Attachment Versus Engagement: How We Learn to Be in the World and Not Lost in it

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One of the most commonly confused spiritual terms is that of attachment. Because society has confused attachment as a kind of commitment and not being attached as a kind of passive, laissez-faire attitude, the idea of letting go of attachment sounds like lunacy. It sounds like you'd stop caring for your kids and go run out and join a traveling circus.

Once again, we need to pause and look at our definitions. On the spiritual path, we look to see what definitions and strictures we've constructed around us. We always have to ask ourselves if this definition is helping me to better engage and know my inner and outer worlds. Or is this definition limiting my perspective and my view of myself and others? If you take nothing else from this spirituality blog post, then just take that suggestion from the last two sentences. It will serve you very well.

Definitions of Attachment and Engagement

While I don't mean to hold onto any definitions too tightly, here are two definitions of mine to help you along on your path.


The quality of needing people, situations, and other things to adhere to a certain way of acting and producing certain types of outcomes. Often, this is a future-focused attitude or an attitude that is focused on what an individual can get out of it. At it's simplest level, attachment is about control.

Example: You are attached to your kids getting good grades so that they eventually get into to good colleges. More truthfully, you are afraid of the judgment other people would have of you if your kids failed because you are afraid of being judged a failure yourself.



The quality of interacting fully in the present moment without needing any particular outcome. Engagement is flexible and able to change as the present moment presents new information or opportunities.

Example: You are engaged and committed with your kids to help them succeed in school. However, failure or success in classes doesn't change how you feel about them, the school, or other parts of the situation. By staying fully engaged with them, you may instead better see what path is appropriate for them, and perhaps college isn't that path. You stay flexible to change with your kids and to change how you guide them.

The Open Hand That Receives and Flexibility

In the examples, you can already see a big difference: flexibility. Attachment tends to have a rigid quality to it. You HAVE to have things go a certain way, and you HAVE to get a certain feeling or outcome. With engagement, you are fully present and committed, and in so being, you can adjust to changing situations without getting lost in trying to impose your idea of things onto others around you. You are flexible. That agility allows you to grow, and it allows others to grow. It allows you to have a certain level of dexterity with life that is required in a world that is ever-changing. Without it, we become increasingly miserable as we see how little we can control on the spiritual path. Engagement is the path of the open hand.

In life, things are always in flux. The best things that I have often enjoyed are those that are freely given. In this way, I receive with an open-hand, and I keep that hand open. I can protect this hand by using my other hand as a shield if necessary--which is often a lot less necessary than we think--but I don't close my receiving hand into a fist. That suffocates and crushes the gift. In turn--especially if this is a relationship--it often makes the gift want to run away. How often have some of you felt this in relationships? You felt crushed or suffocated, or you felt like the other person was somehow trying to running away from you. Pause now and think if you were receiving that relationship with an open hand or were you crushing it with expectations and smothering it in general.

The Dark Path of Attachment

Attachment is everywhere. Everywhere you look people are attached to things; it's why people think of this as the norm, not the exception. It's why it's so easily confused with commitment. But as you may have noticed in my early comments, being engaged implies a full commitment to the moment, and the present moment is the only moment in which we can be fully committed. We don't know what the future holds, and we don't live in those moments because they are purely conceptual. They don't exist outside of this moment (and please, let's not get into theoretical banter about the nature of time at this juncture; it's just an escape). The reality is that we are right here, right now.

However, so many people try to control the rest of the moments of life. They try to ensure that profit margins are high for years to come. They try to ensure that they'll be in a relationship for the rest of their lives. They try to ensure that they have the best car, the right social group, and so many other things. Again and again, attachment rears its head to try and enforce some kind of outcome onto EVERYTHING. It is quite exhausting. That's part of the reason many of you find yourself quite exhausted by the time you get to the spiritual path as you look for some kind of soothing nectar or salve. But the solution is not on an external path, a form of self improvement, or a spiritual high-state experience. The solution is in you, and it starts by letting go.

Letting Go, Letting Go, and Staying Engaged

Here is the crux of the problem most people have. They don't understand how to let go and stay engaged. But this is actually not a difficult thing. Usually the first thing that has to be let go of (and also the last thing--it comes around numerous times) is control. The illusion of control is the only way that attachment can truly exist. If we don't think we can control the outcomes at some level, then there is no reason to be attached to anything. It's impossible. It's impossible because we quickly see that all is change. Even if we are completely out of control and think that life "does" everything to us, this victim mentality is also another type of control. The ego thinks that it has found an attitude that thinks can explain its life. Just go and show a victim how powerful they are, and they will want to run from you. They want to run from it because this attitude is a subtle level of control over their view of life, and seeing their true power is disrupting that control. And most people are more attached and committed to their illusions and pain than they are to being free.

