Saturday, April 27, 2013

Attachment and Detachment

Today is Saturday, April 27, 2013.

One definition of attachment is a feeling that binds one person to another.  When a baby is born, a natural attachment is formed between the parents and the child.  This attachment on the part of the parents serves to ensure that the parents will take care of the child's needs.  Attachment on the part of the child to the parents ensures that the child will pay attention to them and obey them.  (There's nothing like wanting to please someone you love to enforce obedience.)   When this natural attachment does not develop, we know that something is wrong. But even when the parent-child bond develops as it should, there is a point where the bond gradually weakens.  The love remains, but the attachment gradually dissolves as children mature into adulthood. 

As we grow and mature, we form other attachments.  We attach ourselves to people, organizations, places, social status, money, and our beliefs and opinions.  A little attachment is a good thing; otherwise we would go through life without entering into any relationships or interactions, and our time here in human existence would be wasted.  Excessive attachment, on the other hand, is problematic.  One of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is: The origin of suffering is attachment.

It's important to make a distinction between attachment and love.  It's one thing to love a person and enjoy their company, or to love a thing such as a certain food and enjoy the taste of it.  We enjoy the sensation of togetherness with a loved one, and the pleasure of shared experience.  We enjoy the taste of the food and perhaps also the surroundings in which we partake of the food.  We love the person, we love the food; there is nothing wrong with this.  In a normal situation, we love the person no matter where he or she is, whether the person is physically with us or not.   We love the food whether we have it every day or not.  In fact, our pleasure generally increases if we don't have it every day.

Attachment, in the spiritual sense, is a feeling that we cannot live without the person or thing that we are attached to.  What underlies this feeling is fear: fear of abandonment, fear of rejection, fear of loss of control, fear of death, and fear of uncertainty.  This is why the Buddhists say that attachment causes suffering.  Meditation and spiritual practice help us to achieve a state of non-attachment, because we realize that we as Soul are eternal and immortal, that we are always connected to God, the Source of all life, that we are unconditionally loved by God, and that God is always looking out for our best interests, whether we realize it or not.  When we come to these realizations, our fear of abandonment, rejection, loss of control, death and uncertainty vanish, and we are free to enjoy life in whatever situation we find ourselves.

Many of us have had the uncomfortable experience of being more attracted to or in love with someone than they are attracted to or in love with us.  Sometimes what we are really attached to is an ideal of romantic love, especially when we are young.  If we refuse to see the situation for what it is, we try to hang onto the person, and our needy behavior ends up driving the person away.  Once the person is gone, we feel rejected and unlovable, and our self-confidence takes a nose-dive.  Sometimes this experience makes it hard for us to move into other relationships.  We remember how hurt we felt when the person left us, and we begin to build walls around ourselves, making it even harder to open ourselves up to a fulfilling relationship.  Instead of realizing that we are keeping other people at bay, we decide that we must be unlovable and maybe we don't even deserve to have a relationship, anyway.  If someone does come into our lives with whom we might have a connection, we push them away.   What a recipe for misery!

When someone whom we love very much dies, we are in a state of grief, which is a natural process.  But at some point, even though we never stop missing the one who left us, we realize that life does go on, and that we will have to re-construct our lives without our beloved.  When we have been excessively attached to the person who died, we feel that we can no longer function without them in our lives, and our fear of abandonment is triggered.  Undue attachment leads to depression, bitterness and anger toward the one who has abandoned us.

Attachment to money, power and status also create misery in our lives when we succumb to the illusion that these things are necessary for our happiness.  These forms of attachment work just like addiction to cigarettes, drugs or alcohol, or overindulgence in food or sex. It is the illusion that something outside of ourselves can make us happy.  The more we get, the less satisfied we are, because we fear some future time when these things will be taken away from us.  Wanting something comes from a perceived lack, a feeling of emptiness and loss.

Going back to the parent-child attachment, there are several instances where normal attachment becomes abnormal.  Parents who wish to control their children's lives, especially after they reach adulthood, are reacting to underlying abandonment issues.  The result is unhappiness for all.  The adult children sometimes feel that they can never measure up to an unwritten standard that their parents have set.  Or the adult children's marriages suffer because one or both parents insists that they demonstrate loyalty to the parents instead of to the spouse.

Most of us are unaware of how attached we are to our beliefs and opinions, until someone else expresses a contrary opinion or behaves in a way that violates a taboo.  Attachment to opinions plays itself out over and over in American life, every time we hold an election, but especially during a presidential race.  Conservatives and liberals alike express their opinions at meetings and social events, in the media, and online.  Everyone seems to think that if they just explain their thoughts well enough, everyone who holds an opposite view will see the error of their ways.   Nothing could be further from the truth, because we are all attached to our own opinions and unwilling to give them up.  Underlying both conservative and liberal political platforms are all kinds of fears about what might happen if the other side gets control.   After each election, those om the winning side flaunt their superiority and lambaste the opposition for setting roadblocks and obstacles to the successful completion of their initiatives.  Meanwhile, those in opposition wallow in bitterness and blame those in power for every imaginable problem.  Holding elections every two years ensures that Americans never quite get over their self-inflicted misery.

Politics isn't the only area where our attachments to our beliefs and opinions makes us miserable.  Those on the liberal and conservative side of the economic debate also operate from deep-seated fears of what might happen if the other side gets too much control.   The same could be said for adherents of established religions who fear that those of another faith are out to destroy them.  The Egyptians made slaves of the Jews.  Christians killed Jews en masse during the Inquisition and during World War Two.  Eastern Orthodox Greek Cypriots and Muslim Turkish Cypriots have fought many times. Christians went to war with Muslims during the Crusades.  Muslims attacked the World Trade Center buildings in New York on 9/11.  It goes on and on and on.  Truly, our attachments are the root of our misery.  :-/

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