Happy Holidays! If you’re at home this holidays trying to help make the people around you happy, but are feeling a bit discouraged because it’s not working as well as you’d like, here are some ideas.
I’ve often thought my main job in life is to try help others be happier. Even when I’m in a funk because of uncontrolled thoughts (delusions), I still generally want the humans and animals around me to be happy; and that has often turned out to be the saving grace that gets me out of my despondency. Which of course makes sense if we understand the countless benefits of cherishing others.
An ex once told me (when feeling unusually complimentary), “You have a talent for making people happy.” But to be fair I don’t make everyone happy, by no means. Not even close. And my frustration in past relationships has often been that the other person won’t let me make them happy!
Which has over the years led me to the inescapable conclusion that attachment to making others happy is no good, in fact is just another form of attachment. It is tied in with attachment to MY friends, MY family, anyone we consider “mine” somehow. It may be more subtle or harder to identify than the attachment wanting others to make US happy, but it is attachment nonetheless.
(It’s a bit like those kids who squeeze their pets so tightly out of “love” that they suffocate them.)
In these scenarios, their happiness is making us happy not because of the love but because of the attachment. And I can tell this is the case because (a) my own happiness is conditional on their being happy, and (b) when I weed out the attachment for them, and keep or grow the love, the problem of frustration or disappointment goes away even when they refuse to cooperate with my wish for them to be happy.
This kind of attachment is commonly seen in parents for children who just cannot get their acts together; or in children for parents who refuse to listen to good modern advice; or in partners for partners who refuse to be happy even though that makes no sense because they have the good fortune to be going out with us 😉
One partner used to say, “You can’t make me happy; I have to do that for myself.” I absolutely agree, of course, but even so one part of me is still, “Yeah, but, if you listened to my excellent advice and allowed yourself to feel the warmth of my love, you’d get happier a lot quicker.” There may or may not be some truth in that, but being attached to that kind of idea undermines our ability to help them. (And drives us slowly mad.)
“It’d be so good for you!”
This attachment can also spill over into our wish for the MY people in our lives to practice meditation or Dharma. I confess that, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much everyone could use Dharma, regardless of their background or belief system, because it is supercharged common sense that solves the inner problems of our delusions and mental pain. However, do we care extra about our own friends and family learning about it?
If so, one way to dilute that attachment and share (perhaps magnify) the love is to spread that wish out to everyone we meet, wanting them all to solve their problems through overcoming their delusions. Our concern is than less Me oriented and more Other oriented. We can relax about our friends and family, being happy to let them find their own way to Dharma with or without the help of our fine example.
One other thing while I’m on this subject, BTW … I know it’s not ME who makes others happy. I simply have the good luck of knowing lots of helpful Buddhist advice thanks entirely to my Spiritual Guide, which means I have this medicine or nectar to give away. It’s not an ego thing, except when it is and attachment creeps in.
Not just wishing others’ more samsara
We can also check what it is that we are actually wishing for our loved ones — are we just wishing them more samsara? In which case, we can deepen our compassion, and that also has the effect of reducing our attachment to results. There’s more about that in this article.
Our happiness is your reward
Someone once wrote to me in a communal thank you card, “Our happiness is your reward.”I liked this because it rang true: although I had no attachment to making this particular person happy, because as it happened I didn’t even know who they were, it seemed it was in fact enough for me that they were happy.
It reminded me of Shantideva saying in the teachings on exchanging self with others that we need to get rid of suffering not because of who it belongs to but just because it hurts. Similarly, I need an unconditional wish to make others happy regardless of whether or not they have anything to “do” with me – their happiness in and of itself is enough, whoever they are, just because happiness feels good.
The more happiness we can spread, the better. It doesn’t really matter who the happiness and suffering belong to, especially as everyone equally wants to be happy and free — we can start to develop a Buddha’s (com)passionate love for everyone without exception. No one loses out, including our nearest and dearest. For this way our love will start to flow unconstricted by ego concerns, less and less dual, enough for everyone, like sunshine warming everywhere.
Over to you. Hope your holidays are going well enough?
If you could look around at everyone else reading this, you would likely discover that not one of them is replying No to this question. In fact, chances are they have each had no less than five broken hearts, depending on their age and whether my previous random market research (asking people) is anything to go by.
Our hearts are prone to breaking because we have attachment. Attachment doesn’t work. Love always works though, thankfully.
(This article is quite long, almost 10 minutes, as I figured people need all the antidotes to attachment they can get on Valentine’s Day 😆.)
A lovers’ tiff
The other day I was quietly meditating in the park in the setting sun, when I found myself silent witness to a little play enacted in the space between me and the beautiful mountain backdrop.
It was a lovers’ tiff. He walks away with his skateboard, saying, “I don’t know what you effing want from me!”
Not too much it turns out. “I just want a conversation with someone who is not 30 feet away!”
He returns. The discussion continues. “For real?!?” she says, as he walks off again
(To be fair, I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop — they had plonked themselves down not 20 feet away …)
“All you effing care about is yourself! You show me no affection! You never give me a call!”
“What am I doing right now?”, he replies.
(I start to wonder if I am watching past scenes of my own life …)
There is a dog with them. I am thinking, admittedly quite randomly, that if that dog starts choking, their spat will quickly be over — for they will both be more concerned with someone else. Cherishing others always restores our perspective.
Ah, is this a happy ending anyway? He seems to be hugging her. I am wishing them and everyone else to be free from attachment and aversion. The dog, another silent witness to these antics, is trying to nuzzle her too. They will last another day. Except that now she is crying.
Troubles like this will be even more numerous today because expectations (aka “premeditated resentments”) are even higher than usual. Apparently both suicides and homicides increase on Valentine’s Day.
What is happiness?
We have been turning to attachment for our happiness since beginningless time. It is a bad old habit and, because it is associated with changing suffering, ie, fleeting pleasant feelings or, as Geshe Kelsang puts it “artificial happiness”, it is usually a harder habit to break than, say, anger, because anger is associated with unpleasant feelings, which we already know we don’t like.
To be convinced that attachment doesn’t work, we need our own deepening experience that happiness is a state of our mind, and that it doesn’t inhere in anything outside our mind. The more peaceful and positive our mind, and the less deluded it is, the happier we become. This is explained all over the place, including in this article.
Attachment searches outside where happiness cannot be found. But peace connects us to our inner source of limitless happiness.
We don’t need attachment to be happy. Not at all. And all it does is block us from seeking the actual sources of happiness and freedom.
Where to put a sofa in a burning house?
We also need the bigger context for understanding what’s wrong with attachment. Namely, the wisdom of renunciation, understanding that there can be no pure happiness to be found in an impure life — a life characterized by the impure minds of self-grasping, attachment, and other delusions. Without the larger picture of renunciation, which wishes for complete freedom, we will continually fall for samsara’s pleasures … “Yeah, I know samsara sucks overall, but this next relationship/vacation/drink/surf etc is going to be an exception to the rule, I just know it! … ”
Thinking of samsara as a pleasure garden, as opposed to a prison, it is very hard to stop trying to make attachments work. How can we stop getting caught up in that addictive cycle of dopamine hits for one object of attachment after another if we think that’s all there is on offer?
Kadam Morten once asked, “Where should we put a sofa in a burning house?” It is a brilliant illustration of trying to make samsara work. We cannot get our existential security from partners, friends, and family. It is not possible to make a real world work because a real world doesn’t exist (more on that below).
If we understand that happiness is an inside job, and that samsara will never work, we are ready for the essential practice of transforming our enjoyments into the quick path to enlightenment, as explained a bit here. In short, we mix the pleasure or bliss with the true nature of reality, and in this way destroy our attachment and all other delusions.
To transform enjoyments, we also need compassion – we can’t do it out of selfishness. I love the new verse in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra on page 104. But I’ll talk more about that another day.
To overcome attachment, we need to know what it is doing, ie, sucking us into a “real” world. Here is the definition of attachment:
A deluded mental factor that observes its contaminated object, regards it as a cause of happiness, and wishes for it. ~ How to Understand the Mind page 113
“Contaminated” means by ignorance, so the object appears real, existing from its own side; and because it appears attractive due to some karma ripening, we feel it causes happiness from its own side too. So it is no wonder we wish for it, get absorbed into it, like oil into cloth. (For a story line of how attachment develops, you could check out this article.)
