“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” – Yoda
The importance of non-attachment is often reinforced in the Star Wars fiction. Jedi were taught not to form attachment to people, places or possessions as to do so would ultimately lead to suffering. Despite his training, Anakin Skywalker failed to practice non-attachment and succumbed to his fear of losing what was dear to him. Anakin lost everything he held as precious in his life including his own identity as he fell under the power of Darth Sidious.
All that is, everything we hold important, is transient and in life we must face change and loss. Buddhism reinforces the transitory and impermanent nature of all things and suggests that attachment is akin to grasping at things that ultimately do not belong to us. When the time comes to let go, we suffer as our attachments have grown too strong. The Stoics also taught that it was acceptable to enjoy what came to us in life and that we should not pass up on pleasures or responsibilities. We should accept and enjoy them as long as they did not possess us and lead to harm. At the same time the Stoics taught we should be willing to surrender our attachments and let them go without remorse or regret.
Rampant attachment ultimately leads to frustration and having more and being richer does not necessarily lead to happiness. In fact wealth, while seemingly hard to come by and easy to lose is not the primary or secondary precursor to happiness in most people. Grasping attachments to status, possessions and relationships brings fleeting satisfaction and often leads to disappointment, disillusionment and despair. By holding on to things too tightly we often choke the life out them and ourselves.
The Stoics used strategies to overcome the anxiety of loss. They practiced negative visualization and on a regular basis would contemplate the loss of something that was important such as status, freedom or wealth. They visualized themselves banished from their homes and cast into exile and separated from their families and friends or reduced to poverty through bad fortune. The Stoics would also imagine the loss of their lives to illness or violence as the ultimate test for a Stoic was not only how they lived their life but also how they met their death. The Hagakure describes the use of daily visualization of death by the sword, fire or arrow to harden the Samurai to the prospect of death. In time the Samurai would consider themselves already dead and therefore above any possible regret or loss.
The Stoics also practiced hardship to toughen themselves against misfortune. A Stoic might eat only bread for a day or more at a time and sleep on the floor to simulate a life of poverty, they ventured in to the public wearing rags and appearing disheveled in order to attract the scorn of the Elite. Saint Francis of Assisi made a commitment to a life of poverty with his conversion and forsake his wealth and title to lead a spiritual life of servitude and would often test his humility by venturing in to the community appearing like a common beggar often to the ridicule of the townspeople he would preach to.
I don’t suggest that we should go as far as giving away all of our possessions to live a simple life without wants. There is no need to join a monastery or to contemplate and meditate on a violent and graphic death. There are simpler ways to loosen our attachments and cultivate humility and ultimately serenity.
Meditate on loss, visualize losing something important such as your job or a prized possession. Do this daily if you can in a quiet place. Attempt this exercise with caution as visualizing the death of loved ones or your own death can be confronting. The object is not to be morbid but to simply take a detached view of the event as if an observer looking in. This can be integrated into your meditation practice or done in quiet contemplation. Be calm, at peace and passive when doing this and back off if you begin to feel strong emotions such as anxiety or grief.
I regularly contemplate the loss of employment and imagine the stress and anxiety of financial loss. I also imagine being injured or killed in an accident but contemplate in a passive manner without drawing emotions. On occasion I also imagine more catastrophic events such as a natural disaster, war or another calamity which would utterly change my life and those around me.
Contemplate loss and view unwanted events in a detached manner and with time the underlying anxiety that pervades the experience will dissipate if you simply let it. So will attachments however you will value what you have more. By contemplating the loss of what you value, you not only build up your own mental resilience and fortify yourself against emotional anguish but you will also learn to want the things you have and spend less time wanting for things you don’t.