Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys: Is Mindfulness And Nonattachment An Emotional Bypass?

Sometimes our emotions may control our lives and choices. When this happens we often struggle to find ways to manage them. In recent years, mindfulness and nonattachment have become popular in the modern West, drawing on the wisdom from the East. But can it be a way to avoid what we’re really feeling?

An old Polish saying… image source

The other day I was contemplating the topic of mindfulness and nonattachment, and I remembered this old Polish saying. I remember hearing it years ago, and it was very helpful at the time when I was dealing with some trolls. At the time, I noticed I was getting very, very upset at the behaviour of some people, and I wasn’t even the target of the trolling; but it was affecting me nonetheless.

The saying is reminding us that if something is not our problem, then we don’t need to deal with it, and shouldn’t let the consequences affect our emotional states. This is useful advice when we find that we are getting drawn in to other peoples’ drama. It is a helpful mantra to detach oneself from the (usually highly) emotionally-charged situation, remain calm, centred, grounded, and rational.

This is certainly not a new concept, the idea of nonattachment to emotions is a cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy and practice. While early Taoist thought saw emotionality as pathological (meaning it led to loss of wellbeing and could even lead to functional, physiological disease and illness).

Research into mindfulness and nonattachment

With the rise of the popularity of ‘mindfulness’ in the modern West, there are now people adopting scientific methodology to understand and explain its usefulness. One piece of research I found was the development of a Nonattachment To Self Scale to be used as a measure for future research. Psychological researchers seem intent to define measurable outcomes for these practices, such as equanimity (upekṣā), the conscious realisation of reality’s transience.

There is an irony to all this research: nonattachment would also lead one would to become non-attached to attaining an outcome; scientific research is inherently outcome-driven! Regardless of what was found, a true sage with equanimity would shrug their shoulders at the results and say, “so what?!”

The other problem with some of the types of research done in this field is that it examines the efficacy of such practices (and therefore beliefs) in terms of the experience of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotions. This one, for example, studied how nonattachment in Buddhist affected their experience of positive and negative emotions. Their study found that:

Nonattachment and religious commitment could, therefore, influence greatly positive emotions in Buddhists. This result suggested a discussion about applying nonattachment to prevent emotional problems and improve psychological well-being.

Nguyen, Hang & Nguyen, Hoang. (2018). Positive and Negative Emotions and Nonattachment in Vietnamese Buddhists.

Our focus seems to be on finding sure-fire ways to experience ‘positive’ emotions, and eliminate ‘negative’ emotions. We want to feel joy, happiness, and bliss but don’t want to feel anger, sadness, jealousy, or fear. The mindfulness problem remains because we are still attached to emotions, and being selective and judgemental about it.

Perhaps that’s not a bad thing; until we find ourselves unable to feel happiness and joy — then we become anxious that we aren’t experiencing ‘positive’ emotions. We are attached to the desire for happiness, which we feel we don’t have, which leads to the suffering (duḥkha) we are trying to transcend from in the first place.

However, there is the shadow side to mindfulness and nonattachment.

Some people are confined and constrained by their fear of the intensity of such emotions as inadequacy, sadness, hurt, and rejection. For these people, emotions are like land mines; they tiptoe through life trying to avoid dangerous feelings. At the first hint that a strong emotional response is underfoot, they withdraw. They avoid situations that appear to be emotionally highly-charged, such as a heated argument with a loved one … In the process, they are usually successful at keeping themselves from experiencing much of what is worthwhile in life.

Leslie Cameron-Bandler and Michael Lebeau, The Emotional Hostage

Many of us think mindfulness and nonattachment is not feeling an emotion; and so we find mechanisms for not experiencing emotions we find unpleasant. There’s good old fashioned suppression, there is avoidance, or there is distraction. Many of us use food, drugs (prescribed or otherwise), or alcohol; others use social media, and games. However from my clinical experience I would even say that things like work, business, fitness, and learning are also ways some people avoid feeling their emotions altogether.

This is not nonattachment, not that I can tell anyway.

Photo by Mark Daynes on Unsplash

A Taoist perspective

My own practices have been highly influenced by the work of the Quánzhēn Dào, the Complete Reality School of Taoism. This sect (with several branches) were particularly focussed on internal alchemy as a methodology to attaining what Buddhists refer to as ‘enlightenment’. The Taoist goal was a little more pragmatic however, which was living the best life possible in the present moment. Having an ‘outcome’ was fine, as long as you weren’t attached to it. Seeking ‘enlightenment’ was fine, but also recognising that it’s a state you already have, and it’s also OK to not be enlightened.