We project people in a certain ideal or at least desirable (for us) way, and then want or even expect them to live up to that. We hold out that they’ll change in the direction we want them to, but this is not realistic.
Have you ever watched someone wandering around in those virtual reality glasses? To people who are not in the same game as them, they seem to be floundering around foolishly. This is analogous to having the mental projection of a GF or BF who is no longer in the same game as us, but we haven’t quite realized or accepted that. Vainly trying to get our own projection to cooperate, to love us again, neither the ex nor anyone else really knows why we keep at it: “Get over it already! Take those glasses off!”
Can’t fix the fixed
If we get all confused when relationships don’t work out, it’s because we are relating to and/or trying to fix something inherently existent.
To our self-grasping minds, including attachment, things appear to be inherently existent, or independent – existing in and of themselves, findable — and we grasp at them as such. But inherently existent objects can never change, however much we want them to. If something changes, it means it is dependent on causes, not INdependent.
Fixing or changing someone at the same time as holding them to be inherently existent is therefore a contradiction. If we have attachment grasping at someone as inherently desirable but upsetting us, for example, then upsetting they will have to stay. That upset thought can never ever get rid of its inherently existent object. The only way to get rid of the upsetting person is to get rid of the upset thought itself. To move on, as they say, to other thoughts.
We can tell that things are not inherently existent sources of pleasure or suffering by thinking about how our perceptions and memories change entirely when the relationship ends. The scent that drove us crazy with desire now drives us crazy with heartache. The memory of the touch of skin that we so loved and fantasized about now torments us.
I had a conversation with someone recently who had just broken up with her boyfriend. She told me, “I thought he’d change, and we would go on proper dates and he’d cook for me as he had promised.” (Yep, more scenes from my own life.) “And that he wouldn’t just sit around and play video games and smoke weed. But he didn’t want to change. Five years later, I am out of here. I was also attached to the idea that I needed him for my spiritual practice. I feel real relief. Some sadness too, but it is motivating.”
Breakups can be so useful – they make us turn for refuge to an actual source of happiness. They also help us empathize with everyone else who is lugging around the heavy burden of attachment, engendering a genuine wish for them to find lasting happiness from within.
By the way, there is nothing wrong with relationships per se. Indeed, we are in relationship with everyone. We have different karmic connections and sometimes we find people attractive. Attachment is associated primarily with romantic relationships, maybe because we are in the habit of romanticizing or validating attachment in that context. However, attachment comes up in most of our relationships, eg, with friends and children and pets.
The problems are not outside our mind. The point is, as always, that we need Dharma whether we are in a relationship or not. Whether single or coupled up, we equally need to identify the attachments and aversions in our mind and transcend these. The grass won’t turn out to be greener anywhere else if we don’t have Dharma in our hearts.
Love is the answer
(I read somewhere that women always expect men to change and men never expect women to change. Not sure if that is a Dharma sentiment, but does it have a ring of truth?!)
Reminds me of another anecdote – a conversation I had with two elder women around Christmas-time. One was asking me, “How can I have love for my husband?! He just sits around all day. He turns the TV on first thing in the morning, it is driving me mad. It was okay when we both went to work, but now he is really boring.” The other woman agreed, wryly observing that her similar situation was reminding her of the grumpy old man syndrome and a recent (rather cruel and no doubt out of context) headline: “Women are happier when their husbands have died.”
Kind of goes to show that even if we do manage to sustain a relatively long-lasting relationship, till death us do part, it is still not a guaranteed bed of roses.
Relationships per se are not a pain in the butt. After all, as mentioned, we are related to everyone one way or another. But attachment is.
I suggested (jokingly) that she bought her husband a Christmas sweater embroidered: “I am a snowflake”. (Maybe you had to be there …) But the idea was that it would remind her that she needs not to fixate on him/this situation, but instead spread her love wider to all living beings, who are each equally interconnected with us, fragile, impermanent, and precious. That perspective will reduce her attachment wanting her husband to be different AND her irritation that he is not.
Rather than projecting stuff “out there” with our attachment and then falling victim to our own thoughts, it is immensely helpful to remember that everything is the nature of our mind, like a dream. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:
Although the objects and the minds that perceive them arise simultaneously, we have mistaken appearances of the objects as existing external to our mind, and we grasp them as existing in this way. Since we grasp at the objects as existing externally, we develop desirous attachment for those that seem attractive.
In this recent biocentrism article, the modern scientist Dr. Lanza seems to be catching up to Buddha’s 2500-year-old view:
Most people believe that there’s an independent physical universe “out there” that has nothing to do with our awareness of it. This seeming truth persisted without much dissent until the birth of quantum mechanics. Only then did a credible science voice appear, which resonated with those who claimed that the universe does not seem to exist without a perceiver of that universe.
A guest article by a modern Buddhist practitioner who works full time as a manager of software development teams.
Leveraging objects of desire as a basis for rapid inner transformation is part of the quick path to enlightenment. To accomplish this transformation, we need to practice on the basis of a pure motivation and some understanding of ultimate truth, emptiness. These practices also require some experience of Buddhism and a Tantric empowerment. See the article Tantra: Transforming enjoyments for a similar practice that anyone can do.
Before engaging in them we develop the motivation of bodhichitta, a determination to become a fully enlightened being in order to liberate all living beings permanently from suffering. With this motivation we then recall our knowledge of emptiness, remembering that nothing exists from its own side. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso summarizes this preliminary practice in Part Four of The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra:
We should first develop the supreme good heart, bodhichitta, that sincerely wishes to liberate all living beings from suffering permanently by ourself becoming the enlightened being Heruka, and the understanding and belief that our body, our self and all the other phenomena that we normally see or perceive do not exist at all. ~ page 124
Learning to transform objects of desire
How can we begin learning to transform objects of desire? When we gaze upon an attractive person in the meditation break, or eat some delicious food, it induces a feeling of bliss in our mind. If we train our mind to recognize and hold this blissful feeling, we can use it as an object of meditation. With this feeling of bliss, we then contemplate emptiness by recalling that: 1) this appearance is not independent of our mind and 2) this appearance is not outside of our mind:
If the pleasurable experience is independent of our mind, then everyone would perceive that person or object as attractive. Since the experience depends on our mind, the person we normally perceive, the independent person, does not exist at all.
If the pleasurable experience is outside of our mind, then we could not experience it. Since pleasure is a feeling in the mind, this indicates that our mind is creating both the experience and the person or object who is the object of that experience, rather like an experience in a dream. Another way of saying this is that the person is an appearance of our mind, appearing to our mind.
These are very profound topics, but they will start to make sense naturally if we build familiarity with them now. Thinking in this way we can mix the feeling of bliss with the knowledge of emptiness. This recollection helps to oppose the mind of attachment that would suck our mind into the object. Instead, we can be like a bee extracting pollen from a flower, understanding that the pleasurable feeling is arising within the space of our mind. We can enhance this entire experience by connecting it to our Spiritual Guide’s mind of spontaneous great bliss at our heart.
Taking refuge in our own inner bliss
This process helps to train our mind in refuge, which is the foundation of being a Buddhist. We are learning to turn within to our experience to find the happiness and freedom we seek. With familiarity, this bliss within our heart will grow and we will naturally rely on it to find satisfaction. Over time it will become infinitely more satisfying than any of our ordinary enjoyments.
According to Lamrim, a mind of refuge contains faith in Buddha, his teachings the Dharma, and the Sangha practitioners. To incorporate this we can remember that this experience of bliss and emptiness is Dharma, protecting us from delusions and suffering. It is also mixed with the mind of our Spiritual Guide inseparable from Buddha, as well as the experience of the past and present Sangha Yogis and Yoginis.
By enjoying objects of desire in this way, we can come to understand how these practices destroy attachment, like a fire consuming the wood that started it. Every object of desire will take us straight into our heart to build an increasingly transcendental experience there.
Bringing the experience of bliss into the meditation session
Once we have some experience of enjoying objects of desire in the meditation break we can learn to apply this to the meditation session. For example, we can learn how to generate bliss in the meditation session by gazing upon a visualized god or goddess. This is easily done if we recall the bliss experienced from the meditation break.
There are many times in the meditation session that we can apply this in the context of our sadhana, or practice — for example, after dissolving our Spiritual Guide into our heart and before meditating on bringing death into the path of the Truth Body. In Tantric Grounds and Paths Geshe Kelsang says:
At first our experience of bliss will not be very strong, but if we develop familiarity with this meditation we shall gradually develop a special feeling of bliss. We should maintain this experience and keep our own subtle mind focused on this feeling single-pointedly. ~ page 243
In this way, we use the meditation break to enhance our meditation session and vice versa.
