Caring Without Attachment

Photo by Erik Witsoe

What does it mean to care? Caring simply means kindness and concern, but sometimes we get this concept mixed up with emotional investment. When we are emotionally invested, we are strongly attached to a particular storyline or outcome. You might be surprised to discover that we actually don’t need to be emotionally invested in order to care about someone or something.

At first glance, you may equate non-attachment with being cold or unfeeling. But it is possible to feel very deeply without grasping at or clinging to desired outcomes. Non-attachment doesn’t preclude enjoyment or caring – but, enjoyment and caring can lead to attachment when we aren’t mindful. When we see or experience something pleasurable and we wish for it to stay longer or happen again, this is attachment. When we feel something belongs to or reflects upon us – when it feels personal and we need it to go a certain way – this is attachment.

According to author and teacher Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, we imagine that by grasping and clinging to someone, we show that we love them. Unfortunately, the more we grasp at anything, the more we become afraid we will lose it. Yet, because everything is impermanent, even ourselves, we will inevitably lose everything. Grasping and clinging are misguided attempts to assuage our own fear and prevent the pain of loss. It’s a way of trying to permanently fulfill ourselves through something that is temporary and outside of us.

Genuine love says, I love you therefore I want you to be happy, if that includes me great, if it doesn’t include me, I just want your happiness. Attachment is like holding very tight. Genuine love is like holding very gently, nurturing, but allowing things to flow. The more tightly we hold onto others, the more we suffer. – Tenzin Palmo Jetsunma

Letting go of attachment can free us up to be truly compassionate. This is because our own personal agenda can obscure the reality of a situation and prevent us from seeing what is needed. Authentic compassion doesn’t discriminate between I and thou, enemies or friends, family or strangers. Acting with pure compassion means there is no expectation of return in this life (or the next if that is part of your belief system). It means we rejoice in others successes and wish them well without concern for how it might impact or reflect upon us. We aren’t wishing for or clinging to that rewarding feeling of having helped another. We aren’t secretly hoping the fortunate person will share some good fortune with us. Acting with compassion does not involve striving to be compassionate. It doesn’t spring from or depend upon I, me and mine.

It is an enormous act of courage and trust to let go of attachment to outcome regarding the people and things we care for. We have much less control over how things turn out than we’d like to think – but this can be hard to accept. A dedicated mindfulness practice can increase our awareness of the times we are grasping and clinging, build confidence in the wisdom of allowing things to unfold in their own time, and help us make space for choosing wise compassion over self-cherishing.

Every day as I wave to my children when I drop them off at school, or let one of them have a new experience—like crossing the street without holding my hand—I experience the struggle between love and non-attachment. It is hard to bear—the extreme love of one’s child and the thought that ultimately the child belongs to the world. ― Sarah Ruhl

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