The Yoga of Healthy Attachment

Last week, I read the following paragraph by Oliver Burkleman in his email, “The Imperfectionist.” He has some brilliant insights, I highly recommend his blog, you can subscribe here

“One day last week, following a night of heavy snowfall here in the North York Moors, I took a morning walk along the ridge behind our house. The snow was still falling gently, catching the pink light of the sunrise. I watched a flock of birds alight on a distant tree. Aside from the movement of the birds, the landscape felt utterly asleep. It was a magical experience.

And so, naturally, I found a way to feel bad about it.

Had I put this feeling into words, it would have gone roughly as follows: ‘This is amazing! This is the kind of experience I love, so I want to make sure I’m getting the most from it, and I especially want to make sure that I keep on having this sort of experience repeatedly for the rest of my life!’”, which, needless to say, is a sub-optimal way to be present in the moment. Mainly, though, the feeling in question wasn’t a matter of words. It was more of a clenching or a gripping, an attempt to grasp the moment and bring it under my ownership – which caused it, unsurprisingly, to draw back from me instead.”

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Several months ago in another blog I described a similar experience I had on my first visit to Australia. The first night, Layne brought me to the beach and sat me on the shore just as the full moon cast a shimmering path of light that ended exactly where we were sitting. I wanted to remember that moment so badly and my instinct was to focus as hard as I could until I realized that my focus was blocking me from actually having the experience.

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This instinct to cling to what we enjoy is called raga—one of the five kleshas (or mental obstacles to yoga practice) mentioned in the Yoga Sutras. Both Oliver’s snowy morning and my shimmering moon-on-the-beach moment were experiences that begged to be held onto (raga), moments we wanted to relive over and over. In the yoga world, you often hear raga referred to as attachment; the idea being that excessive attachment causes suffering, as both Oliver and I experienced.

But sometimes yogis wear their “non-attachment” like a badge of honour.

Not all attachment is bad attachment. Some forms of attachment are healthy, even necessary. Attachment, in appropriate amounts, can be a positive force in our lives. It fosters deep connections and helps us form strong relationships with people, passions, or pursuits that bring us joy, meaning, and fulfilment.

In moments of profound beauty like Oliver Burkleman’s snowy morning or my moonlit beach, there can be a pull to cling to the experience, diminishing our “experience of the experience.”  But attachment is nuanced, and in moderation, it enables us to cherish moments, build connections, and find a balance where it can enrich our experiences without impeding our ability to adapt, grow, and find peace amidst change.

© Julie Smerdon 2021

Photo:  Pete Longworth

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