Non-Attachment vs. Detachment

At dinner on Sunday night I had a short discussion with a long-time friend about the phrases detachment vs. non-attachment. I don’t remember the specific thing that brought it up, but I stated that I was much more interested in non-attachment in how I react to things. We bounced around words a little and then went back to our Mexican food and the broader conversation with the other people at the table.

I’d been playing around with a framework with my therapist for the concept of attachment, especially around stress and anxiety, and trying to figure out a metaphor around it. I had a long discussion on a car ride to Shambhala Mountain Center with Jerry Colonna about it where he helped me clarify some of the edges of my thinking.

Use the universe as the background for the metaphor.

Attachment is like the activity around a black hole. You are constantly fighting against getting sucked into it. All of your energy is focused on not ending up in the black hole.

Detachment is like being in no gravity. You are just drifting. Nothing exerts any force on you in any direction.

Non-attachment is like being in a swirling galaxy. There is stuff going on everywhere. You interact with it. But none of it pulls on you excessively. You are involved and impact some of it but a lot of it is exogenous to you.

There are many situations that arise that cause me to feel like I’m fighting against being sucked into a black hole. I used to react to these situations as they used to cause immense stress or anxiety, which are different but related things for me. While I have gotten much better at this over the years, one of my motivations for starting to meditate was to try to be more mindful, especially around the anxiety (note – Headspace has a great 30 day meditation routine specifically on anxiety.)

Detachment for me is linked to my struggles with depression. When I’m depressed, I’m completely detached. It’s an extremely uncomfortable feeling for me. I’ve very functional, like I am when I’m non-attached, but nothing about it feels good.

While many people suggest that detachment is the right approach to stress and anxiety, and others feel that it’s the path to enlightenment, it doesn’t work in my case. Now, I’m defining the phrase, so for some detachment might be an awesome way to deal with things, but for me it falls in the category of “indifference” and “disengagement” which I apply to things I don’t care about, but doesn’t work for things I am engaged, interested, or involved in.

Non-attachment ends up being the right word (at least in this framework) for what I’m looking for. I realize that some people view non-attachment as a synonym for detachment, but I like the use of the word, and the notion of “actively non-attaching” to things.

When I apply this filter to a stressful or anxiety-producing situation, where I know that I have to engage with it, but am “non-attached” to it, I’ve found a calm focus comes over me. And that calmness can sustain over a long period of time, even in the face of incredible stress. Like putting your head in the mouth of the demon, it makes the black holes disappear for me.

  • I think this is an important distinction and a good way of looking at it. For whatever reason, I interpret “detaching” as an active effort – where I am pushing something away intentionally or unintentionally, whereas “non-attached” is simply a neutral state.

    • Seems there is nothing “neutral” about attaching, non-attaching, or detaching. They are degrees of attachments, on a spectrum, each with its own flavor, definition, and consequences. All attachments on that spectrum are choices, whether they are mental or emotional. Hence, no such thing as a neutral attachment. Perhaps stronger, weaker, healthier, bad, good, etc. But hardly neutral.

      • This comments section feels like a bunch of guys trying to describe steps in gymnastics when they know they can’t make the moves on a mat.

  • Matt Kruza

    Hey Brad, have you seen this TED talk? http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend?language=en .. I am not a big fan of ted talks usually, but this one was very good and it makes sense. Essentially it is saying is that stress just is meaning your body / mind is signaling to be on higher alert, and that can either help you focus / achieve at a higher level or if that energy / additional emotions can be used as a negative spiral against yourself. I liken the analogy to nerves with sports. The greatest golfer of all time (tiger is number 2) Jack Nicklaus always said I “knew I would play a good round when I had the nerves in my stomach on the first tee because it meant this round mattered and I would focus more”. Anyway, I thought the concept might be interesting to you as another perspective.

    • Agreed. In somatic psychology, they talk about the polyvagal nerve and how stress and trauma can impact your entire system through this nerve: heart, immunity, coordination, digestion, etc.