Their approach to emotions was also influenced by both Buddhist and Confucian thinking in this field. Given all phenomena in the universe has a yīnyáng nature, emotions were seen as having either a life-giving quality (yáng) or a restraining quality (yīn), both as mechanisms of emotional homeostasis.

Emotions were seen merely as a description of how was flowing through the human body as a description or measure of change. can either rise, sink, spread, contract, or hold. None of the movements are inherently good or bad, they are just movements. There would be moments where one motion would be more appropriate, and times where they would not. This is always happening.

What happens is that we assign a thought-form (or an idea) to a movement, and label it as an emotion: anger, fear, delight, grief, or worry. The problem was not so much the way moves, as it was the label we slapped on it. Inevitably, when we label something we are presupposing a judgement on it. It was recognised that mostly our judgements were due to our conditioning, a false state based on the beliefs of others that we have become indoctrinated with.

Thus, we have a belief that some emotions are ‘good’ and others are ‘bad’; so we welcome the ‘good’ ones, and shut down the ‘bad’ ones and thus also shut down the mechanism of homeostasis and self-regulation. If we are always allowing to spread, at some point we are going to ‘run out’, as it leaves the system. By allowing it to contract before it leaves the system, we preserve the Qì so it can be used elsewhere.

In this framework, all the emotions are welcome. The emphasis is on discerning whether the thought-form attached to the motion of is a conditioned response, or a genuine expression of your true nature. With this discernment comes the ability to simply experience how is moving through you in any given moment; and because it is moving it is inevitably also changing. What rises, will also eventually sink; what contracts will inevitably spread out.

Nonattachment becomes the ability to experience an emotion and then experience it changing and disappearing, without trying to control it, suppress it, or force it. It isn’t the lack of emotion, or the lack of experiencing the emotion — that is simply bypassing experiencing life itself. It involves becoming a witness to what is being internally experienced.

This is something I’ve been practicing for a number of years now, and I also had great success with clients with this approach. Its a little different to the approach to mindfulness and nonattachment that one usually finds in modern Western sources.

For example, if I notice that I’m feeling envious, I stop trying to rationalise it, or justify it, or even push it away. I literally will stop, sit, and feel it. I don’t generate thoughts with it — that just creates stories and illusions of what it ‘means’. I simply allow the experience of the feeling; eventually it disappears without having to do anything.

Not my circus, not my monkeys

Here’s the great thing about this mantra: inevitably, a lot of my emotions are due to what Cameron-Bandler & Lebeau call ‘comparison’. I feel envious because someone else has something I don’t; or I feel angry because someone else got recognised for something that I haven’t been recognised for; or I feel fear because someone says or acts a certain way that I have linked with a past experience of trauma.

In this instance, the experience of the emotion is triggered by something outside of us, and paradoxically is not actually our experience. It is simply a response to an external factor based on what we are perceiving; and yet the perception of that is also tainted by the filters we have constructed over time (conditioned responses).

If I can separate the perception of someone’s behaviour, recognise it as ‘theirs’ — their circus, their monkeys — then chances are I’m not going to have that emotion arise. Even if it does, it will dissipate on its own, because there is no possible benefit to ‘owning’ someone else’s problems; that’s for them to deal with themselves. We don’t want to completely not care about other peoples’ situations though, as a thriving community is comprised of people caring for one another; we do need to care a little bit.

In typical, metamethean fashion I’m going to say that nonattachment can certainly sometimes be a bypass from dealing with emotions; and sometimes it may certainly not. Nonattachment is the capacity to be immersed in an emotional state, and then leave it effortlessly with grace and ease.

Mindfulness and nonattachment is not avoiding our emotions, it simply doesn’t depend on their presence — or their absence.

Research cited

  • Desbordes, G., Gard, T., Hoge, E.A. et al. Mindfulness (2015) 6: 356.
  • Nguyen, Hang & Nguyen, Hoang. (2018). Positive and Negative Emotions and Nonattachment in Vietnamese Buddhists. Asian Journal of Social Science Studies. 3. 32. 10.20849/ajsss.v3i1.324.
  • Whitehead, Richard & Bates, Glen & Elphinstone, Brad & Yang, Yan & Murray, Greg. (2018). Letting Go of Self: The Creation of the Nonattachment to Self Scale. Frontiers in Psychology. 9. 2544. 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02544.

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