Love: Women on Non-Attachment

by Jeff McMahonMany of the best-known writers on non-attachment are men—such as Anthony de Mello, who explains how attachment destroys love in his little book, “The Way to Love,” and Eckhart Tolle, who distinguishes love from “normal addictive relationships” in his passage, “Real Love Doesn’t Make You Suffer.”
I’ve shared these challenging teachings with fellow yogis, and some have pointed out the gender of the writers.
It’s one thing for a man to be non-attached, they’ve told me, but it’s another thing for a woman—because women create beings in their bodies and send them out into the world.
Try doing that with non-attachment.
I can’t try that, in this lifetime, but I have tried to discover what women have written about non-attachment. If we’re to consider non-attachment a viable practice, it seems vital to find testimony from women, the creators of life and the barometers of love on earth.
At times it has seemed as if women were moving away from the practice of non-attachment.
In a 2003 article about the feminine faces of Buddhism, religion writer Pythia Peay quoted Tara Brach saying that many traditional interpretations of Buddhism foster an “aversion towards attachment and desire” that ultimately leads to a “deep distrust of the body and emotions, or the notion that life itself is bad.”
But Peay’s article ends soon after that, without unfolding Brach’s view of attachment, which emerges in this Sounds True interview with Tami Simon:
Tami Simon: Why is it that the places that trigger us… why do they happen in our intimate relationships the most?
Tara Brach: That’s where there is the most attachment. People who are the closest… we’ve fixed most of our needs and our hopes and therefore our fears around those relationships, so we hold on the most tightly to wanting them to be a certain way. And we freak out when they are not.
Tami Simon: Makes sense.
Tara Brach: One of the things I watch is that—and this happens for everyone I know—that there is the most pushing away and the most grasping with the people closest to us.… When out of our pain we act out, then what we’ve done is we’ve moved away from the one place where there can be healing and freedom. And so with the people closest to us, there is a constant subtle dynamic of trying to control how it is, push away with this judgment, and in the moments that instead of reacting we just stay, we just stay, and open to what is under there, in that opening we can find the truth of who we are. I mean, that is really what we are… kind of waking up out of the small self that needs to control and coming into that field again.
What field? Brach rarely, if ever, uses the term “non-attachment.” She refers to “non-separation.” But for attachment to occur, there must be separation between self and other.
“In realizing non-separation,” she writes, “we come home to our primordial and true nature.”
Brach has written an excellent article explaining how she transmutes romantic infatuation into non-separation. You can download it as a pdf.
Peay also features Sharon Salzberg in her article on female Buddhists, and Salzberg is often quoted on non-attachment:
To remember non-attachment is to remember what freedom is all about. If we get attached, even to a beautiful state of being, we are caught, and ultimately we will suffer. We work to observe anything that comes our way, experience it while it is here, and be able to let go of it.
In Rebelle Society, Zoey Quiney writes that “What starts out as a casual desire or appreciation can slowly turn into the shackles of attachment. The fear that one day it might not be yours creeps into the recesses of your mind, and gradually you become a slave to the need to possess, to hold tight and to never let go.”
But Quiney uses the word “detachment” as the cure for attachment, which other teachers and writers consider misleading, including the Buddhism guide at, Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien:
A superficial understanding of either Buddhism or Stoicism might lead one to think that detachment from the things one fears or desires is the answer to suffering. Indeed, I can’t tell you how often I stumble across academics and sometimes even Buddhists declaring that Buddhism teaches “detachment.” That might make sense considering how often teachers warn us to avoid “attachment.” But flipping from one extreme to its opposite is not the Middle Way.
Detachment is just another form of being jerked around by your own thoughts. The real solution is to change your mind in a very deep way so that your thoughts no longer dictate your emotional state. What Buddhism (and Stoicism) teach is not detachment, but non-attachment.
Another writer focuses on this difference. Cheryl Keaton, a student of Guru Anandini, writes at a page called Self-Realization Group:
First off, It’s important to understand the differences between detachment and non-attachment. When you detach from something you don’t see yourself at all, there is a disconnection between you and the emotions to where you don’t even realize what emotions you are having. You deny emotions because they are too painful to feel. So you will be numb and you will not be able to figure out the source of the problem or where it stems from.
Being non-attached, you’re in full awareness, fully accepting everything. You see yourself have emotions but at the same time you purposely do not identify with them. The watcher comes out of the mind and simply sees the drama. It is this state of awareness that allows mind to keep on doing its business while you rewire your brain by becoming more aware, analyzing and integrating its every move as to figure out what makes it tick. How are you supposed to see the tricks of the mind if it is suppressed from even feeling at all?
Keaton begins her piece with a quote from Pema Chödrön, the first woman whose writings I searched for teachings on non-attachment. Chödrön focuses on shenpa—a Tibetan word often translated, inadequately according to Chödrön, as attachment. She prefers to think of shenpa as “getting hooked,” and she offers detailed advice about how to get unhooked.
In her book “When Things Fall Apart,” Chödrön writes of a “letting-things-go that is sometimes called non-attachment, but not with the cool, remote quality often associated with that word.”
She offers this vision of non-attachment:
We are like children building a sandcastle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of coloured glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sandcastle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.
If you know of other teachings on non-attachment by women, please mention them in the comments below or email me.
Teachers and Teachings:
Pema Chödrön on shenpa (text)
Pema Chödrön, “When Things Fall Apart” (book)
Tara Brach interview with Sounds True (transcript)
Tara Brach on Making Room for Desire (pdf)
Sharon Salzberg on Generosity and Attachment (text)
Pythia Peay Story on Women In Buddhism (text)
Zoey Quiney on Attachment (text)
Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien on Attachment, Detachment, Non-Attachment (text)
Cheryl Keaton on Non-Attachment vs. Detachment (text)
Anthony de Mello, The Way to Love (book) (pdf)
Eckhart Tolle, Real Love Doesn’t Make You Suffer (text)

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