Four complete purities of generation stage Tantra
We train in the practice of transforming objects of desire explained above on the basis of the four complete purities. In generation stage, this means enjoying objects while imagining we have complete purity of 1) place, 2) body, 3) activities, and 4) enjoyments. This means that we feel we are in an enlightened world, have the body of an enlightened being, and benefit all beings without exception, and that all our enjoyments are free from impurity. This correct imagination helps us to dissolve away the contaminated ordinary characteristics of our enjoyments and to experience them in a pure way.
All beings are actual Heroes and Heroines. Everything is immaculately pure, Without even the name of mistaken impure appearance.
By enjoying in this way, we are making offerings to all the Buddhas. As Geshe Kelsang says in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra:
… we enjoy any objects of desire as offerings to the holy beings who reside in the Temple of our body. This practice is a special method to transform our daily enjoyments into the quick path to enlightenment. This is Tantric technology! ~ page 104
Four complete purities of completion stage Tantra
In completion stage, we enjoy objects of desire in dependence upon the great bliss developed from meditation on the central channel. The bliss developed in dependence upon completion stage is vastly superior to any other experience of bliss. This experience develops in the root mind at our heart and contains the four complete purities. It is a non-conceptual experience of emptiness, which means it is free from gross and subtle appearances. This realization of the true nature of things with a very subtle mind is free from mistaken appearance. Due to this, there are no impure places, bodies, enjoyments, and activities appearing to it.
One practice I like to do in accordance with completion stage is offering the blissful experience to myself generated as the Dharmakaya or Truth Body of my personal Deity, such as Dharmakaya Heruka. This, in turn, enhances my mind of bliss and deepens my experience of emptiness. I offer my experience of the four complete purities of great bliss and emptiness to my Spiritual Guide’s mind mixed with my own mind at my heart. This practice feels like a mandala offering in that it fills my mind with good karma and joy!
Progress through practice and familiarity
This practice of transforming enjoyments encapsulates every aspect of Buddha’s teachings. If we gain familiarity with developing bliss in this way, our winds will gradually come closer to abiding in our central channel. Buddha teaches that when this happens we will experience a bliss that is stable and subtle, and that gives rise to unceasing physical and mental suppleness. Our mind will become lucid and flexible, and in this space we can let go of delusions quickly and easily.
This mental suppleness allows us to easily mix virtuous Lamrim minds into everything that happens, every appearance, both in and out of meditation. As a result we will experience deep inner peace and happiness day and night. Accomplishing this is the real meaning of our human life. Once we do, we will possess a wishfulfilling jewel of a mind that bestows endless benefit on ourselves and others.
As a further incentive to ditch the attachment and grow the love, as described in this article, I find the following analogy very helpful.
Buddha likened samsara to a prison. Imagine you’ve been in a ghastly, sickening, sepulchral prison for as long as you can remember, but that there is finally and miraculously a way out – a helicopter is hovering in the clear sky above and letting down the escape ladder. And you have made it to the roof, you’re about to put your foot on the first rung ….
But … you look behind you instead, and fall for a fellow prisoner ….
And for a little while the prison seems more bearable, even pleasurable – you are wedged into a comfy sofa in a corner somewhere and — lulled or dulled into complacency, ignoring the need – you forget those plans you had to escape and bring the whole disgusting structure down.
Chained and bound to you
Buddha said we are in the prison of samsara due to our ignorance, but chained to its walls, unwilling or unable to escape, by our attachment.
Then the relationship falls apart — maybe they fall for another prisoner, maybe they die/get transferred to another cell block, maybe our feelings just change. Standing there in our prison stripes, we now feel all forlorn.
Maybe at this point we remember the ladder on the roof again. Maybe we even put our foot on the first rung. After all, the ladder is still there, for now … But then we get all curious – we want to quickly nip back down again just to check what our ex and everyone else is up to, check their Facebook feeds, see what’s on the samsara channel, what annoying headlines we’ve been missing, or go buy a Kit Kat for the journey … and in we are sucked again. Maybe while we’re there we decide to settle a debt, tell someone what we really think of them. Or we are drawn into jealousy once more, or experience some prison-work-related stress.
You get the picture. We don’t need to go back, part of us may not even really want to, but we keep going back anyway. Meanwhile our Spiritual Guide, who is flying the helicopter, waits patiently for us to make up our minds.
With our precious human life, it is as if we have made it temporarily to the roof of samsara and the best shot at escaping we’ve ever had. We’ve been queuing up for this for aeons. We are probably amongst the 0.000000000001% luckiest people in samsara right now. We put in a lot of work to get to this place – do we really want to blow it?
A prisoner no longer
This is why we need the self-confidence mentioned in this article: “I will conquer my delusions of attachment, anger, and ignorance and destroy this prison – that is what I want and that is who I am. I will identify with being a prisoner no longer.”
We can change our idea or imputation of ourselves. And along with that it’s not hard then to change our imputation of everyone else too, including our objects of attachment. They, their friends, their families, all badly need rescuing, along with everyone else, and they can be rescued as they have the same potential for freedom as us. Being attached to them as they are, in their prison uniforms, just solidifies the status quo and doesn’t help them. We need to stop our attachment and DO something. We don’t need to get our sense of security from partners, friends, and family, but from refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, the way out. We need to “escape now, hug later” as Han Solo impresses on Finn and Rey (who are about to get disastrously distracted in The Force Awakens.)
Hey, hang on, are you saying “Relationships, why bother?!” then?!
No. I’m not. This doesn’t all mean that we shouldn’t have relationships, just that we need to keep our eye on the prize and not lose our heads. In fact, we are always and already in relationship with everyone! We are all interconnected, we only exist in dependence upon others; and sometimes, as well, strong karma with individuals ripens in close familial, or student-teacher, or romantic relationships. So, how to square this away — just a few thoughts while we are still here …
I think the happiness we derive from a partner or close friend, for example, comes from love, respect, and admiration, wishing for their success, happiness, and free agency, and not from trying to bend them or their behavior to our will. This love can be a doorway to sustained bliss, and to equal compassion and love for everyone, wide open like the sun. Attachment, on the other hand, leads automatically to expectations wanting more and more, which make us vulnerable to disappointment and then irritation and anger, just more samsara.
Knowing that happiness really comes from a peaceful mind, perhaps try this if you feel the craving or heart sickness or fear or tightness or confusion or powerlessness coming from uncontrolled desire. We need to allow the waves of attachment and anxiety to settle down through breathing meditation or something like that. We need to realign our mind, to go for refuge to love and wisdom and the restorative power of our own mental peace. We need to try loving everyone in our life and beyond. If we get back in control, the relationship will then take care of itself, whatever happens or indeed doesn’t happen.
To conclude …
My first thought of the day is not, therefore, how am I going to scritch scratch for happiness today in samsara, but how am I going to burn this whole thing down?!
By distinguishing attachment from love, Buddha has saved a great many friendships and relationships over the centuries, no doubt, and prevented and healed countless broken hearts.
In brief, attachment is that “sticky desire” that seeks happiness outside of ourselves and wants YOU to make ME happy. Love is an open-hearted wish for you to be happy, no strings attached. A lot of ordinary relationships and friendships are a mixture of the two — we alternate, sometimes quickly, between love and attachment – so they may seem all mushed up to to someone who doesn’t know the difference. However, they have no common denominator, and they do not coexist. They are very different thoughts.
We do need them
And by the way, in Buddhism, learning to get along with people is not just more fun and fulfilling on a daily basis, but also the path to enlightenment. We need to increase our love and compassion and reduce our attachment and dislike – so every time someone gives us this opportunity, we see them as our spiritual practice, not in the way of it. No one can make us grow our love, we alone are responsible for applying that effort; but the people around us are the very kind objects of our love, without whom it is impossible, so we can appreciate them. In a beautiful section in How to Transform Your Life, Geshe Kelsang says:
If we are skillful, friends can be like treasure chests, from whom we can obtain the precious wealth of love, compassion, patience, and so forth. For our friends to function in this way, however, our love for them must be free from attachment. ~ page 177
Attachment is also called “uncontrolled desire” – and I like to think of this in two ways. (1) For as long as we have attachment, we are moreorless out of control, and (2) we cannot control the object of that sticky desire because they tend to have their own ideas and feelings about everything.
