“Wear the world like a loose garment.”
It’s a popular slogan among members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups based on the Twelve Steps of AA. Beneath its folksy tone is a profound practice that crosses the world’s spiritual traditions—living without attachment.
According to the Bible, Jesus counseled us to be in the world and not of it.
“A skillful traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving,” says the Tao te Ching.
“There is a good attitude to take towards any goal,” notes Thaddeus Golas in The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment. “It’s nice if it happens, nice if it doesn’t.”
In other words, “wear the world like a loose garment.”
This message is noticeably lacking in the mainstream self-help literature. Instead, we’re pummeled with directions for setting goals and achieving them. Then we’ll be complete. Then we’ll be happy.
But goals come without guarantees. And, as Daniel Gilbert points out in Stumbling On Happiness, we are notoriously poor at predicting what will make us feel good in the future.
There is another option—to live without attachment.
I know this sounds strange—perhaps even unloving. That’s because we use the word attachment as a synonym for caring about people and projects.
In reality, what the spiritual teachers mean by an attachment is much closer to our notion of a requirement. When we’re attached to something, it means that we require it. In order to be OK, we might believe that we:
- have to be married to a certain person
- have to raise children
- have to land a certain job
- have to make a certain amount of money, or. . . .
The possibilities are endless. Human beings can attached to almost anything.
What would be it be like to wake up in the morning and have no requirements? Perhaps this is what the spiritual masters meant by living without attachment.
This does not mean being unloving. In fact, we might be more loving when we don’t require other people to rigidly conform to our expectations.
Nor does this mean being inactive. We can still participate in the world, and even work hard, while living without attachment. The key is to discover the rewards that are inherent in a task and let go of the ultimate result—which is usually beyond our control anyway.
“Do everything with a mind that lets go,” said meditation teacher Ajahn Chah. “Don’t accept praise or gain or anything else. If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.”
That’s the benefit of wearing the world like a loose garment.
Image by marc0047, Flickr Creative Commons