Detachment Doesn’t Mean You Own Nothing; It Means Nothing Owns You
By detaching from what we can’t control, we may begin to experience life as it’s meant to be.
Vincent Van Patten
This past year has felt like a strange, timeless dream. With our modern construct of reality distorted, many of us have felt that for the first time, we may take a chance, match this new reality, and seek something other than what we previously knew as normal.
Personally, this past year-and-three-months has been the most transformative season of my life. I embarked on a path of pursuing what I believed would make me truly happy. But honestly, what is it to be happy?
It’s as if happiness is a by-product of a myriad of other measures of progress which we strive for: fulfillment, joy, meaning — at times, these seem like more tangible markers of wellbeing than happiness.
Happiness ebbs and flows like the tide of the sea, as it’s often controlled by external circumstances. It will sometimes come when we least expect it, but more often than not it eludes us when we believe we should be happiest.
Even in my current situation, where I’m pursuing my dreams and doing whatever I can to recognize my personal growth, I fall back into wondering:
Should I be doing something else? Should I be working to make a steady paycheck instead of scrambling to make money, albeit at something which I sincerely love?
Perhaps another question to ask at this pivotal point in human history: should the acquisition of money and the modern image of success determine how we live our lives?
I portray myself on social media as authentically as I can, as somebody who wants to create change by inspiring others to seek what lights their souls on fire. But what does it mean to be authentic?
On social media I hope to impart the good and the bad, the times I’m down as well as the times I’m up. But who wants to show the world how fragile we really are? The times when we’re hurting and question the universe, when we feel out of rhythm?
In those moments I’d rather keep to myself, shut out the world, and stay under the covers. But if I don’t portray these moments, am I really being as authentic as I’d like to believe?
We’d rather portray the most successful and happiest version of who we are — our ideal self. Yet, it’s rarely just a simple choice. When we’re feeling our best, we want to capture that moment. Yet the picture, whether we intend it to be, is so often rendered incomplete.
I’m as guilty of this as anybody else: when I’m traveling, feeling inspired and accomplished, I want to show the world. But perhaps social media can become more than just a personal highlight reel.
It can be a community of growth — a place to be there for one another through the difficulties we all face — a place where we convey all of who we are, perfectly incomplete human beings. It can be a place to embrace the journey as individuals and as a collective.
A Sign of True Strength
When I see somebody who’s “made it” on social media I compare myself, as much as I try to believe I don’t. I become dissatisfied with my current aims and pursuits.
I want to succeed. I want to have this life I’ve been working towards pan out as I hope. But what if it doesn’t pan out? What if I never reach that desired outcome, that goal, that dream of perfect health, a perfect body, an illusory image of success?
Does it mean my efforts have been futile? Does it mean I’m not worthwhile, as good or as far along in my respective season of life than those that have “made it”?
I’m attached to an outcome beyond my control.
To be a human being in our modern-day is a miracle. Many of the amenities and circumstances we take for granted couldn’t have been dreamed of a hundred, or even fifty years ago. Still, we’re products of our time, and must make the conscious decision in how we interact with the circumstances we’ve been dealt.
Social media, a certain Western image of success, and a fast-paced culture are the constructs inextricably linked to the twenty-first century. However, that doesn’t mean we’re helpless against these societal pressures. Far from it.
It’s up to us as individuals to decide how we’ll take part in this reality. Yet, as we’ve seen during the pandemic, even this modern-construct is susceptible to change. We have a choice in whether we’ll embrace that shift. Author, life-coach, and podcast host Jay Shetty says on Tom Bilyeu’s podcast, Impact Theory:
“There’s a beautiful verse in the Bhagavad Gita that says: Detachment is not that you own nothing, detachment is that nothing owns you. Usually people see detachment as being away from everything. Actually the greatest detachment is being close to everything, and not letting it consume and own you. That’s real power. That’s real strength.”
This sentiment hit me in the soul coming from Jay Shetty, one of my greatest inspirations. It made me consider how attached I am in my personal life not only to looking a certain way, but to my identity and self-worth that’s linked to a certain outcome.
Self-Worth Comes From Within
I have personal goals that I dream of accomplishing; but as I work towards a future that feels sincerely like my own, I’ve realized that there’s something profoundly more important to strive towards.
It’s a way of being where it doesn’t matter what I accomplish, what goals I reach, or if I become successful in the eyes of others. What matters is recognizing how I’m growing, how I evaluate my self-worth from within, and how I encourage others along the way. While it isn’t always comfortable to foster this mindset, it’s what I strive to cultivate more than anything else.
To change our lives, we first must change our mindset. In his book Think Like a Monk, Shetty tells the story of how he left the secure and success-minded corporate world at twenty-two to move to India and become a monk.
He left, however, when his mentor told him he’d be better suited in the modern-world, where he could relay what he’d learned to help those in need of wisdom. After reading the book, I’ve considered if life as a monk might be a fulfilling path to take.
Okay, I’m not that serious about it.
But Shetty’s book has left a lasting impression on my heart and soul. It helped me realize that attaching to a certain metric steals our joy — as Shetty is ostensibly suggesting when he says: “The greatest detachment is being close to everything, and not letting it consume and own you.”