Talking of uncontrolled thoughts, I spent a lot of time on the New York subway recently – and at weekends the trains had a weird habit of not going where they said they were going and ending up in places I didn’t want to be. Our thoughts can be like that. We have to go along with them if we have no control over them, no space between us and them, or no notion that we are not our thoughts and don’t have to think them. And that means wherever they take us, even if that is on an express train to Brooklyn when you wanted to end up at 23rd street.
Or else our thoughts end up going nowhere – like being stuck at 50th street because there is an obstruction at 42nd street, at which point it seems easier to give up and go back to bed. Attachment, as with all delusions, renders us powerless and discouraged – our thoughts go round and round in boring circles, or they end up somewhere horrible and we have to find a way to come all the way back again to where we started, weeks, months, or even years later. If we check all our previous attachments, they can follow a similar loop regardless of the person we are attached to – the only difference is some details.
On the halted train at 50th street, I noticed that the savvy New Yorkers didn’t wait around for more than a couple of minutes – they started leaving the carriage at the first incoherent mumble on the tannoy of “obstruction ahead …”, clearly flexible enough to make alternate travel plans. Me, on the other hand … after fifteen minutes of vainly expecting things to get better on their own, I finally decided that enough was enough if I was to make it on time. I needed to be proactive, take control over my own destiny; so I too left the station and started to run. Then, around Times Square, realizing that running alone would not be quick enough, I jumped in a yellow cab. And I made it. Point being, once we are savvy at mastering our minds, we can get off the train more quickly, be far more flexible, not bother thinking those thoughts we don’t want to think, find alternative ones that work better at getting us where we want to be.
We waste so much of our lives with attachment – if we “can’t wait” to see our lover at the weekend, for example, it’s excruciating to watch the clock tick-tock slowly from Monday to Friday, having to wait. For who likes waiting? We hate the powerlessness of queues or stopped trains. And while we wait, we are missing out on the present moment, the deep peace right here inside us and available 24/7.
If we want our relationships to last, we have to ditch the attachment and work on increasing the love. As Geshe Kelsang says in Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition:
If we have no enduring love, our relationships with others will be unstable, like a married couple whose initial strong love soon subsides. Our love should be constant like a river that has always been present and will always remain.
Ever been in a relationship like two magnets – first fiercely attracted to each other — slam, stuck — and then repelled far apart?! Maybe there was a time when just one of the magnets started to turn around, and the second magnet got all confused because they couldn’t understand what was going on and why the first magnet didn’t like them any more. Maybe Magnet #2 fires off one text after another to try and connect again (just as we are advised by every agony aunt not to do) – and sure enough all those texts freefall into the dismissive void.
But sooner or later both magnets get all turned around, strong attachment replaced with strong dislike, maybe settling over time into strong indifference. And maybe one day the first magnet says to the second, just because they happen to be in the same neighborhood, “Hey, do you want a coffee and a catch up?” and the second thinks, “Ermm, how on earth could we ever catch up with each other?! Over one cup of coffee?! We are way too far apart for that now.”
The radiance of the sun
Anyway, one thing I do know is that love is very different. Love is like the sun, endlessly radiating, warming both people and any other people around as well. Even in the midst of the attraction/repellence there can be moments of love and respect, a genuine wish for the other person to be happy. And regardless of what has gone before, or when, we can always build upon those.
Affectionate love is when we are delighted to see others and they appear pleasant to us. How is that different to attachment, you might ask. They appear pleasant not because of what they can do for us, such as assuage our loneliness, make us look cool, accompany us to the movies, or scratch our back. They appear pleasant just in their own right. We have a “tender regard” or “warm heart” as Geshe-la says in Joyful Path, regardless of what they look like or what they are doing for us.
I was thinking earlier today that it is a bit like looking at your old dog lying in front of the fireplace with her ears twitching – you don’t want anything from her, you just love her with all your heart, and on that basis you can easily cherish her as important and wish for her happiness (the other two types of love). You want her to be warm and comfortable and happy as can be, and have nothing bad ever happen to her.
Sure, you don’t want to date your dog – but the point is that, whether in a romantic relationship or not, we all need the good heart of love if we really want to be happy. It is never too late to start changing the balance of love and attachment in our current and past romantic relationships, and it is always worth remembering that the love part is guaranteed to help us:
Even if our love is mixed with attachment, it can still be beneficial. ~ Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition
How to tell the difference between them?
One way to tell whether attachment or love is functioning is to observe the energy of our thoughts to see if they are going outwards (in order to drag our object of desire back toward us) or staying centered inside, not having to go anywhere as the object of love is already there.
If our thoughts are going outward, trying to grasp happiness out there somewhere, that is attachment at work; and this always leads to a disconnect, a feeling of frustrated separation. This is because there is a strong sense of dualism, a sense of the real me over here and real other or you over there, as described more here. Whereas love feels non-dual, like its object is already inside the heart, which has room for everything and everyone – it is a feeling of connection, fulfillment, joy, completion, intimacy, oneness. All the things that attachment craves but doesn’t get.
Another way to tell the difference, if we check, is that attachment just doesn’t feel very good. It can feel excited, but never peaceful – in its 3 phases of scheming, indulging, and recovering, there is always something a bit missing, out of our hands, even in the midst of the most rewarding indulgence. It is always ready to flip over into disappointment and dislike. Whereas:
When our mind has the nature of love we naturally feel happy and peaceful. With such a state of mind it is impossible to become disturbed or depressed or to develop anger of jealousy. ~ Joyful Path
As Geshe Kelsang also says:
Sometimes we may observe a married couple who are materially very poor, yet somehow their lives seem to be happy. They have a deep understanding between them. When we consider the basis of their fulfilling relationship, we find that their happiness is based on the foundation of love. Even if a married couple have all the material comforts they desire, without the foundation of love for each other they will have dissatisfaction, poor communication, and much mental suffering. If they have no practice of love at all, many complications will develop.
When I look back and analyze my relationships, the happiest times have been the moments I really loved the other person and wanted them happy – I was happy to see them happy, with not much Me involvement. This has made me realize that I can feel that good all the time — as happy with everyone I meet, even as blissful. Which figures, given that happiness, bliss, connection, union, and even transcendence are states of our own mind, they don’t come from outside the mind. With love, we are already in the other’s place, there is no gap separating us to bridge, we are like one.
I find that because of Buddha’s skill in explaining the difference between attachment and love I have been able to keep and even grow the love for my various exes. This means that although we have “moved on” and our lives are different now, and on the surface of things we may not have much to talk about, there is still nothing I would not do if they needed anything — they need only ask. (Except for one of them*)
In fact, when I stop to think about it, I really want them quickly to become Bodhisattvas and attain enlightenment. And that goes for their families too.
So, given that we have dated everyone in our beginningless lives, just as everyone has been our mother, why not spread the affection around?!
In this fifth article on Tantra, following on from this one, I’m going to describe a meditation I like to do on transforming my enjoyments into the spiritual path. This method is derived from Buddha’s Tantric principles rather than his Sutra teachings, but anyone can do it – you can do it, and you’re anyone. This is a simple exercise that can be practiced even without an empowerment, and that shows something both profound and liberating: we have the power within us to generate bliss. We don’t need another person, a physical act, or any external object to create it.
Why? Because our mind is naturally peaceful. It is only our delusions and distractions that prevent us from experiencing this. As it says in Introduction to Buddhism in the chapter What is Meditation:
When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arise from within.
As our mind becomes subtler and less distracted, as dualistic appearances slowly subside, our mind becomes even more peaceful, nay blissful. The most blissful mind of all is our very subtle mind, our root mind — it is even called “the clear light of bliss”! It is our actual Buddha nature, our potential for enlightenment. We cannot access this properly without engaging in profound Highest Yoga Tantra practices, but we can get an idea of it straightaway and start to identify with it.
Once we know that bliss comes from within, we can start to transform attachment or uncontrolled desire into the path by considering, for example, that the enjoyment does not lie outside the mind. As Geshe Kelsang says in Clear Light of Blissp. 4:
The bliss generated from attachment meditates on emptiness and thereby overcomes all the delusions, including attachment itself. This is similar to the way in which the fire produced from rubbing two pieces of wood together eventually consumes the wood from which it arose.
