Non-Attachment Does Not Contradict Love

Kris Gage
Kris Gage
Oct 15, 2018 · 4 min read
”Trash Animal,” mural artist Bordalo II, Paris, France. Photographer unknown.

I write a lot about the importance of non-attachment.

Not, to be clear, of being “unattached” (or “love avoidant”), because the difference between these two and “non-attachment,” though seemingly small, means the difference between emotional health and turmoil.

Non-attachment, as I’ve said, is about respecting ourselves and others as individuals. It is coexisting and extending compassion to others without simultaneously pulling, tugging, demanding, or clinging. (And it’s also about not letting ourselves be mistreated, as the first step to real love is self-love — not selfishness, but self-respect and self-compassion; i.e., extending ourselves the same mature and healthy consideration we extend others.)

All of this is different than “unattached,” avoidant, dismissive, etc. It is still warm. It’s just not flailing.

This is directly related to understanding what we do and do not control — that being: we only control ourselves and our responses; we do not control others or the universe; we cannot keep change from happening, but we can control how we react.

But neither of these, to be clear, contradict love.

In fact, on the contrary, they are love.

The difference is: it’s healthy love.

It would seem that I’m talking about “suppressing emotions” and “keeping people and things at arm’s length,” but I’m not.

Joy is still important.

Both the Stoics and Buddhists alike agree:

The difference is that when we talk about “joy” in this way, we are not talking about emotional recklessness. We are not talking about escape or hedonism or hiding our shortcomings and fears in others, tucking them down into “relationships.”

Good joy — and good love — is self-fostered. It is not dependent on others, or the universe. It is ours. And when we allow ourselves (and recognize our) agency over our own joy, we permit ourselves a degree of health and happiness that can’t even be comprehended by those who don’t.

All of life’s (and major religions and philosophies) messaging come down to pretty consistent principles.

Stoicism, for example, commends: practical wisdom (the ability to navigate complex situations in the best way possible), courage (to do the right thing), justice (so that we know what the right is), and temperance (doing everything in reasonable measure, not too much nor too little.) Following this makes a person happier, healthier — better, as it is. And you can see the easy translation from the broad and general to the realm of love, specifically.

Buddhism commends four boundless qualities, which literally have “no measure.” They are equanimity, compassion, joy, and, yes, explicitly: love.

They, too, account for love — even as they simultaneously value non-attachment. Because to be non-attached is not to be distant. It is simple to honor each other, without ownership, demands, or claims.

It has to do with understanding what we do and do not control:

“We all want to be loved, but… other people’s feelings, judgments, and actions are not within our control. So we should focus instead on being the most lovable person possible for our companion. Whether he returns the favor or not, it’s up to him. Once we have done our utter best, to insist in controlling people and events that are actually outside our reach is futile, and likely to lead to pain and misery.” — Massimo Pigliucci

Many of the behaviors and suffering that we assume are a “normal” part of love (from jealousy to infidelity to heartbreak) can be avoided. They are not an innate part of mature, healthy love.

What we all really want is ease and happiness and warmth.

And so,

“The first thing which philosophy undertakes to give is fellow-feeling with all persons.” — Seneca

And, as Massimo Pigliucci wrote, we can:

“Become better human beings by way of modulating our natural desires, perceptions, and emotions using one of the distinctive traits of humanity: the ability to reflect on how to be better, and act accordingly.”

We can have more, not less, love — and we can be happier, not less happy — but establishing “love” within the framework and on the foundation of non-attachment.

Because by relinquishing our “attachment” — demands, ownership, poor emotional boundaries, codependency, etc. — we open ourselves up to loving in a truly healthy and mature manner, which opens love up to something even more beautiful.

Kris Gage

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Kris Gage

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