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?
A guest article by a modern Buddhist practitioner who works full time as a manager of software engineer teams.
6 mins read.
I calculate 3 reasons why genuine happiness cannot be found outside our mind:
1) Everything is impermanent.Our wish to find happiness from outside our mind depends on things remaining the same. We acquire a slew of external enjoyments that bring us happiness, and then work to keep them that way. Yet, in this impermanent world these enjoyments cannot help but change. As a result, we end up chasing ever-changing external conditions, which is an endless pursuit.
For example, many people invest a lot of time an effort in finding happiness in relationships. After all, isn’t the dream life one in which you meet a beautiful partner, get married, and live happily ever after? Relationships seem to be compelling sources of happiness, and society generally endorses this view.
However, if we apply the wisdom understanding impermanence, it becomes clear that putting all our eggs of happiness into relationships is not a reliable strategy. Relationships are often a roller coaster of emotion — we love the thrilling times but have no ability to be happy when things get difficult.
This doesn’t mean that we need to abandon relationships to find lasting happiness. It does mean that we need a different approach to them, which is explained below.
2) Every new thing comes with its own new set of problems. It appears as if certain conditions can make us happy, but this appearance is deceptive. That is because there is no such thing as a job, relationship, or external enjoyment without problems.
If we lack an object we desire such as a relationship, then this is only one problem: the problem of not having a relationship. If we get into a relationship, then we will have many new problems! This applies in the same way to everything we believe will make us happy.
For example, suppose we desire a relationship because we would like more companionship in our life. In this scenario, we have the outer problem of lacking companionship, which can lead to inner problems like feeling lonely or isolated. When we think about solving this problem by getting into a relationship we often fail to recognize that relationships have many problems:
we will have less time and independence for ourselves,
there are a lot of new expenses to attract a partner,
we have to spend a lot of time finding someone who is a match for us,
we have to deal with the frustration when the relationship goes through hard times,
and the list goes on. Again, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have relationships. It means we should address the inner problem directly instead of solving all of our problems with new ones.
3) There are no objects outside of our mind.Due to ignorance, it appears as if certain people or places are causes of happiness from their own side. For example, who would turn down a free trip to the Bahamas? Isn’t that inherently a source of happiness? In reality, the answer to that is “No” because everything depends on our experience, which is mind. If we bring angry and resentful thoughts with us on vacation, then we will have as miserable a time as we had back at the office. On the other hand, if we bring happy, peaceful thoughts, we will have a great vacation, even if we don’t go anywhere.
This again applies to relationships in that we often project qualities onto our partner that may or may not be there. When we first meet someone we find attractive, it appears as if they are drop-dead gorgeous, and that this has nothing to do with the way we are looking at them. This appearance is our desirous attachment exaggerating the good qualities of this person and ignoring any faults. We then believe this projection to be true and later, when our desirous attachment starts to fade, problems begin to appear in our mind. All the faults we were previously ignoring start to appear more clearly. Their good qualities begin to fade away, and over time we think that they have changed. Recognizing how we are involved in the appearances to our mind is a critical life skill for learning how to be happy all the time.
How to cultivate genuine happiness from inside our mind
Let’s explore these same 3 points and how we can use them to find lasting happiness:
1) Everything is impermanent.How can we learn to find lasting happiness in an impermanent world? While we are enjoying our relationships, we can equally invest eggs of happiness in the basket of Dharma. Enjoying our relationships is often a process of seeking, enjoying, and letting go of them. While we are doing this, we can also be cultivating a reliable source of happiness within.
For example, we can use every relationship to increase our expedience of the three types of love. That way, when things are going well we can learn to be more loving. Later, when things get difficult, relationships are a perfect opportunity to practice patient acceptance. They are also an opportunity to learn to love selflessly without expecting anything in return.
If we view our relationships as fuel for our spiritual development, then every person we spend time with will lead us to deeper happiness within.
2) Every new thing comes with its own new set of problems.Instead of relying on external conditions to temporarily relieve our inner problems, we can directly resolve the problems in our mind. For example, if we have an inner problem of loneliness and feelings of isolation, we can solve this by meditating on the dependent-related nature of things. In The New Eight Steps to HappinessGeshe Kelsang says:
We are all interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate our self. Everything we have and everything we enjoy, including our very life, is due to the kindness of others.
If we contemplate this deeply, we will develop insights that enable us to see the world in a way that directly counteracts loneliness. Then, we can easily engage in relationships from the perspective of using them to develop love because we won’t be depending on them to solve our problems.
3) There are no objects outside of our mind.Recognizing how we are involved in the appearances to our mind is a critical life skill for learning how to be happy all the time. If we want to become skillful at overcoming our uncontrolled desires, we need to see how they develop. Again in The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says:
It is as if we are continually chasing mirages, only to be disappointed when they do not give us the satisfaction for which we had hoped.