      Trauma/stress is not just in the brain/mind. The body has its own memory (e.g. muscle memory). Gotta work on both body/mind to deal with stress and trauma

      More about Polyvagal Nerve: Theory:
      http://maibergerinstitute.com/polyvagal-theory-emdr/

      • Matt Kruza

        Thanks for the share. Interesting. Trying to still process the article but appreciating having the information.

        • agreed, always appreciate the layers of discussion that a Feld thought can produce.

          • I hadn’t seen that Ted talk – I’ll go watch it.

            I’d hear the Jack Nicklaus quote. It definitely parallels my sport experience – the more anxious I was before a race (running) / match (tennis) the better I performed.

            I don’t like that feeling in my day to day life however, especially around work. I’ve found that I negotiate better when I’m completely relaxed. My best deals have been struck (including the best win-win deals) when I’m in a mental position that is the physical equivalent of lying down on my couch while I’m talking, in my wonderful living room, with the fire going.

  • David Keefe

    Thanks for sharing your experience Brad. Pretty sure it makes you a warrior:)

    • My spirit animal is a gigantic white polar bear. Cute and cuddly, expect when really angry. Able to survive harsh winters. Happy splashing around in a stream.

  • Antoine Valot

    Perhaps it’s because the prefix “de-” implies an active effort to sever a connection that was established. It hints at a de-structive state of affairs. The prefix “ad-” (which turns into at- before a t) implies adjunction, addition, but also addiction. It hints at something accretive, adding weigth.

    Perhaps we need a new word for a con-structive way to connect. Not adding to your burden, not destroying past efforts, but rather mutual contact and connection. Con-tachment, perhaps? 😉

    • My partner @ryan_mcintyre:disqus the grammar hammer (and word master) will possibly weigh in on this as he is so much better at tearing apart the human language than I am.

  • Perhaps another way to frame this topic, especially as it relates to mental health and depression, is to see attachments on a spectrum rather than a “either or” framework: healthy (secure) attachments, unhealthy attachments, etc: http://maibergerinstitute.com/attachment-and-emdr-therapy-in-working-with-adults/

    Attachments are on a spectrum. Some people are attached to old mental scripts that no longer work in their adult life, some people are attached to trying to fill a void that can’t ever be filled, and some people have very healthy attachments.

    …always refreshing to see startup folks talk about mental health in constructive and respectful manner. #ChangeMentalHealth

    • This might feel meta, but I’m working on being non-attached to my old mental scripts. Most of them have vaporized, but some keep playing over and over. When I see them, I label them, recognize them, but then try to let them float away, in a detached way from me.

  • Doug Gibbs

    Let’s work on the space metaphor.
    Non-attachment is being in orbit. Earth orbits the sun, and any closer or further and life would not exist. As an Earthling, I don’t want us to be “attached to the sun”. We are far enough away to observe the Sun, be warmed by it, but not freeze and not burn.
    If some other star or planet, with a large enough gravity well gets close, we can change into a new orbit. (That would be bad for life here on Earth, but it is a metaphor, right?)
    Detachment would be wandering aimlessly through space with no center to orbit around and no warmth. You are pulled in many directions by whatever large object is near. By never falling into a good orbit you don’t get the warmth and center needed to foster life.
    Wow, that came out better than I thought it would. Stay away from black holes. The gravity is too huge and it rips you apart.

    • The physical universe perhaps provides bad metaphors for the mind.

      • @paramendra:disqus I disagree – I liked this one. Nice job @douggibbs:disqus – I think that fits.

  • Sam

    Investors like to know if the entrepreneur they are backing has skin in the game. This is the flip side of the equation. Entrepreneur’s also want their VC to have skin in the game. Everyone knows VCs are diversified financially across their portfolio, but are you personally committed to me and my success? Are we going to navigate the black holes together, or are you going to stay a safe distance and see how things work out first? Easy for many VCs to just say “fuck it” and detach, but then I’m guessing that’s not why you got into VC in the first place, Brad. I get exactly what you’re saying, and I wish you luck finding the balance that’s right for you.

