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 in America. Everyone sends everyone Valentines. In England, Valentine’s Day is just about romantic love, or it was when I last 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. The multimillion dollar card industry may have it made in the States, but I’m with them on this one. So Happy Valentine’s Day, Dad, and everyone else!*
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.
Over to you: what do you think about all this?!
*This article originally appeared as Love, attachment and desire according to Buddhism. I am currently in England and, as of 9.19 am, only one person has sent me a Valentine’s Card… I rest my case.