To Leave Behind One’s Homeland: The Practice of Retreat

IMG_0291Going on retreat is an important practice in many spiritual paths. Leaving home takes us away from the distractions of our attachments – family, friends, pets, and property that demand our constant care. In addition, going someplace new and relatively unknown disrupts our habitual patterns – there is no answering of cell phones, replying to email, interacting on social media, binge-watching TV programs, or browsing the internet. Silent retreats free us from the need for the social niceties that take up so much of our energy and focus. All of this allows us an opportunity to direct attention more exclusively to practice.

Retreats can be teacher-led or self-directed. Teacher-led retreats offer guidance and support. Specific topics are explored and the teacher is available to answer questions. Self-directed retreats require more experience and discipline from practitioners, but allow the freedom to follow one’s inner knowing of what will be useful. Retreats can be residential where participants stay onsite, or they can be “householder” style where they go home at night to sleep. Retreat centers tend to be away from the fray with beautiful grounds for mindful walking and solitary exploration in a natural setting.

ChapinMillAccomodationsThe accommodations at most retreat centers tend to be basic, but adequate and facilities are often closely shared with others. The food is healthy and usually vegan or vegetarian. At some centers, the cooks take great care in preparing home-grown, organic ingredients and serve their culinary creations with love and respect. The schedule for insight meditation or mindfulness retreats tends to be very similar everywhere you go. Retreat participants are guided through alternating periods of sitting meditation and mindful walking from early in the morning to late at night with breaks for meals.

The length of a retreat can range from a half day to a week, several months, or even years. Serious mindfulness practitioners are encouraged to take at least one 5-10 day, silent, residential, teacher led retreat every year. The longer and more frequent period of meditation allows for a depth of practice that is hard to achieve at home with the demands of daily life. Many practitioners find it is useful to start with a shorter retreat period and work their way up to a longer retreat.

BridgeChapinMillSome people feel reluctant to leave their loved ones for any significant period of time, but the calm, balance, compassion and wisdom cultivated by a devoted mindfulness practice may be one of the most valuable gifts you can offer your relationships. Some people worry about the expense involved, but there are so many types of retreats to choose from these days, including some that are entirely donation based, so a little research will likely uncover one you can afford.

The practice of all the bodhisattvas (enlightened, compassionate ones) is to leave behind one’s homeland,
Where our attachment to family and friends overwhelms us like a torrent,
While our aversion towards enemies rages inside us like a blazing fire,
And delusion’s darkness obscures what must be adopted and abandoned.

– Gyalse Tokme Zangpo, The Thirty-Seven Practices of All the Bodhisattvas

Serving with Wise Compassion

The love stoneIn the mindfulness and yoga community we are fortunate to have so many wonderful, loving, and giving practitioners. I have benefitted greatly from the guidance of more caring and talented teachers/mentors here in Kansas City than I can count on both hands. Much gratitude to them all!

We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world is when we live with these truths. – Desmond Tutu

The heartfelt desire of most mindfulness practitioners, caregivers, coaches, teachers and educators is to alleviate suffering.  This is called compassion and it gives great meaning to our work. However, many of us do not get the kind of training needed to work with the most vulnerable people who are drawn to the practices. These include those who:

  • are suffering so intensely that they need more than we alone can provide, – or –
  • lack the insight required to prevent harm to self and/or others.

In these cases, our beneficent intentions may not be enough. Although we may feel a strong desire to help, uninformed or misguided action can actually make things worse in the long run. Our attachment to our identity as helpers and healers can override reason. Kind-hearted souls may end up doing inadvertent damage. It can be quite complicated.

My experience as a psychologist has shown me that not all caring, well-intentioned as it may be, is skillful. Benefiting others does not always mean giving someone immediate satisfaction. We are taught to believe that if someone is unhappy with us, we have done something wrong. We forget that one’s thoughts and feelings are more reflective of one’s inner experience than external conditions – and we can’t fully know someone else’s inner experience.

