♫ ♫ ♫ “Attachment” — a little piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫
“One man can conquer a thousand times thousand men in battle,
but one who conquers himself is the greatest of conquerors.”
There’s a lot of talk in Zen teachings – well, Buddhist teachings in general – about attachment and how it’s the cause of suffering. Sometimes people fixate – um, attach – to this concept without investigation and claim it means Buddhism is a path that encourages people to become automatons who don’t care a fig about anything or anyone except for the dust in their navels.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. My understanding of attachment is that it springs from deluded, dualistic views of “self” and “other.” The path of Zen practice encourages freedom from dualistic views, and as a result, we actually learn to care more freely and expansively for ourselves, others, and our world than while living under the yoke of attachment.
One form of attachment that creates tremendous suffering is found in conditional love. When we place conditions on our love for others, we are, in essence, attaching ourselves to an idea of those people that we’ve created in our minds. We layer on storyline after storyline about who a person is and who we want him or her to be. If the person dares to step outside the parameters we’ve placed around him or her, we withhold our love as punishment or as motivation to try to get the person back in line with our comfort level. As I have discussed in earlier posts, this isn’t love. It’s control. Conditional love is attachment to delusion – to limited concepts about another person’s selfhood that exist only in our minds and cannot possibly encompass the shifting, changing being and his or her infinite range of possibilities.
I’ve always liked this quote by George Bernard Shaw: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” Something in the gist of this quote rings back, for me, to the words of the Buddha in the Dhammapada: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” Some people who misunderstand Buddhism take “With our thoughts we make the world” literally and label it ridiculous. What it means, though, is that we truly make the world in which we live by how we choose to see it, live in it, act in it, and react to it.
If we perceive the world as evil and ourselves as victims, then those thoughts, in every present moment, will reinforce the cycle of misery, since it’s in the present moment that we create not only our lives (worlds) but our future. If we become “feverish selfish little clods of ailments and grievances,” then we have nobody to blame but ourselves, since we’ve attached ourselves to the fever, to the selfishness, to those grievances, to those ailments, and have defined these things as ourselves. The good news is that we can stop the cycle at any time by letting go of what is hurting us, thus refusing to stay in prisons of our own making. When difficult things happen and challenges arise in our lives, we can use these things to help us grow in wisdom and compassion by choosing whether we’ll react with the same-old, same-old hurtful patterns, or with greater mindfulness, awareness, and big-picture perspective. And with every occasion we make the latter choice, we grow.
With unconditional love, we love without limits. That doesn’t mean we love everything a person does, any more than it means we love everything we do. But when humility and honesty – compassion and wisdom – enter the picture, we more readily acknowledge that everybody makes mistakes, including ourselves. We learn to forgive and let go of grudges. We release attachments to concepts of who we want other people or ourselves to be, and we open our hearts and minds to others and ourselves as ever-changing phenomena that manifest moment by moment. Love without control. Love without strings. Love without fear. We find that our ability to love not only grows but exponentiates.
One of the most pernicious prisons we build for ourselves is comprised of bricks that are made up of attachments to the past, which can take the form of all kinds of things, among them anger, addiction, guilt, annoyance, irritation, and holding grudges. All these emotions and reactions keep our mind tethered to the past so that we are unable to experience, with any clarity, the present moment: where our life is actually happening, where it’s actually unfolding. When we attach ourselves so fiercely to the past, we also limit our capacity for unconditional love, since we’re defining ourselves and other people in terms of what we or what he or she did in the past, so that we aren’t allowing ourselves to be open to the possibilities in ourselves and others as we and they exist now.
Another kind of attachment that impedes present moment awareness is looking toward the future, whether desiring and craving or worrying and fearing. When we load ourselves down with expectations and storylines about the future — what’s going to happen, what won’t happen, what might happen — we can’t experience the present moment as it is. Present moments rush by while our minds are anchored to the future, a construct that doesn’t even exist. And the future will never exist, since by the time it manifests itself, it becomes the present moment.
People can make themselves miserable pining for a future that will never exist: “My life must be this way, that way, and this other way, or else I can never be happy, content, or peaceful.” That’s not a good way to achieve goals. It is, however, a great way to drive yourself nuts. Believe me, I know. I’ve done this kind of thing, and I bet everyone reading this post has, too. But it’s delusion. Think about it. How many things in your life have turned out exactly as you planned? How many things in your life are exactly as you thought they’d be? Very few, I bet. When we set expectations in stone, we’re bound to be disappointed. Sure, hope is great, but I recommend an open-ended hope, where we keep ourselves open to surprises and to those myriad things that happen throughout our lives which we could never have predicted but which continue to open up more and more possibilities to explore.
Trying to attach to a concrete future is rather like trying to attach to to a concrete self. The moment we attach to a conception of what we are, that we will have changed in the interim. We desperately try in so many ways to grab onto something solid: me, you, this situation, that circumstance, or this scenario. And while all these things feel real, there’s actually nothing to grab, and when we truly start to learn that there’s nothing to grab, we can increasingly allow things to be and to make peace with ourselves and with our lives. I’m not saying we shouldn’t consider the future. But increasingly, I believe that the very best way to create happy futures for ourselves is to focus clearly on the present moment and treat it with as much care, gentleness, and attention as it deserves. When our minds are constantly on the run, whether to the past or to the future, we can’t bring awareness to life as it is happening. With such muddy minds, is it any wonder we get sucked into negative patterns of reactivity?
Without attachments, we’re free. The Buddha knew this because he discovered it for himself. One of the many things I love about Buddhism — and Zen, in particular — is that it’s grounded, practical, and applicable to our day-to-day lives. You don’t have to believe in the supernatural, nor do you have to accept unverified — and unverifiable — claims. Instead, you experience — investigate — for yourself.
To my mind, Zen is scientific, in the sense that you can try it and see if it works. Practice, however, needs to be a commitment. Patterns built up over a lifetime can’t be dismantled in, say, a day. In the context of practice, too, a person needs to be careful about attaching to expectations. Rather, we think of practice as we think of life: one present moment at a time. Growing in wisdom and compassion is about the way we relate to each of the present moments that make up our lives: being there for those moments and being mindful, kind, aware, and gentle to each of them. In this way, we let go of constructs like the past, the future, and conditional love, all of which blinker deep awareness of this phenomenon we call our lives.
Letting go of attachments doesn’t mean we become automatons. Rather, it means we take responsibility for ourselves and our minds, hearts, and lives. And letting go of attachments doesn’t mean we renounce our capacity to love. Instead, when we renounce those attachments that cause us to suffer, we free ourselves to live in a wiser and more honest and compassionate way in which we increasingly recognize, in clarity and luminous awareness, how incredibly precious is every present moment, every beating heart, and every living being.