If we watch our mind, we can learn to see how it projects good qualities onto another person and then feels them to be a real source of happiness. Learning how our mind projects in this way enables us to understand how the delusion of desirous attachment operates and to see through it.
Eventually, we will develop a contentment within that is naturally arising from wisdom. This contentment will give us the freedom to not chase endlessly after objects of desire. As a result we will have boundless energy for finding lasting happiness from within and helping everybody else to do the same!
Please leave comments and questions for the guest author in the box below.
This video moved me, and has helped me generate positive minds all day. So I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on it and invite you to contribute your own in the comments.
The sentience — the sheer life — of animals. Indeed, how they are just like us, wanting to protect themselves and their young. They want to be happy and they don’t want to be hurt. Person, self, being, and I are synonyms according to Buddha. Animals are people. They are he’s and she’s, never its.
Animals possess the same Buddha seeds of compassion and wisdom as we do — they are future Buddhas deserving of love and respect.
How at our mercy animals are. The human in the video could easily take that puppy away and there is nothing the dog dad could do about it.
Will this dad in fact get to keep his puppy? Where is the rest of the litter? Every day, millions and millions of children are taken away from their parents – calves, chicks, just this week more schoolgirls in Nigeria. Looking at these dogs, how can we bear that and allow it to go on? What right do we have to separate mothers and fathers from their babies? This illusory sense of ownership comes from ignorance, from the so-called view of the transitory collecting conceiving I and mine.
Animals have ignorance conceiving I and mine, and attachment, just as we do. This dog may not be so protective of other puppies, for example, whom he doesn’t consider to be “mine”. There is a mixture going on of pure love wanting to protect his puppy and the ignorance of attachment. Exactly as there is with us human beings in most of our (good) relationships.
Unlike us right now, animals are not able to cultivate their potential for enlightenment in this life. We could let this increase our compassion wanting to help them, rather than looking down on them. After all, there, but for the grace of Buddha and Dharma, or some good karma ripening, go we.
For who would choose to be born as an animal? Samsara gives us no choice. We have been helpless animals like this countless times already, and have created the karma to be born helpless countless times again. One breath could be all that is keeping us from our next furry body.
How are animals supposed to get out of there? And, if we fall into the animal realm, how on earth are we going to escape? As it says in the Buddhist scriptures: “It is said to be easier for human beings to attain enlightenment than it is for beings such as animals to attain a precious human rebirth.”
This is motivation to make the most of this precious human life while we still have breath in our body. As Chandrakirti says in Guide to the Middle Way:
If when living in good conditions and acting with freedom
We do not act to hold ourselves back,
Once we have fallen into the abyss and lost our freedom,
How shall we raise ourselves from there in the future?
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.
Loving-kindness is arguably the most important example we can show in our troubled world.
This was one of the many take-aways from the recent International Kadampa Spring Festival in the UK, where we received empowerment and teachings on Buddha Maitreya, the Buddha of loving-kindness, from Gen-la Jampa.
Another take-away: People need to know how to become happy through love.
Not much else seems to be making us happy these days. Not politics as usual, anyway. The silver lining of this, though, may be that more people are starting to explore other more spiritual ways to solve problems. At least that’s been my observation.
And through becoming familiar with the three aspects of love – affectionate, cherishing, and wishing love — we can really help others and solve our own problems. It’s a win win. And it works instantly.
How hard is it to love others? I would submit that it is not as hard as we may think. I think that for many people, including maybe you, love is the easiest positive mind to generate. And yet it has these huge, compelling benefits! So here goes, I will share some of these to encourage us all to get going …
We’ll always be happy
The first type of love, affectionate love, is a warm heart and feeling close to others, rather like a mother feels toward her child, minus the attachment.* If we can learn to develop a warm, loving heart toward all beings all the time, we’ll finally fulfill our deepest life-long wish (indeed beginningless lives-long wish) to be happy all the time. This is what we really need. I know I must have learned a bunch of useful things at school, even if I can’t remember what they were. But however much I learned at school, I didn’t learn this.
In Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings on developing love from 2009, which Gen-la Jampa referred to extensively, he said:
Probably we think: If I have money I will be happy all the time. If I have a good friend, a boyfriend or girlfriend, I will be happy all the time. If I have a good reputation or a higher position, I will be happy all the time. This is wrong.
More on why “This is wrong” (ie, worldly enjoyments don’t make us happy all the time) is explained all over this blog, including here.
We will solve our problems
Love, as Buddha said, is the great Protector. As Geshe Kelsang said:
If everybody sincerely practices affectionate love, all problems between each other will be solved and never arise again. This is guaranteed; I will give my signature.
We need love in our hearts. Others need love in their hearts. This is the real solution. So, as Gen-la Jampa pointed out, people need to see our loving-kindness and that it works.
