And why non-attachment isn’t avoidance
“It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”
– Aldous Huxley, Island
There is no love without lightness
It’s understandable to hear “non-attachment” as “avoidance” and “lightness” as “unengaged.” But this is to misunderstand the real nature of good love, and loving with care.
Love means engagement — without clinging. It means care — with release.
There is danger in “loving too hard.”
The danger to your beloved
Sometimes children make this mistake with small animals. They “love” them so much that, in their rapture over holding or “hugging” them, they inadvertently crush or suffocate them.
It’s a dark and painful realization, but illustrates the very real dangers of mis-channeling love beyond “care.” Of loving too hard. Of holding too tightly.
We’d like to think this heartbreaking mistake is specific to children, but it’s not. Adults make this mistake — albeit emotionally — all the time.
There are dangers to ourselves, too.
When we get too attached to — whether to a small animal or a person — rather than recognizing it foremost as a real creature with its own little finite life, we set ourselves up for heartbreak.
We think love means loss, but it doesn’t. Life means loss, but love means lightness. Love means unleashed.
We can love fully without clinging. We can allow it space to breathe.
Love is understanding how life works
Our own. Others’. And in general.
We have to understand two truths in our heart:
- We will eventually lose everything we cherish
- But it is life’s fragility that makes each relationship more — not less — precious
Too often we focus on the second bullet and deny the reality of the first. We foster anxieties and fears over “losing” our partner, of them “leaving” us. We deny ourselves the full potential of happiness
The difference between healthy love and attachment is: Can I step back and allow composure, spaciousness, and caring?
If you’re honest, the answer is clear.
Clinging vs. releasing
And how love is always a loose hold and never a tight one.
In Buddhism there’s a term, upadana, which means “clinging,” or “taking something up” as in picking up an object. Upadana is encountering something and then wanting to hold on at all costs. By clinging, we initiate suffering — if we don’t get the object of desire we suffer; if we do get the object of desire, it will ultimately change or fade away, and we suffer.
We want to defend ourselves against threats to our desire, physical and psychological, and so we cling more tightly. But the tighter we cling, the more desperate our expectations in the impossible: we don’t control other living things. And ultimately everything needs to breathe and change.
To release it or “put it down” is the opposite of upadana. It is not non-engagement; on the contrary, you can be fully present and engaged while remaining light. We aren’t looking to push away the wholesome aspects of love and affection. We are looking to recognize that “to love” means “to let.”
How it looks
We already know how to love lightly.
Imagine how we watch sunsets. We fully appreciate and indulge in their beauty without desperation for them to suspend themselves in space and time for us. We let them fade away, and we’re okay.
Imagine how (good) parents raise children — with complete care and affection, but understanding that they are little people who will grow up into their own lives. (Note that it’s only the broken-hearted who “wish they’d still little forever” or dump their emotional needs on their kids.) To love them is to leave them to the universe.
And it’s the same with partners. To love them is to recognize that they live, too. And to let them breathe.
To love them — fully — is to appreciate them each day. Give them our care and compassion and attention. It means seeking to understand their viewpoint, empathizing with their struggles, celebrating their wins, and supporting their journey. It means listening, touching gently, and treating their experience with the same kindness as our own. It means caring without crushing or clinging.
To love means giving them full range of motion, and space to exist in their lives. It means accepting that what we have will one day fade away — due to death or change. It means recognizing them as other people not responsible for our emotions — or emotional wellbeing. It means managing our own lived experience just as much as we allow them theirs. It is allowing them space to make mistakes, to be imperfect (forever), to have space to live their own lives that are separate from ours.
It means not fighting against the possibility of loss; it means appreciating each day as though all we have is here and now, rather than trying (futilely) to protect ourselves against them leaving.