In the yoga community we endeavor to maintain a healing energy in the studio and in our minds, so we sometimes avoid confronting harmful behavior and setting boundaries. In meditation circles, we often practice non-reactivity and acceptance, so we may let harmful phenomena wash over us. We try to embody right speech and ahimsa, so we are careful not to “gossip” about others. We are giving, so we patiently listen, holding space again and again.

These are usually quite useful practices and qualities, but if taken too far, they can discourage us from speaking up when something seems wrong. A pattern of damaging behavior can be allowed to escalate. We may inadvertently enable, through reinforcing with loving attention, behaviors and qualities that should not be encouraged. By the time we realize we are really in a pickle, the situation is much worse than it ever needed to be. In the long run, this causes more suffering for everyone involved.

One of the most wonderful things about yoga and mindfulness communities is they tend to be inclusive and welcoming of differences. This creates a powerful sense of safety and belonging, and brings a richness to the practices. However, we also have to realize that a rare few people are on the “fringes” because their chronically harmful or abusive behavior alienates others. When this becomes apparent we must practice wise compassion so we don’t inadvertently support the proliferation of suffering.

Sometimes taking a step back, consulting with others, or setting a boundary is the most compassionate course of action.

Wise compassion can be firm and even fierce, but it is never angry. In both yoga and Buddhism we have the imagery of the spiritual warrior, understanding that love can be a powerful force for transformation. It takes courage and determination to set and maintain a boundary or to sit unwavering in the burning heat of another’s disapproval. Remember that setting a limit does not mean closing your heart. It means seeing the bigger picture and allowing your intention to help outweigh your desire to be comfortable.

…forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed? – bell hooks

The Four Loves: Lovingkindness

Field with dandelions and blue skyOne of the four loves or sublime attitudes in Buddhism is lovingkindness or metta. It involves the understanding that all sentient beings (capable of thinking and feeling), including ourselves, desire happiness and wish to be free from suffering. It also involves an attitude of friendliness and well-wishing toward all beings, including ourselves.

When we cultivate lovingkindness we are able to see our fundamental interconnection – that all beings are united by a common desire for fulfillment and freedom from misery. This understanding cuts through differences and allows us to see others as interchangeable with ourselves.

Lovingkindness provides the basis for two of the other loves, compassion and appreciative joy. Encountering the suffering of another with an attitude of solidarity and open-heartedness, we experience a spontaneous desire to alleviate that suffering. This is compassion. Likewise, seeing others as interchangeable with ourselves and witnessing the success of another, vicarious happiness naturally arises. This is appreciative joy.

Practicing lovingkindness meditation (LKM) is one way to cultivate this beneficial attitude. Research has shown that LKM is correlated with relaxation, feelings of social connection, increased empathy, compassion and positive emotions, decreased negative emotions and bias, improvements in migraines, chronic pain, PTS symptoms, and the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, increases in gray matter volume in the brain, and longer telomeres (indicator of decreased aging in chromosomes). Some degree of positive impact can be measured immediately, even in small doses, and the effects seem to persist over the longer term.

For one who mindfully develops
Boundless loving-kindness
Seeing the destruction of clinging,
The fetters are worn away.

– Itivuttaka: The Group of Ones

If you would like to try LKM, please enjoy this guided practice from the University of New Hampshire:

Happy, at rest,
may all beings be happy at heart.
Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
long, large,
middling, short,
subtle, blatant,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.

Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.

With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, & all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.
Whether standing, walking,
sitting, or lying down,
as long as one is alert,
one should be resolved on this mindfulness.
This is called a sublime abiding
here & now.

– Karaniya Metta Sutta: Good Will

The Four Loves: Appreciative Joy

beautiful sunset on the beachOne of the four loves or sublime attitudes in Buddhism is appreciative joy, sometimes also called sympathetic or empathetic joy. It is the vicarious experience of taking pleasure in the true happiness of others and its causes, free from attachment and self-interest. We experience appreciative joy when we delight in some else’s  well-being regardless of our own situation.