With all that said, we practice letting go, and we stay engaged with life. We let go of our attachments and goals for our kids, but we stay engaged with them during their growth. We set boundaries as is necessary, but we know at times that those boundaries will be challenged or ignored. We open our hearts to our children, but we know at times that that love will be spurned. We still continue to stay open, and in this way, we also delve deeper into our attachments. We find out where we are attached to getting love back from our children. We find out where we are attached to getting social approval for raising "good" children. We find out a lot of things in this particular example, and we grow tremendously. Seriously, being engaged is hardly being uncommitted or unreliable. Actually it is the most reliable and loving way we can be.

The Releasing of Old Patterns

What we find out as we go down this path is that we really haven't been engaged with our lives. We've been trying to steer the cart towards some kind of direction or outcome, but we also never really knew what was down that road. How many sports athletes strive for some kind of trophy or goal? How many more never reach that despite enduring great pain and difficulty? While pain and difficulty aren't necessarily signs of going down the wrong path, we do pay attention to how much we suffer. Where pain and suffering converge is when we simply are perpetuating pain again and again for no reason. Of course, the ego always thinks it has a reason that we should be in pain if nothing else because it thinks "the world is cruel." But part of releasing attachments will include releasing old patterns and unhealthy habits. We begin to see how we've been the architects of the vast majority of our suffering, and this is where the importance of forgiveness begins. In staying engaged with our lives, how we interact begins to radically change. But we have to choose to do this and make a commit to learn new behaviors. If we were always yelling at our children for not getting good grades, then we now have to choose a new way of interacting with them. That will lead to times of transition and uncertainty. That will lead many of you into your fears of the unknown, which is part of why many attachments got created in the first place.

Trying to Make the World a Safe Place

First off, the world is not a safe place. Secondly, we can never MAKE it a safe place. It is as it is. Even if we weren't so lost in ego games and creating wars within ourselves and against each other, there would be diseases, hurricanes, and a vast majority of other tragic things that can happen. The world is not safe, and it never will be. With that said, attachment and our idea of control have come about precisely to try and make the world around us safe. We believe that certain outcomes are better than others, and we create the attachments around us that we think will do us the most good. Many times, we are dead wrong. Familiarity is often linked into attachments, and what is familiar for many of you is actually full of pain. That goes for a lot of people who have had difficult and abusive upbringings. This isn't a bad thing perse, but it is important to claim your power to change your old habits and the internal dialogue that says, "Such and such people are safe and others aren't," because in abusive upbringings these internal dialogues are wrong. It's because love and abuse got linked together, and then attachments were born out of that. It is all a very sticky spider web at times, but you can get out of it. However, you have to stay aware and engaged with all of it to see it for what it truly is.

The Lasting Game-Changer of Engagement

Being engaged with life helps you to be in this world fully. You aren't running away or avoiding things by becoming detached. Instead, you are taking a step back within the very moment. Right when things are triggering you to be attached to someone (holding onto a relationship that wants to transition because you are afraid that transition means it will end), you have to pause. Breathe in. One conscious breath at the right time can make the difference between a hugely painful choice and a hugely helpful decision. It really is that small of a thing and that profound of a thing. That's one way that we can become better engaged with life.

Anywhere that we let others make choices for us, we have to take back the reins. That can cause upheavals at times. For those who are healing victim identities, stepping into engagement and reclaiming your power may be messy. But it is necessary for you to live your life fully and not be lost in the games of your own attachments to being a victim and the whims of what others would do to you. It is a game changer to truly engage in your own life.

Releasing Attachments, Reclaiming Your Life

Again and again, you will have to let go. I often say that the spiritual path is initially a path of loss. While ultimately, nothing is lost in life, it can feel that way at first. This will pass. It passes because as we let go of attachments we feel a lot lighter. The more attachments to things and people we give up, it's like we cutting away the spider webs that have restricted our movements for our entire lives. Pretty soon, you have more freedom than you truly know what to do with. In this way, the spiritual path can become a little addictive, but freedom is the best kind of addiction you can have. From this space, you can fully engage with your life, and whatever arises, arises. Whatever is in your heart, now has the freedom to fully emerge, and that is a beautiful sight to behold indeed.

This picture is gift from Becky Stiller. You can see more of her photography on this Flickr link.


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