“Live in the now!” Garth exhorts Wayne as he fawns over a beautiful guitar he can’t afford in the film Wayne’s World. This is a message that we get over and over again in many Eastern philosophies: live in the present moment, not for the past or the future. Further, we learn to practice non-attachment: avoiding clinging to things in a world whose nature is constant change.
It all makes an intuitive kind of sense. When I’m sitting in meditation or flowing through my yoga practice, I get it. Go with the flow. Feel what’s in front of you. Release the past and the future. But then I leave my yoga mat and the theory sort of breaks down: what about in relationships? How do I practice non-attachment when I need to rely on someone to still be there tomorrow? How do I live in the present moment when my past is affecting my behaviours with the people I am trying to love today?
This is a problem that has always bothered me. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to ask yoga teacher and Zen practitioner Michael Stone what he thought. The thesis of his seminar was that while it’s deeply important to show up to your internal practice and do your internal work, it’s equally important to learn to engage mindfully with your community and your environment. He seemed like the perfect person to ask.
Non-attachment, he told us, often gets translated as “detachment,” which implies that you don’t care too much about the thing or person in question. Rather, attachment always involves clinging not to the person, but the story you are holding about them. Attachment is about your viewpoint, not about the world itself. When you hear “non-attachment,” he said, you should be translating that as a very deep engagement.
We build our world through stories. We like to fit people and things into categories and narratives in order to make sense of our world. We need these stories to navigate the world, but the problem is that we often forget that we made up the story in the first place, and its purpose is to simplify an experience in the world that is fundamentally complicated and sometimes contradictory. When you sit down and listen to someone you love talk to you, your story about who you think they are will colour your expectations about what they say, and your story about yourself colours how you expect to respond. We’re not really listening because we just keep expecting confirmation of what we already believe about the person.
If you can release the person you love, however, from your story about them, you can really, fully listen to them and hear what they have to say. You can give them the space to change and learn and grow. When you do this, you also give yourself the space to listen and respond genuinely. This can become a deep source of growth and intimacy.
The story of who you think you are is vital for the way you move through the world. You just have to be willing to adjust, hone, and occasionally change your narrative about yourself and your relationships, which allows for a very deep form of paying attention. If we can keep telling our stories about ourselves and others mindfully, without clinging to them, then, perhaps, we can take Garth’s advice, and actually “Live in the now!”