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The Irony of Attachment

In the process of writing my next book Real Love, I’ve found myself asking students, friends, and colleagues about their associations between the words “attachment” and “love.” Too often, we confuse love with attachment — a state of mind characterized by clinginess, greed, and the impulse to possess. To me, love is a form of generosity. It is an expansive state of mind in which we feel an inner resource of abundance.

In love, we are able to access our inner resource of self-care and compassion to understand a deeper and more universal sense of connection and presence. In attachment, as I’m using the word, we feel our vision fixated, projecting all of our expectations for what “fulfillment” might feel like onto some object of our attention. We become lost in tunnel vision. This use of attachment in Buddhism is very specific, and does not exactly match with contemporary psychological analysis of disordered attachment.

Mindfulness allows us to create a sense of expansiveness in the way we look at the world, as it allows us to realize that awareness can be found in any moment. The same is true of real love: we are not lost in a single-pointed fantasy about the object of our infatuation, nor are we overwhelmed by despair. The Buddha said,

“The mind will get filled with qualities like mindfulness, like lovingkindness, moment by moment — just the way a bucket gets filled with water drop by drop.”

Love, like mindfulness and unlike attachment, relies on awareness and presence, and creates a sense of expansiveness and freedom. We can allow ourselves to become filled with a sense of connection and generosity toward others, just as the bucket becomes filled incrementally.

Yet most of us exhibit two powerful tendencies when it comes to this metaphor. We either become lost in attachment — infatuated on a particular individual or scenario, fixated in a fantasy world, waiting for the sensation of “a full bucket” — or, alternatively, we practice cultivating awareness in the present, which can catalyze fear and anxiety about the future. Rather than tap into the inherent fullness of each moment, we become filled with despair, and fixate on the sensation of emptiness and how much more of the “bucket” remains to be filled.

Of course, it’s unrealistic to assume that we will never encounter attachment in love. Feeling connected to others and to experiences releases pleasure hormones like oxytocin and dopamine; pleasant experiences certainly feel good, and should. The great irony of pleasant experiences, however, is that they can often breed attachment, and enjoyment then turns to clinging, leading us to suffer.

This classic scenario reminds me of a time I attended a Buddhist-Christian conference at Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky. At the conference, the Dalai Lama was speaking about how impressed he was with the monastery’s ability to support itself through the manufacturing of cheese and fruitcakes. Suddenly, in the middle of his presentation, the Dalai Lama made a confession:

“I was presented with a piece of the homemade cheese, which was very good, but really I wanted some cake.”

He proceeded to laugh uproariously and repeated his regret:

“It was so unfortunate! I was really hoping someone would offer me cake, but no one did!”

There’s no denying that the Dalai Lama was publically admitting his own desire (in this case, to the idea of getting a piece of cake). Yet while he might have been expressing that wish, his deepest sense of happiness didn’t in any way seem to depend on his getting that fruitcake. (A friend, hearing this story, commented that the Dalai Lama might be one of the few people on Earth who has longed for fruitcake.)

In fact, his happiness seemed to reside in his ability to be open, so candid and transparent with his feelings. Getting or not getting the piece of cake didn’t seem to be the ultimate determinant in his happiness; it was his ability to speak unabashedly about his own desires in front of dignitaries and a television audience, as well as his ability to laugh at his own desire.

With love, as with experiencing pleasure (or wanting cake!), we also practice letting go — trying to find that balance between needing something to be a certain way for us, which is attachment, openness, awareness, and a generosity of the heart. This openness and generosity is love — for ourselves, for all beings, for life itself.

The irony of attachment is that it fuels us to become lost in a desirous state of mind because we want to feel full, whole, and connected. We may even become attached to a particular person, set of expectations, or pleasurable experience out of a state of isolation. Ironically, getting lost in attachment can only make us feel further isolated. We mistakenly believe that clinging will reinforce and perhaps even deepen our connection to the object of our attachment, be it fruitcake, a pleasurable feeling, a person, an experience.

In my early days of practicing meditation at a monastery compound in India, I was given the instruction to make mental notes about what my predominant experience was at given moment throughout the day. I would note if I was sitting, standing, walking, and so on. As I made this habit into a practice, I noticed that my most common mental note was waiting. As I moved around the compound, I found myself repeating the word “waiting” to myself everywhere I went. But what was I waiting for?

In retrospect, I now know that I was waiting for something exciting to happen, something spiritual, something important all along. After all, I wanted to be able to make a mental note of it! In each moment, I was waiting for life to happen, losing touch with each moment in the hopes that the next one would prove “worthy.”

In India, I finally found that I was able to describe my full experience in words other than “waiting.” I realized that I was capable of living fully in each moment, rather than waiting for the next exciting event to happen. This realization involved opening my perspective and my heart — practicing generosity with myself. In doing so, I was able to open my fist from an attachment so some mythical experience in my future, and recognize what was right in front of me.

Sure, we still may feel the presence of our attachments, but being generous with the way we pay attention allows us to see through our attachments. We see they are not solid, and that they don’t need to hold us back. We can recognize the presence of our attachments and see them as limits to ways we can be happy (e.g., “I must have fruitcake or I will never be at peace.”). By creating a greater space for understanding and self-acceptance, we recognize these limits and extend them continuously.

If we’re always looking for some object or person or thing to create a sense of completion for ourselves, we miss entirely the degree to which we are whole and are complete in every moment. We practice seeing through our attachments to free the mind from the forces of clinging so we can access a more essential and sustainable feeling of happiness. When this practice is genuine we realize that all of the spaciousness and peace we crave can be found within ourselves.

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