I got into a few conversations in the last few days about Buddhist philosophy, and how many of its concepts have become popular in the west. The one that always crops up as not possible/not appropriate outside the religion itself is the whole "non-attachment" thing. People in the west either see this as something we can't do, or something pointless, or even a bad idea.
But when you actually ask them what it means, it's clear that there is a bit more going on. I've looked at this one a long time.
I started out with the attitude that the whole idea was daft. That unless you were a homeless beggar with no friends or relatives, there would be something you were attached to. And even the beggar is presumably attached to staying alive.
If you are a Buddhist monk, perhaps you do seek to rid your yourself of all attachment, even of life. In their desire to reach nirvana and ultimately moksha, all attachment is an obstacle and therefore something to be overcome. Which is fine if you are a Buddhist monk.
For most of us it's enough just to get rid of "baggage".
If I show you an image like this:
You immediately think of greed, and attachment to material possessions. I think most of us know that this never leads anywhere good. So, even in the west we do have some innate sense that there are unhealthy attachments.
It's not those we need to concern ourselves with then.
What we would do well to shake off are negative emotions. Of course, that's easier said than done, and some are more firmly attached than others.
As you go through your day, many of your decisions come as a result of these. As a result, you may make decisions that aren't necessarily the best. They may harm you.
It's easier said than done to choose to react differently than instinct tells you, but it really truly honestly is a choice. You are conditioned to react in certain ways, by upbringing, culture, and yes, your own decisions. Therefore you can train yourself to react differently.
So, when somebody shouts an insult at you YOU CAN CHOOSE not to be bothered by it.
When I discuss this with people, their first question is "why would I want to do that?". The supposition is that if you have been wronged, there is a need to address that. Is there?
I don't believe that there is a need. You may want to. You may see a value in it. You may feel it's fitting. You may consider it justified, but where's the need? What difference will it make if you shrug and move on?
Well, one answer is that the person doing the wrong, in getting away with it, will feel he can do it again. Depending on the wrong, that may not be a good idea. Children need correcting as they are learning how to be part of society. Those who commit real crimes need to be at least taken away from society, but as you know, that's NOT how our justice system works at all. So, there is a time to say "Ah, no" and there is a time to say "Meh". What we're talking about, really, is deciding which is which.
You've probably noticed that every person has a different opinion of where that dividing line is. From the smallest affronts to the most serious crimes ever committed (e.g. genocide), each person, each conscience has a different set of limits. I don't think that will ever change.
What I'm talking about here, is how we react not because we see or don't see a need to "correct" a person's behaviour towards us, but how we react based on how it affects our own feelings and sense of importance.
People aren't honest about this. In a minor incident, and I'm going to use a real example I was given recently, there may be no real harm done, but there is a wide choice of options open to the wronged party.
A landscaper was delivering soil to a wealthy and rather snooty customer. Some of it spilled on the driveway and the lawn beside it. To the snooty lady, this was a major incident. Presumably she's used to having everything just so, getting her own way, and so on. She could have asked them, nicely, to clean it up, but instead she chose to insist they leave her property, never come back, and she'd be in touch. She then called Tyler's boss to come and clean it up, and presumably she sent the bill to the other guys.
I expect her lawyer was informed, and I daresay somewhere there is paperwork using words like damages, and so on.
It was soil. It goes away in the rain, and at the most it takes 5 minutes with a broom to clean up. The obvious solution was to ask the spiller to get on that. She could have been as rude as she liked, if that's what she needs to do to satisfy her feeling of being wronged, but she opted to make a big deal of it.
My guess is that anyone reading this has little if any sympathy for her, but most people who think they are reasonable behave like that, in other ways, every day of their lives. What's worse they do it not only to strangers but to those closest to them.
It's because we are close to people that affronts become such a big deal. There is a feeling of betrayal, why would somebody we love treat us so shabbily? We get offended BECAUSE it is a person close to us. Our expectations of them are not met.
If it is a person we don't particularly like, but who is a regular and inevitable part of our lives, perhaps unavoidable, we can really build up a dossier of resentment against them for their "crimes".
Who suffers the most when we choose be be insulted or harmed? We do. Does our expression of displeasure, or even our words of censure change them for the better? No. So is anything solved by getting upset, whether we voice it or not? No.
If we are wise, the first thing we do is learn to pick our battles. If by saying or doing something we stand a chance of making a difference, then maybe it's worth it. If we approach these situations pragmatically instead of emotionally, we can decide what to do based on effectiveness rather than our own egos.
This isn't easy, especially with repeat offenders. Sometimes people are just annoying, frankly. In a situation where a person you can't avoid is consistently "difficult", rude, or in whatever way offensive, it is going to get to you. You're only human.
But if you can let it go, without actually enabling them, you'll do yourself less harm.
People behaving badly really are just dirt on your path. You can sweep it up or you can wait for the rain to wash it away. It doesn't have to eat away at you, you don't have to hold grudges, you have a choice as to how you react. The first step to letting go is that choice, and it is yours to make.
This is a very basic, and realistic aspect of non-attachment, and if you practice it, if you learn to shrug things off either because nothing you do will help, or indeed because there's nothing you can do, you will be happier, I promise you. If you choose not to be attached to your sense of having been wronged, when it is minor, and really no big deal, then you will also find it easier to cope with bigger wrongs.
Resentment harms you.