I declare that the heart’s release by sympathetic joy has the sphere of infinite consciousness for its excellence. – Metta Sutta: Goodwill

This attitude naturally arises when we are clear-minded and present – not caught up in attachments, aversions or afflictive emotions. Most of us have experienced appreciative joy when we’ve observed an innocent child, puppy, or kitten happy at play or witnessed an act of kindness. It is more difficult; however,  when other people succeed where we have not or when they receive things we want. It can also be difficult to appreciate another’s happiness when, by comparison, we feel they are undeserving. There is certain amount of fearlessness and courage that is required in order to rejoice in others’ happiness, because we have to let go of the worry that there may not be enough happiness left over for us.

When we explore the beneficial mental states, it can be useful to also understand their near and far enemies. These are detrimental mental states that undermine their beneficial counterparts. Near enemies tend to be subtle because they appear similar to the beneficial mental state on the surface, and it is only upon closer inspection that we discover they are not. Near enemies often involve comparison (especially self-referencing) and elements of insincerity or even hypocrisy. The near enemies of appreciative joy are:

  • Exhilaration – feeling exuberant about another’s happiness insomuch as it pacifies our own sense of lack.
  • Pride – appreciating others’ happiness merely in how it reflects upon us.

Far enemies are more obvious because they are mental states that are directly opposed to the original. The far enemies of appreciative joy are:

  • Jealousy – the fear that others will take what we perceive as ours.
  • Envy – the resent-filled desire for what others have.
  • Greed – wanting ever more than is needed.

We can cultivate appreciative joy by meditating first on the happiness or success of a friend or loved one. We practice this until we are able to experience genuine feelings of joy and appreciation for the benefits of what they have received or accomplished. Then we gradually move, step by step, to neutral acquaintances, strangers, enemies, and eventually all beings everywhere. Here is a guided sympathetic joy (mudita) meditation with Joseph Goldstein:

…abandoning the five hindrances, the corruptions of awareness that weaken discernment — keep pervading the first direction [the east] with an awareness imbued with good will, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth. Thus above, below, & all around, everywhere, in its entirety, keep pervading the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, without hostility, without ill will. – Metta Sutta: Goodwill

A Middle Way: The Eightfold Path

lifesizebuddhafilteredMost spiritual journeys provide a path – a road map of sorts to help seekers find their way. Yoga has an eight limbed approach, called Ashtanga. Christian faiths offer a path to salvation. The eightfold path of Buddhism charts a middle way of being, between extreme austerity and sensual indulgence, that leads to liberation from suffering. The middle way also indicates a place between eternalism and nihilism – a departure from the artificial separation of dualism.

The Buddhist eightfold path can provide a scaffolding within which we can more confidently experiment, both in formal practice and in daily life, with new ways of being  in the world and relating to ourselves, others, and experience. In this way we can directly observe for ourselves the benefits of the practices. Click the links below to learn more about each step on the path (a work in progress):

Insight & Wisdom:

  • Right View – Understanding, seeing things clearly (causes & conditions, impermanence, suffering & its cessation, emptiness)
  • Right Thought – Beneficent attitude and wholesome intentions

Ethical Behavior:


  • Right Effort – Diligence, training the mind so as not to remain in ignorance or arouse unhelpful mental states (attachment, aversion, afflictive emotions)
  • Right Mindfulness – Awareness, vigilance, & presence (nonjudgmental openness to and awareness of phenomena as it arises)
  • Right Concentration – Focused attention & absorption (leads to samadhi or unification of mind, subject and object)

Love yourself and watch —
Today, tomorrow, always.

First establish yourself in the way,
Then teach,
And so defeat sorrow.

To straighten the crooked
You must first do a harder thing —
Straighten yourself.

You are your only master.
Who else?
Subdue yourself,
And discover your master.

– Dhammapada

Obstacles to Mindfulness Meditation

One woman with her eyes closedMindfulness meditation is a useful practice that, with consistency over time, can bring a number of benefits including more openness to experience, greater peace, and enhanced wellbeing. Although the practice is simple in concept, it can be challenging in execution due to a number of habits and human tendencies that can create obstacles for us.

