By David Jones
What if attachment doesn’t cause suffering but is simply one explanation for suffering?
What if we stop trying to avoid attachment and instead embrace it mindfully with understanding? What if attachment isn’t a defect in human life, but a natural feature that takes learning and experience to handle effectively?
We’ve read that Gautama had a wife and child whom he loved and was obviously attached to. But the account says he left them one night while they slept, not even waking them to say goodbye, knowing that if he spoke with them he’d never have the strength to leave. Looking at it as a modern husband and father, I don’t like his choice, even as I understand his logic. His attachment to them would have kept him stuck in the spot if they’d asked him to stay, far from the Bodhi tree he would sit beneath, far from the undistracted mind he’d need in order to find enlightenment.
Buddha stated in the Second Noble Truth that suffering arises from attachment.
While some traditions and sutras recommend different ways to dissolve or prevent attachments, others recommend seeing our attachments as springboards to understanding suffering instead of trying to escape it. Attachment isn’t seen as a stand-alone all-encompassing cause of suffering but as a conditional element, dependent on what we’re attached to and how it affects us. I think that’s the wiser view.
Attachment itself isn’t something to avoid but to face.
If we just look for ways to run from attachment then we’re attached to the fear of attachment—just another cycle, another rotation of the hamster wheel. Attachment in general isn’t the problem. Attachment to unhealthy views and behaviors is, as is avoiding situations rather than facing into them and embracing the challenge they bring. I’m still working on that.
Gautama knew his attachment to his wife and child would get in the way of finding answers, so he left.
Instead of following that approach, maybe we could change how we view attachment itself. But wait—couldn’t our new view just give us new attachments? Absolutely! But once attachment itself isn’t seen as the enemy, merely having attachments is no longer a problem.
Buddha was a Wisdom Teacher who wasn’t interested in telling people how to understand everything, but like other Wisdom Teachers he provided new ideas for how to understand and approach life’s issues. So rather than saying, “Well, Buddha said this so we have to do that,” we’d do better to say, “Buddha said this, so now we need to look at it and understand it, then be prepared to move on if that view doesn’t work for us.”
Ancient Indian philosophy (and some Buddhist views) state that while desire is a trigger for suffering, it also involves ignorance. Ignorance about how to transform our suffering isn’t overcome by running and hiding but in meeting it head-on and finding understanding in it.
Letting go of our attachments is seen as THE solution.
I’d say that we may not need to let go of the things we’re attached to but should focus on seeing how our attachments affect our lives and often control us. Leaving our wives and children isn’t necessary if we can embrace our attachment to them as a step towards dealing with their inevitable suffering and loss. Perhaps that step includes letting go of our attachment to how we view attachment itself.
As teachers we can shift how we try to help folks who show us their suffering. Perhaps they’re suffering because they lost something: a loved one, a job, or a purpose. Maybe they’re afraid of the uncertainty they’re facing as their beliefs change or as their lives take new forks in the road they didn’t count on.
Attachments play a part, to be sure, but to just dismiss someone’s struggle with, “You’re clinging to attachment. Stop it,” would not be wise. It’s not helpful to blame attachment or folks for having it. Instead we can help them understand how certain attachments are affecting them and offer suggestions for facing that, without blame or guilt.
So we can view attachment as a natural human development—a by-product of our interconnectedness, which can be a source of happiness and security as well as of vulnerability and sadness, sometimes leading us to fulfillment and sometimes to suffering. Then we can find balance with it. Once attachment itself isn’t the enemy, we can transform how we as humans function with it, learning to steer it rather than being controlled by it.
By letting go of our antagonistic attachment to attachment, we can find liberation.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Did you love this piece? Tip the author! Help support writers: paypal/donate