Non-attachment, caring, and motivation

September 11, 2012 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Freedom

I’ll post today’s topic as a question. I’ve asked it of people who know more about Buddhism than me for more than ten years. No one has given me an answer I’ve found satisfactory.

Though I put it in Buddhist terms, I hope no one gets hung up on the details of one religion or philosophy. I mean the question in a general way because his actions and philosophy, while magical, have analogies in our lives. We might not believe in Buddhism, but we don’t exactly consider the concepts foreign.

Some element of being detached from outcomes seems common to personal development, whether in Buddhism or in the common advice of our times “You shouldn’t care so much what other people think,” which I don’t consider great advice, though it stems from personal philosophy I’ve found useful.

According to the story, the guy who became known as Buddha sat under a tree, thought for a while, and attained a state of complete liberation, totally detached — as in he could have just continued sitting there until he died of hunger or thirst and nothing would shake his happiness, bliss, or whatever you would call his state.

We all want to improve our lives and it doesn’t sound crazy that an endpoint to that path could exist — why not total liberation or freedom?

Anyway, as I understand, he then spent the rest of his life teaching people what he had figured out so they could attain for themselves what he had.

The Question

My question is this:

If he was totally indifferent to any outcome, why did he do what he did? Why teach? What difference would anything make to him?

While I ask it about Siddharta, we could ask the same question of ourselves. Putting it in terms I use on this page more,

If we want freedom, doesn’t that mean caring less about things? After all, caring for something attaches us to it, constraining us. But won’t caring less cause our motivation to decrease? If so, won’t becoming more free decrease our motivation? Do we want less motivation?


Most answers I get start by loading me up on foreign words, trying to teach me what seem low-level details of a religion or philosophy. Maybe I’m prejudiced, but I think any explanation about such basic human questions. I’m holding out for an answer in plain English.

If you think you have good answers to those questions, please let me know. I think even if you never satisfactorily answer the questions, thinking about them raises your awareness, so I recommend thinking about it.

The general question

At its most general

How do you balance freedom, caring, and motivation?

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5 responses on “Non-attachment, caring, and motivation

  1. There was a great book “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha”, written by a guy who claimed to have achieved enlightenment, but was also trained as a medical doctor and had a proper grasp of the scientific method. (I know that sets people’s bullshit detectors off, because every wackjob claims that their theory of “quantum healing” or what-have-you is based in science, but read the book and you’ll see this guy is different).

    Two points from that book that are relevant here.

    One is that Buddhism (at least his branch, based on the Burmese tradition) teaches that there are three essential practices. In English these can be translated as concentration, insight and morality. Concentration is what it sounds like, the ability to focus the mind on one thing. When highly developed, it can lead the practioner into a series of states of ever greater-relaxfulness.

    “Insight” (sometimes translated as mindfulness) means something a bit different to the normal english meaning; here it’s basically the ability to perceive the raw perceptual data that makes up your conception of reality. When highly developed, it leads to enlightenment. (Supposedly).

    The third practice, morality, is about living well in the world. Everything practical that helps you better take care of yourself and others. Wisdom gained from the other two practices should help you here, though all three practices are supposed to support and reinforce each other.

    The second point is his explanation of the Buddhist concept of equanimity. This is something that supposedly doesn’t fully develop until you reach the more advanced stages of meditation, so it’s hard to really judge what he says. But basically it’s that you don’t reject your emotions, or became an emotion-less, passion-less, motive-less robot; you still have your emotions and passions and motives, but you recognise them for what they are, rather than as a core part of your being.

    • Thank you for pointing that out. I saw the relevance at the end. As I understand, even completely liberated Siddharta would have still felt the emotions and motivations he would have before, only he would have had the choice to follow them or not.

      I guess Buddhism would say that though he could have done anything he wanted, he just happened to teach and spread what helped him.

      It seems to me the more liberated he became, the less likely he would have chosen a specific behavior, as he realized more choices — presumably infinite — available to him. That he chose to do things so apparently helpful implies to me he either didn’t get *that* liberated — that Buddhism still promotes that even as liberated as they say someone can possibly be, they still have preferences.

  2. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Complete detachment simply means there is nothing you care about. The problem you’re pointing out is that there would be no motivation to do anything. While this is true, it isn’t actually a problem. Motivation is a force that drives us from one thing to another. If we have resistance to something, we need notivation to overcome this resistance. When there is no motivation towards or away from anything, there is no need to use force to steer in any direction.

    A good way to think of it is that, when nothing is important, everything is play. The absence of attachment isn’t the absence of interest, it’s the absence of clinging. So there is no stake in the outcomes of things, and there are no expectations. Things can go one way or the other and it doesn’t matter. Play is done for its own sake, rather than for an outcome. So, a motivated person is doing something for a reason – they are working towards a goal. If they fail, if things start to go wrong, or if it is a difficult process, then there us stress. Someone who is just playing is aimless. They may do something and expect a certain outcome, but when that outcome doesn’t happen, it simply doesn’t matter. The goal was to enjoy the process, which already happened, so nothing is lost.

    So, to stop caring about everything is to lose all goals, all motivation, and all seriousness and just spend the rest of your life playing. 🙂

    • I like your playful way of looking at things.

      It’s hard not to think religions are promoting behavior other than playing, but that doesn’t have to bother us.

  3. Pingback: Non-attachment, caring, and motivation, part 2 » Joshua Spodek

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