Angels Dragging Wheelies: Letting Go of Emotional Attachments

God is not attained by a process of addition to anything in the soul, but by a process of subtraction.— Meister Eckhart

Let’s just say that no one can be happy unless they can detach. Our attachments make us miserable.  That’s the hypothesis.  That’s a cornerstone of Buddhism.  That’s the point behind Jesus’s telling the young rich man that if he wanted to follow him, he would have to sell everything first.

Many people take that famous Gospel passage to mean that everyone must become an ascetic and give up all they own to follow Jesus.   I’m not a theologian, but I don’t think that’s what it means at all.  The point of that story was that the man turned away UNHAPPY.  He was attached to his stuff.  He wanted to follow Jesus, but he couldn’t see himself releasing the emotional hold he had on his belongings.  Jesus was applying an attach-o-meter to the young man’s spiritual readiness to follow him.

My attach-o-meter rings the bell with some things—old letters from friends and relatives, my John Derian plates, several of my books, my dog’s ashes, the home in which I’ve raised my kids.

Unfortunately they don’t even make an attach-o-meter with enough wattage to register my attachments to people in my life—especially my husband and my children.  Does that make me a good mother, a good wife? 


This image by the indie rock group The Detachment Kit is a wonderful illustration of the bond we often have with others

This image by the indie rock group The Detachment Kit is a wonderful illustration of the bond we often have with others

Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony de Mello might say, perhaps not.  What makes prideful ownership of a car any different than prideful ownership of a person?  Isn’t that even worse?   It is so counterintuitive to us, as human beings to realize that we don’t have any personal claim on any individual, even if we’ve been faithfully married for decades; even if we gave birth to those individuals.  But we constantly act as if we do.  Most of us act like emotional Siamese twins when it comes to people we love.


The only way to let go of unhealthy attachments of our relationships is through understanding, according to de Mello in the chapter on Detachment in his wonderful little book Awareness:  The Perils and Opportunities of Reality. 

We’ve been so blinded by everything that we have not discovered the basic truth that attachments hurt rather than help relationships.  I remember how frightened I was to say to an intimate friend of mine, ‘I really don’t need you.  I can be perfectly happy without you.  And by telling you this, I find I can enjoy your company thoroughly—no more anxieties, no more jealousies, no more possessiveness, no more clinging.  It’s a delight to be with you when I am enjoying you on a nonclinging basis.  You’re free, so am I.’  But to many of you I’m sure this is like talking a foreign language.–de Mello, Awareness, p.139


When we attach ourselves to things, people, and concepts maybe it’s out of fear–fear that without these self-imposed bonds we will be less loveable, less secure, less happy.   Maybe we’re like the old Egyptian kings who were so identified with their possessions that they were buried with them.  Is that who we really want to be?  Do we want to be identified by our possessions?  Or would we rather be free?   I picture a scenario where two friends are killed in a car crash.  The two new angels go winging themselves up to heaven—but one looks as if he/she were headed toward some Newark Airport of the sky–weighed down with backpack, wheelie, and laptop bag—and yelling to their unencumbered fellow angel, “Hey, wait up!” 

We also tend to attach ourselves to concepts through ideological labels.  We are Republican, American, Presybterian.  We wear T-shirts that say “Kiss Me–I’m Irish.”   We don’t just work to help the environment, we are “environementalists.”  It’s not that we just stopped eating meat, we are “vegetarians.”  It makes us feel good to identify with people and causes we admire, maybe because of a hard-wired need for people to belong.  Anthropologically, it was probably an important survival skill back in prehistoric times.  But it is self-limiting now. Putting ourselves in a neat box to make it easy for people to categorize us literally boxes us in.


So to create the kind of understanding that de Mello says will lead to true detachment, perhaps we simply examine ourselves.   See what face we would put on if Jesus told us to go and sell our possessions.  Or see how hard it is to hold back if our children or spouse does something that we feel we have to save them from.  Or if, in joining an organization, see if we lose the forest for the trees in the comfort of living out one point of view.  

And think about what the trade-off would be if we relinquish things, or need to control others, or our precious ideas?   Maybe the trade-off is a kind of death to oneself as talked about by Jesus and mystics of every religion.  A losing of ourselves that opens us up to unity and a release from fear. 

Like Tim Robbins’ hole in the wall behind the Raquel Welsh poster in the movie “Shawshank Redemption”—maybe we find the trade-off is a hidden portal that leads to freedom from a prison that we have built around ourselves with the bricks of our attachments; the illusions of our needs.

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