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Letting Go of Attachment: From A to Zen

Jumping for Joy

“Most of our troubles are due to our passionate desire for and attachment to things that we misapprehend as enduring entities.” ~Dalai Lama

If there’s one thing we all have in common it’s that we want to feel happy; and on the other side of that coin, we want to avoid hurting. Yet we consistently put ourselves in situations that set us up for pain.

We pin our happiness to people, circumstances, and things and hold onto them for dear life. We stress about the possibility of losing them when something seems amiss. Then we melt into grief when something changes—a lay off, a breakup, or a transfer.

We attach to feelings as if they define us, and ironically, not just positive ones. If you’ve wallowed in regret or disappointment for years, it can seem safe and even comforting to suffer.

In trying to hold on to what’s familiar, we limit our ability to experience joy in the present. A moment can’t possibly radiate fully when you’re suffocating it in fear.

When you stop trying to grasp, own, and control the world around you, you give it the freedom to fulfill you without the power to destroy you. That’s why letting go is so important— letting go is letting happiness in.

It’s no simple undertaking to let go of attachment—not a one-time decision, like pulling off a band-aid. Instead, it’s a day-to-day, moment-to-moment commitment that involves changing the way you experience and interact with everything you instinctively want to grasp.

The best approach is to start simple, at the beginning, and work your way to Zen.

Experiencing Without Attachment

Accept the moment for what it is.

Don’t try to turn it into yesterday; that moment’s gone. Don’t plot about how you can make the moment last forever. Just seep into the moment and enjoy it, because it will eventually pass. Nothing is permanent. Fighting that reality will only cause you pain.

Believe now is enough.

It’s true—tomorrow may not look the same as today, no matter how much you try to control it. A relationship might end. You might have to move. You’ll deal with those moments when they come. All you need right now is to appreciate and enjoy what you have. It’s enough.

Call yourself out.

Learn what it looks like to grasp at people, things, or circumstances so you can redirect your thoughts when they veer toward attachment—when you dwell on keeping, controlling, manipulating, or losing something instead of simply experiencing it.

Define yourself in fluid terms.

We are all constantly evolving and growing. Define yourself in terms that can withstand change. Defining yourself by possessions, roles, and relationships breeds attachment, because loss entails losing not just what you have, but also who you are.

Enjoy now fully.

No matter how much time you have in an experience or with someone you love, it will never feel like enough. So don’t think about it in terms of quantity; aim for quality instead. Attach to the idea of living well from moment to moment. That’s an attachment that can do you no harm.

Letting Go of Attachment to People

Friend yourself.

It will be harder to let people go when necessary if you depend on them for your sense of worth. Believe you’re worthy whether someone else tells you or not. This way, you relate to people, not just how they make you feel about yourself.

Go it alone sometimes.

Take time to foster your own interests, ones that nothing and no one can take away. Don’t let them hinge on anyone or anything other than your values and passion.

Hold lightly.

This one isn’t just about releasing attachments; it’s also about maintaining healthy relationships. Contrary to romantic notions, you are not someone’s other half. You’re separate and whole. You can still hold someone to close to your heart; just remember, if you squeeze too tightly, you’ll both be suffocated.

Interact with lots of people.

If you limit yourself to one or two relationships, they will seem like your lifelines. Everyone needs people, and there are billions on the planet. Stay open to new connections. Accept the possibility your future involves a lot of love whether you cling to a select few people or not.

Justify less.

I can’t let him go—I’ll be miserable without him. I’d die if I lost her—she’s all that I have. These thoughts reinforce beliefs that are not fact, even if they feel like it. The only way to let go and feel less pain is to believe you’re strong enough to carry on if and when things change.

Letting Go of Attachment to the Past

Know you can’t change the past.

Even if you think about over and over again. Even if you punish yourself. Even if you refuse to accept it. It’s done. The only way to relieve your pain about what happened is to give yourself relief. No one and nothing else can create peace in your head for you.

Love instead of fearing.

When you hold onto the past, it often has to do with fear—fear you messed up your chance at happiness, or fear you’ll never know such happiness again. Focus on what you love and you’ll create happiness instead of worrying about it.

Make now count.

Instead of thinking of what you did or didn’t do, the type of person you were or weren’t, do something worthwhile now. Be someone worthwhile now. Take a class. Join a group. Help someone who needs it. Make today so full and meaningful there’s no room to dwell on yesterday.

Narrate calmly.

How we experience the world is largely a result of how we internalize it. Instead of telling yourself dramatic stories about the past—how hurt you were or how hard it was—challenge your emotions and focus on lessons learned. That’s all you really need from yesterday.

Open your mind.

We often cling to things, situations, or people because we’re comfortable with them. We know how they’ll make us feel, whether it’s happy or safe. Consider that new things, situations, and people may affect you the same. The only way to find out is to let go of what’s come and gone.

Letting Go of Attachment to Outcomes

Practice letting things be.

That doesn’t mean you can’t actively work to create a different tomorrow. It just means you make peace with the moment as it is, without worrying that something’s wrong with you or your life, and then operate from a place of acceptance.

