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Open Heart, Clear Mind
»» 2. Taking the ache out of attachment

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Leading a balanced life

Do you know anyone who is satisfied with what he or she has? Most people aren’t: they would like to have more money, go on better vacations, buy more things for their homes and have more attractive clothing. Some people become miserable when they can’t afford the things they want, or even if they have them they worry about paying the bills at the end of the month. They’re attached to their possessions and are sad when a treasured gift is lost or a family heirloom is broken.

During the day our attention is generally directed outwards. From morning till night we crave to see beautiful forms, hear pleasant sounds, enjoy fragrant scents, taste good food and touch pleasing objects. When we do, we’re happy; when we don’t, or when we contact unpleasant sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tangibles, we’re upset. Our feelings and moods go up and down each day, depending on whether we like or dislike the sense objects we contact.

Although we derive pleasure from sense objects, it’s limited pleasure. If we examine our lives closely, we’ll find that what brings us pleasure at one time makes us unhappy at another. For example, food is enjoyable when we begin eating, but it’s not when we overeat. Money enables us to have many things, but it also causes us to worry, because we fear it will be stolen or lost. The things we’re attached to don’t consistently bring us pleasure.

At the moment, it may seem to us that sensual pleasures are fantastic, but in fact we’re capable of greater happiness. According to Buddhism all beings should have pleasure and be happy. However, we must examine closely what happiness is and what causes it. There are many levels of happiness, the pleasures of the senses being one of them. However, we’re capable of greater happiness than that experienced by being near beautiful objects and wonderful people. Buddhism directs us towards supreme happiness, which comes from transforming our minds.

The Buddha observed that when we’re attached to sense objects, we eventually become unhappy. The problem isn’t in the objects, it’s in our way of relating to them. How does attachment work? Is it an accurate or necessary way of relating to the people and things in our environment?

Attachment is an attitude that overestimates the qualities of an object or person and then clings to it. In other words, we project onto people and things qualities they don’t have, or exaggerate what they do have. Attachment is an unrealistic view and thus causes us confusion.

Let’s take food as an example, since it’s something most of us are attached to. When we smell or see something tasty, we desire it. It appears to us as if happiness exists inside the food. We feel that if we ate that food, we would have happiness. It appears that the deliciousness of the food exists independently of us, as part of the food’s intrinsic nature.

Is this appearance correct? If the food were delicious by nature then everyone should like the same food, because we all like what is delicious. If the goodness existed intrinsically in the food, then it should always be delicious. But when the food is left out overnight, it becomes stale and undesirable. While the food previously appeared to us to be intrinsically and permanently delicious and we believed that appearance, the fact that it changed shows the food is neither permanently nor inherently delicious.

If happiness were an inherent quality of food, then the more we ate, the happier we would be. That certainly isn’t the case, for when we overeat we feel miserable! If the food contained happiness, then eating the right amount would make us feel eternally satisfied. However, after a few hours we’re hungry.

Although the above arguments may seem self-evident, it’s important to examine our own experience clearly. We may in tellectually understand something without being able to apply it in our daily lives. For example, intellectually we may know that happiness doesn’t exist inside food. However, whenever the desire for our favorite food arises, our actual perception and expectation of the food is quite different. By recognizing this contradiction we’ll begin to bring our understanding from our heads into our hearts. We’ll be better able to live according to what we know is true, rather than what we unthinkingly assume is true.

When we examine our experience, it becomes clear that we overestimated the qualities of the food and then became attached to it. By eliminating these false projections, we can release the clinging.

That doesn’t mean that we stop eating. We have to eat to stay alive, but we can have a realistic, balanced view towards food. If we regard it as a medicine to cure hunger and nourish our bodies, we’ll eat peacefully and will be satisfied with what we eat. This satisfaction is a real blessing, for we can’t always control what food we have. If we’re very picky and always want a fantastic meal, we’ll have little contentment simply because we can’t always get what we like.

The Buddha said in the Dhammapada:

Attachment arises from (wrong) conceptions,
So know them as attachment’s root.
Avoid conceptualizations
And then attachment will not arise.

