There seems to be a natural confusion that arises when people think about being attached to things or people. For me, I thought that I needed to be detached from my feelings and emotions in order to relieve myself from attachment. If I shut off all emotions and felt nothing, then I had achieved successful detachment that the Buddha taught. However, I was wrong.
Being attached to things and people means to give them unrealistic attributes, to perceive them as being able to give us everlasting happiness and to see them as unchanging forms. Let’s take the first: giving something or someone unrealistic attributes. When we fall in love with someone, we create this illusion that this person is perfect, that everything about them is beautiful and that we must be with this person or we will be unhappy. We “crave” this person and when we can’t be around them, we grow lovesick and miss this person.
After spending time with this person, we start to see that they are not perfect and we actually start seeing through our illusion of attachment and become unhappy, focusing on all the bad we now see in this person. We think, “Oh, he/she smells bad or has yellow teeth, or makes fun of my way of dressing,” and we become unhappy. We start to push away and “fall out of love.” But, we do not realize that we are suffering from attachment, and we haven’t yet seen all the way through the illusion. We stay unhappy until we start the process all over again by breaking up or divorcing this person and then becoming attached to someone else and creating misery all over again.
In our path of release from the misery of attachment, the second thing that is a great problem is perceiving things outside ourselves as giving us lasting happiness. We believe, when we are attached to things or people, that they are the cause of our happiness. Take money for example: we believe that having more of it will make our bills go away and that we will be able to buy all we want. But we won’t have that lasting happiness we imagine. We will spend much of our time worrying about how to keep our money from thieves, or how to get more of it, thus creating more greed in ourselves. We may come to be paranoid that all our friends only like us for our money or we may try to “buy” our friends to ease our loneliness only to find they were never our friends and then we are lonelier than before! Anytime we seek happiness outside ourselves in persons or things, we are attached and they will never bring us lasting happiness.
Thirdly, when we look at things as being permanent and unchanging, we have the greatest illusion that attachment brings happiness, and thus, the greatest suffering. Let’s look at birth and death for example. We may believe that being born into this world is the start of our existence and death is the end. But, in between we deceive ourselves. When we are young, we feel that we will stay young forever and will remain unchanged. Even as we grow older, we continue to lie to ourselves and say, “I still feel like I am 18.” We think that we can still perform all the activities at 60 that we did at 20. While this may be true, we have changed, and if we do not wake up to the fact that the only thing that ever stays the same is change, we will wake up one morning and be incredibly miserable and full of suffering from a body that seemed to just break down overnight.
We don’t need to shut off our emotions. We don’t need to stop feeling anything. What we need to do is realize that we have been creating or looking through an illusion and see things as they really are. Once we do this, we will see clearly and be happy.
The Buddha said in the Dhammapada, “Attachment arises from (wrong) conceptions, so know them as attachment’s root. Avoid conceptualizations and attachment will not arise.” If we do not apply wrong concepts to things, i.e., if we don’t think people, money or things outside ourselves bring us our happiness, or expect them to act in ways to bring us happiness, and if we see them in their true nature and accept them as they are, we will not become attached. But, we can still have feelings of loving kindness towards them and/or use the things in their intended manner without them bringing us misery.
One way to do this is to meditate and look deeply into the impermanence of things: to realize that things are always changing and realize that we can live on the waves of existence rather than be smothered by the misery we create in it and drowned by the ocean of confusion created by it. When we can look at a leprous beggar seeking alms and a brother in the family with the same loving kindness, we have attained detachment from attachment. Once we can pay our bills with money earned and give a stranger money for a coat in winter with the same feeling of rightness, we have attained detachment from attachment. Once we can look beyond our own bodies and see birth and death as another round in the circle of beginningless time, we have attained detachment from attachment.
The Buddha said,
If you desire joy,
Completely forsake all attachment.
By forsaking completely all attachment
A most excellent ecstasy is found.
So long as (you) follow attachment
Satisfaction is never found.
Who ever reverses attachment
With wisdom attains satisfaction.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.