    • Saying f___ it is not detachment, the opposite. You are reacting pretty strongly to it, aren’t you?

    • I strongly agree that VCs should have skin in the game – especially emotionally.

      I don’t think non-attachment, at least in my case, removes that dynamic. Instead, I think you are talking about detachment, which is precisely the point I’m trying to make.

      If a VC is detached, the entrepreneur will be on their own and the VC will just drift away.

      If a VC is non-attached, the swirling galaxy will still be everywhere, the VC will be able to engage to help the entrepreneur navigate (including the black holes), but the VC won’t end up being the part of the dynamic that has all the force exerted on her. Interesting, this can be super powerful and helpful to the entrepreneur, as the VC can have some helpful, non-emotional, non-anxious responses that are very positive in moments of stress.

      I don’t know what the entrepreneurs I work with would say, but I think in their moments of extreme stress, my calm is helpful.

  • I agree that non-attachment is the mindfulness version and appreciate the distinction you made between “de” and “non”. But I found myself reacting to your negative description of attachment. Maybe i’m taking this out of context but attachment can be positive – some of the greatest joys in life come from attachment even when there are some stressors in that attachment – moving to quickly towards “non” I think moves away from some of those joys.

    • Agreed. Getting rid of all attachments seems wrong approach, like throwing away the baby with the bathwater (or server with the bad data). There are healthy/necessary attachments. Attachments should be seen on a spectrum rather than either-or framework.

      • The idea is complete non attachment while living a full life. Non attachment is not isolation. You can be in isolation and be unhealthily attached.

  • Robbie Zettler

    I’ve never thought how different those two mindsets can be so similar yet so incredibly different. Can it have a drastically different outcome when it comes from a personal vs work perspective? It seems like detaching from a work related issue can have a way of working itself out at times, but detaching from a personal issue has a higher propensity to come back to us because of the more intertwined our personal lives are.

    • Couldn’t one have a healthy attachment to work/life? That is, why are all attachments considerdd bad/unhealthy? Isn’t it possible that having unhealthy attachments in the first place is why some people cannot balance work/life? That is, is it possible that there is a correlation between healthy attachments (mental/developmental/spiritual/emotional) and healthy work/life balance.

      Many seem to focus on downtime and digitsl sabbaticals (all important to self-care) rebalance their work/life without considering that unhealthy attachments is the reason why their work/life is out of balance.

      • Robbie Zettler

        There are absolutely be healthy attachments. I think healthy attachments grow us as individuals and spur us on towards what we find valuable in our lives, be that faith, personal ambition, etc.

        I also think that there is some value to non-attachment/detachment each in their own capacity for certain situations. The difficult part comes from deciding where to make those distinctions and find out where to have those healthy attachments and where to distance ourselves.

        • agreed. many different ways of looking through an attachment lens.

          is avoidance a type of detachment? is there such thing as healthy dissociation? where does workaholism fit in?

          • I’m not trying to make the argument that non-attachment is the answer, or is right for everyone (or anyone in particular, other than me.) For me, it’s a super healthy dynamic as I deal with the stress and anxiety of my life, and how I react to it.

            But that’s me. Everyone is going to be different. I’m just tossing up a metaphor to play around with.

            As you (@robbiezettler:disqus and @ideavist:disqus) say, there are many different ways of looking through an attachment lens.

  • Mark Nelson

    Still thinking through this sports metaphor a little, but I figured I’d share…

    • Dasher

      Keeping Score & Spectating = Judgmental or Reality TV

      • Jeremy Riley

        Basically the ESPN of mental health. Of course this could describe many of us the day after the Super Bowl. Perhaps it is a necessary part of the macro process and helps ensure that each of us has the proper perspective when we enter our own battles. How often has Lebron James or Payton manning remembered a poignant observation by an ESPN reporter as he is jogging onto the court or field? What effect did it have on his game?

    • I like Non-Attachment = Playing yet not keeping score. It’s kind of how I run – while I track my data, I don’t care what it is or how fast I run the marathon. I’m just interested in finishing the marathon and having the experience.

