Love, attachment and desire according to Buddhism

Happy Valentine’s Day!

A good day to talk about love, I think. This is the annual “love day”. For most of us, our love is a mixture of two things – attachment, which is not in fact love at all, and love, which is.

I like Valentine’s Day here in America. In England, Valentine’s Day is just about romantic love, or it was when I lived there. You send a Valentine’s Day card to someone you are in love with or someone you’ve been admiring from afar. It is often mysterious, “from a secret admirer.”  But here you may get a card and flowers saying “love from Grandpa.”  In England, that would be very strange, you would be worried. When I first got over here I learned about this difference, and then entirely forgot what Valentine’s Day is like in England. I sent my Dad a Valentine’s Day card, and he was touched, but a bit mystified.

But, as I said, I like it. I’m with the card industry on this one. So Happy Valentine’s Day, Dad, and everyone else!

What is desirous attachment?

It is not the same as desire – we need desires, but we don’t need attachment. Attachment is “dö chag” in Tibetan, which literally means “sticky desire”. There is a stickiness, neediness, dependency, and self-centeredness associated with attachment. It’s “I need you to make ME happy”, as opposed to “I want to make YOU happy”, which is actual love. Attachment weakens us, and we give away the key to our happiness. Love strengthens us, and we stay in charge of our happiness.

Attachment is all about me and what I can get from you, and love is all about what I can give or do for you. There are three kinds or levels of love, affectionate love, cherishing love, and wishing love. Briefly, affectionate love is just liking people, having a warm, fuzzy feeling, the way our mom feels when she hasn’t seen us for awhile, just unconditionally delighted to see us without that needy, “I want YOU to do something for ME.” On the basis of affection, if we think about how kind someone is, we come to cherish them – we find them special, we want to take care of them, their happiness matters. So because we cherish this person, our question is “Are they happy?” The answer is usually, “Well, they could be a lot happier,” and we wish for them to have what they need, what they want, to be happy now and always. This is wishing love.

Attachment stands in horrible contrast to all types of love, but to begin with it can be quite hard for us to tell them apart as our relationships are so mixed up. It is one of Buddha’s great kindnesses that he distinguishes between them so clearly. It can save us from immense heartache. We can learn to reduce the attachment and increase the love in all our close friendships, which is guaranteed to bring us more meaning and joy.

Here is a definition from Understanding the Mind:

“Desirous attachment is a deluded mental factor that observes its contaminated object, regards it as a cause of happiness, and wishes for it.”

“Contaminated” means tainted by the ignorance of self-grasping, which makes it seem as though the object or person we are attached to is real, “out there”, independent of our mind, as if we are uninvolved in bringing it into being. Attachment externalizes happiness, thinking it inheres in things and people, as opposed to being part of a peaceful mind. It can be a cream donut or a person – neither one has anything to do with me. It seems to be capable from its own side of giving me the happiness I want. And because our happiness is out there, we need to go get it.

(In the case of attachment, the object or person seems to have the power to make me happy. In the case of anger, it seems to have the power to make me unhappy.)

Are you a spiritual person?!

Having strong attachment is the opposite to the spiritual life. If I ask you, “What is a spiritual person? Are you a spiritual person? Do you have to wear open-toed sandals to be spiritual? Do you have to wear robes? What do you have to do to be a spiritual person?” and then go ahead and answer my own question, I would say that a spiritual person is someone who knows where happiness and suffering come from. They know their source lies in the mind. They know they’re on a journey to happiness. They still can be doing the same things that everybody else does – they can have a job, raise a family, eat donuts — but where they seek happiness and fulfillment is on the inside, in the mind. Do you agree?!

Attachment is the opposite. That’s why Buddha called the rest of us “worldly people” – someone is worldly if they are always looking outside of themselves for their happiness, and don’t recognize that their happiness comes from within.

As mentioned, desirous attachment is not the same as desire. There are many non-deluded desires that it is suitable to cultivate, such as the wish to help others, to accomplish pure happiness, even to overcome desirous attachment! And there are neutral desires too, such as the wish to open the door. If we got rid of all desire, we would cease functioning at all. We need to work on what we desire.

How do we develop desirous attachment

Very simply put, attachment exaggerates the apparent qualities of an object until we feel we have to have it. Here is another definition from Understanding the Mind:

“First we perceive or remember a contaminated object and feel it to be attractive, then we focus our attention on its good qualities and exaggerate them. With an exaggerated sense of the attractiveness of the object we then hold it to be desirable and develop desire for it. Finally our desire attaches us to the object so that it feels as if we have become glued to it or absorbed into it. Only when all these stages are completed has desirous attachment occurred.”

