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January 13, 2008


I'm no expert in Hinduism (as my summer professor at McGill would have attested). However, my sense is that the Hindi would say, simply, that we are not in control of these things. We are attached until a god acts. So in the mean time we spin prayer wheels. I, for one, had a blessed four years of utter material simplicity, mais une semaine chaque mois. In the end, though, I found that I was still attached - especially to simplicity. In the further end, there seems to be no answer to this question. So, our choice is either to keep walking, or to sit still. Or both. :)

edit previous: "spin prayer wheels and tell, or alter, stories."

By way of response, can I share one of my favourite quotes? It's from EM Forster's Howards End:

"The business man who assumes that this life is everything, and the mystic who asserts that it is nothing, fail, on this side and on that, to hit the truth. "Yes, I see, dear; it's about halfway between," Aunt Juley had hazarded in earlier years. No; truth, being alive, was not halfway between anything. It was only to be found by continuous excursions into either realm, and though proportion is the final secret, to espouse it at the outset is to ensure sterility."

One the most lightning-strike explanations of the Buddhist idea of non-attachment I've come across came from Joseph Goldstein, who explained it thus during a dharma talk.

He picked up his bunch of house/car keys and put them in the palm of his hand.
"Clinging hurts", he said, clenching his fist around the spiky keys, painfully. "We all know that. But what we worry is that letting go is going to end up like this..."
He turned his fist downwards and opened it. The keys clattered noisily to the floor.
"We end up losing the things we love."
He picked the keys up again and closed them in his fist, as before.
"But non-attachment, is not letting drop. It's more like this..."
He opened his fist again, but this time palm upwards, letting the keys lie there, open for inspection in his hand.
"Letting go is not letting drop, but opening the fist so we can see the thing for the first time."

This is the magical halfway house between the two options outlined by Nothomb. The Middle Way is neither one or the other. It opts out of the dichotomy of possession and rejection all together.

The quote above from Joseph Goldstein does it for me! We are but mortals who become attached to everything. It is the unattaching that matters.

We want to be able to be detached because attachment hurts. It hurts when people we love leave us and it hurts when we leave people we love and it hurts when things we are attached to are taken from us by chance or circumstance. So we think: if I become detached, I won't feel the pain, I'll be inoculated against pain. But to be human is painful. How we deal with all the slings and arrows that beset us and the others within our reach is surely a major part of how we get beyond selfishness and towards compassion. HG's quote of Goldstein is apt, it highlights the difference between posessiveness/clinging and attachment. The way I see attachment/love is passionate committment, whatever it is you are committed to. Is there passion without pain?

Alistair made the point I would have made, that the concept most books about Buddhism call "attachment" has always been described by the Zen teachers I know as "clinging." So when someone starts talking about how Buddhism teaches about non-attachment, I know they've probably read books about Buddhism rather than knowing/interacting with many Buddhists since all the Buddhists I know are deeply attached to their loved ones.

All things change, so if you cling to a particular notion of a person or relationship, you'll be disappointed when that changes, too. Imagine the turmoil a mother would go through if she rigidly clung to the notion of "baby" as her child grows and matures. A lot of the pain I see (and have experienced) in relationships happens because one or both partners isn't willing to allow the other person/relationship to grow. The spouse you're married to isn't the person you dated: people change. So can you remain faithful to the commitment of relationship in the face of inevitable change?

Buddhists believe in impermanence, but Buddhist monastics keep an incredibly consistent schedule. In the face of change (and in the face of one's own changing emotions), a Zen monk or nun (or a lay person living in a Zen center) keeps returning to the discipline of practice. This morning, you might not feel like going to practice, but you commit to go anyway. Today, the person sitting next to you might be different from the person sitting there yesterday, but you commit to practice anyway. I think this "commit to do it anyway" aspect of Zen practice is what sustains long-term relationships, Buddhist or otherwise. You and your spouse will change over the course of your marriage, and so will your relationship...but you commit to love one another anyway. It's not that you "aren't attached" to your spouse; instead, you make a conscious attempt not to cling to who your spouse was (or what your relationship was) in the past. In the absence of clinging, growth & evolution is possible. Sometimes we like the changes our partners & relationships go through, and sometimes we don't...but we commit to keep loving them anyway.

A little off track but I was thinking a few weeks ago that American jazz and Blues would likely not have arisen without the horrible institution of slavery. (Probably not an original thought, but one that seemed original to me.)But if we could change the past most of us progressives would eliminate slavery. Would we then be poorer in the forms our music takes?? Goodness doesn't aways come from pain, but sometimes it seems to.