We begin by simply sitting comfortably, getting into a good meditation position, keeping our back straight but not rigid, relaxing our shoulders, and resting our hands in our lap or wherever is comfortable. Our head is tilted a little forward and our eyes lightly closed or, if we prefer, slightly open to allow a little light through our eyelashes. Our mouth is closed, with our tongue resting on the roof of mouth.
We relax into this posture and forget about everything else. We come into the present moment, into the here and the now.
We drop from our head into our heart chakra, the center of our chest, our spiritual heart. We feel our awareness centered there, it is where our root mind is.
Already we are aware of a sense of spaciousness and peace, with less conceptual activity or thoughts.
To overcome our distractions we now think that everything outside our body melts into light and disappears.
Then, like a mist lifting, this light gradually dissolves toward our body into empty space, leaving nothing behind. Everything disappears, including the past and the future, what we did today or have planned for tomorrow.
All that remains is our body suspended in empty space.
Now to relax our body we briefly scan it from head to toes to become aware of any tension, tightness, or indeed pain that we are holding onto. We bring a gentle awareness to these parts.
We think, “I don’t need to hold onto any of this physical stress or tension, I can let it go.” We let all the heaviness fall away from our body, as if we were dropping heavy luggage that we have been carrying around too long.
Every muscle relaxes, our whole body melts into light, with just its merest outline remaining.
We think: “My body is hollow like a rainbow, light as a feather, and so comfortable that I am hardly even aware that it is there.” We enjoy this deep physical relaxation for a little while.
Now we remember that we are in our heart and become aware of the thoughts, sensations, and so on arising from our root mind. There is a constant stream of awareness arising as thoughts, feelings, ideas, images, physical sensations, and so on, and we watch these as they arise and disappear again into the clarity of the mind. We don’t have to follow them, think them, judge them, or react to them in any way — just let them come and go, rise and fall. We enjoy the space between our thoughts, and finally feel the thoughts dissolving into the boundless clarity of our root mind, like waves dissolving into a boundless ocean.
We think: “This is my mind. This is where I am happy or sad, wise or confused. This is the source of creativity, the source of all thoughts and other mental activity. This is awareness. This is where everything happens, where everything begins and ends.”
Now we can change the energy of our mind by using our desire or attachment energy. We either remember or imagine the thing we’d most like to be doing right now, bring to mind the thing that would give us the most positive pleasure. This can be a sense pleasure or an internal meditative feeling, it’s up to us. (No one will ask you what it is afterwards :-)) It could be eating pizza, holding someone’s hand, watching an exquisite sunset, skiing down a mountain, or something more X-rated. (As desire realm beings, we probably have plenty of things to choose from, so choose your favorite!) It could alternatively be a spiritual bliss we are familiar with, such as meditating on love or dissolving a Spiritual Guide or Buddha into our heart. Whatever we know gives us bliss, we remember or imagine it at this point.
We notice how the energy of the mind completely changes… our mind is clearer and more relaxed, more alert and concentrated, more awake and blissful. Waves of bliss energy arise in our root mind at our heart.
We allow ourselves to bathe in this bliss energy in our heart.
Then we forget or let go of whatever it was we were imagining or remembering. We let it dissolve away, and focus entirely on the bliss waves, allowing ourselves to bathe in this ocean of bliss energy in our heart.
We feel that this bliss is our root mind at our heart.
If and when the bliss fades, we remember or imagine whatever stimulated it, and then when the bliss comes back we let it go. We can meditate like this for a few minutes.
(Even if we do not think that we are experiencing much of anything, we still believe or imagine that we are going deeper within, absorbing into a blissful inner peace. Sometimes we just need to believe something for it to actually happen because this belief, if correct, creates the cause for the actual experience. Buddha described this as “bringing the future result into the present path.” Don’t under-estimate the power of conception; with our thoughts we create our world.)
We feel that we are absorbed into an ocean of bliss at our heart, the clear light of bliss. And with this blissful mind we can now understand something very important. This bliss is actually coming from within the mind, not from without. If we have concentration and mindfulness, we could keep this bliss going endlessly. Understanding this, we already have some wisdom.
The other thing we can understand now is that while our mind is blissful, everything appears blissful to it. Everything is a reflection of our mind.
So whatever understanding we have of this, we focus on it for the last few minutes of the meditation.
This bliss at our heart, however slight, shows our potential for limitless bliss and happiness — it is our Buddha nature. When this subtle mind of bliss is mixed withemptiness, the ultimate nature of things, we quickly destroy our ignorance, and other delusions and obstructions. Through this we fully purify our mind and become a Buddha.
Just like Buddha Shakyamuni, whom we can now believe, if we want, is appearing right in front of us. And with a determination quickly to realize our potential for the lasting peace of enlightenment, and understanding too that everyone has this potential, we can, if we like, recite theLiberating Prayer.
I am just overlooking my neighbor’s magazine, as once again I cross the Atlantic. (You can’t blame me; these US Airways flights don’t have video screens. OR power sources for our gadgets. Seriously! How are we supposed to stay stimulated non-stop for 8 hours?! Surely they are not expecting us to rely on our own inner resources or read an old-fashioned book?) An article entitled “Kim and Dan turn up the heat” is followed by a possibly redundant explanation (given the scantily clad beach shots of them stuck together), “It is clear that they are both totally into each other.” Turning the page (my neighbor, not me), I see this is followed by more articles on the same, “Jamie enjoys a night out with his new girl” and, ahhhh, Chris and Gwyn are reunited! This is OK magazine after all, and meanwhile my neighbor’s daughter is reading Hello magazine, Hello!, and I know they have a couple of other magazines stashed away to tide them over this long flight to Charlotte South Carolina, so this might even solve the lack of entertainment problem providing they don’t notice me. (Might be difficult, I spilt coffee on the mom earlier – she took it well and now we are co-travellers. She can look over my shoulder and read this once she’s exhausted her reading supply.)
It’s everywhere! Attachment is everywhere! And along with it are the inevitable stories of heartbreak: “Dismayed Will after photo of ex’s kiss in nightclub”, “Is Dan cheating on Camilla?” (Don’t bother googling all this, I made up some names to protect the famous.) On a related subject, “Your anti-wrinkling solution” – we’re all gonna need some of that. And the lesson never learned, “I’m open to dating again, I am not daunted.” That is, until next time.
Attachment is constant craving for objects we feel we need in order to experience pleasurable feelings. We have to learn to control our attachment or for sure it’ll control us. If we are not careful, we could end up with our whole life gone — spent scheming/fantasizing, indulging, and recovering with nothing to show for it.
Buddha identified 3 root or principal delusions that afflict living beings: attachment, anger, and ignorance. He likened getting rid of anger and ignorance from our mind to washing dirt from cloth, and getting rid of attachment to washing oil from cloth because it is so deeply soaked into our minds (although it is still not part of our essential nature). No wonder Buddha also called us humans “desire realm beings” — we never forget our objects of desire.
Attachment therefore is a sticky delusion, and a deeply conditioned bad habit, so how are we going to get unstuck? Luckily Buddha Shakyamuni taught us a very special way to do this … Tantric practice.
We transform our enjoyment of desirable objects into the spiritual path. This transformation is one of the special attributes of Secret Mantra.
Ordinarily, with respect to objects of attachment we are like moths to flames. An object of attraction appears, then, Boom! We want it. Yet most times we can’t have it, or we don’t have it in the way we want it, or it doesn’t deliver the goods, so there’s an instant feeling of agitation in the mind. Ideally, in the world of moths, there’d be a flame education program… “Listen guys, when you next see that bright shiny thing, fly around it and not into it. Discover how to enjoy its warmth and beauty from a safe distance and you’ll be happier – trust me!” Similarly, with Tantric practice, we can learn how to enjoy the mere appearance of attractive things, and use the desire energy they arouse to create blissful satisfied feelings, rather than falling into the flames of attachment, craving, or addiction and experiencing a world of hurt.
By indulging our objects of desire, instead of finding satisfaction we ironically stimulate dissatisfaction. Instead of quenching our thirst, we find ourselves ever thirstier. As it says in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:
We may think that if we keep travelling about, we shall eventually find what we want; but even if we were to travel to every place on the globe, and have a new lover in every place, we would still be seeking another place and another lover.
In Buddhist Tantra we discover a way to use our attachment energy to create satisfaction and even bliss. Tantric meditation is like surfing – mastering our desire energy to our best advantage, transforming our enjoyments into the spiritual path. If we do not learn to surf, we will be crushed by the huge ocean waves; but, if we become a skilled surfer, the energy of waves can become a source of bliss and liberation.