This is quite unlike love, which does not distort its object but recognizes it for what it is, for example as kind or lovable. Our neutral minds also don’t distort the attractiveness of their object — you go to the sock drawer to decide what socks to wear today, but you don’t spend hours thinking about it, unless you’re a sad case. With attachment, there has to be an exaggeration of seeming desirable features going on in the mind.

We can exaggerate at the speed of light!  Exaggeration is like a top notch advertising agency in the mind. We just meet someone, “Oh, he’s got nice eyes… I bet he’d make a great husband. I wonder if he’ll marry me?” The whole advertising industry feeds into our attachment, they know us – think how glued people were to the commercials in last week’s Super Bowl. The producers didn’t spend a million dollars on them just to provide us with entertainment. They know they’ll work to make us buy stuff  because we have attachment that is all too ready to go along with a gross exaggeration of the apparent qualities of a product. “Oooh, if I buy this dream car …” 

I’ll take this subject of love and attachment up again in a few days — Valentine’s Day will be over, but I’m betting it’ll still be relevant 🙂 And here is that new article… Falling in love (again) according to Buddhism.

And here are two more I’ve written since on this popular subject: Love without pain and Want better relationships?

Over to you: what do you think about all this?!

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

48 thoughts on “Love, attachment and desire according to Buddhism”

  1. Hi Luna,
    You are very careful when stating the word attachment. And you never said we are completely void of attachment. Which brings me to my question; can we love completely without some form of attachment?

  2. I’m so excited to have stumbled upon your blog! I recently attended a Kadampa Session on Love and Attachment and my desire to learn more brought me to your website. I am beyond thrilled. I would appreciate your additional insight and guidance on how to meditate when the one you loved repeatedly lied and cheated (gaslighted, too) on you with another. How do I move on from my mind constantly filling up with resentment and other negative thoughts as a result of this attachment? I find both parties – the one I loved and the other (plural!) women who willfully knew I existed and yet continued to participate in his deception – extremely hurtful to me. Any tools and resources to help me put this in perspective and move on from what has been tormenting me for quite some time? Thank you, Luna Kadampa.

    1. When we have been hurt, particularly by someone who is quite self-absorbed and manipulative, we can internalize the feelings of dislike or harm that we perceive coming from the person who has treated us badly. If we believe that we are unloved, and hold ourselves to be unloveable, it is hard to love or trust other people; so we have to find a way to feel loved and supported again. Not in the first place by the people who deceived us, that is too tall an order, but by remembering the love and support we have received from so many others. There is a meditation on the kindness of others (also on this blog if you search) which helps us feel supported and therefore whole and complete and able to reach out to others again. Then we feel stronger, we start a virtuous cycle, and one day you will realize that you forgive the man who hurt you, and the other women who were just as duped by him, for they of course all do and will suffer a lot as a consequence of their uncontrolled minds, attachment, and selfishness. And you will be able to take a dispassionate look at the role your own attachment played in all this, by allowing you to be duped, to hope against hope; and you’ll be a lot less likely to indulge in this sticky desire again!

      Anyway, remembering kindness is one useful approach. There are others — all of Dharma helps us overcome our dislike and open our hearts one way or another, and therefore heal. I wish you all the best in this challenge, you’ll be so happy one day when it no longer has the power to hurt you.

      1. Thank you, Luna Kadampa. Your reply brought an immediate tear to my eye. I am reading and re-reading your reply and it is all sinking in.

  3. Great article
    I am so attached to my ex. We just broke up yesterday and so thank you for this. i think i cab be happy without her. Happiness comes from within do not seek it without.

  4. ” Love 💕 Day ” With Lots of Love ❤ From; The Card Industry. But Yes… I’m a Spiritual person, because of the realizations in my mind… ” Dö Chag ” ” Sticky Desire ” ” I need you to make me happy 😊… ” Contaminated ” versus ” I want to make you happy 😊 ” but you know what !… Sometimes I’m still a sad 😢 case… Luckily we have a Sangha Jewel 👌 Like 👍 You 2 keep us on the Path… Thank you 😊 Obrigado…

  5. Thank you, Luna. I am currently suffering the consequences of such attachment. I was introduced to Buddhist meditation by a lovely person I met about a year ago and we developed a close friendship- not romantic- but messaging each other daily etc. Sadly, I became “possessive” and resented her spending a lot of time with another (male) friend of hers. When she refused to say where she was going with him on a retreat I flipped completely and we have had no contact now for four months. All I can say is that it’s easy to see attachment objectively but I suppose in my case, having always found it difficult to establish and maintain close friendships, I was so desperate not to lose her friendship that my attachment ensured I did. I’m very sad and not sure how to get to feel better of how, or whether the friendship can ever be re-established.