  • MorganHoward

    I am happily attached to my children and they are attached to me. This attachment provides meaning. The next generation attaches me to the future and to Earth. I’m not floating around unattached… I am grounded. This does apply to mental health for me as it’s all connected in ways I don’t fully understand.

    • You can have a deep, meaningful relationship with your children and yet become unattached to them.

    • There are many many things I don’t understand.

      I don’t have children so I haven’t walked in your shoes about that feeling. Thanks for sharing it – it reminds me that there’s a huge segment of the population that has kids which has a very different set of inputs into their psyche and life experience than I have.

  • I identify with your thoughts. For me the optimal state is like Jedy Knights which care about things without impacting their judgement.

  • MindfulYourOwnBiz

    Non-attachment yes – and also: Equanimity

  • JTDALY4

    Looks like your meditation is beginning to pay off. Kudos! You are definitely on the path. What if software could apply the filter you describe above to a persons life? What if life’s “bits” were organized and presented in a manner that brought its users a feeling of peace and harmony? Is that possible? Is that worth building? I’m generally not this shameless but I’ve never heard someone use this blackhole metaphor to address the issue of attachment. This exact same revelation had a very profound impact on my life. I believe that you are at a spiritual cross road and what you are describing is a mental shift away from ego. The ability to frame things in a manner that eliminates my attachment to it was life altering. It was so significant to me that I began to build a software based framework that does it by default. Its a personal black hole that helps users figure out what “matters”. There are not many people that understand the concept you describe above. Think of the years of personal development,strife, and pain you had to endure to get to this point. What if people didn’t have to incur the expenses you incurred to gather this knowledge. What if they could just down load it? I’m on twitter @jtdaly I would be honored to share more with you.

    • I don’t see a software solution to this. Meditation is not information processing.

      • JTDALY4

        then what is meditation?

        • Big Data, maybe? LOL

          • JTDALY4

            OH I got it…..Medidata

  • Josh Coolman

    I tell myself, “This is not a part of me. This is not separate from me.”

    • I like that – neat mantra.

  • Talking just at the concept level ——- the idea is not to go hide in a cave, away from the world, but to actively live a life, interact with people, move towards goals, work, live, and yet be unattached. As in, you could own a private jet, but if you lose it, you don’t feel loss. Because you were never attached to it even while you were actually using it. (By the way, the “lag” on Disqus is really bothersome) And just like you can train your body through marathons, you can train your mind for detachment through yoga and meditation.

    (writing now in a Google Doc first and then cutting pasting here) It did not feel good reading about your struggles with depression at this blog months ago. I was like, Brad deserves better. I hope you are doing better. Cutting down on travel helped. But just like the body, the emotional infrastructure has to be nurtured.

    http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/we-the-people/let-s-talk-depression-deepika-padukone-s-story/360487

    • ““It’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering.” – John Galt

      Thanks for the kind words on the depression, but I don’t feel like I deserve better, or don’t deserve better. Part of the power for me of learning how to be non-attached is that the depression that I occasionally struggle with is just another component of the swirling galaxy.

      I just did the math and have only suffered with depression for 5% of my life. While that might seem like a lot, it’s not, and most of it was a two year stretch in my 20s.

      But your point on emotional infrastructure is so powerfully true. And it’s a lesson I keep learning.

  • Great post on a tricky topic. I wonder in business settings, how this works as a function of “having options.” In a situation where one doesn’t have options, they may feel stressed, but if they have options, may feel non-attached when one of those falls through.

    • Options are interesting and complicated. The phrase “optionality” has creeped into VC lingo (well – stomped into VC lingo) in the past two years. It’s a classical finance term that all of a sudden entrepreneurs are using left and right. It’s tricky.

      It’s always useful to have options. But I’ve seen people become paralyzed by the desire to have more options. They become attached to the idea of optionality and then actually get nothing done.

      Being non-attached to having more options is a powerful way to be. If you have more, great. But you have to choose one and keep moving in the swirling galaxy, before the black hole starts sucking you in.

