment means engagement with flexibility and without fixation on achieving specified outcomes(1). Essentially, it captures your relationship with experience where you’re able to let go of clinging to what you like and pushing away what you don’t.
Everyone has attachments. Sometimes they can be things outside of the self (external) as well as things within the self (internal). Externally, you might be attached to your job, your appearance, your partner. Internal ones tend to be more subtle and less noticeable and can include thoughts, beliefs, feelings, or desires.
For example, you might hold the belief that you won’t be liked if you express yourself authentically. A desire you might be attached to is yearning for a certain type of partner or to get that new job you applied for. Behaviors you might be attached to could be spending hours playing video games, scrolling your social feed before bed, or late-night Amazon shopping. And another internal attachment could be a feeling. Maybe it’s a long-held grudge against someone or an ongoing fear that you have.
The practice of letting go is fundamental to mindfulness—present moment awareness without judgment. When you start to pay attention to thoughts and feelings through mindful practices, you’re bound to notice things you like. You’re also bound to notice others you don’t. This is where it can be easy to attach. We like to cling to thegood thoughts and feelings while pushing away the uncomfortable ones.
Detachment v.s Letting Go
Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you. — Ali ibn Abi Talib
According to author and psychotherapist Dr. Mark Epstein, our attachment or fixation—whether good or bad—can lead us to be unhappy. Epstein explains that what we attach to is part of our environment and experience, which is always changing.
Think about it this way; if you cling to the idea that you never make a mistake at work and your colleague points out that you did, in fact, make a mistake and missed something obvious, you could fall into a negative headspace. You might get defensive, lash out at others, or take some other action that helps you feel better. Cognitive dissonance arises because of the mismatch between your ideal self and the reality of what’s happening.
Have you experienced something like this? What thoughts or beliefs do you cling to?
Benefits of Practicing Letting Go
Suffering and attachment are a part of life. The four noble truths in Buddhism—the essence of the Buddha’s teachings—offer a way for us to deal with suffering. The second noble truth says that the root of suffering is desire, or attachment. So it makes sense that when we can reduce desire or attachment to things, we’ll suffer less.
“The root of suffering is attachment”– The Buddha
Learning to let go of things—especially the inconsequential—can help you feel more at ease throughout your day. Here are two other research-backed benefits to practicing non-attachment.
Studies have found that non-attachment could help facilitate perspectives that contribute to academic success. Perspectives such as decreasing avoidance behaviors and rumination (2). That same study found that non-attachment may reduce the emphasis placed on grades. This means students can be encouraged to pursue courses (and challenges) for the sake of learning and growth.
Boost your well-being.
Research suggests that higher levels of non-attachment are associated with greater well-being (comfort, health, happiness, etc) and lower levels of negative mental states such as rumination, depression, anxiety, and stress (1). Clinging and avoiding behaviors can sap your mental and physical energy as well as keep you from being present in the moment.
Tips to Learn to Let Go
So you’re looking to let go of the long-held beliefs that are not serving you, a relationship that’s not supportive, or simply the grating irritation of your neighbor’s barking dog? Read our three tips below to help you practice non-attachment.
Get some perspective.
Psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson suggests stepping back from whatever it is you’re attached to and trying to view it from a larger perspective (3). He suggests taking a few deep breaths and asking yourself what the attachment is telling you about what you need and seeing if it’s realistic. He also suggests getting a physical object to let go of (like a stone) to make the letting go process feel more concrete. You could also write about this attachment on a piece of paper, then tear it up and let the pieces fall away.
Regardless of the style of meditation, you practice, all essentially help you come into the present moment and let go of worries about the past or future. One of the many benefits of meditation is helping you slow down so that you can start to become aware of your own thoughts and feelings—and their fleeting nature. It also helps us to simply observe our experience without attaching “good” or “bad” to it. Guided meditations like Roger Nolan’s “Attitude of Letting Go” inside the Attitudes of Mindfulness Collection in the Muse app can be a helpful place to start.
Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen recommends this simple mindfulness practice to get your brain out of the past or the future and into the present moment (4). How does it work? Name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. (If you mix up the sense order, no big deal). This technique works in two ways. First, it gives you a cognitive distraction (the counting) that helps pause your spinning mind, and second, it gets you into your senses and out of your head.
Letting go is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t mean being passive, not caring, or giving up. Simply acknowledge the reality of the situation and choose to live in a wiser relationship with yourself and others. It’s human to feel some level of attachment but these practices and perspectives can perhaps help you feel less controlled by them so that you can make space for something more fruitful, like the present moment.
Listen to Ashley Turner on Untangle. Ashley Turner is a psychotherapist, yoga, and meditation teacher. She discusses the gifts and challenges we encounter as we venture into the often complicated realm of relationships. She talks about letting go of judgment, seeing our partner with fresh eyes, finding a safe place for vulnerability, and, sometimes, learning to forgive and let go.
Letting Go of Self: The Creation of the Nonattachment to Self Scale here.
Letting go’ and flourishing in study: An investigation of the indirect relationship between nonattachment and grades via psychological wellbeing here.