    1. I am so sorry to hear you are sad — the details change from one object of attachment to the next, but the pain is monotonously similar, for all of us. This is a great opportunity however to see how attachment hurts and increase your determination to work on your contentment and love instead. And then i predict that you will find it gradually easier to have close relationships with others — as my mum always said, if you want people to like you, like them first. Good luck! Keep me posted.

  6. Thanks, this helps a bit with a feeling of jealousy with an ex which when I focused on it was due to projecting a need born from my abusive past, which created some very unhealthy views on love and friendship.

    Cheers for the insight! 🙂

  7. Thank You very much for posting this article, it helped my thoughts on dealing with a difficult personal matter I’m facing.

  8. An effective way of letting go of sticky attachment for me is, after accepting that it’s there and acknowledging the tendency, in meditation I build up a mental image of myself in those situations free from attachment. I explore how I would act and feel in my body and mind without the craving and longing. Holding this image of myself, connecting to that freedom and contentment, along with the wish and knowing that I am creating the causes to be free from it.

    1. Fantastic, yes, thank you for this. Bringing the result into the path through correct imagination, we do a super-charged version of that in Tantra.

  9. Thank you for this article, it helped me see that I need to be my own source of happiness and satisfaction rather than depend on others to get it. Ultimately, if I love myself, I can love others – in its proper sense.

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  11. If someone has a desirous attachment to(ward) you, does that attachment of itself cause you to experience any effect in your life, (as a result of that attachment), either positively or negatively?

  12. This is my first reply to your blog. I would like to clarify that I am not a religious person and not interested in religion per se., buddhism or otherwise. My interest lies in how buddhist ideologies are applicable when it comes to human psychology. So here goes.

    First I am tired of this whole “love is this, love is that” talk (both with attachment and without attachment). When people think about love (myself included) the first thing that comes to my mind is romantic love and the next that comes to my mind is parental love and the third (and last) is love to do this job (passion?).

    My question is why is “love” given so much importance everywhere. I mean if MY state of mind should not depend on external objects or people, then it should be equally valid that the other person’s state of mind should not depend on what you think about them, whether YOU want them to be happy or not (I agree that “I want to you to make ME happy” is bad, but what about “I want to make YOU happy”). Then we shouldn’t be talking about giving love at all. That is kind of the other extreme. I would argue that the main thing we want in life is freedom (I say we want in the sense of being selfish because without that thought first, we wouldn’t have started searching for answers/reasons).

    SO why is freedom not given the importance love is given? Rephrase: Why are we talking about love when we should be talking about freedom? I think how to break free of the external controls in our life is more important that giving/taking love. I think that’s the most important thing we should strive to achieve rather than this whole “love” business.

    1. Hi Keshav P R, thank you for reading the blog and commenting on it, I appreciate it.

      I think love is given importance because it is a key ingredient in happiness. It is not like some optional extra, but part of the actual path to happiness. This is partly because it is in itself always a peaceful mind, and also because it is the opponent to self-preoccupation or self-cherishing, where we are all wound up in ourselves and have a blinkered view of reality. It opens our mind.

      If our mind is open, we start to experience mental freedom. If we are not obsessed by ourselves, we start finding the freedom which (I agree with you wholeheartedly) is the main thing we want. Actually, I think we want two main things — freedom and happiness — and love is a major way to both.

      Freedom is given huge emphasis in Buddhism. You could say that the whole path to liberation and enlightenment is about increasing our moments of freedom by training our minds to overcome our self-imposed limitations, delusions and suffering until our freedom is lasting — we call this “nirvana”. And if we are free mentally, having destroyed the inner enemies of our delusions, no external controls can have any sway over us.

      If we love others, we can help them. We engage in kind actions, and also they can feel the love. So we take the advice to find happiness from within for ourselves, but this does not preclude us bringing happiness into the world through our love for others, regardless of whether or not they are currently seeking happiness from inside or outside. As Atisha, a great early Kadampa Master, put it: “We cannot tame the minds of others until we have tamed our own.”

