What is Unattachment and Why Is it Important for our Health and Well-being?

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“Don’t hold on to someone who’s leaving, otherwise you won’t meet the one who’s coming”-Carl Jung

When we were young my husband and I fell deeply, madly, passionately in love with each other and simultaneously with a beautiful twenty acre piece of land nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. It was (and is) a magical place with a creek and open pasture, edged by huge big leaf maples and towering cedar trees. The views of the surrounding mountains were incredible. It felt wild and expansive and we rose to the challenge of filling every inch of it with beautiful dreams of a home and gardens and a family. We were visionaries of the most incredible life and this was the place we were going to sink our roots in and live our whole lives long.

The property wasn’t quite legally subdivided and so couldn’t officially be sold yet, but we were confident that things would be taken care of. The owner was open to us using it until all of the permitting was completed. We happily got to work planting trees, putting in a garden, building a tree house and garden shed. After a year or so things were still not finalized, but seemed to be moving in the right direction. We built an arbor and on a sunny August day got married there and celebrated with the entire community.

We waited five years for permits to be filed and subdivisions to be completed. We waited five years before the whole thing crumbled. The owners went through a bad divorce, there was a family misunderstanding…we never really understood fully what happened (isn’t that sometimes the way with things that break our hearts). We were told the land was no longer for sale and wouldn’t be.

We were lost. I mean to say we were completely wrecked. Done for. Brokenhearted. Shocked. Angry. Confused. We practiced the opposite of unattachment. We were so angry! And we held onto our anger and simmered in it and with no productive way forward we stumbled through life for awhile. As a couple we suffered and our marriage suffered too.  We felt victimized. Someone had taken all of our dreams and crushed them. Someone had broken years of promises with no apologies and no alternatives. Who were we even now? What were our dreams?

Slowly we found our way through. Slowly we built new dreams and a beautiful life that we never could have imagined at the time – but not before a lot of lost time and more heartache than was necessary.

When you spend an extended amount of time in a negative state (such as holding onto anger) there are very real physical repercussions. It is it’s own kind of chronic stress. Under stress your body releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol which in small doses can be helpful in certain situations, but when they course through our system on a regular basis they can have a very real negative effect on our hearts and brains. Research has shown that chronic stress can cause you to actually become hardwired to react to new situations in a negative way and can inhibit growth of brain cells that make connections to the prefrontal cortex-the part of our brain responsible for learning new things and creating memories.

My husband and I were talking about it the other day and he asked me what I would do differently now. At that point in our lives we did the best we could with the experiences and tools that we had. But if I could go back now and talk to myself I would tell myself to cultivate gratitude. To focus more on the good things that happened there and less on the the things that were “taken from us”. I would work on reframing the situation to realize that we weren’t victims, that we chose to hold on for as long as we did. I would journal and meditate and breathe and look ahead to new adventures and I would try to let go more gracefully. Those feelings of anger and bitterness didn’t serve me and they didn’t change the outcome of the situation at all.

So I’m writing to you today about the power of unattachment because I wish it was something that I had known about and cultivated back then. That piece of property was never ours. Despite paperwork sometimes saying otherwise we don’t ever truly own a place. Another person no matter how much we love them does not belong to us. And as much as you might want something and work towards a dream you can never be absolutely certain of the outcome.

Please don’t take this post the wrong way. Dreaming big is not a bad thing! Loving deeply is the only way! Taking time to mourn something you’ve loved and lost is a necessary part of moving on. Do those things with your life! And then when it’s time to move on from a dream or a person or an expectation take a deep breath and let go.

Practicing unattachment can help on any scale – from letting go of someone who has broken our heart to letting go of our expectations that we won’t get stuck in traffic or that another person is going to feel the same way about something that we do. When we are able to set aside our expectations we are able to find peace. When we practice unattachment we are able to meet the challenges this sometimes tumultuous life puts forward gracefully and calmly.

Unattachment does not mean you need to live in a cave somewhere in the Olympic rain forest with only a hand-carved wooden bowl and spoon as possessions. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t love deeply and passionately and madly. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong to feel that little surge of giddiness when you put on that new pair of jeans that fit you just perfectly. It simply means being able to let go gracefully when it’s time to so that you can move forward towards the rest of your life with an open heart and no regrets.

Be happy, be health, be well.

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