Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Attachment (Yes, I'm Still Stuck On It)

Last week’s post found us taking a detour from the path of loving-kindness – the one that we’re “supposed” to be on – in order to explore the path of its near enemy, attachment – the path that we’re not to venture down no matter what, right? At least, that’s the way it’s spoken of sometimes, isn’t it? Let’s face it, though, far from being “the road less travelled,” the path of attachment is the one that we’re usually on – we just seem to have the tendency to travel it at night, before the moon has risen, when we’re sleepy and have our eyes half closed! So, now that the sun has risen and we’re wide awake (you know, we’ve had our mandatory quadruple-shot mocha latte, and all), let’s embark down this path called attachment with the intention of examining closely the terrain.

By the end of last week’s post we’d sorted through an abundance of words related to all of the various and sundry ways that we get pulled from the path leading to that place of calm, non-discriminating awareness (equanimity) and into those realms where our vision is obscured, our wisdom goes on holiday, and we engage in actions born of (and which serve to perpetuate) whatever unwholesome karma we’ve accumulated – unwholesome karma that will, if not duly remediated, keep us wandering in samsaric existence. We also saw that, ultimately, the many hindrances (kleshas) can be boiled down to a mere three unwholesome roots (akushala-mula), sometimes also referred to as the three poisonsattachment, aversion, and delusion. Furthermore, a simple model was introduced that displays how attachment and aversion can be thought of as existing on a spectrum not unlike the number line displayed below, with equanimity sitting solidly at the zero point.

Delusion, by the way, is the obscuration of our ability to see clearly that everything we need is already available to us on this tiny raft of ours, that nothing needs to be jettisoned overboard; that, in fact, this tiny raft “of ours” is but part of a larger and grander whole; that we are, in reality, the great ocean and all that calls it home, the storms that rage across it, the sun and moon that rise and set upon it, the stars that sparkle in its surface…, everything.

In light of this fundamental wholeness and completeness – and the fact that it is ours to experience at any time – we see that we can further collapse the three unwholesome roots or three poisons into two. After all, it is the deluded nature of our usual ideas about the self that prompts us to make judgments regarding what “we” lack and what “we” need to throw away. Thus, aversion is really just a manifestation of our attachment (clinging) to ideas of what we are or should be. We should be this without that. We should exist in comfort, without pain; our lives should go smoothly, without hardship; etc. Notice how easily this way of thinking about suffering fits into the way the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination describes the arising of suffering in the existing individual: consciousness gives rise to feelings which prompt craving and further perpetuate the compartmentalization of self and other (the process of appropriation) – all taking place within a context of fundamental delusion. Please see Dependent Origination - The Wheel of Becoming for a more detailed description of this process.  

The Fundamental Question

So it would seem that the fundamental question that we are contemplating as we attempt to understand this thing called attachment is this:

If we are indeed the entire universe as the mystics of the many wisdom traditions so frequently describe, then why should we need to engage in austere spiritual practices involving self-denial, the severing of attachments, and the curtailment of aversions in order to realize it?

My Zen Buddhist friends will, of course, recognize in this question the one that prompted the young Japanese monk, Dogen, to sail to China in the hopes of resolving his personal koan: If we are all innately endowed with Buddha-nature, then why do we need to practice?

Embarking on a Journey of Our Own

You know, there are just some questions that we have to answer for ourselves. Dogen was well-versed in the teachings of the Buddha, he had access to trained teachers, and yet he had to embark upon a journey all his own in order to have his question “answered”. And just what kind of journey will we embark upon? In order to answer that question it might be instructive to examine the presumed metaphysical context within which we practice Buddhism (or how we practice within any tradition, for that matter), and how this presumed context gives rise to our fundamental motivation for practicing. Surely each of us views this existential matter in very different ways, but I can think of at least two models that we can glean from the Buddhist literature:

  1. Our practice is shaped at least in part by the presumed reality of reincarnation. We take to heart the teaching regarding all of existence being suffering (duhkha) and so we practice in such a way that we’re either reborn into a higher birth more conducive to the continuation and perfection of this practice or, better yet, we’re released from the cycle of samsara altogether. The lives of the renunciants guide our practice. Their discipline and single-mindedness of purpose with respect to diminishing or severing their attachments are held in our highest regard, even if we cannot fully emulate their practice at the present time.
  2. Our practice is shaped at least in part by the recognition that we cannot know anything of a so-called afterlife. Reincarnation might exist, but that possibility does not overtly guide our practice. What guides our practice is a compassionate motivation to alleviate suffering right here and now – our own and that of others – even as we remain fully engaged in the many joyful and sorrowful challenges of falling in love, raising a family, making a living, and building community. Since our life is an ongoing process of integrating the secular and the spiritual, we are constantly facing circumstances that require us to act with the very best compassion and wisdom that our spiritual progress allows, however imperfect it might be. Thus, we practice with the intention of further deepening our compassion and enhancing the wisdom that informs our actions, thereby allowing our compassion to be brought to fruition more fully and completely in this life so that the suffering of the world will be diminished.

