Roots of Suffering: Attachment

Driving on asphalt road towards the setting sunIt is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” ― Seneca

Attachment, sometimes also described as craving, acquisitiveness, lust or desire, combined with the afflictive emotions (anger, anxiety, depression, pride, envy), is one of the roots of suffering in both Buddhism and yoga philosophy. At it’s extreme, it is considered a cardinal sin in Christianity.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.7 states, “Attachment is a separate modification of mind, which follows the rising of the memory of pleasure, where the three modifications of attachment, pleasure, and the memory of the object are then associated with one another.

Attachment causes suffering because nothing is permanent. The concepts and objects we strive after and hold onto and the feelings we have about them always eventually change and transform or end. Attachment also causes suffering because the things we tend to cling to are not what we think they are – it is our stories about them that bring us temporary pleasure. Since contentment comes from within, our attachments cannot provide us with lasting happiness. We are left feeling dissatisfied and we go searching for ever more. In our desperation for happiness, we may even harm ourselves or others in order to try to fulfill our desires. In James 4:2 of the Bible is says (depending upon translation), “You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them.

Desire is a natural human experience and some forms of attachment can be beneficial. For example, a supportive, nurturing relationship can make life easier and bring added meaning through opportunities for kindness and caring. Also, an attachment to practice and other virtuous habits can be beneficial on the path to spiritual growth. It is said that these beneficial attachments are like the boat that helps carry us to the other shore and must be abandoned upon arrival. The problem with attachment arises when we think our ultimate happiness comes from possessions or external conditions. Can I be happy, whole and complete when my objects of attachment transform or no longer serve me?

There is no fear for one whose mind is not filled with desires. – Dhammapada, Verse 39

It generally isn’t helpful to try to “get rid of” attachments by suppressing or denying them. Rather, we can begin to notice them and attend to them non-judgmentally. When pleasant sensations arise, can we enjoy them without grasping after them? Might we allow phenomena, whether pleasant or unpleasant, to come and go from awareness freely, without any straining or constriction? What do we discover when we notice and sit with urges to grasp and cling? Is there a deeper longing underneath the immediate sense of want? Can we be aware of desires without our happiness depending upon their fulfillment?

One of the antidotes to attachment is generosity – selfless giving, without attachment to outcome. When we give something away, it is an act of letting go of “I”, “me”, and “mine”. This allows us to face the fears that often underly our acquisitiveness and gain the courage to rely instead on our inner resources. Through generosity, we experience a joy that is more powerful and longer lasting than the transient pleasure we experience from acquiring possessions.

If we’re always looking for some object or person or thing to create a sense of completion for ourselves, we miss entirely the degree to which we are whole and are complete in every moment. We practice seeing through our attachments to free the mind from the forces of clinging so we can access a more essential and sustainable feeling of happiness. When this practice is genuine we realize that all of the spaciousness and peace we crave can be found within ourselves. – Sharon Salzberg, The Irony of Attachment

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