In the next article, I’ll explain a straightforward method for transforming enjoyments that is derived from Buddha’s Tantric teachings but does not require an empowerment. This is not a difficult practice. All we’ll need to do is to remember (or imagine) a particularly happy or blissful moment. This can be anywhere or anything – enjoying an idyllic scene, listening to music, being together with a favorite person, or, alternatively, a feeling from a meditation, contemplation or prayer. Anything beautiful and inspiring that makes us happy will work. If we have faith in Buddha, we can dissolve Buddha into our heart and imagine our minds have mixed like water mixing with water, and meditate on the bliss that arises from this. People of other faiths can do something equivalent. Then we will do something interesting – but I won’t spoil the plot …
This article is part of a series on overcoming loneliness. Click here for part 1, part 2, and part 3.
I miss you!
When did you last miss someone?
Missing people is of course related to loneliness. When we say we “miss” people, it seems like quite a good descriptor, because we are “missing” also in the sense of not getting it, missing the mark, not realizing that they are still in our hearts, that they haven’t really gone anywhere.
Attachment is a cover up of isolation that increases our isolation. It looks for love but blocks us as the object is outside ourself, unreachable – we’re like that donkey chasing the carrot. Futility and frustration are endemic in attachment for we’re looking for relationship while grasping at an independent, ie, unrelatable, self and other. We are holding ourself and others to be poles apart (||) as opposed to poles dependent (/\). This means we cannot be together, however hard we try.
Uncontrolled desire, or attachment, takes us out of the here and the now. Have you noticed how, when you are attached, you are always wanting to be someplace different or with someone else, never content or satisfied in the present moment with the people around you?
And do you not find it ironic that the less dependent we are on externals, the less needy–for example through open-hearted equanimity and love–the more others seem to enjoy sticking around?! With grasping, sooner or later we lose everything.
Try this thought experiment
We can use Chandrakirti’s verse as an object of contemplation, and see how our self-grasping ignorance sets us up for attachment, asking ourselves:
“What or who is that I or me who is lonely? How am I holding myself and the object of my ignorance and attachment apart, like the two poles (||), unable to bring them together?”
Then, when I try to bridge that gap, ‘I need you to make me happy’, what is that sense of me?”
We can see how we yearn to be close and yet our attachment pushes us further away from others. Frustration is guaranteed. The gulf between self and other grows greater the harder we try to bridge it with attachment.
Does attachment work? It’s what we’re turning to!
We need to bridge the gap through love and wisdom instead, effectively. So we can make the determination to overcome ignorance and attachment and increase our love and wisdom – this can be the object of our meditation.
This mountain, that mountain
The title of this article is “Why do I have no friends?” But the point is, you DO have friends, lots of them.
If we understand we are poles dependent (/\), we know that we are ALREADY in relationship. We don’t have to create relationships that are already there. We can however improve our relationships enormously by recognizing them.
There are various ways to understand that we are already dependent on others, and therefore in relationship with them. One is by contemplating “this mountain, that mountain.”
The stronger our grasping at self, the stronger our isolation. We can seek more and more lovers, drugs, extreme experiences; but we remain in a state of lack. The happiest moments are when we forget ourselves and dissolve the gap between self and others through wisdom and love.
When we feel alone, we can feel like the only point of consciousness in the universe, the one and only actual “me” surrounded by an alien sea of countless actual “you’s” or “them’s” (or on a good day “we’s”). However, whoever is me is also you, and whoever is you is also me.
Living in Colorado at the moment, I get to hike the Rockies and witness the truth of what Buddha says … that if I am standing on a mountain the West and looking at one to the East, the mountain I am standing on is “This mountain” and the one over there really seems to be “That mountain.” No two ways about it – it really feels like it, as if it is inherently or intrinsically this mountain. However, if I walk down the mountain in the west and up the mountain in the east, what happens!?
This shows that this mountain and that mountain are relative, depending entirely on our perspective, not absolute truths that have a reality unto themselves independent of perception. If this mountain was real, existing from its own side, it would remain this mountain even when I moved.
This is the same for self and other – they are relative truths, not real or absolute truths, not independent of the mind but entirely dependent on our perceptions. If I walk down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other, other becomes self and, looking back at my previous self, it now feels like other.
This is just one of many insights Buddha gave us to help us understand the relativity and interdependence of all things — an understanding that blows up the bedrock of our ignorance and self-absorption, setting us free.
By guest writer TT, who says he “is in his second year of university studying philosophy, politics and economics, working out how to unify student life with Kadampa Buddhism.”
At the moment, as during most moments in recent years, I am suffering from attachment… When attachment becomes very strong, I find it hard to let go of using the traditional opponents to attachment such as meditation on emptiness, death and renunciation. If I meditate on these, then my attachment may be gone by the morning but back by midday because my mindfulness is not strong enough to hold onto the opponents and oppose my mind’s tendency to focus on objects of attachment. This article is an explanation of a slightly different way in which I have recently been dealing with my attachment.
What is attachment and what are its faults?
An experience of attachment is the perfect opportunity to see the faults of attachment – how it makes us pathetic and foolish, causing us great pain and anxiety. By believing that a source of our happiness exists ‘out there’ in that person or enjoyment, we effectively put our happiness there, and therefore make ourself deeply emotionally vulnerable and deprive ourself of any stable happiness – we actually make it the case that we can only be happy if so-and-so likes us by believing that we can only be happy if he or she likes us; we believe that we need them for our happiness. It is this belief that is the real demon. It sucks out any joy from our life, stops us living in the moment, and causes an underlying pain that means we can never quite feel truly happy. When it is strong, it means that we are constantly walking around with an uncomfortable feeling in our stomach.. My teacher once said that we need to learn about the faults of delusions from our own experience and deeply understand them, so that when we contemplate the faults of attachment we are not just reciting a list or reading from a book – we are basing our understanding of the faults of attachment on our own experience. That way, our understanding of the faults of attachment will be strong, stable, and not merely intellectual.
When strong attachment arises I like to sit down on my meditation cushion and to look directly and unflinchingly at the mind of attachment. What is it exactly? What is it telling me? Where is it coming from? What are its faults? See for yourself precisely what this mind is, and what it is telling you. Don’t take anyone’s word for it that attachment means that you have actually put your cause of happiness in someone or something else – actually see how this is happening in your own experience. When we see attachment for what it really is, we see its absurdity and how it can cause nothing but pain for us. Seeing this, it naturally begins to drop away, like realizing how the magic trick works: once we know how the trick works, we are no longer sucked in by it.
Become an inner scientist: investigate the nature of your delusions
I think that there is so much to be said for not just watching our mind in an abstract way, but really looking deeply at our delusions – where they come from and what they’re saying. The same is true for all delusions I think, not just attachment – if we’re experiencing anger, for example, I believe it can be very valuable to sit down on the cushion and look directly at precisely where the anger is coming from (from what views and thoughts) and what it is saying to us. Once we do that we begin to see how absurd it is, and as we see the truth the delusion immediately begins to drop. I find this especially useful and if delusions are very strong – if we can’t seem to breath them out or let go of them in the usual way, we have a unique opportunity to sit down and really look, really learn deeply about where our delusion is coming from. Therefore we can attack it right at the root: we can challenge our deluded views and beliefs from which our delusions arise, such as ‘My cause of happiness is over there’, with the truth, by directly and unflinchingly seeing the absurdity of our delusion.
Why let go of attachment? Isn’t that letting go of our happiness?!
Now, this practice is unlikely to rid you of all attachment overnight! I have suffered from strong attachment for many years, and continue to do so. But gradually, as my understanding of attachment and its faults increases, attachment decreases. You may find that attachment soon creeps back after you try this meditation – but that is ok, because then you can just do it over again! So I try to remember repeatedly the faults of attachment: how it makes us pathetic, foolish, unhappy, emotionally dependent, vulnerable, and deprives us love and virtue, the only source of true meaning and happiness in our life. I simultaneously contemplate the benefits of letting go of attachment: the mental freedom, spaciousness, relaxation and happiness we experience. Wow!! The happiness and freedom that non-attachment has to offer is truly incredible. In Meaningful to Behold (in the chapter on Concentration, verse 170), Geshela writes:
In the past, great Indian and Tibetan yogis such as Milarepa spent much of their lives in seclusion. Compared with us, who spend our life in comfortable houses surrounded by luxuries, who has the greater happiness? Without a doubt yogis like Milarepa experience bliss that is a thousand times greater than anything we ever experience. Their unsurpassed happiness is due to their inner calm and their complete lack of attachment to external objects while our suffering and dissatisfaction is due to our complete submersion in attitudes of attachment and aversion for external objects.
