Attachment is the root of all suffering–you likely have heard this statement before. When I was younger, this phrase confused me. I would think about what I was attached to: my family, my home, my collection of shoes I never wore. Did letting go of attachments mean I had to let go of these things and become an emotionless robot? Should I give away all possessions, say good bye to my loved ones and walk the earth in a potato sack and a walking stick? I’d think, “I like the things and people I’m attached to, what’s wrong with that?” This concept needs refinement for most of us who grew up in a capitalist society in which the the acquisition of things and achievements is glorified.
What is attachment?
Before I dive too deeply into this concept, I must first define what I mean by attachment. The one constant in the universe is change. Becoming attached means clinging to something often past its relevance with the mistaken idea that this thing defines us and will bring happiness. In doing so, we are seeking happiness outside the self where it is not and are also resisting progressive change. Whenever this happens, we are going against the forces of nature and suffering always follows. We can form attachments to almost anything: objects, people, occupations, self-concepts, patterns of behavior (even negative patterns we know we don’t like about ourselves), specific timings, and specific outcomes (especially specific outcomes).
Can I still enjoy life?
Letting go of attachment does not mean you have to become a grumpy monk. Not only is enjoyment part of the enlightened life, it is a defining characteristic. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi once said, “We have an infinite number of reasons to be happy and a serious responsibility not to be serious.” Things, people, events come into our lives and are relevant for a time and during that time are to be enjoyed. Do these things define who we are? No. Are we dependent on them for happiness? No. It is when we think we need something to be happy and then cling to that thing long after its shelf life that we develop unhealthy attachments. But we can find infinite joy in ourselves and in the now.
What about renouncing all material things?
As Madonna points out, we live in a material world and therefore material elements will often have relevance to our lives. It is not necessarily your dharma, your purpose in life, to renounce all material possessions so long as those possessions do not possess you. The key is to learn to let go of what is no longer relevant. When we lead with creation in our lives, nature comes in and supports us. Anything that is not relevant to that creation, to our evolution, is baggage. Whether that baggage is years of old clothing stored in a closet or years of old stresses stored in our tissues, it is holding you back. It is also beckoning destruction as all things that stagnate do.
Isn’t the outside world just illusion or “maya”?
The Vedas describe the universe and human experience as an interplay of Purusha (the eternal, unchanging reality) and Prakṛti (the temporary, changing material reality).There are some who feel that all this manifest creation of Prakrti is illusion or “maya” and therefore not worth anything. That it is only the inner experience of Purusha that is true and therefore of value. To that I say, what is the universe doing? What is it interested in? All it’s doing at all times is manifesting in order for the beauty of its elaboration be witnessed, recognized and appreciated. True, to go through life only realizing the surface nature of things leads to suffering. But to possess both empirical knowledge and spiritual knowledge and see the outside world as well as the hidden principles behind it at work is to behold and enjoy the full spectrum of creation.
Attachment vs. Love
When become attached to someone, we make the mistake that the person and our relationship to them defines who we are, that it is the source of our happiness and therefore cannot change. When we are attached, we don’t think in terms of what is best for the person we are with but in terms of how that person fills our needs. With attachment, the relationship must be preserved even if it is no longer serving you or your partner as to let it go would cut you off from your happiness and shake your self-concept. Love is seeing your Self in another, seeing the divine or the oneness of all things, in another. It is a unity experience in which you share in each others’ happiness but are not looking to the other for fulfillment. And if the relationship is no longer relevant, you part amicably and genuinely wish the other well.
How to let go of attachment
Attachments exist in our mind and therefore it is in our mind we must address them. First, it is important to recognize where we have attachments. Sit in your most basic form of awareness and scan your life for areas that feel like they are not flowing. Then, start removing what is obviously irrelevant be they things, patterns of behavior, commitments. As you start the process, space will open up and you’ll uncover more and more of what needs to go and get braver about letting go of stickier attachments. And don’t throw out the spiritual baby with the bath water. You may have an attachment to a person, but that doesn’t mean there’s not love and value underneath. Just the style of relating needs to evolve into something else. By meditating, we gain access to our fine level of feeling which alerts us to what is relevant and what is not. It also gives us the experience of finding happiness within so we can more easily let go of the mistaken idea that our happiness is found outside the self which leads to attachment.
So it turns out we don’t need to let go of our families or our homes and become emotionless robots after all. The people in our lives, the places we live and the things we own that are relevant to us can only help our evolution and therefore our experience of a joyful and purposeful life. The closet of never worn shoes, however, may have to go.
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The girls have a bit of an attachment issue when it comes to their toys.