According to the Mahayana schools of Buddhism and modern day insight meditation teachings, there are five main hinderances to meditation. We all experience them to some degree and there are ways to work with them, so they should not be viewed as personal failings. Not only do these obstacles interfere with meditation, but they also impact how we go about our daily lives. They include:

  • Sensory Desire  – getting caught up in attachment by seeking happiness through the senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling).
  • Ill-Will – getting caught up in aversion through rejecting or feeling hostility, resentment, bitterness, or hatred toward experiences, ourselves, or others.
  • Dullness (Sloth, Torpor) –  an experience of heaviness, inertia, drowsiness, or spacing out.
  • Restlessness or Worry – an experience of excitability, disquietude, distractibility,  agitation, or remorse.
  • Doubt – a lack of conviction or trust in the experience or process – a sense of discouragement.

All of these obstacles involve getting “hooked” by phenomena. Rather than sitting on the shore of experience, observing phenomena (i.e. thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and urges to action) passing through awareness like leaves on a stream, we dive in after them. While we are swimming in the stream of our thoughts, we are no longer practicing mindfulness. If we instead notice that this has happened and pull ourselves back up onto the bank to observe, we are practicing mindfulness. The more times we bring ourselves back onto the shore, the less easily we become hooked.

When we inevitably encounter these obstacles in practice, the tendency may be to despair and give up. It would be a shame to do so because these difficulties are expected and workable. Instead, we can practice noticing them as they arise, accepting them without judgment, making them the object of meditation for curious investigation, and either; 1) let them be until they inevitably change or disappear, or 2) apply an antidote.

1) Let Go & Let Be

All phenomena are impermanent – even the obstacles to meditation. In being mindful of and non-reactive to the experiences that arise during meditation, we are training our minds to meet the difficulties of everyday living with greater equanimity. To aid in this process, it may be useful to bring to mind the acronym RAIN from the insight meditation tradition:

  • R: Recognize the experience.
  • A: Accept that it is here.
  • I: Investigate it with curiosity and non-judgment.
  • N: Non-identification – View experience as impersonal and temporary.

2) Apply the Antidote

Sometimes it makes sense to take action to directly address obstacles to practice. In this case, we can apply an “antidote” to counteract the habits and conditioning that chronically interrupt meditation. Keep in mind that most of us tend to be professional doers, so practicing calm abiding (letting be) is probably the best approach to start with. If we have been using RAIN to no avail and the same hinderances keep consistently coming up, this may be the time to apply an antidote.

The antidote to sensory desire is contemplation of impermanence. This practice reminds us that all things that bring sense pleasure are temporary and eventually cause suffering when grasped at or clung to. The senses habituate or the phenomenon changes and we wind up feeling dissatisfied and disappointed.

The antidote to ill-will is lovingkindness, which teaches us to embrace ourselves, others, and the objects of meditation with caring attention. In the practice of lovingkindness, we cultivate feelings of friendliness and goodwill in stages toward ourselves, others, and the universe. The doors of our hearts open and we find ourselves feeling less bothered and irritated by all manner of things.

The antidotes to dullness and restlessness will often depend upon their root causes. In the first case we need to add energy and in the second case we need to pacify the body and/or mind. Our practice can be re-energized by taking a beginner’s mind and revisiting the intentions behind our actions. Can we see each formal practice session as new and an opportunity for learning? Can we recall our deepest heartfelt reasons for getting on the cushion in the first place? If the body is restless, we can switch to a moving form of meditation such as mindful walking or yoga.

If the mind needs pacifying we can practice santosha (contentment) and finding gratitude for what is here in this moment. The mind can also be calmed by bringing attention back, again and again, from the external to the internal, no matter how many times it takes. Each time we do so, we strengthen the mental “muscles” of attention and concentration. Finally, if the mind is restless due to regret or remorse, one may choose to make amends – to purify the perceived misdeeds.