If we get a heartfelt feeling for any Buddhist, or Dharma, practice whatsoever, it will bring us incredible joy and freedom. The experience of letting go of attachment and turning inwards to find the joy inside ourselves that comes from this, will bring incredible happiness and meaning to our life, and free us from so much of our everyday pain and dissatisfaction. Without attachment, we can just enjoy whatever arises, every moment, without grasping onto it. We have no pain about what has gone, and no fear about what is coming. We simply enjoy every moment, deeply, engaging fully with the world around us. The thing is, there is absolutely no problem with enjoyments. There is nothing wrong with surfing, spending time with friends, having sex or drinking lots of mango smoothie. The object to be abandoned is not the object(s) of our enjoyment, but grasping onto these objects – it is the clinging, the craving, THE ATTACHMENT, that causes us pain, dissatisfaction and keeps us chained to the prison of samsara. But if we let go of our attachment then we can enjoy all these objects without pain, without feeling like we need them for our happiness. And then we can see all our experiences of enjoyment as in the mind, and offer them to the guru at our heart, giving us a taste of liberation; or if we have had a tantric empowerment then we can recognize these feelings of bliss and emptiness as the nature of our guru’s mind and from there we can self-generate as the deity and impute ourself upon bliss and emptiness.
As Geshela says in Meaningful to Behold (in the chapter on Concentration, verse 176-177):
… the person who is content with what he or she has does not experience the pain of dissatisfaction and instead receives inexhaustible happiness. Of all forms of wealth, that of contentment is found to be supreme…
… A person who feels no attachment to beautiful, external objects will find a beautiful mind within. Remaining content is the best wealth; not to grasp at what is attractive is the best of all possessions.
How amazing is that?!
Licking honey off the razor’s edge…
Usually we focus on the initial good feelings of attachment like, as Geshela says in Eight Steps to Happiness (p. 67 of the latest edition), the taste of honey as we lick it off the razor’s edge–the excitement, the buzz, the rush, the thrill–without really thinking about its faults. And then, before we know it, it’s too late: we’re on the razor’s edge. Instead of this, I am trying to spend my time thinking repeatedly about the faults of attachment, not being deceived by the initial pleasant feelings that tend to come as we first develop attachment. I think we need to do this again and again and again, continually. We need to contemplate the rottenness, the anxiety, the pain, the vile nature of attachment, the way it causes us so much pain and suffering, keeps us trapped in samsara, and turns a person into an object of our selfish enjoyment, over many, many hours. As Geshela says in his new book How to Understand the Mind on page 116:
When attachment arises in our mind it does not feel harmful; on the contrary, it usually feels beneficial. Therefore, it is important to contemplate repeatedly the faults of attachment and to recognize it as a delusion whose only function is to cause us harm.
I have to admit that recently I have become a bit suspicious of ‘falling in love’. For people with a close friendship, perhaps, there is a genuine mix of love in with the attachment. But for me, I think that most of my experiences have not been of ‘falling in love’ involving love at all. I used to think that they were a mix of love and attachment, and that all the good feelings were coming from affectionate love, but now I’m not so sure… The good feelings seem to me like the initial stages of attachment; I value the person and ‘love’ them because they make me feel good. But this is not real love – it is not based on renunciation, cherishing them or recognizing their kindness and good qualities, but only on them making ME feel good right now; it is based on self-cherishing. Furthermore, it’s clear that there’s not really much if any love there when they tell me that they’re not interested, heh heh – if I love them, then why does that cause me so much pain, and no mix of pain and joy at all, just pain….?!! I am tending to think that falling in love, and the joy it brings, is more like a temporary drug trip that makes everything seem wonderful due to rose-tinted spectacles and not at all due to love or wisdom which see things as the truly are.
But, that said, there is nothing wrong with falling in love! Another mistake that I have made over the last few years is to really beat myself up when attachment arises, thinking ‘I’m such a bad practitioner’, and ‘Oh no, I’ve got attachment!’ But how can wisdom arise from such attitudes? Such feelings are based entirely on self-cherishing, I think – it does not bother us if someone else, who we do not much care for, is suffering from attachment, does it? Yet if it is us, then it seems terrible. We need a realistic attitude that sees attachment for what it is and applies the opponent of wisdom with the calm and clear-sighted approach of the surgeon who applies the knife. We do not feel overwhelmed, guilty or exasperated; on the contrary, we have is a perfect opportunity to see the faults of attachment and overcome it from the root, so we should rejoice! One of my teachers recently explained to me that dharma is not about denial – if we have attachment to someone, for example, dharma is not about pretending to ourself that we do not have this attachment and supressing it. Not at all. Of course, it is not always appropriate to follow our attachments externally; for example, if we are ordained then we probably should not ask that person out to dinner with us…(!) But if we are a lay practioner, then that’s fine! And if (s)he says ‘yes’, then we try to increase our love and reduce our attachment; and if (s)he says ‘no’, then we try to increase our love and reduce our attachment. Either way, we are working on our mind, trying to decrease our attachment and increase our love, and therefore we are heading towards the city of full enlightenment. As one Kadampa teacher often exclaims: ‘If a delusion comes up, great!’ We can use our experience of delusion to overcome that delusion – if we have strong attachment then great: this is the perfect time to see its faults and overcome it.
What are we chained down by?
Think about an attachment that you have right now. Ultimately, we have to make a choice between happiness and this attachment. As soon as we pick up an attachment our heart is thrown off beat, and we lose the ability to live a joyful, relaxed life. (NB. This is a choice between our happiness and the attachment, nor our happiness and the object – externally abandoning the object of our attachment does not necessarily mean that we have abandoned our [internal] attachment to it; but if we let go of our attachment then we will be happy regardless of whether or not we have the object.). Just realizing this is extremely liberating. We feel like we have to choose attachment because that is where our happiness is – but that is completely false! Look at how many people are not attached to our object of attachment, simply getting on with their lives and enjoying themselves! It is only the belief that we need someone for our happiness that makes us unhappy; and it is only the complete abandonment of this belief that allows us to be truly and utterly happy. At the time, our attachment object seems like the most important thing in the world – and letting go of it seems like an impossible task. But think about how many people or things we have been attached to in the past, and which now we hardly think of at all. We have managed ok without those people and things after all, haven’t we? And the same is true of our present attachment – if we develop a sense of perspective, we can easily see that our attachment is not important at all, it really is just a triviality. So what are we so worried about letting go of? The key to happiness lies within us, in letting go of this mind of attachment!
How to let go of attachment
We can look around and see how many people are engrossed in attachment, falsely believing that they need someone or something to be happy; deeply contemplating its faults, we begin to feel repulsed by the mind of attachment. With this complete disgust for attachment, we can actually let go of it by realizing that the object of our attachment is just an illusion, an idea, a false projection – it does not actually exist, at all. NOTHING and NO ONE has the power to make us happy. As Geshela says in Eight Steps to Happiness (p. 142 of the revised edition):
We are like the thief who entered Milarepa’s cave one night, looking for something valuable to steal. Hearing him, Milarepa laughed and said, ‘How do you expect to find anything valuable here at night, when I cannot find anything valuable here during the day?’ How can we expect to find happiness in the empty cave of samsara while obscured by the darkness of our delusions, when all the Buddhas with their omniscient wisdom have been unable to find it?
Indeed, this person does not even exist from his or her own side! Let alone do they exist as a true cause of happiness for us… So then, remembering that the object of our attachment, the attachment, and we ourself, are impermanent and illusory, we can let go of attachment, because there is nothing to hold onto – the object of our attachment does not exist. A beautiful analogy that one of my teachers once gave is that of a moth that had got ‘stuck’ to his finger that morning when he was trying to take it out of the kitchen – it refused to let go and fly off. We are like that moth: when we experience the smallest sense of enjoyment or happiness from some person or enjoyment, we cling onto it soooo desperately and tightly, thinking that if we let go of it then we letting go of our source of happiness – what is left? But in fact, it is this clinging mind that deprives us of any happiness – it stops us from enjoying the object of our attachment, and everything else. Only by letting go of our attachment can we truly enjoy the object, and everything else, without pain. When we let go of our attachment, our mind will be filled with joy and freed of fear. This is the indication that we have let go of our attachment. We can now truly enjoy the object without any pain, and we can enjoy everyone and everything else in life. Non-attachment has freed us from pain and allowed us to discover the joy and happiness in all aspects of life.
