Non-attachment is a pretty familiar concept within the worlds of yoga and meditation. In Buddhism, the word anicca refers to the concept of impermanence, that nothing stays the same. A major source of our suffering as humans is our desire for things to remain as they are, to slow the inevitable flow of time and change. We think non-attachment means that we shouldn’t get too attached to things, shouldn’t love them so hard because they might leave.
Some people take anica as a sad truth about the world. The first flush of love, the innocence of our children, our youth—these things cannot remain, and trying to hold onto them only makes it worse. And yet, how useful to know that the pain of heartbreak, the tyranny of a terrible boss, or the seemingly endless campaign trail of presidential hopefuls has no higher chance of lasting.
Telling a teenager suffering through the travails of high school that “it gets better” is a hopeful phrase, but it’s not necessarily true—for some kids, things get worse. But what they won’t do is stay the same. Change of some kind is inevitable, and knowing that you won’t always be dealing with this particular challenge is a helpful way to remember that the future exists, you don’t know what happens in it, and you can’t control most outcomes. This may be a strange comfort, but it is a comfort nonetheless.
This doesn’t mean we should float through life impassively, refusing to feel the inevitable highs and lows of being human. Impermanence isn’t a reason to detach ourselves from loving our world or the people around us. On the contrary, non-attachment means we must love things as hard as we can because they will change.
When we absolve the people we love from the responsibility of staying the same, we have a chance to see them for who they really are. We give them the space to learn and grow and evolve, and we learn to see them past the idea we have of them in our heads. When we come across a lucky break, the joy of a promotion, or a quick getaway, we know those feelings won’t last, so we must soak them up as much as possible rather than trying to temper our feelings in preparation for their inevitable end.
I learned a certain superstition from a young age that luck and joy were not to be trusted. When things were going well, I learned to brace myself for the other shoe to drop, the cosmic payment that would rebalance things out of my favor again. This is a phenomenon many people experience that vulnerability researcher Brené Brown has called “foreboding joy.”
Fundamentally, joy makes us feel vulnerable, so we hold it with suspicion, and often try to throw it away, conjuring up as many reasons as we can that we shouldn’t lean into it, that something will happen to take it away. Ironically, when things are going badly for us, we often staunchly believe that this is how it’s always going to be, and don’t temper our negative feelings with the same logic that joy must also come eventually.
When we know for sure that everything changes, we must learn to be present. We must learn to engage fully with our pain and sadness because it has lessons for us and it won’t always be there. We must also be vigilant for moments of joy, no matter how brief, and give ourselves the chance to completely soak them up, not as if they could last, but precisely because they absolutely won’t.