There might be a really good cause for you to be restless… Maybe you haven’t paid your taxes in ten years… [In this case] you don’t need meditation, you need to pay your taxes. You don’t use meditation to run away from the real issues of your life. – Gil Frondsal

The antidote to doubt is trust. It is very common to find ourselves asking, “Am I doing this right?” or “What good is this anyway?” instead of practicing meditation. This is not to say that we should never ask ourselves these questions – it is only through questioning and experimenting that we discover “truth” for ourselves. Rather, formal meditation practice is not the best time to be asking these sorts of questions, because the spirit in which we engage in practice is also important to our development. Having a good teacher as well as a clear “road map” to guide you can be quite helpful in gaining confidence and staying the course.

Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue. – Buddha

The Four Loves

romantic love in holidayThere is a beautiful teaching in Buddhism about the brahmaviharas or sublime states. They are also sometimes called the four immeasurables or divine abidings. They include: 1) lovingkindness, 2) compassion, 3) appreciative joy, and 4) equanimity. Cultivating the brahmaviharas guides our behavior and helps purify our minds of the afflictive emotions that obscure reality, hinder spiritual growth, and cause suffering.

There is a similar concept in yoga as well:

In relationships, the mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, goodwill towards those who are virtuous, and equanimity towards those we perceive as wicked or evil. – Yoga Sutra 1.33

Both Buddhism and yoga offer practices to help us cultivate these virtuous qualities for the benefit of all beings.

  • Lovingkindness (metta in Pali) is friendliness and well-wishing – an attitude of benevolence toward self and others.
  • Compassion is the acknowledgement of suffering and the desire to alleviate it.
  • Appreciative joy is the willingness to celebrate beneficial qualities and circumstances wherever they arise, without jealousy or ill-will.
  • Equanimity is an internal state  of balance and calm regardless of external circumstances.

The first step to cultivating the bramaviharas is to develop the attitudinal factors and states of mind that support them. Strengthening concentration through meditation and behaving more ethically (ie. the yamas & niyamas of yoga) in daily life are a great way to start. This will build a firm foundation upon which authentic love can take solid root.

We can also engage in specific practices, such as setting a compassionate intention and dedicating the benefits of each formal practice session to all beings, engaging in lovingkindness (metta) or giving and taking (tonglen) meditation, and noticing and abiding with the brahmaviharas directly in daily life when they present themselves. With dedication over a long period of time, we may begin to discover that love arises spontaneously, with fewer and fewer limits, radiating out and sending beneficial ripple effects far and wide.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all beings never be separated from the ultimate happiness that knows no suffering.
May all beings abide in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.

– The Four Immeasurables (Buddhist prayer)

Impermanence: Nothing Can Stay

GoodbyeMyFriendNothing endures but change.” ― Heraclitus

One of the marks (or basic facts) of existence in Buddhism is impermanence. This is the observation that everything compounded or conditioned that comes into being is subject to transformation and decay – everything worldly changes or ends. Unawareness of impermanence is considered a type of ignorance in yoga philiosophy.

Ignorance is of four types: 1) regarding that which is transient as eternal, 2) mistaking the impure for pure, 3) thinking that which brings misery to bring happiness, and 4) taking that which is not-self to be self. – Yoga Sutra 2.5

Compounded phenomena are made up of parts. Can you think of anything in this world that isn’t made up of parts?  We used to think the atom was the fundamental building block of matter until we discovered subatomic particles and then eventually quantum scale particles. We keep thinking we’ve found the smallest building blocks and then when find something even smaller.

Conditioned phenomena are dependent upon something else for coming into being. For example, language is a conditioned phenomenon because it needs a human being to think and speak it. Can you come up with anything in this world that isn’t caused by something else – anything that just is, in and of itself, arising entirely independently?

What we view as discrete things might be more accurately conceptualized as interdependent and dynamic processes continually changing and evolving. A common image that helps illustrate this concept is that of waves in the ocean. Waves are not separate from the larger body of water. Spawned through contact with wind and water, they continually arise, transform, and dissolve back into the ocean.