Question your attachment.

If you’re attached to a specific outcome—a dream job or the perfect relationship—you may be indulging an illusion about some day when everything will be lined up for happiness. No moment will ever be worthier of your joy than now because that’s all there ever is.

Release the need to know.

Life entails uncertainty, no matter how strong your intention. Obsessing about tomorrow wastes your life because there will always be a tomorrow on the horizon. There are no guarantees about how it will play out. Just know it hinges on how well you live today.

Serve your purpose now.

You don’t need to have x-amount of money in the bank to live a meaningful life right now. Figure out what matters to you, and fill pockets of time indulging it. Audition for community theater. Volunteer with animals. Whatever you love, do it. Don’t wait—do it now.

Teach others.

It’s human nature to hope for things in the future. Even the most enlightened people fall into the habit from time to time. Remind yourself to stay open to possibilities by sharing the idea with other people. Blog about it. Talk about it. Tweet about it. Opening up helps keep you open.

Letting Go of Attachment to Feelings

Understand that pain is unavoidable.

No matter how well you do everything on this list, or on your own short list for peace, you will lose things that matter and feel some level of pain. But it doesn’t have to be as bad as you think. As the saying goes, pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

Vocalize your feelings.

Feel them, acknowledge them, express them, and then let them naturally transform. Even if you want to dwell in anger, sadness, or frustration—especially if you feel like dwelling—save yourself the pain and commit to working through them.

Write it down.

Then toss it out. You won’t always have the opportunity to express your feelings to the people who inspired them. That doesn’t mean you need to swallow them. Write in a journal. Write a letter and burn it. Anything that helps you let go.

Xie Xie.

It means thank you in Chinese. Fully embrace your happy moments—love with abandon; be so passionate it’s contagious. If a darker moment follows, remember: It will teach you something, and soon enough you’ll be in another happy moment to appreciate. Everything is cyclical.

Yield to peace.

The ultimate desire is to feel happy and peaceful. Even if you think you want to stay angry, what you really want is to be at peace with what happened or will happen. It takes a conscious choice. Make it.

Zen your now.

Experience, appreciate, enjoy, and let go to welcome another experience.

It won’t always be easy. Sometimes you’ll feel compelled to attach yourself physically and mentally to people and ideas—as if it gives you some sense of control or security. You may even strongly believe you’ll be happy if you struggle to hold onto what you have. That’s okay. It’s human nature.

Just know you have the power to choose from moment to moment how you experience things you enjoy: with a sense of ownership, anxiety, and fear, or with a sense of freedom, peace, and love.

The most important question: What do you choose right now?

Jumping for joy image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Lori Deschene

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. To strengthen your relationships, get her new book, Tiny Buddha's 365 Tiny Love Challenges. For inspiring posts and wisdom quotes, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter & Facebook.

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  • This has been a year of letting go of a number of attachments. Even though it was out of necessity rather than a spiritual goal, life does feel a lot leaner. It’s a great time to think about what attachments I want to eliminate before stepping into 2016. This and your other recent article sparked a line of thought which helped me to get rid of an attachment that has been nagging me for a few months. Thanks a lot for sharing Lori!

  • Craggy

    This post is just what I needed to read.I have been dumped by a lady I adored 3 weeks ago,and have been very low since.The only thing that sustained me was discovering Ekhart Tolle.I have watched so many of his videos on YouTube.If only I could experience life like he does,but there is no reason why I can’t.There is only this moment,this is it.

  • Jacki

    Beautiful!…..

  • Prabha

    Enlightening! There are so many wise and helpful thoughts and statements in this article ! Thank you .

  • You’re most welcome, Prabha!

  • Thanks so much, Jacki!

  • I’m so sorry to hear about your break-up, Craggy. Elkhart Tolle’s work has been incredibly helpful to me, as well. The Power of Now is a life-changing book!

  • That sounds like a wonderful goal for the New Year, Peter! I’m actually doing that, as well. You’re most welcome. =)

  • Lisa Topaz

    I don’t understand, please help me. Does this mean I should be letting go of expectations that after 14 years and a 10 year old daughter the man of my life would marry me? 1.5 years ago, he did propose, However, he cancelled the wedding 2 weeks before it was supposed to happen. So, how do I go about things, do I simply stay even though I feel rejected? do I simply except his comments of “not being a family man”, without being hurt while the most important thing to me is family? Please help me learn to stay, for the sake of our daughter.

  • Hi Lisa,

    I’m so sorry to hear about what you’ve been through. I can only imagine how painful this has been for you. Given that your boyfriend has communicated that he’s not a family man, how do you imagine it would benefit your daughter to stay? Is he a family man in actions, just not in labels?

    Lori

  • Katryn

    so much meaningful words for this article. i think this is the best way to start our 2016. Before I read this, I was in a dilemma when it comes to my relationship. Since its LDR theres so much room for doubts, fear, uncertainty. I wanted to be in control with the relationship. I always wanted to be re-assured. I feel scared bec. I might loose the relationship that we built for more than 2 yrs. I feel so much agony because I really love the person. but in the long run of controlling things, how he feels I end up suffocating him & the relationship. he come to the point that he wanted to have his own time and life. Honestly I dont know what to do. were just two individual who refused to let go.

