Non-Attachment

| October 2, 2018
Leadership / Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

A word often used in both psychological and spiritual discourse describes the leadership trait we introduced in the last entry: non-attachment. Non-attachment is the ability to let go of insistence that things go a certain way, or to perceive present circumstances without an uncomfortable emotional charge having to do with dissatisfaction, irritation, anger, frustration, anxiety or exhaustion. We don’t mean to say that such emotions are bad or not useful. We need our emotions to cue us in to what we prefer and don’t prefer, to any mistreatment or injustice that calls for intervention, and to our very humanness. The idea is not to suppress or refuse emotion, but instead to listen to the message that our emotions are sending, and then settle back into the state of equilibrium from which the best action can be taken.

Imagine having an interaction with someone (even with a difficult person) and being free throughout the exchange of any agenda or needs of your own. The person is talking, and you hear every word, and understand perfectly what this person wants you to understand, and yet you have no investment in what the other person thinks of you nor even in whether or not this person gets what s/he wants. You may even like, love, or otherwise care about this person. Yet it’s as if your own ego is not in play. It’s simply a matter of assessing the person’s interest and deciding what best action to take in the scene. You can even disagree with or say no to this person because what s/he wants you to do is not appropriate or not in anyone’s best interests. There’s no fear in you, no defensiveness, no urgency to have things go a certain way, none of that. Instead, you feel relaxed and peaceful about it all.

You’re not acting detached; the person feels just the opposite: that you’re actually listening better than ever before and are perfectly receptive to allowing her/his agenda to be as it is. Whatever this person wants or feels is perfectly fine with you. And you will be responsive, either agreeing to this person’s point of view or request, or not. S/he will get an answer. You are making a well-considered decision, but right now you’re listening in a state of non-attachment rather than angst. And you’re fine with whichever way it goes. If the person is happy with your encounter, great. If not, that’s ok too. This example presumes that you as the leader are well-intentioned, well-informed, and ethical. You’re not indifferent; you care, and you want the best outcome. You also know that you may not be able to please this other person, and what you want to feel most is the peace and calm within you. You’re resting in yourself, resting within. If the person leaves the encounter unhappy, s/he may go on to make trouble about it, and you can be ok with this possibility too. So, just imagine this person talking, and yourself listening while in this peaceful, allowing, objective, impersonal frame of mind.

If, in the middle of such an encounter with a difficult person, you feel tension come up in yourself, which is perfectly normal and human, you don’t repress or suppress the tension. You want to use the tension, to notice that you’re going to the place of fear, and angst, and anxiety, and then simply remember that it’s better to rest within while you continue to listen and be as much as possible right then in a state of nonattachment. Because the call for non-attachment is often cued by bad-feeling emotion, it’s a good idea to set up a kind of mantra to say to yourself when facing the sort of difficulty that would normally trigger them. A great initial response to trouble might be, This is an opportunity for me to practice non-attachment. Or, another way to say it might be, This is my opportunity to practice “bliss.” Eckhart Tolle says to ask yourself periodically, What is the quality of my consciousness at this moment? Such questions put you in touch with your inner state, and allow you to make whatever adjustment better serves you, the situation, and your conversant. You want to have a practice in which you remind yourself of the things you need to do internally to keep yourself in a healthier place. As you compare non-attachment to other times, when you’ve been triggered emotionally at the level of the ego, feeling irritation, frustration, fear, etc., this feels like bliss. What a relief!

In order to be in bliss mode more often, you want to practice engaging this sort of orientation so that you are not experiencing the stress and anxiety you would otherwise endure. As a senior administrator, Bill knows that you do naturally begin to cultivate this kind of non-attachment the longer you’re in the job, and the more you have things thrown at you and live through. Many times, over the course of his administrative career, he’s looked back and thought, I could have handled that, and done all the same things, but with less stress and anxiety. We’re hoping to get you to this sort of realization at an earlier stage in your career, so that you’re cultivating and practicing it, and benefitting from the ability. It’s about saving your nerves.

