Wear the World Like a Loose Garment

I’m a fan of slogans. They are potent spiritual practices.

Repeating a slogan can shift your mental state in a second, activate wise mind, and reinforce healthy behaviors.

In particular, I’m a fan of the slogans quoted by members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups based on its Twelve Steps. For example:

  • Live and let live.
  • Progress, not perfection.
  • This, too, shall pass.
  • Take it easy…but take it.
  • If you sit in the barber chair long enough, you’ll eventually get a haircut.

But my favorite by far:

Wear the world like a loose garment.

A universal teaching

Beneath the folksy tone is a profound practice that spans the world’s spiritual traditions — living without demands and requirements.

According to the Bible, Jesus told 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.”

Eknath Easwaran, meditation teacher and translator of spiritual texts, put it this way in The Mantram Handbook

When we are caught up in likes and dislikes, in strong opinions and rigid habits, we cannot work at our best, and we cannot know real security either. We live at the mercy of external circumstances: if things go our way, we get elated; if things do not go our way, we get depressed. It is only the mature person — the man or woman who is not conditioned by compulsive likes and dislikes, habits and opinions — who is really free in life. 

The key message in each case: Wear the world like a loose garment.

Letting go of goals

This message is noticeably missing in popular self-help literature — especially books that are grounded in the “law of attraction.” 

Instead, we’re pummeled with directions for setting goals, achieving them, and “manifesting” our every desire. Then we’ll be complete. Then we’ll be happy.

But goals come without guarantees. 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 loosen up, let go of attachments, and celebrate what we already have.

Getting our terms straight 

I know this sounds strange — perhaps even unloving. That’s because we use the word attachment as a synonym for caring about people.

In reality, what the spiritual teachers mean by an attachment is much closer to a requirement. When we’re attached to something, it means that we demand it. 

In order to be OK, for example, 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 

Oy! So many “have-to’s.” 

The possibilities are endless. Human beings can attached to almost anything.

The perils of “musterbating”

Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, consolidated the list of possible attachments to just three irrational beliefs that make people miserable: 

I absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, perform well (or outstandingly well) and win the approval (or complete love) of significant others. If I fail in these important—and sacred—respects, that is awful and I am a bad, incompetent, unworthy person, who will probably always fail and deserves to suffer.

Other people with whom I relate or associate, absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, treat me nicely, considerately and fairly. Otherwise, it is terrible and they are rotten, bad, unworthy people who will always treat me badly and do not deserve a good life and should be severely punished for acting so abominably to me.

The conditions under which I live absolutely MUST, at practically all times, be favorable, safe, hassle-free, and quickly and easily enjoyable, and if they are not that way it’s awful and horrible and I can’t bear it. I can’t ever enjoy myself at all. My life is impossible and hardly worth living.

Ellis’s term for living by such an absolute list of demands is musterbating.

The Buddha made essentially the same point when people told him that they were upset because by the antics of their family members or friends. 

If you’d made such a complaint, the Buddha would have said: You are not upset because of any of these things. You are upset simply because you are upsettable.

Doing the work, releasing the results

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 and events 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.

Taking this attitude allows us to be truly spontaneous. 

We can see our circumstances without the mental filters imposed by our requirements. 

We can respond to people as they are rather than as they “should” be, attuning our behavior to reality rather than selfish demands.

“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.”

The peace that comes to pass when we let go of our absolute and irrational demands—that’s the wonder of wearing the world like a loose garment. 

The Ellis quote is from: Albert Ellis (2003), Early theories and practices of rational emotive behavior theory and how they have been augmented and revised during the last three decades. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 21(3/4): 219–243.