  • Michael Washington

    I am a long time Tiny Buddha reader. This is one of the best written articles I have ever read on the subject. It is thorough and complete. It has also been on my mind for the past two days. It is so true yet many things are difficult to accept. You ‘hit it out of the park’ on this one.

  • Thanks Michael – what a wonderful compliment to receive!

  • I’m so sorry to hear about your relationship, Katryn. Long-distance relationships can be so tough. I know how tempting it is to try to control things, especially when you’re afraid of what you might lose. I hope you’re taking good care of yourself while you work through the pain of this loss. You are in my thoughts!

  • Indy

    This article has come at the right moment for me. It has helped to focus on my self and also empowered me.

  • I’m glad it helped, Indy!

  • Kristin Cox

    I LOVE this. I definitely need to print this out and hang it on my wall. 🙂

  • I’m glad you found it helpful!

  • Catch22

    I love this blog and have found it to be really comforting and useful in times of stress. I’m currently going through a period of transition in my life, and find myself in an undesirable situation that I never thought would come about. After deciding to leave a straight-out-of-uni job (I’m 22) that I felt was unfulfilling and not a great match to me, but involved a really fun, close-nit lifestyle (living in-residence with other young like-minded people, travelling, and a busy social life), I find myself lost and longing for the past more than anything. My half-baked plans of travelling after leaving the job did not work out, and I am at a complete loss of what to do (applying for jobs outside of my hometown without much success) I know that I’m young and this is all part of the learning process of life, but I absolutely hate my current position in life – I’m back with my parents, without my close-nit friends (who at the time where also planning on leaving, but last minute changed and stayed) and essentially feeling like I have royally messed up my life and chances of success and happiness. I constantly feel that I have made a huge mistake, even though my close friends and colleagues assure me that there was very little left in the way of opportunity and professional development in my old role, besides a comfortable life style and living with (international) friends. I feel that I should have stayed where I was, and would give anything to go back and change my younger-self’s naiive decision. I feel like all my problems that I am currently battling with would be solved if only I had just had the sense to stay where I was. I know that I need to make peace with my current situation, and let go of attachment to the past, to the people in my past, and to expected future outcomes, but how can I do that when the past really was SO much better than the present that I have foolishly managed to land myself in?

    Again – I realise that there are far bigger problems in life. But I would seriously appreciate advice and examples of overcoming situations like this from people who have experienced this feeling of failure. Thank you!

  • Jess

    I’ve been down lately due to being attached to my ex (we broke up a few days ago) and i read somewhere that you have to break that attachment and accept, then move on. This article really helps reinforce that. It’s hard to detach from things we hold dear, but with the right mind frame we can accomplish it. I’m hoping to be detached soon and move on.

  • I’m so sorry to hear about your break-up, Jess.

    You might want to check this out: http://tinybuddha.com/blog/how-to-let-go-of-a-past-relationship-10-steps-to-peacefully-move-on/

    In this post, I shared my experience moving past the break-up of my first long-term relationship. I hope this helps!

  • eknim

    I am leaving tomorrow to a remote location with no contact with the outside world for the next 6 months to pursue my dreams. I am excited but I am also feeling sad to leave my family and loved ones, especially the challenge of not having any means to communicate or keep in touch. Your article just made me feel so much better! I am going to keep this article and read it every time I miss my loved ones, Thank you 🙂

  • You’re most welcome! I can understand why you have mixed feelings about this. But how exciting that you’re going on this new adventure and pursuing your dreams! =)

  • Toni

    Hi Michael have you been in this situation? As a man how did you cope up? Men and Women do we have different ways dealing with pain and heartaches. Do you also get hurt the same intensity as women. I just came out from 10 years relationship I have been cheated and it’s like the whole world shattered. I don’t know how to deal with it. I want to understand that this is possible to happen. I am so devastated. I need help in acceptance.

  • Toni

    so does I .. me too just a few days ago…. I am still shattered, broken and hurting….. I don’t know how to move on…..

  • Michael Washington

    Yes men get hurt the same as women, and they also do things to hurt the same as women. I have been in a 7 year relationship and was devastated when it was over. How did I handle it? At the time badly. What I get from the article is that all attachments are damaging, work, family, love life. I can only experience the grace in the present moment. Good luck, this too shall pass.

  • darren white

    This is a great article thank you

  • You’re most welcome!

  • Anuj

    I loved this article and I hope I could apply the solutions given because suffering for months with pain really breaks the heart.
    Lori, your statement “When you hold onto the past, it often has to do with fear—fear you messed up your chance at happiness, or fear you’ll never know such happiness again” is an eye opener. Everyday I feel, I have lost my happiness from what should have been. Its a terrible feeling in the heart and I realize I need to let it go to be peaceful. Thanks for your help.

  • You’re most welcome, Anuj.. I’m so sorry for the pain you’ve been feeling. You are in my thoughts!

  • Rhane Menard

    Thank you. I needed this.

  • You’re most welcome. =)