Scott, yep, that's exactly the sort of pitfall Chogyam Trungpa pointed out in "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" - or, for that matter, didn't Teresa of Avila talk about it too? Traps everywhere, and always ones we didn't see when we began, because they get more subtle...

Hg: Thanks for the very good quote and the comment! I love what a wide range of quotes we're getting on this thread.

Alistair - great to see you here - (I was happy to read more about Holy Island on your blog) - and what a wonderful teaching from Goldstein - I agree, that's the best demonstration I've heard.

jzr: yes, attaching seems to be part of the human condition, and it puts us in a predicament...

Natalie and Pablo, you are both heading in a similar direction, in thinking about this topic in terms of art. I wonder if you'd go a bit further with it? Is there passion without pain? Do pain and suffering bring good things? Is that transformation part of what it is to be human?

Lorianne - thank you very much for this explanation. You and Alistair have clarified a point that I think a lot of people have big trouble with. Some of the problem, it seems, is simply the English language and the way we interpret common words. In more recent Buddhist books, do you see any shift toward "clinging" as opposed to " attachment"?

The old cliche 'Grief is the price we pay for love' was improved when I read in Salley Vickers' 'Mr Golightly's Holiday' rather 'Love is the price we pay for love'. It seems that we can stave off then pain that goes with love, but it will come in the end with loss in some form, or we can accept the pain as coexistent with love, and part of it. The other side of this though, is that by loving we experience and receive love, and we distance ourself from it to our cost.
Stories and quotes seem to be the best ways of exploring these difficult ideas. All of them here are wonderful.

Lovely post, and lovely comments! Speaking as a Buddhist, the critical, critical thing to remember about "attachment" in Buddhist discourse is that it is a technical term, and as such it doesn't have the same range of meaning as the English word. (Which is why Lorianne's people prefer "clinging," and mine prefer "grasping," for the English version of this term.) In English we use "attachment" as a synonym for love, and naturally, when people talk about giving up attachment, we think they're talking about giving up love, which would certainly be either cold or cowardly.

But Buddhist "attachment" refers only the greedy and compulsive components of love.

As Lorianne says, if you know actual Buddhists, as opposed to just knowing their books, you'll know that they're just as attached -- in the non-technical sense -- to their friends, families & lovers as anyone else. And they're not attempting to be any less so :-)

I tried to trackback from here where I posted a picture, but it appears not to have tracked. Or backed. Or whatever.

Anyway. Yes. My wise (good arborist but interestingly not a good parent) friend told me when I was pregnant that loving children was like looking after trees. They required a stake, which was the parent, and a tie, which was the love and care of the parent. However the tie had always to be lengthened so as not to throttle the growing sapling. Eventually of course the tie is not needed at all.

It strikes me that "attachment" works in the opposite direction, as it were. A form of throttling of the self by knotting around something too tight. An attempt to invest "self" in "other".

And, to labour the arborial metaphors, it can be akin to not seeing the wood for the trees. Wrapped constrictingly around the object of attachment one is unable to see its full beauty.

Ok, I'm off now. Must sweep some leaves :-)

Oh, and PS. As ever, simple to say. Very hard, and requiring sustained attention, to do.

The concept of renunciation comes up in Buddhism as it does in Christianity and other religions. We can choose to renounce the devil, or alcohol, or sex, or pork, or money, or all material possessions, or any attachment (clinging/grasping). But we only decide to give up something when we want to feel free from the trouble, the pain that such dependence brings us. If we don't feel pain, we don't seek detachment. EG: a millionaire who is very happy adding yet another yacht or Picasso or mansion to his collection is not motivated to become a monk. In this case, his passion is acquisition. The monk's passion might be God, or self-denial. What I'm trying to say is that we seem to place detachment on a higher moral plane, when it is not necessarily so. In art, as in many other areas of human activity, it is those who have suffered the most (ie: been the most 'attached') who have created the most.

Hmm. But, Natalie, I think de- or un-attaching is not the same as renunciation. That's the central point. I'm assuming it's theoretically possible to be a multi-millionaire and to practice non-attachment. Nor is it, per se, on a higher moral plain, I would venture. It's a technique for the relief of pain. As to the link with creativity, I'm not in a position to say, but it sounds like a very post/Romantic conception of the nature of creativity. There is more serenwebity in that Hg has an interesting post on just this area.

rr,good point. But I meant that the *desire* to be free from attachment, that which would propel a person to, say, be drawn to Buddhism, is more likely to come from someone who wants a technique for the relief of pain, than from a person who is totally involved with their attachment to whatever it is they're attached to. EG: an alcoholic in full flow, an avid stamp-collector, an obssessive painter, etc.etc. are not usually among those who seek non-attachment. Even if they can be considered unbalanced and perhaps unhappy, they and their 'attachment' are one. You're right about the Romantic concept of creativity and Hg's post on this is certainly relevant. I personally don't believe 'true' creativity has to come from suffering but on the other hand, a kind of attachment/identification/inhabiting, yes. If one ceases to believe in the reality of the self (and there are very good reasons to doubt its reality) then surely that urge to express the self, make a mark on the cave walls, becomes less urgent?