      I hope this helps, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss these things.


  13. Thanks, Luna. A clear and easily understood teaching on the difference between love and desirous attachment. I’d bet my wages that we’ve all really suffered from this type of mind. I know I have and it brought me nothing except mental pain. I’ve had ‘entanglements’ as I came to call them that really fizzled out through various ‘obstacles’ to what I thought the relationship should be like. In fact, it was a mind that wanted to possess ‘the object’, plain and simple with no other interferences (you know like relatives and children being involved) because I thought this was the road to my happiness. (Yes, self cherishing showing its ugly face), Through the mirror of Dharma I learnt the mistake to allow this mind to control me and the damage it can do to others. The ‘objects’ are now more special to me because my love for them has become more pure. I’m happy just to see them breathing!

    You maybe remember one of William Blake’s Songs “He who binds himself a joy, doth the winged life destroy. He who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise”. Also the ‘the dark secret love’ of the Rose. Let’s say I think I know where he’s coming from in both Songs. (I’m sure there’s more teachings in his Songs of Innocence and Experience as fundamentally they are about different mind sets).

    I’ve been wondering how to mark Valentine’s Day with my previously significant other without all the ‘desirous’ deluded stuff because I do care very deeply and I think more in line with Buddha’s advice now.

    Also, thanks for all the love you are sending us on this blog, Luna. Loving you right back, sister! x

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Jan.

      I agree with you. Attachment is one of the three root delusions — we have it for people, enjoyments and places mainly — and there are only a handful of regular people on this planet, i imagine, who have not had their heart broken by it at some point or another.

      (That verse by William Blake is one of Jas Baku’s favorites too…)

  14. I love the way Buddhism is so very clear about what love is and isn’t. I’ve heard people saying in general, and to me, ‘what is love?’ quite a few times in daily life and they genuinely seem mystified, although they clearly have people that they love.

    Because of Buddhism, I always have a clear, confident and definite answer at the ready, an answer that so obviously describes the truth about love and attachment.

    On Valentine’s Day, a lot of people do say ‘oh it’s only a money racket’ etc. but I’m with you Luna, I like it! Sure, we should be nice to our partners and people all the time, but what’s wrong with having a dedicated day as well?! Why not make it all about giving – giving to make someone happy – which of course is an expression of love.

    I too had a fixed idea of what Val’s Day was and who you were meant to direct cards and presents to, but I remember, when I lived at Madhyamaka Centre, a friend leaving a little home-made card with a snowdrop on, outside EVERYONE’S door. That was so touching, and ensured that no-one felt left out! I think the US way of doing Val’s day sounds perfect.

    The differentiation given above between the different types of love is so nice too. Affectionate love is such a nice description. Karmically, some beings are just naturally dear to us, just seeing them, they appear pleasing to us and we naturally want them to be happy. This being could be a lover, or a relative or an animal pet, and this type of love, to me is one that is relatively unmixed with attachment – very nice!

  15. Thanks Luna!

    My precious dharma teacher once told that it is easy to differentiate between desirous attachment and love: love never hurts, desirous attachment hurts like hell!

    I try to be mindfull of this when with people – it really helps me. Attachment causes a lot of so called ‘inappropriate attention’.

    If we count on Geshe Chekhawa’s advise “Always rely on a happy mind alone.” (happy meaning peaceful to me) we should cope ok 😀

  16. What are we to do when it appears that our loved ones actually wish for us to be experiencing desirous attachment for them rather than these three types of love?

    1. Good question. I think they only wish for that if they don’t understand that your love for them is far more of a secure mind than your attachment. What do other people think about this question?

      1. Yes, people in relationships especially can be disappointed if their partner isn’t attached, like it isn’t proper love or something. Folk just don’t know how evil it is.

  17. Having just “broken up” with the person whom I expected would be my life-long partner, this advice/information is coming on a day I’ve been dreading. Jolted out of attachment, I realize again (I’d lost sight of this…) that I have a very special gift of being able to cherish this person for the rest of my life. Without the painful stickiness, I have the opportunity to wish, pray and act in ways that will show my true love—the wish for this very special person to be happy. We’re both dharma practitioners, but we’re not immune to attachment…it takes constant mindfulness to remember the teachings that make complete sense. Thanks so much for the reminders! Much love, Maggie

    1. Beautiful and true. Love does seem to be the best way to handle a break up. It helps now and it helps later too. Wishing you all the best, Maggie xx

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