Much help for me has come from a book called The Way to Love by, believe it or not, a Jesuit priest called Anthony De Mello. There is some fantastic advice on letting go of attachment in there, a lot of which I have largely repeated in this article. The guru can manifest in many forms!!
So anyway, I wanted to share some of that beautiful advice that I have received from my teachers. Now it is time to put it into practice, otherwise I will remain miserable and will be like the man that tells his son every day ‘Do not walk outside after dark, it is dangerous’ but then walks out at dark and gets killed. If I’m here regurgitating wonderful advice but not practising any of it, then there is none more foolish than me!!
In many ways, I am the least qualified person possible to give advice on overcome attachment, hehehe. But I have 100% confidence that the instructions on letting go of attachment work, if only we put them into practice. The key to happiness is within us – it is within our grasp. All we have to do is let go of our clinging attitude and completely abandon the utterly false belief that we need any external thing or person for us to be happy. And if we do this – then we shall finally find the happiness we seek.
Back in this article I was surmising that the reason we don’t go for a realization of emptiness more passionately seems to be because we are so attached to inherently existent things, particularly if they appear nice. That seems to me to be our deep laziness of attachment. There’s a contemplation I do to combat it, so I’ll share it here in case it is of some practical use to you.
(1) First of all, I ask myself, “What or whom am I most attached to at the moment?” Then I ask myself, “Do I want this person or enjoyment to be real?”
For example, if you’ve fallen in love with someone, do you like the idea of them really being there, existing from their own side, ready at any moment to send you flowers and texts? Or really waiting there for you at the train station, really wanting to see you, really making plans with you, etc.? Or not?!
Sure, it is nice to meditate on the emptiness of difficult conditions like annoying co-workers and ageing bodies, but is it so nice to dissolve our loved ones away into emptiness, to realize they are mere projections of our own mind with no power from their own side to make us happy!? And what about that delicious pizza that’s just been delivered, or that show we’ve really been looking forward to watching this weekend; what is so fun about those not existing from their own side?
And, in any case, what’s the alternative to inherently existent or real things?! If we get rid of those, what do we actually have left to enjoy?
Anyway, these are the kinds of questions we can ask ourselves. And if we’re honest, we might have to reply that we do want our objects of attachment to be at least a bit real.
(2) So then I ask myself, what is so wrong with wanting nice things to be real? It seems innocuous enough.
Which is why we need renunciation, or non-attachment, from knowing the faults of attachment. Without this, we’ll never get around to realizing emptiness, even if we’re an intellectual giant.
“It is important to contemplate repeatedly the faults of attachment and to recognize it as a delusion whose only function is to cause us harm.”
There are a gazillion things wrong with attachment to inherently existent things, and at this point in my meditation I think of some of these, specifically relating them to whatever is my current object of attachment. For example …
Real nice things and people seem to be over there while real me seems to over here, trying desperately to pull them toward me, to keep them with me, to stop them from getting away. With attachment, we feel moreorless bereft or on the verge of being bereft in every moment. It is impossible to get enough of our objects of attachment – if they send us roses and say I love you one day, we’re happy for a moment, but then we wonder why they don’t do it again the next day, or even the next hour. Perhaps it’s because they no longer love us?! But we need them to! If we set ourselves up in need for reassurance, no one can ever possibly reassure us enough. Attachment causes our mind to become like a yo yo of excitement and nerves when it is reciprocated, and makes us feel like attention-seeking idiots when it is not. Attachment is a desperately insecure state of being. It gives us zero control over our mind. It burdens people the world over. It has done this since beginningless time. We have set ourselves up in need through our own deluded thought processes or inappropriate attention. We have given away the key to our own happiness — now dependent on the behaviors of others or the freshness of the cupcakes. Why we may wonder are serials or on-going TV shows now so much more popular than movies? Perhaps because we can never get enough of the storyline, we need it to go on and on, generally feeling cheated in the last episode.
We can’t be happy with our objects of attachment out of the underlying anxiety that they’re about to end or leave us, and we can’t be happy without them as we miss them, feel hollow, out of sorts. In short, we can’t be happy with attachment at all.
With attachment, it is hard to stay in sync with another person for very long. It is love that puts us on the same wavelength, not attachment.
“Attachment is the principal cause of dissatisfaction. It never causes contentment, only restlessness and discontent.” ~ How to Understand the Mind
Attachment puts our life on hold. Look around at people not suffering from strong attachment right now who are just getting on with having lives, concentrating on whatever it is they are doing without having to watch the clock or feverishly tap into their smartphones every 10 minutes in hope for a sign of reassurance or affirmation from their beloved. Without attachment, and if they have love and wisdom, not only are they having a life, but they’re having a good life, even a great one. And we can too if we recognize that the pain or dissatisfaction or fragility or uncertainty we feel come not from a lover or a lack of a lover, a place/home or lack of one, a job/position or lack of one, etc, but only from our attachment to these. We don’t need it.
And our attachment, or uncontrolled desire, also causes us to act in odd, sometimes undignified ways that lead to future suffering too. We desperately seek to fulfill our wishes day after day, week after week, year after year, and life after life but, like the donkey chasing the carrot on the stick, we never quite succeed. And in the meantime we create a lot of bad karma, including the karma to continue to feel separated from beautiful things.
Moreover, we are not making any effort to escape while we are attached to the objects of self-grasping ignorance–inherently existent things. And, given that we’re attached to many nice real things, this is clearly sticking us down to samsara. Ignorance for sure is what traps us in the prison of samsara, but attachment is like the chains binding us to the wall.
Emptiness is naturally beautiful
Ironically, we think we want real things, but in fact what we are attached to are the hallucinations of our self-grasping ignorance. Inherently existent things don’t exist at all. How can being attached to an hallucination ever work out for us? It is, as Geshe Kelsang says, like chasing a mirage, desperate for its water. If we want reality, we need to understand that the true nature of all things is emptiness – that’s the only reality. And, as it says in Vajrayogini Tantra, emptiness is naturally beautiful.
Empty things and people seem to be naturally beautiful too. We can enjoy anything endlessly if we realize that it’s the nature of our own mind, mere name, mere imputation. That full satisfaction, union, or non-duality is infinitely preferable to the gulf that inevitably separates us from all those nice inherently existent things. Not always grasping, which is inevitably accompanied by some kind of tension in the mind – a tension we are sometimes not even aware of until we are not grasping and it blissfully disappears. And it feels so good to be in control of our own happiness, not dependent on the vagaries of hallucinations.
(3) So, all that being said, I prefer to have non-attachment for inherently existent objects and the self-grasping ignorance that apprehends them. This non-attachment itself is renunciation. We are already relatively free.
(4) So, how can I be completely free from self-grasping (and its deceptive objects)? By slicing it with the sword of the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence, which is its direct antidote. Therefore, I’m going to practice wisdom today and every day. Nothing exists from its own side. Enjoy without grasping.
(5) I then try to come up with a practical plan to remember to practice wisdom in all the remaining hours of the day. And one of the most fruitful ways is to notice when attachment is arising, be aware of its painful nature, and let that remind me!
We were at the Science Museum in London recently and saw a lot of huge industrial machinery down the ages, accompanied by tales of sweat, effort, and immensely hard labor. It was reminiscent for me that a lot of heavy cranking of metal is required to try and get real things to work for us. We toil very diligently to get the external world to cooperate, we spend most of our days doing that. But it seems that life becomes a whole lot less hard work if we can also remember that everything is mere projection of mind. Rather than get the results we seek by tinkering around with the projection, which is as much an exercise in futility as trying to move the frames around on a movie screen, we are better off fixing the projector itself.
Postscript: Nothing wrong with being in love
BTW, there is nothing wrong with being in love. It’d be nice to be in love with everyone! Love is great. Attachment is a delusion whose only function is to harm us, so don’t be alarmed that you’ll lose anything special by letting it go. We can transform our relationships through Buddha’s teachings on the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra so that we can keep and increase the love, the passion, the bliss, and keep and transform even the desire … but jettison the attachment.
Over to you … What ideas do you have for doing this?