Why do we cling to begin with?

By Christina Lopes

In my post, “Practicing Non-Attachment: Easier Said Than Done”, I introduced the practice of non-attachment and used the image of an open hand to illustrate it:

“Picture yourself standing in a beautiful field filled with flying butterflies (or any other glorious creature). Let each colorful butterfly represent someone or something in your life. One can be your spouse, another can be your job or all your money, etc.
Now, start walking through the field while gently holding your hand open. At some point, a butterfly will bless you and land on that open hand. Perhaps multiple butterflies will land at the same time! Yay! You look down at your hand and marvel at the beauty of these creatures but you consciously decide not to close your grip.
That is essentially what non-attachment means: living life with your hand held open.”

Ok, so this seems pretty easy. Walk through life with your hand held gently open and let the butterflies land or fly away when they please. Check.

But as so many of us have painfully experienced, living in a non-attached way can be remarkably difficult. But why?

Why do so many of us cling to people and things?

The short answer is: because we’re afraid. And fear is a powerful emotion.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, let’s take a short walk through the land of attachments. I like to test attachments by putting myself in someone else’s shoes and feeling the emotions that arise in me.

What are the most common forms of clinging?

  • Relationships. Imagine if your spouse or lover were to leave you today. Out of the clear blue sky. Without much justification or warning.
  • Money. Suppose you were to check your bank account right now and found the balance to be $0.
  • Material things. You live in a beautiful home that was built to your exact specifications — where no detail was left to chance. Suddenly, a tornado comes and the home is gone. All you are left with are the clothes on your back and a family picture you found in the rubble.
  • Our bodies. You wake up in a hospital ICU and notice that you cannot move your legs. Your life from now on will require the use of a wheelchair.
  • Our minds. You once felt great pride for being the smartest person in the room. But over the last few months, you’ve noticed a certain level of forgetfulness that is not normal. After extensive medical evaluations, you are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
  • Our appearance. People have always found you attractive and you make a point of “looking good” when you walk out the door. One day, you get into a car accident and are left disfigured from the fire that broke out.

The list of attachments goes on but these seem to be the most common.

What do you feel when you go through the list? Do any of these scenarios cause discomfort or fear in you?

If the answer is “yes” then you’ve just been introduced to your attachments.

Throughout my life, the attachments that have caused most pain have been the relationship one and the mind.

The possibility of losing my mind always frightened me. So much so that I even felt uncomfortable working with patients who had Alzheimer’s or dementia. On the relationship front, I was always afraid of losing a lover or a close family member — whether by death or otherwise.

Now, the BINGO question is this:

Why the fear?

Why was I so afraid of losing someone or my mind?

The truth is, we use the objects of our attachments sort of like super glue:

They keep our self-image from falling apart.

In my life, I used my intellect and the people around me as a means to define my self-worth. Having others recognize my powerful intellect made me feel better about myself. Being surrounded by people gave me a sense that I was loved and therefore, valuable.

Without all this external feedback — the “super glue” — my whole image of myself would break into a million little pieces.

It took me years to realize that super glue is only used to fix something when it’s broken.

Not only that, but realize that an object held together with glue is never as strong as an original, intact structure.

But there is an alternative to living a life with attachments:

Realize that no matter what happens on the outside, you are a very precious creature.

Yes, a strong sense of self-worth really is the key to losing attachments.

And how do you know if your sense of self-worth is strong?

Well, start by noticing how you define yourself. If you find yourself constantly relying on external things to define who you are, then ask yourself why.

I remember specifically relying on my college degrees and my intellect to “pump up” my dismal sense of self-worth. The multiple initials after my name served as my super glue.

But for you it can be different. Maybe you define yourself by your wealth or your job title or the fact that you are a parent.

The day you decide to stop defining yourself based on external things is the day you will begin to love the “essence” you are inside. One of my favorite spiritual teachers — Eckhart Tolle — puts it this way:

“Give up defining yourself — to yourself or to others. You won’t die. You will come to life. And don’t be concerned with how others define you. When they define you, they are limiting themselves, so it’s their problem. Whenever you interact with people, don’t be there primarily as a function or a role, but as the field of conscious Presence. You can only lose something that you have, but you cannot lose something that you are.”

The bottom line with attachments is this:

In order to live in a non-attached way, we must first build a strong foundation within, instead of using super glue to hold ourselves together.

Everything else will fall into place.

Originally published at christina-lopes.com, on Dec 18th, 2013.

Would you like to learn how to cultivate self-love? Check out my 5-min weekly video, “Learning Self-Love”.