Certain basic misconceptions feed our attachment. These are that:

(1) things, people and relationships don’t change;
(2) they can bring us lasting happiness;
(3) they are pure; and
(4) they have a real, findable essence.

These misconceptions function whenever we’re attached to something or someone. To examine them in more depth, we’ll use the example of our bodies.

Change: the inevitability of aging

Although we intellectually know we won’t be young forever, in the back of our minds we innately feel that we will be. Thus, when we look at pictures taken of ourselves years ago we’re surprised at how much we’ve aged. Our hair is grayer, or maybe we don’t have as much hair, and our skin isn’t as smooth. In spite of all the anti-wrinkle creams, hair colorings, and antibalding methods we employ, still our bodies get weaker and less attractive, making us worried and unhappy.

In addition, we don’t feel quite as young and energetic as we used to. Although we may exercise and consequently have a lot of energy now, when we were younger that energy was naturally there. Now, we can feel our bodies slowing down and we have to work at feeling fit.

Some people get very unhappy at the inevitability of aging. Western culture, with its emphasis on youth and being fit and attractive, sets the stage for discontent and worry. We idolize what we’re all in the process of losing our youth.

If we realistically recognize and accept the changing nature of our bodies, the unhappiness due to aging will subside. Our bodies are getting older as each moment passes, and there’s no way to prevent this. We need to contemplate this so we not only understand it intellectually, but accept it in our hearts. If we think about the inevitability of aging while we’re young, we won’t be so surprised when it happens.

Do our bodies bring us lasting happiness?

A second misconception about our bodies is that they bring us lasting happiness. We’re very attached to being healthy.

Some people pamper their bodies to keep them well, and worry whenever they cough or sneeze. Such attachment to our health is inconvenient for the people around us. It also causes us to be depressed or angry when we get sick, thus delaying our recovery.

Although no one likes getting sick, our bodies are prone to disease. Who do we know who has never been sick? If mentally we can accept the frailty of our bodies, then when illness comes we’ll be better able to handle it. Then, even when we’re sick, we’ll be able to have a happy mind. A good attitude will automatically help us to get better.

Are our bodies pure and clean?

Another misconception about our bodies is that they’re intrinsically pure and attractive. Thus, we’re attached to being good-looking. We feel that we’re worthwhile when we look good, and we use our looks to attract people to us. We feel people will like us if we have attractive or athletic bodies and will ignore us if we don’t.

Although one part of us thinks our bodies are intrinsically pure, our attachment to our looks makes us perpetually dissatisfied with them. We may employ a variety of products, diets and exercises to make our bodies beautiful, but our wishes are never completely fulfilled. Even the most beautiful women and handsome men aren’t satisfied with their bodies. We feel that we bulge where we shouldn’t bulge or don’t bulge where we should. Although others may tell us how attractive or well built we are, we never feel our bodies are good enough.

But what is the purpose of our human lives? Is it to look beautiful externally, or to improve our minds and open our hearts so we’re more beautiful internally? All of us have met people who aren’t physically attractive but who radiate internal qualities of patience and openness that draw people to them. Qualities that make people internally beautiful are more important and last longer than physical beauty. But these qualities don’t come by accident; they come because people cultivate them. Contemplating this helps us clarify our relationships to our bodies.

Of course, we should try to stay healthy and to dress neatly, but we can do this without attachment. Over-concern about good looks makes us more unhappy. Being very attractive can bring many added problems, as we can see by the lives of many celebrities. If we recognize that having attractive bodies doesn’t eliminate our problems or bring us ultimate happiness, we’ll let go of clinging to their being beautiful and well-built. We’ll then be less self-conscious and more content with what we are. Recognizing that inner beauty is more important, we’ll cultivate this and will have more friends because our characters have improved.

Our bodies don’t have a real essence

The final misconception is that we believe our bodies have a real essence. However, if we examine our bodies carefully we’ll find they’re only accumulations of atoms. Scientists tell us there is more open space in our bodies than area occupied by atoms. In addition, these atoms are in continuous motion.