The decisively characteristic thing about this world is its transience. In this sense, centuries have no advantage over the present moment. Thus the continuity of transience cannot give any consolation; the fact that life blossoms among ruins proves not so much the tenacity of life as that of death. — Franz Kafka

Since most everything we experience in this world is impermanent, even our own bodies, thoughts, feelings and perceptions, nothing worldly can bring us lasting happiness. Our suffering increases the more we try to hold onto the things we desire. Believing that we can keep anything forever sets us up for false hopes and unreasonable expectations, because everything we hold dear runs like sand through our fingers eventually.

If all phenomena are impermanent, does anything we think, do, or experience really matter? My understanding is that these things do matter, just not in the way we usually think about it. We tend to think about experience personally in terms of “I”, “me” and “mine”. We ask ourselves, “How does this affect me?” or “What does this have to do with me?” or “What does this mean about me?” This is how we measure value, but we fail to realize that nothing is personal.

In this case, returning to the ocean analogy can be helpful. Just as it is not particularly useful to try to isolate each drop of water within the ocean, we can view our thoughts and actions as part of a greater whole – part of the stream of causes and conditions. Understanding impermanence helps us to let go and let be when it makes sense to do so. If we can learn to be present in the moment without grasping and clinging, we can appreciate what is here now and respond more skillfully, minimizing our part in the perpetuation of suffering.

Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.  ― W. Somerset Maugham

Roots of Suffering: Ignorance

SunriseDowntown3_17The word ignorance has a very negative connotation, but it really is just a state of unawareness – of not knowing. This can arise from a lack of experience, confusion, or even from deluded thinking. The problem is that ignorance, especially in the presence of afflictive emotions, often leads to unwise action, which causes suffering for ourselves and others.

There is some interesting research showing that the less we know the more confident we are and vice versa. In our ignorance, we don’t even know enough to recognize our own incompetence – we fail to see our unskillfulness. We even have a name for this; the Dunning–Kruger Effect.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge… – Charles Darwin

Human beings tend to misperceive the true nature of things, including ourselves. We layer stories, expectations, and assumptions on top of our perceptions in order to explain them and fit them into a coherent whole. This includes ourselves and the world around us. We find ourselves grasping at and clinging to things that support our story and ignoring, pushing away, or fighting against things that do not. This creates further confusion, unwise reacting, and suffering.

In addition, we fail to see the impermanence of all things. We live as though our identities, relationships and possessions will go on and on, forever. We try to hold onto things that we think will bring us happiness. We think that if we can possess and keep them, we will be okay, end of story. When things inevitably change, this causes disappointment and dissatisfaction. So, in our ignorance, we go searching outside of ourselves for ever more.

Finally, we fail to recognize the causes and conditions that come together to create and perpetuate suffering. In keeping with the Dunning-Kruger Effect, we don’t know enough to be aware of our own role in this harmful cycle. We think that everything good or bad comes from the outside. Because we don’t realize mind is both cause and condition, we don’t look inward and we don’t consider a new approach. Even if we did, we’d have no idea where to start.

Ignorance is of four types: 1) regarding that which is transient as eternal, 2) mistaking the impure for pure, 3) thinking that which brings misery to bring happiness, and 4) taking that which is not-self to be self. – Yoga Sutra 2.5

Since ignorance has its origins in the mind, this is where we need to turn for its antidote. We must get still and quiet long enough to look deeply inside ourselves. We learn to do this through a consistent meditation practice. Meditation becomes a controlled laboratory in which we can observe patterns and habits with less distraction. We also have to be willing to be with all that arises – even the experiences that bring us discomfort – observing with curiosity and resisting the urge to immediately react. If we bring a beginner’s mind and suspend judgment, we can gain some objectivity about what we observe. With patience and diligence we may begin to develop insight, clearing away the obscurations that keep us in ignorance so that we can respond with greater wisdom.

Understand the suffering of worldly existence.
Abandon its causes of ignorance and selfishness.
Practice the path of meditation and compassion.
Awaken from suffering within Great Peace.
– Gautama Buddha

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