WE ALL HAVE ATTACHMENTS
From the moment weâ€™re born we face a troubling paradox: life is made interesting, fun, and happy by the attachments we form, but the loss of these same attachments lies as the root cause of our worst pain in life. Even when merely threatened with the loss of a beloved attachmentâ€”whether a person or a thingâ€”we often suffer. The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, referred to birth as the first of the four sufferings (old age, sickness, and death being the remaining three) to indicate that being born into this world inevitably destines us to suffer the pain of separation from our attachments. These four sufferings are what led him to ask this most fundamental question: how can we achieve any kind of meaningful, lasting happiness when every person and every thing to which we ever become attached will eventually be lost to us?
There are many ways people throughout history have either consciously or unconsciously attempted to answer this question. What follows are the strategies Iâ€™ve found to be the most common ones:
- Limit the number of external things upon which we base our happiness. When we lose something we care about, this approach often leads us to remind ourselves things like, â€œAt least I still have my healthâ€ or â€œAs long as my children are okay, Iâ€™ll be all rightâ€¦â€ But two problems exist with this strategy: one, we remain vulnerable to losing everything, including those few things we think we canâ€™t lose and still remain happy; and two, whenever we do lose one of those key attachments, feeling grateful for not having lost something equally or even more precious rarely blunts the pain of it.
- Attach to nothing. An unreachable goal many people attempt anyway. Desire is ingrained in us psychologically, physiologically, probably even genetically if for no other reason than to ensure our survival. How can you live without being attached to breathing? Further, human beings are intrinsically meaning-seeking creaturesâ€”but how can we create value if we werenâ€™t attached to achieving goals? How would it serve our friends, our spouses, or our children to limit the degree to which we care about them simply to be able to diminish the force of the blow that losing them might one day bring us?
- Attach to things but deny the pain of their loss. Another common strategy doomed to produce more misery than it avoids. As experience confirms, when we refuse to allow ourselves to experience legitimate grief, it remains somewhere within us, freezing our ability to recover from our loss. Experiencing grief over loss is necessary to return to happiness. Any pain weâ€™re due that instead we bury will fester like a wound that never heals, often manifesting in surprisingâ€”and always damagingâ€”ways.
APPREHEND THE TRUTH
How, then, can we be happy if our lives are destined to be filled with the pain of loss? The answer, I believe, lies in breaking through two delusions:
- That our happiness is created out of any one particular attachment, no matter how precious it may be. For me, this would mean giving up a belief that I couldnâ€™t be happy if I lost my wife, my son, or my ability to write. There was, of course, a time in my life before I had any of those things when I was nevertheless happy. Why, then, if I lost them now do I believe such happiness would be impossible to regain? The answer: not because it actually would be, but because I believe it would be. There are numerous reasons why I believe thisâ€”and if youâ€™ve suffered a heartbreaking loss, you may be screaming out that you canâ€™t be happy again even as you read thisâ€”but the truth is you can even if you donâ€™t want to be. As I wrote in a previous post, Letter To A Widow, having lost a loved one we sometimes become reluctant to fully surrender our grief even after itâ€™s run its proper course, as if it were something precious in and of itselfâ€”perhaps believing the pain of loss is the only thing keeping us connected to our loved one, or that to feel happy again would be to diminish the significance of the relationship we once enjoyed. But neither is true. If I allowed the loss of my son to destroy me, it would only happen as a result of just exactly that: my allowing it.
- That the pain of loss necessarily destroys happiness. Pain, by definition, is aversive. But viewing the pain of loss from an enlightened perspective can give it a purpose that mutes its aversiveness just as when a weightlifter embraces the perspective that â€œpain equals gainâ€ (the pain of lifting a heavy weight is transformed into a survivableâ€”even enjoyableâ€”experience because of the result it produces, growth). The Buddhaâ€™s solution to the inevitability of the suffering of birth was to connect to a source of happiness that relied on nothing external, a connection he was ultimately only able to attain by using the pain of being separated from his attachments as a springboard. And having achieved that connection to the core truth about himself he was able to manifest a life-condition in which he could experience all of life joyfullyâ€”even while being at the same time sad, mad, hurt, or ill. As I wrote in another previous post, Changing Poison Into Medicine, itâ€™s precisely because weâ€™re challenged with the pain of loss that weâ€™re able to develop this lofty state of life.
ITâ€™S EASY TO SAYâ€¦
â€¦but quite another to believe such a state of life is possible. And even quite another to actually manifest it. And yetâ€¦Iâ€™ve experienced brief moments of what that kind of life-condition feels like. And each time Iâ€™ve thought to myself: if this experience can happen for a single moment, why couldnâ€™t it happen for several moments? Why couldnâ€™t it happen for an hour? A day? A week? Why, in fact, couldnâ€™t it become my predominant life state? And yours?
This would require, it seems to me, two things: a great enough expectation that such a life state is indeed possible to motivate us to seek the second thing, a reliable method for manifesting it. A method that, like weight lifting, if done correctly, would build not strength of muscle but strength of life force.
If such a life state isnâ€™t possible, then weâ€™re all doomed to have our happiness remain at the mercy of our changing environment, to gather to ourselves what external attachments we can and do our best to hide them from the purview of fate and circumstance, desperately hoping to avoid their loss even knowing eventually we will lose something critical to our happiness.
I know many people are resigned to believing this, but not me. One reason is that Iâ€™ve encountered patients whoâ€™ve lost spouses and even children who, though still carrying their sadness with them, have managed somehow not to be destroyed by it; whoâ€™ve not only learned to be happy again but even, in one particular case, to radiate joy. Thereâ€™s something these people know that the rest of us donâ€™t. But if they can learn it, so can we.
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