By Steve Taylor (An Excerpt from “Extraordinary Awakenings”)
A significant lesson we can learn from the shifters who have experienced transformation through turmoil is to live in a mode of detachment. By this I don’t mean a state of emotional detachment, in which we are indifferent to other people or world affairs. I mean a state in which we don’t derive our identity and well-being from external things or mental concepts; I mean a state of being inwardly content and self-sufficient without attachment to possessions, achievements, roles, status, and ambitions.
In psychological terms the dissolution of attachments is the most important aspect of the shifters’ transformations. Since attachments are the building blocks of the ego, the dissolution of attachments leads to the dissolution of the ego itself, which allows a latent higher self to be born.
In this section I will show you how to practice a conscious form of detachment.
Becoming Aware of Your Attachments
First, we need to become aware of our attachments. Sometimes we have carried attachments for so long, and they have attached themselves to us so subtly, that we may not even be conscious of them.
There are so many different types of attachments that it’s difficult to describe them all. In their most obvious and “heaviest” form, attachments occur in the form of addiction — physical addiction to substances like drugs, cigarettes, food, or chocolate, and psychological addiction to electronic devices or to social media. Slightly less overtly, we may be attached to material objects, such as money and possessions. We may also be attached to our own bodies as material objects, caring excessively about our appearance or feeling depressed about the process of aging.
Less overtly still but perhaps most significant of all are our conceptual attachments. For example, we might be attached to our conceptual identity as a member of a national or ethnic group or to our identity and role as a spouse, parent, sibling, and so on. We might be attached to a concept of our status or achievements, feeling that we are “important” and successful people, superior to others. We may be attached in a similar way to our beliefs, our hopes, and our ambitions.
All these attachments build our sense of identity and hold together our ego as a structure. As already suggested, you can picture them as the building blocks of the ego.
In my workshops I often give people a list of different types of attachments and ask them to consider how attached they are to each one. Awareness is liberating in itself. To an extent, simply being aware of your attachments helps you to become free of them.
At the same time, we can take steps to free ourselves from attachments, which I will guide you through now.
Detaching through Spiritual Practice
One of the best ways to help free ourselves from attachments is simply to practice meditation or to follow a spiritual path of some form. Fundamentally, we need attachments because of our separate and fragile ego. Our attachments bolster and reinforce the ego so that it no long feels so vulnerable. So the most fundamental way of releasing ourselves from attachments is to heal the ego itself. This means cultivating a state of inner well-being and wholeness, which removes the need to seek identity and well-being outside ourselves. Without a sense of ego-separation, we won’t feel a sense of lack and fragility, so we will be able to let go of our attachments.
This is the main aim of meditation: to soften the ego as a structure so that its boundaries become weaker and we transcend our normal sense of separation. Meditation helps us to feel connected rather than separate, as if we were participating rather than just observing, without a sense of lack or fragility. It’s as if a broken fragment has become part of the whole again.
This is both a long- and short-term effect of meditation. If you had a good meditation this morning, you probably experienced the sense of connection and inner wholeness I’ve just described. Perhaps it lingered for an hour or two afterward, or perhaps longer — perhaps it’s still inside you now. However, it usually fades away once we have returned to our busy everyday lives and needs to be rekindled by another meditation practice later, or the following day.
At the same time, over the years or decades that you have practiced meditation, an ongoing sense of wholeness has been building up inside you. Even though you may still experience a more intense sense of wholeness when you meditate, the baseline of your normal state has changed. Over the years, your ego boundaries have become softer; your sense of self has become less fragile and separate. As a result — even though you may not be consciously aware of it, since the change has been gradual — your need for psychological attachments has diminished, and you have become less attached to external sources of identity and well-being.
Every spiritual path is a movement beyond ego-separateness and toward connection and union. This is part of the reason why most spiritual traditions emphasize cultivating compassion and practicing acts of service and kindness. By serving others, we transcend our own self-centered desires and ambitions and so move beyond ego-separateness. In this sense, practicing service and altruism can also indirectly help to dissolve our psychological attachments.
Most spiritual traditions also advocate detachment more explicitly. They emphasize a life of simplicity and moderation, without attachment to sensory pleasures or unnecessary possessions. They encourage us to be content with our present life situation rather than being attached to ambitions. They encourage us to be humble rather than to be attached to notions of status and achievement.
Any path or practice that helps you to cultivate inner well-being and wholeness will reduce your need for psychological attachments. You won’t need attachments anymore in the same way that a completed building doesn’t need scaffolding or support.
There are also more direct ways we can use to liberate ourselves from psychological attachments. While following spiritual practices, we can simply make a conscious effort to weaken our attachments. This might sound challenging, but it’s important to remember that, although our psychological attachments may have originated in response to psychological need, in some cases (particularly if you have already begun to meditate or to follow a spiritual practice) they continue as habits. In other words, the attachments may remain intact even if we no longer have a psychological need for them, simply as habit patterns. This makes it fairly easy for us to free ourselves from them.
And even if this is not the case — that is, even if there is still some degree of psychological need — you might be surprised at how quickly you can adjust to the absence of the attachment. After an initial sense of loss and insecurity, you’ll quickly grow stronger. Your essential self will grow into the space left by the attachment, bringing a greater sense of wholeness.
I experienced this many years ago when I gave up smoking. After smoking heavily (twenty-five to thirty roll-up cigarettes a day) for twelve years, I decided to stop on my thirtieth birthday. I had heard many stories about the difficulties of giving up smoking, but for me — once I’d covered the physical withdrawal symptoms by chewing nicotine gum — it wasn’t such an ordeal. After about three weeks of conscious effort (which in itself was not particularly arduous), I was surprised to find that the urge to smoke quickly died away. But what I found even more surprising was the feeling of new strength and wholeness that filled me. It was as if the part of myself that I had sacrificed to my addiction had been given back to me in a natural process of adjustment and healing. I’m sure that this was because, over the previous year or so, I had undergone significant psychological healing. I had started meditating regularly and become a vegetarian. I had also met my future wife. As a result, I probably no longer had a strong psychological need to smoke. My sense of self was more connected and whole, and so I didn’t need the support of cigarettes anymore. To a large extent, I only had the habit to deal with rather than the psychological need. If there was still some psychological need, it evaporated in the process of giving up the attachment.
I would recommend making a similar attempt to weaken your attachments. For example, you might try to weaken your attachment to money and possessions by refraining from buying unnecessary things and following a simpler, more frugal lifestyle. You might try to weaken your attachment to your appearance by no longer wearing fashionable clothes or dyeing your hair. You may try to weaken your attachment to status and attention by making a conscious effort to stop obsessively posting on social media and incessantly trying to increase your number of followers.
This might feel uncomfortable at first but — particularly if you’re already following a spiritual practice — you’ll quickly begin to feel a new sense of inner strength and wholeness. Even if there is still some degree of psychological need for the attachment, a process of inner healing will take place, and your essential self will grow into the space left by the attachment, filling you with a sense of new strength and wholeness.
About Steve Taylor, PhD:
Steve Taylor, PhD, is the author of “Extraordinary Awakenings” and many other bestselling books. He’s senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University and the chair of the Transpersonal Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. Steve’s articles and essays have been published in over 100 academic journals, magazines, and newspapers and he blogs for Scientific American and Psychology Today. Visit him online at www.StevenMTaylor.com.
Adapted from the book from “Extraordinary Awakenings: When Trauma Leads to Transformation”. Copyright ©2021 by Steve Taylor. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.
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