Now, some may read into these two contrasting motivations a covert comparison of the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, respectively, or perhaps monastic practice as compared to lay practice. That is not my intention. I actually think that practitioners from either tradition, whether lay or monastic, might approach practice from either orientation. Likewise, a person who is not practicing within the context of any particular tradition, but who remains open to the teachings of a variety of wisdom traditions may, upon reflection, find that they are proceeding with their exploration from one or the other of these orientations (or from some combination or variation thereof).

So, does attachment look different when examined through each of these lenses? In the first model, attachment would seem to be indicative of a fundamental failure to recognize existence for what it is, suffering, and practice for what it should be, an unwavering effort to alleviate suffering via the severing of attachments of every ilk – a failure that will, if not corrected, lead unerringly to a continuation of suffering in a very personal cycle of samsara. Furthermore, given the fact that we don’t know how much time we have, we best not waste one instant. Readers familiar with the old “fire and brimstone” style of Christian preaching might recognize in this approach to practice the admonishment attributed to Shaker preacher, Jane Wardley: “Repent. For the kingdom of God is at hand.” Now, please don’t take this as a criticism of that particular approach to either Buddhism or Christianity. For all I know, the Kingdom of God just might be at hand and a new and very personal samsara just might be in the cards for me when it arrives! Pleasant thoughts of the afterlife, notwithstanding, someone whose practice is more like that described in the second model is oriented towards alleviating the suffering of the world right here and now rather than concerning themselves with hypothetical future births. ‘Future birth’ to such a practitioner merely represents the next moment of existence. In this model, attachment still represents an obscuration of wise seeing, an obscuration that will certainly set up conditions for suffering in a future birth. However, given the virtually unavoidable nature of attachment, the way they virtually fall into our lap as we go about living our life in relationship with others, we (and the world) are well-served by our learning to navigate them skillfully. Do we really need to withdraw from attachment entirely in order to remain true to our bodhisattva vow to save all beings, or can we learn to navigate the terrain of attachment with enough wisdom and skill that we ultimately serve to diminish the amount of suffering in the world rather than increase it? In other words, do we look at our practice in terms of black and white absolutism, or do we see our practice as a navigation of endless shades of gray?

Here is a rather funny story that I think illustrates some essential differences between the two models of practice that I sketched out above: I attended a meditation retreat many years ago led by a teacher who was apparently very skilled at maintaining awareness of every action that he performed, and presumably every thought that ever crossed his mind, as well. It certainly appeared that way from the outside, anyway. In order to assist us in achieving that goal for ourselves he had us practice a form of walking meditation wherein we focused our awareness by engaging in what essentially amounted to a running commentary in our heads: “I am lifting my foot…, I am moving my foot…, I am placing my foot…, I am lifting my foot…, I am moving my foot…, I am placing my foot….” What struck me most about how he articulated this practice, however, was that he seemed to be saying that we should be doing this ALL the time – not just during walking meditation – not just as a training exercise. So, when he gave us the opportunity to ask questions by writing them on slips of paper, I simply had to jot down the following one: “When are we ready to dispense with the running mental commentary and just be?” With a very calm and serious demeanor he answered all the other questions, but when he finally got to mine (the last one) the faintest of smirks seemed to flash across his face. Of course, I knew exactly what he was thinking. He was thinking: “I am smirking – faintly.” And then he spoke. “The question is: When are we ready to dispense with the running mental commentary and just be?” His answer: “When you become a buddha.” Unfortunately I had the sneaking suspicion that he didn’t think that was going to be happening any time soon; not in this lifetime, anyway. Now, lest anyone think otherwise, I have the greatest respect for that teacher and that form of practice. It seemed to be working quite well as far as I could tell – for him. However, I simply do not see myself spending the rest of my life trying to maintain a running commentary in my head regarding every action that I perform. And that is precisely why I suggest that we examine the presumed metaphysical context within which we practice Buddhism. That is at least one aspect of awareness that I try to cultivate anyway.

Next week I’ll dive into cultivating awareness within the context of a romantic relationship – that veritable mother lode of attachments!


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Image Credits

Closeups of velcro hooks and loops via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. HA! "Smiling-Faintly"...That cracked me up :-). Thanks.

  2. The running commentary seems to happen to me, whether I want it to or not. Sigh.

    Looking forward to the next post!

    P.S. He's closer to my age than yours! ;D

  3. Hey Stacey! I'm glad I could brighten a day. I hope that comment comes off as having fun without making fun. Thanks again for reading!

    Hey Kristen! I don't know, but I think you DO want that running commentary to "happen to" you. :D It's all karma, after all. Wow, I suddenly feel a sense of urgency regarding my next post. I mean, a budding potential attachment hangs in the balance! ;D Thank you for reading, as well!