I think that Lorianne and Dale have already presented, and eloquently, the thoughts I had in response to your question. For me, the lessons in attachment came late in life, as for most of it I was always in the grip of that feeling. What I learned through life, with the help of a spiritual light aimed at its darker corners, was to let go of all the "becauses" and "ifs" in my relationships (well, as much as possible). That is I learned to (or am learning to) love without cause. Which means that my ego (to use a psychological term) is not invested in the attachment ... so there is nothing to lose -- or gain.

Of course the desire to be free of attachments comes from wanting to be free of pain. Where else would it come from? Who ever claimed otherwise? I'm tired of making myself and the people around me miserable. I'm not proud of that motivation, but I'm not ashamed of it either.

My understanding is that love is the ability to appreciate someone or something at deeper and deeper levels. Attachment is when the senses identify with an object of perception.
They would not be the same abstract constructs. Now it is time for lunch and then I have to do the dishes.

Dale and Rachel: I now see I must have come across as dismissive of the desire to be free of pain. Nay nay, that was not my intention! I think we all agree that love without "constricting, throttling the self or the other", "love without cause", without grasping or compulsion, and hence without the misery that all those negatives imply, is the destination to aim for, by whatever path we choose. I guess I was trying to move the discussion into an area that isn't so clear - ie what, if any, are the creative aspects of *not* being free from pain, *not* being un-attached? This is a difficult area because, as rr said, it leads to the outdated, Romantic view that equates creativity with a painful, tortured soul. Still, it's worth exploring this question.

I have a feeling we're in a terminological minefield, here :-) Sorry if I got snappish.

I don't anticipate ever being free from pain or un-attached, so the question is somewhat academic, for me. There have been times when I vaguely sense that my practice is better -- that I'm clinging less hard -- and times when I am pretty sure that it's worse, when I'm more carried away. I don't really see offhand any correlation between that fluctuation and how much creative work I do, or how good it is.

Of course, that's just one person, and a very indifferent practitioner at that. But I don't know how to go about gathering "objective" information about this. Certainly commonly accepted "great artists" don't seem to be particularly free of suffering, though they also don't seem to me, generally, to suffer particularly more than anyone else.

Obsessiveness can be good for art, and that's pretty close to pure suffering, from a Buddhist perspective. But "negative capability," which is very close to freedom from suffering, from the same perspective, is also good for art. Possibly the one factor decreases as the other increases, and the vector sum comes out about the same? I dunno :-)

I don't cling to keys. I cling to my hand.

If one ceases to believe in the reality of the self (and there are very good reasons to doubt its reality) then surely that urge to express the self, make a mark on the cave walls, becomes less urgent?

Somehow I don't think so. You can look at the history of Zen painting, calligraphy, etcetera on one hand, but viscerally, my experience has shown me this: the less I believe in (cling to) my sense of "self" as a separate and abiding entity, the more I can inhabit the world. The closer I come to the world. And creative power as I know it comes from nowhere but love of the world. Passion for the world. You do not lose yourself - you do not drop the keys. You only drop - slowly, and if you are lucky - some of the ideas you had about self.

Imagine art freed from fear. Freed from exhibitionism. Freed from ego. That is the art that can come from a self loosely-held, open, un-grasping. Suffering will come and go, will color the moment and the work, of course. Suffering will always come, and art can be a way to see it. The impulse towards graffiti I think will lessen if clinging is lessened, those marks on the cave wall that marvel at the world and its wonders, and its pain? Those are in no danger.

Thanks for so substantive a post, Beth, & what a stimulating debate it's inspired. I shall cherish both the Nothomb & the Goldstein quotes; they'll go straight into my small moleskine!

Very little to add. I'd simply observe that my understanding of issues love & attachment within the context of time only adopted meaning when I experienced a real mutuality of need. The symbiosis that characterises my relationship with my partner & my children gives my life as a non-believer all the meaning it needs to have. And my perception of its finity has me loving the more fiercely.

Love fiercely...in the face of certain death...yes. What else is there for us to do, really? I'm nearly 49 years old and I'm just beginning to love fiercely...while attempting to let be, lightly...

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.