We Don’t Need to Separate Completely
Social media metrics, claps, follows — these things are an integral part of our present-culture. I could detach from them altogether; yet with the life I’m pursuing where I want to help people around the globe like Shetty does, social media and an online presence play an important role. Plus, I like social media!
There are many aspects of it which I enjoy, such as seeing what my friends are doing, stumbling upon beautiful places around the world that I’d love to visit someday, and appreciating the work of figures whom I admire. It’s up to us, however, to regulate our relationship to it.
I don’t know what Jay Shetty’s personal world is like. His mission is to “Make wisdom go viral,” using modern technology to share the ancient wisdom gleaned from several years of training as a monk.
So, he is close to everything — he is part of our modern-culture. But he appears fulfilled — it’s apparent in the way he interacts with others and his joyful way of being.
That’s the balance I strive for: not completely separating from society, (even if I really wanted to, I have no idea if I could muster up the fortitude and courage to lead a monkish life) but to not be controlled by anything that doesn’t come from within.
Think Like a Monk led me to embark on the journey of self-discovery where I’m pursuing not only my dreams.
I’m seeking peace, stillness in the mystery, simplicity, and true fulfillment by letting go of what I can’t control.
A Lesson from the Roman Philosopher Seneca
While it’s undoubtedly challenging to cut all ties from things like social media, alcohol, or certain foods, it’s another kind of test to allow ourselves to live in the grey area between zero and one.
It takes strength to be close to everything while focusing on what matters — our connections, our journey, our growth — not the outcome, not the destination, not the perfect social profile. This is to garner our sense of self from the inside out, instead of from external circumstances.
Emily Wilson’s book The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca on the first-century AD Stoic philosopher Seneca, taught me a profound lesson about the importance of a balance and determining our own self-worth.
As an affluent member of Roman society and the tutor of the abhorrent Roman emperor Nero, Seneca was no stranger to wealth, luxuries, and comparisons to others.
He was not the perfect moral philosopher, but he knew this. Despite his human flaws and his ample temptations, he sought to conquer his own mind, what he called “the greatest empire.” Wilson writes:
“Seneca insists that those who attempt to conquer the world and attain political, military, and economic power are far inferior to those who manage to achieve the empire of control over themselves: imperare sibs maximum imperium best (‘The greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself’ — or ‘The greatest kind of power is self-control’).”
I wouldn’t use these exact words; who are we to say who is inferior or better than anybody else? We’re human beings — we long to be accepted, loved, and seen, and these innate human desires often manifest themselves through ascending in the material world.
We’ve been conditioned to believe the destination of material wealth and an image of success determine our intrinsic value — if I just make it, I’ll be happy, worthy of being loved.
We’re all born with the same value, love, and light in our heart and soul. That intrinsic value has never diminished; it’s only been buried by societal pressure to be something we’re not.
The Sky Begins an Inch Off the Ground
When we’re constantly exposed to the success and exciting lives of others, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing we aren’t enough. We see others crossing the finish line in their own journeys and find it hard to be happy for them.
We see the finished product, the outcome of what others have produced, and question ourselves. Yet, just as we don’t know the grueling hours that it took that person to reach that point or the sacrifices they had to make, nobody knows what we’ve been through, either.
Nobody can fully comprehend the journey we’re on but us. We very well may not even realize it ourselves.
Focusing on the outcome — whatever might come from the steps we take today — blinds us to the joy, meaning, and beauty that’s possible in the mystery of not knowing where life will lead.
By being grateful for the moment that we’re in, we may finally realize that the destination we expect will determine our happiness will continue to move further and further away the closer we get to it.
In the words of the contemporary writer, public speaker, and social philosopher Charles Eisenstein:
“When you build a tower to heaven, no matter how high you build, you’re not ever any closer to the sky, but you’ve built a big, big tower. And from the mindset of success, it’s like, well, maybe I needed to build it twice as high. And then I will be closer to this elusive happiness. It’s like trying to run to the horizon, no matter how fast you run, you’re still just as far from the horizon as you’ve ever been.
So you run twice as fast, but then comes a moment where maybe you get tired of building the tower, tired of running to the horizon and you stop. And you realize that the sky actually begins an inch off the ground, and that you were already where you’ve been wanting to go.”
Let’s Attach to Today
In separating our worth from an arbitrary destination, we’re free to find sincere joy in the success of others. In detaching from an ideal of perfection, we’re unshackled to realize perfection is a myth that prevents us from ever starting — that if given sincere effort and love, then good enough is all that’s necessary to achieve.
In detaching from trying to control the mysterious unknown, we’ll come alive in the beautiful mystery of surrendering to the moment.
We don’t have to separate completely from social media or from the material things that make life enjoyable if they do genuinely bring us joy. But to let these things make us think we must be anything other than what we already are — beautiful, capable souls — is to willfully give away our power.
It’s necessary to have something to strive towards, an exciting goal that motivates us to get out of bed in the morning. But if the outcome — an intangible metric like a castle in the sky — controls how we feel today, then it’s worth considering if we, or the outcome, the image, the result, is in control.
Let’s attach to today.
Let’s attach to love, gratitude, connection, and encouragement for ourselves and one another, so each of us might find the strength to contribute to this collective journey of growth.
We’ve already crossed the finish line. Each step of the journey — today — is the destination, a gift in itself. When we open our eyes to this new reality, we’ll see that we’ve always been there.
Vincent Van Patten