Q: I have read that the practice of non-attachment is essential in the quest for spiritual knowledge. If this is true, will you explain how to cultivate an attitude of non-attachment?
A: Spiritual knowledge refers to knowledge of the core of our being—the pure self. The attitude of non-attachment is necessary for the attainment of spiritual knowledge. Non-attachment begins with developing a clear understanding of the nature of the world. You will be able to cultivate an attitude of non-attachment when you come to realize that all worldly objects are transitory, and further, that the value of worldly objects is a creation of the mind. You arrived in this world empty-handed and you will depart empty-handed. When you realize this, you will not be attached to the objects of the world.
That is not to say worldly objects are useless and should be shunned. Use the objects you encounter in your journey through life, and move on. But use them in a proper manner, with the understanding that they are not yours. Everything belongs to nature, including your energy and intelligence. Enjoy them with the full awareness that having them is a privilege, and use them properly. Cultivate the attitude that when you achieve something, that is fine; when you lose something that is also fine. Whether you have achieved something through hard work or by chance, it is only a temporary gift. To know this and to remain aware of it without losing that awareness, even for a split second—that is non-attachment, or spiritual knowledge.
The practice of non-attachment is a process. The mind has bound itself tightly to the senses; driven by sense cravings, it runs to the external world and attaches itself to objects it considers important. As long as you do not know how to withdraw the senses from the external world, your mind will remain a victim of its sense cravings.
For this reason, as a prerequisite for practicing non-attachment, you must learn to withdraw your senses from constant engagement with the objects and experiences of the external world. This is pratyahara, sense withdrawal. Through a systematic practice of pratyahara, you can tame your senses and mind and bring them under your conscious control, thereby preparing the ground in which non-attachment may grow and blossom.
The first step in the practice of pratyahara is to cultivate the awareness that the objects of the senses, as well as the pleasure derived from them, are momentary. Desires and cravings begin in the mind and motivate the senses to seek pleasure in the external world. This understanding, coupled with the knowledge that seeking joy in the external world leads invariably to disappointment, is essential to pratyahara.
The second step in the practice of pratyahara is to convince the mind and senses that withdrawing from contact with sensory experience is both pleasant and restful. Rest feels good. If the mind can be made to see and acknowledge the beneficial effect of rest, it will begin to develop a willingness to withdraw the senses.
After the mind experiences the joyful stillness that results from pratyahara, it can be instructed to look within for the true source of happiness. That is why in the systematic eight-limbed approach to spiritual unfoldment laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, pratyahara precedes dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation). Once the mind is no longer busying itself with external objects, it can be brought to focus—and eventually concentrate—on a mantra or other meditative object. With practice, concentration will deepen into meditation, which leads to direct knowledge of our spiritual self.
Non-attachment to worldly objects and experiences is an inner state the scriptures call vairagya. These same texts tell us that vairagya is the highest state of knowledge, and they use the terms for knowledge and non-attachment interchangeably. So the simplest and most direct answer to your question is this: Non-attachment frees the mind from delusion and distortion, allowing our inner self to reflect in the mind in its purity and fullness. That is spiritual knowledge.