      • Good advice which applies also to our recent discussions.

    • Jeremy Riley

      Interesting thought in combining the business of the mind with the business of….. well business. Basically your theory would relate to funding a business vs a possible black hole scenario. A successfully negotiated funding would be a complete lack of depression or full attachment in the case of the black hole whereas the next best course of action to a negotiated funding would be bootstrapping or secondary term sheet or in avoiding the black hole’s happiness absorbing potential with “non-attachment!” This idea could well have legs.

    • Thinking about options makes me also think about attachment to fixed or desired outcomes. In my own experience, having options makes it easier for me to remain non-attached to any one fixed or desired outcome. Only having a single option makes this harder for me to do.

      For example, just recently, I thought I had what would be the ideal partner lined-up for a new business I’m building in the insurance industry. I quickly became attached to the idea that this partner would be the best partner for us. It turns out that, for reasons beyond my control, this particular partner isn’t able to work with us in the near-term, which was disappointing. I had to work hard to become non-attached to my previous idea that this partner was the ideal partner and open my mind up again to the possibility that there may be a better partner for us.

      In my experience, entrepreneurs are inclined to get attached to the idea of a certain outcome being the ideal outcome, especially when we’re working hard with our head down to make progress toward goals and expectations that others may have of us and that we have of ourselves.

      I think this concept of non-attachment can apply nicely to the journey and make us more open to and aware of adjustments to make along the way, toward what could be an even better outcome than we initially envisioned.

  • Dasher

    Interesting distinction between detachment and non-attachment and their relation to attachment. Another way to think about it is detachment is the opposite of attachment while non-attachment is adjacent. Wish you all the best.

  • I really like this distinction. Reminds me a bit of transactional analysis, which I’ve had some good therapy around. One of the strategies I’ve used to remain “non-attached” is to use my “adult” ego-state (in TA, my most objective and rational aspect) to explain things to my “child” (my most creative and emotional aspect); by explicitly choosing a protective/nurturing role, I can practice non-attachment but remain engaged — on more than one level. Thank you so much for this post.

  • Jeremy Riley

    Brad, I appreciate this post in that you describe the uniqueness of each persons bout with mental health. It is no different than physical health in that it has an enormous effect on our quality of life. I read this post and can’t help but think of my struggle to maintain a reasonably healthy body and how that physical issue is directly correlated to my moods and urges to consume unhealthy foods. I wonder if attachment vs non-attachment vs detachment has a direct physical counterpart. You could point out the fairly obvious with regards to love and how being physically close to someone can enhance the mental attachment to that person. So for things that require non-attachment perhaps there are tools you could use to help achieve that goal such as maintaining physical distance or if it isn’t a person but perhaps a negotiation scenario then remaining standing or being physically separated in some way will help in the mental goal of non-attachment.

  • Sebastien Latapie

    I really like the framework, it makes a lot of sense to me. I have a close friend who has recently been struggling with anxiety and stress, he really appreciated this perspective.

  • mark gelband

    the conversation dances around life’s uncertainty and impermanence, and a fundamental lack of control. whatever vernacular we choose for evolving emotionally through choice habits – our moment-to-moment choices are it. nothing but the time being. forget about deals, cars, clothes, kitchen cabinets, even our deepest relationships – friends, love, children, parents – are transient.

    for me this Buddhist notion is liberating. the practice of breath and quiet – sanding a sculpture until the paper is an extension of my being – watching thoughts pass until…

    depression and anxiety are primitive responses – chemical, genetic, learned – for survival in uncertainty. brad’s willingness to share his process – lay bare his emotional demons exemplifies the true beauty of our collective emotional evolution. in this alpha dog world of VC and business building, humanity, kindness and compassion still rule the moment.

    while pragmatic tips for organizing email or managing meetings are important, without the aforementioned, they are relatively mindless activities. that’s why these posts in which brad shares his deeper humanity, and my self-reflection and self-reflection in the comments are especially meaningful.

    thanks.

