May 10

Heartbeats and High Stakes: The Trouble with Attachment

So, a few months back, I was in the audience at a theater, immersed in a series of Indian classical dance recitals featuring local students, mostly teens and young adults. Roughly an hour into the annual show, my Apple Watch buzzed with a "High Heart Rate" alert.

To set the scene, my resting heart rate typically skews much lower than the norm for my age bracket. Nurses at clinics always seem a bit alarmed by it. I just tell them it's because I'm a runner, which surprises them. After all, nothing about my outward appearance screams "athlete."

So, when my heart rate surged past 100 bpm, my body instinctively interpreted it as distress. And on this particular occasion, I knew exactly what was revving up my heart rate—my daughter's dance group was about to perform.

This particular performance was a special milestone for her, and therefore, there were a lot of expectations going into it, including her hair needing to stay in place. A little backstory: she's had a couple of onstage hair fiascos in past years, which may or may not have had something to do with me.

So, for a tense 20 minutes, I rode a rollercoaster of nerves and worry until, finally, their performance wrapped up, and they exited the stage. That's when I could finally kick back, breathe a sigh of relief, and watch my Apple Watch go back to sleep mode.


Culturally, when we talk about feeling jittery before a big moment, we usually blame it on performance anxiety—a fear of messing up. In extreme cases, this could result in anxiety attacks, the symptoms of which the Mayo Clinic describes as below:

  • Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry

But long before the Mayo Clinic detailed anxiety symptoms, the ancient Indian scripture Bhagavad Gita (circa 2nd Century BCE) portrayed the inner turmoil of the protagonist Arjuna as he confronted the formidable Kaurava army on the battlefield.

As soon as he faces the enemy line, Arjuna is consumed by remorse, as he knows that all the warriors among the opposing forces are none other than his own kin, friends, and loved ones. The Gita eloquently captures Arjuna's anguish in an almost verbatim translation of the Mayo Clinic’s description of the symptoms of anxiety.

sidanti mama gatrani mukham cha parishushyati
vapathush cha sharire me roma-harshash cha jayate
gandivam sramsate hastat tvak chaiva paridahyate
na cha shaknom avasthatum bhramativa cha me manah


Translation:

My limbs are giving way, and my mouth is drying up. 
My whole body shudders; my hair is standing on end.
My bow, the Gandiv, is slipping from my hand, and my skin is burning all over.
My mind is in quandary and whirling in confusion.
I am unable to hold myself steady any longer.

Now, here's the million-dollar question: how does someone like Arjuna, described as one of the greatest warriors ever, find himself gripped by anxiety?

Or, for a much more pedestrian example, why did my nervous system, cool as a cucumber until my daughter hit the stage, suddenly decide to go into hyperdrive?

According to ancient wisdom, there's something deeper at play than failure: the root cause of misery is our identification with and attachment to the situation.

Ancient Eastern spiritual wisdom is very clear: It's this whole "I"ness or "my"ness — identification and attachment to things, objects, people, or places, that clouds our perspective and causes us to suffer.

In the example above, I didn’t stress about other performances because those dancers weren't "my" kids. But the minute my daughter stepped into the spotlight, suddenly, I was all in. The stakes grew exponentially because now I was personally “vested” — I had identified with and attached myself to what was going on stage.

What starts as just a dance show morphs into "our child's" dance show, and just like that, we’re emotionally invested. We start sweating the outcome, worrying about potential slip-ups, and driving ourselves crazy. And in the midst of all that, we forget to simply enjoy the moments.

The understanding that identification leads to agony isn’t some new-age revelation; it's been around forever. I'm bringing it up today because it's a universal phenomenon—something pretty much everyone can relate to.

Now consider the alternative. Imagine going through life, appreciating every moment without a trace of anxiety or fear of failure. Is that even possible? According to ancient philosophy, it is. “All” we need to do is practice detachment by breaking the cycle of identification and attachment.

Fear arises through identification with form, whether it be a material possession, a physical body, a social role, a self-image, a thought, or an emotion. Eckhart Tolle.

So, how do we break the cycle of identification and attachment?

Question ownership

We tend to grasp onto possessions, situations, and people and assert ownership in an attempt to find stability and happiness. According to the Gita, clinging is our attachment to transient phenomena as if they were permanent.

It’s a matter of training ourselves to question our ownership of objects, situations, and even people. For instance, instead of labeling something as “my house,” I can recognize it as a dwelling I happen to live in currently.

Slowly, with mindfulness and self-awareness, the philosophers promise, we’ll recognize how little we really own. And that, in itself, can free us tremendously.

Recognize the illusory nature of control

Despite our best efforts, we cannot dictate the outcomes of our actions or the course of events in the world. Yet, attachment tricks us into believing otherwise.

We become attached to specific outcomes, convinced that they alone hold the key to our happiness and fulfillment. When reality deviates from our expectations, fear arises – fear of loss, failure, or the unknown.

Letting go of attachment to results is key.

Practice detachment

Eventually, the goal is to practice detachment—not indifference or apathy, but a shift in perspective. It means to perform our duties to the best of our abilities while letting go of cravings and aversions.

This means we unburden ourselves from the weight of expectations.

We cultivate gratitude, fostering a sense of contentment rather than more desire.

And we learn to love deeply, not like how a lion loves a lamb, but without expecting reciprocity.

Finally

Detachment is a tough ask for us mere mortals. I may never be able to sit through my daughter’s performances without butterflies in my stomach. But I can at least start to recognize the workings of identification and attachment.

And maybe the next time I spill coffee on my favorite white shirt, I can learn to be kinder to myself, knowing the coffee stain will fade, the shirt will eventually wear out, and so too will the worries and anxieties that grip the mind. By doing so, I can learn to liberate myself from the burdens of attachment and open myself up to the wonder that life is.

The bird of paradise alights only upon the hand that does not grasp. John Berry

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