We can understand this from the classic Buddhist explanation on inner and outer problems. For example, technology can solve some outer problems, but it doesn’t solve all of them; and in fact world peace is in more jeopardy than ever before with the easy ability to produce home-made bombs and so on, not to mention the WMD. And even when we get all the way to iPhone 500, we will still be suffering from the real problems of attachment, anger, jealousy, ignorance, and so on.
Talking of iPhones, possibly à propos nothing – I love mine. I sometimes feel quite pleased with myself when I pick it up and do cool things with it. But 2 nights ago I misplaced it. And I had no way of texting anyone to find out where it might have gotten to. I felt like I’d lost a limb. All these years of being the proud owner of an iPhone have clearly not diminished my attachment, for starters.
Technology and other external stuff can be useful but they are not the actual solutions to our real problems. Our real problems are our experience of unpleasant feelings, which are part of our mind and arise with our delusions. We can learn to solve these problems with loving kindness, to go for refuge to love. Love changes the flavor of our mind as sugar changes the flavor of tea, and the sour delusions cannot thrive in this sweet new environment. You can read a lot more about how love solves all our problems in NewEight Steps to Happiness. Buddha would always explain the benefits of various spiritual practices before teaching them because he knows how our minds work — how we like advertising to get us going 😉 Then we develop the wish to taste love.
And tasting love is then the best advertisement; I defy you not to want more!
We will attain enlightenment
Geshe Kelsang says:
Ultimately our practice of affectionate love leads us to the state of supreme happiness of enlightenment, which gives us the ability to directly benefit each and every living every day.
The sooner we can set our sights on enlightenment, the sooner we’ll get there. Maybe when we first hear about the goal of enlightenment we think “Hey steady on, what you talking about?! That sounds way too difficult, a super human attainment way beyond my capacity! Seeking enlightenment is setting myself up for spectacular failure — can’t I settle for something more manageable instead?!”
Enlightenment is reality
But it is vital to understand that attaining enlightenment is neither outside ourselves nor beyond our reach, not like climbing Mount Everest or winning a gold medal. Enlightenment is just reality. It is the inner light of wisdom that is completely free from all mistaken perceptions, pervaded by the bliss of universal love and compassion. We all have the potential for this in our hearts already. We don’t need to go somewhere else – we just need to step away from the false perception of what reality is (vis a vis an objective world outside our mind) and into reality itself. This is entirely doable and we have to do it because what’s the alternative?
So we need love. By thinking about these benefits we develop the wish to taste it, and as Geshe Kelsang says:
We make the determination to develop and maintain a warm heart feeling close to all living beings without exception. We do this again and again; we do this job…. There is no greater virtuous action than love.
What a nice job! Deeply thinking in this way for even one moment brings HUGE results. Mental actions, or intentions, such as this are more powerful than physical or verbal actions because their meaning depends entirely upon the intentions with which we do them. We don’t even need to do anything verbal or physical (though of course we can and naturally will) – we just need to move our mind. From such a good heart, good results will always arise. As Geshe Kelsang says:
In Precious Garland Nagarjuna listed eight benefits of love: The first is that meditating on love for just one moment is a greater virtuous action than giving food to all those who are hungry in the world three times a day…. When we simply give food to those who are hungry we are not giving real happiness, because the happiness that comes from eating food is not real happiness; it is just a reduction of their hunger problem, it is just changing suffering. But when we meditate on wishing love, we sincerely wish to give real happiness, the pure and everlasting happiness of enlightenment, to all living beings without exception.
Of course we can do both — feed others with the intention, “May everyone have the permanent bliss of enlightenment.”
In these teachings on love in 2009, Geshe Kelsang introduced a quick note of caution about attachment:
We need to love each other continually but we don’t need attachment. Attachment causes problems.
And he went on to say that sometimes we start with pure love, but then it morphs into the selfish intention of attachment.
You know how that goes — when we first meet someone we might have some pure love, be really grateful to them and wish them to be happy; but as time goes on attachment creeps in with its expectations (or “premeditated resentments” as I’ve heard them called), and then the arguments start, and then it’s no longer nearly so much fun. We can keep the honeymoon period going longer by ditching the attachment and growing the love.
With attachment, our love wishing someone else to be happy is conditional, the other person has to behave. With this conditionality, this need, we are to a greater or lesser extent trapped and bound in all directions, confused and helpless, without agency, a puppet on a string dangled by what others do, think, or say.
Whereas with unconditional love we have the thought “I wish you freedom and happiness!” and this gives us freedom as well.
If we know the difference between the way love and attachment feel, we can choose love. We can get to the point where we genuinely feel, “Even if you walk out that door, I am okay as long as you’re happy, because that is what I actually want.” Our love and therefore our happiness stay the same.
Also, I have noticed that when I bring out my love for an object of attachment, letting the attachment go, it is not hard to then spread that love to everyone else – it is a way of opening the floodgates.
So we choose love because love is what will make us and everybody else happy.
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?!