  • Barbara Smith

    Until you get a grip on the meaning of life you will always be “detached”. Seek the True Foundation of Life and you will always be on solid ground – when you build your life on that Foundation. Simply put , you’re lost until you do!

  • Lisa

    Interesting read. Attachments gave me anxiety attacks. Smoking for one. When I became unattached, my anxieties calmed down.

    I know the black hole feeling.

    However, I just imagined putting my head in a demons mouth whilst thinking about climate change and this did nothing to help my anxieties there.

  • panterosa,

    My mother always said reduce to 3 options. Sun Tzu does this too. Yes, no and maybe work for me, with maybe as non-attachment (let’s see what happens).

  • Kimberly Klemm

    Attachments can be unhealthy or healthy in and of the nature of the benefits/detriments of attaching inherent in the relationship to and nature of the two attaching bodies. I have a weird kind of philosophy…attach is good, detach from attachment is sometimes necessary to maintain health, and non-attachment can miss out on some of the benefits of healthier attachments. I believe it is not a constant state of any of the three options, but that you should use wiser judgement in utilizing all three options appropriate to the situation and nature of the benefits involved. Practicing adeptness at working all of these options will help you realize that stabilizing your health requires skills at “keeping, letting go, and interested involvement without questions of connections that incur any form of actual resource bonding”.

  • Emily Staebell

    This post resonated with me. I appreciate your insights on the spectrums of attachment/detachment/non-attachment… It encompasses a variety of vulnerabilities shared by many. Thank you for sharing yours.

    It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes that comes from Tuesdays with Morrie. It speaks of detachment, but I think non-attachment would work better in its place:

    ” Detachment doesn’t mean you don’t let the experience penetrate you. On the contrary, you let it penetrate you fully. That’s how you’re able to leave it.

    Take any emotion – love for a woman, or grief for a loved one, or what I’m going through, fear and pain from a deadly illness. If you hold back on the emotions – if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them – you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid. You’re afraid of the pain, you’re afraid of the grief. You’re afraid of the vulnerability that loving entails.

    But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely. You know what pain is. You know what love is. You know what grief is. And only then can you say, ‘All right. I have experienced that emotion. I recognize that emotion. Now I need to detach from that emotion for a moment.’ “

  • jsteig

    There is a strange comfort that I take from these personal blog posts about depression, Brad. Aside from the valuable content of each individual post, the fact that this conversation is even happening, publicly, by a prominent figure who by old definitions is the exemplar of Ruthless Capitalist Man, says something big and comforting about the possibility for the future. A decade ago, even five years ago, you wouldn’t have posted these thoughts. If you had, they wouldn’t have been as well received. The fact that this dialog exists says something very special about where the world might be going. Yes, there are horrors going on everyday. Yes, we all suffer as individuals and as communities (Baltimore!) and I don’t mean to minimize that. But in a big way, the mere existence of this dialog is quite comforting.

  • bluevajra

    I am quite happy to see this kind of discussion happening in the world of tech, startups, and venture capital. The openness and honesty with which people talk about the human condition in this world is a breath of fresh air. The Buddhist notion of “attachment” is a deep and often misunderstood concept.

    Without getting too deep in terminology, we can in many circumstances exchange the word “attachment” with “expectation”. The idea is that suffering arises from our attachment to a fixed idea of things, the people and world around us. We somehow “expect” things to not change or “expect” things to be a certain way, so when we come to face something or someone that does not accord with our mental projection or expectation, there is discord or disharmony.

    From this, “non-attachment” is not necessarily about cutting ties to all things or people in our lives, but rather opening ourselves to the ever–changing landscape around us. It is about not being attached to our own narrow view of how things should be. It is about opening to the rawness and experiences of the world with no labels of good or bad.

    Thanks again for opening dialogues like this. It seems very much in-line with Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.

  • Krishnan Gopalan

    The Bhagavad Gita describes freedom from attachment and encourages human beings to follow it. In Chapter 3, verse 19 it says “Without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme”. It does not however encourage detachment from the world or in doing one’s prescribed duties.