When you make any decision, you want to do it in a state of non-attachment rather than angst. You may need to consult with other people, sleep on it, or take it through some other process. Finding non-attachment is a constant dynamic process. An issue may arise that throws you out of alignment with non-attachment, causing you to lose sleep or and become overly emotionally involved. And you notice the new tension, and remind yourself to allow the situation to be as it is, even as you determine the best course of action to take. Equilibrium comes and goes; you have it, you lose it, you find it again. What we’re advocating here is that leaders give themselves permission to protect themselves mentally and emotionally, by asking themselves such questions as, Am I trying to over-control the outcome here? Getting too involved with what eventuates, mentally or practically, than is wise for any number of reasons? None of us is in one constant state of being. But non-attachment is something that you want to have more and more available in your repertoire. Because you’re aware of the option, and are practiced at creating it, you find yourself far more often in a state of inner equilibrium and peace. That’s the whole point here.

In the next blog, we’ll consider how a leader might respond to a difficult “real-world” situation by taking a look at how TV Police Commissioner Frank Reagan handles the case of an officer who objects to the force’s mandatory retirement age.

8 thoughts on “Non-Attachment

  1. I appreciate the concept of n0n-attachment as permission for leaders to protect ourselves both mentally and emotionally. I find, that as leaders, we often face high expectations to resolve complex issues with competing constituencies. Managing the disappointments of others when decisions do not go their way can be exhausting. Non-attachment provides me with an alternative way of handling these emotionally-loaded “win-lose” situations. Instead of responding to expectations by “managing disappointments” I can establish my own expectation which is to be present, to listen and to take time to offer a reasoned decision without a need to manage responses. This is a freeing alternative.

    1. Yes, it’s important for you to give yourself permission to protect yourself mentally and emotionally. Both you and your institution will benefit.

  2. This is a wonderful way to examine leadership, and it brings to mind how important it is for those of us in leadership roles to slow down, and really consider ideas and initiatives for what they are and leave the emotions out of it. I often find that the movement with which we make decisions and listen to our colleagues is swift and this is a good way of bringing leadership into a full and conscious way of evaluating ideas. Much appreciated.

    1. Emotions are ok because they show us how we feel about something. It’s important to reflect on them, and then guide ourselves back to non-attachment once we’ve assessed whether the emotion is giving us information we want to act on in one way or another. The notion of slowing down is a great way to sustain non-attachment. Too often, we stop listening to what other people are saying because we’re already focused on what we want to say next. We’re all susceptible to that one!

  3. Just reading this article increased the inner peace in me because the concept of “non-attachment” is indeed liberating. I must confess though that I was skeptical when I read the title, as non-attachment may be perceived as detachment which may come across as being uninterested etc. only to realize its just the opposite! And indeed a much need art/skill for leaders. Cultivating non-attachment, as rightly pointed out, will take conscious practice but I was wondering if it would help to dwell deeper into some of the tools that might help along the way. For e.g. I still recollect Debbie sharing, during one of her workshops, about how one can simply distance oneself and become the third person in the room and objectively observe oneself and the other person conversing. This simple visual picture helps us to become more objective, less emotional and perhaps more compassionate towards one self.

    1. Yes, and it can be tricky to deal with those whose emotions are running high. The thought might be that if you’re not as upset about this as I am, you must not care. Yet there’s a whole range of feeling and response through which caring can be expressed.

  4. This overlaps a bit with a concept from the conflict field — if we are able to examine our emotions objectively as tools or indicators, we can determine if they are serving us well with good information. Many times they are not, and it is easy to feel like they compel us to act in certain ways instead of recognizing we have choices about how we interpret, feel, and react. Like the saying goes: “You don’t have to attend every argument you are invited to.”

    1. Good point. We’re reminded of Eckhart Tolle, who says something similar: “You don’t need to believe every thought you think.”

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