Thus, when we seek a solid, unchanging entity to call “my body,” we can’t find one. There is no static permanent phenomenon we can identify as the body. Also, since what we label “my body” is merely an accumulation of atoms in a particular formation, our bodies aren’t inherent entities. Nor are they inherently attractive or ugly.

These four misconceptions-that our bodies are unchanging, bring lasting happiness, are intrinsically pure and have a real, findable essence-exaggerate the qualities of our bodies. This causes us to cling to being perpetually young, healthy and good looking. Such clinging makes us dissatisfied and anxious.

What is another way to relate to our bodies? At first it may seem inconceivable that there is any other way to relate to our bodies besides being attached to them. Yet there is. One way is to think, “I can make my life meaningful by improving my character, helping the people around me and contributing to society. My body is the vehicle enabling me to do this. Therefore I must keep my body healthy and well-groomed, not for my own selfish purposes but to use it for the benefit of others.”

This way of thinking may initially seem foreign, but if we habituate ourselves to it, it will become our natural way of thinking. We’ll have a more relaxed way of viewing our bodies and will be much happier for it.

The way to satisfaction

Attachment lays the foundation for dissatisfaction, for no matter how much we have, we always seek more and better. Our society exploits this greed and discontentment, and we’re told that last year’s fashions are out, last year’s appliances are outdated. But few people are able to afford everything they think they’re supposed to have. Even if we can buy many things, they later beome old or break, or we have to get more and better possessions because everyone else has them. This can make us continually insecure.

On the other hand if we think, “What I have is good enough,” then our minds will be relaxed. This doesn’t mean that we never buy new things or that our society shouldn’t improve technologically. If we need something or when a new model is more efficient, there’s nothing wrong with buying it, provided we can afford it! But whether we succeed in getting something or not, our minds will be relaxed because we’ll be content with what we have. The Buddha said:

If you desire every 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.
Whoever reverses attachment
With wisdom attains satisfaction.

As long as we crave more and different things, we’ll never be satisfied no matter what we have. On the other hand if we’re content with what we have, we can still work to improve things, but our minds will be relaxed. Free from grasping, we can develop economically and technologically for the benefit of everyone.

At first it may be difficult to think in this way because we’re in the habit of being attached. The attachment may be so strong that we fear losing the object or person, and we panic. This fear and clinging obscure our good feelings and prevent us from enjoying our relationships and material possessions.

We can eliminate this fear. First, we can recognize that our own minds project the beautiful object or person and that attachment is a mistaken conception. This will make us more realistic. Then we can remember the disadvantages of attachment and abandon it. Instead we can allow our minds to rest in an open state of contentment, knowing that if we have that object or are near that person, it’s nice, but if not, we can also be happy.

For some people, the word “detachment” has a negative connotation because it implies being ascetic, apathetic or un-caring. However, this isn’t the Buddhist meaning of detachment. Rather, it refers to a balanced state of mind in which we don’t grasp at things and therefore are free to focus our attention on what is really worthwhile.

Being detached doesn’t mean we give away all of our possessions and live in a cave. There is nothing harmful about having possessions. We need a certain number of them in order to live. Problems arise only when we unrealistically exaggerate the importance of our possessions. Attachment and clinging cause the problems, not the possessions. Being free of attachment we can enjoy things.

When we use our possessions it’s helpful to think, “Many people worked to produce the things I enjoy, and I’m grateful to them. Instead of using my possessions with selfish attachment, I’ll use them with the aspiration to improve my qualities so I can love and help others more.” We can enjoy food, clothes, a home and possessions, but with a different motivation than before. Doing so, we’ll be peaceful and free from anxiety.

Nor does leaving aside attachment make us unmotivated and indifferent. At ftrst glance it may seem like this simply because we’re very habituated to attachment. However, there is a variety of other attitudes that can motivate us. Genuine care for others is one. The wish to bring others happiness and prevent their suffering can be a powerful motivating force in our lives. Thus, avoiding attachment opens the door to genuine communication with others, love and compassion.

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