BUDDHISM EMPHASIZES non-attachment as a
way of liberation. Non-attachment is a way to rid your life of
unnecessary unhappiness. It's a way to become happier. And it
Human beings get attached to ideas
ideas about who they are, what's the best way to live, ideas
about what other people should be like, and so on and
our attachment to those ideas causes most of our day-to-day suffering.
It really does. I know it seems like the circumstances
and reality, and the fact that other people really should
be different is what makes us unhappy. But it is our ideas
about reality that causes the suffering, not the reality itself.
When you change your ideas about something,
it changes the way you feel about it.
Of course, this doesn't refer to physical
pain. If someone hits you, it is the punch that causes the pain.
But suffering or unhappiness can be caused by your own thoughts
about the person who hit you long after the pain from the punch
has gone away. So this method may not be very effective for handling
physical pain. But it does work with unhappiness and anxiety.
And it works very, very well.
Buddhism has been around for a long time,
but that doesn't make it worth anything. A lot of stuff that's
been handed down is worthless nonsense. Just because something
is ancient doesn't make it automatically good or bad.
But once in awhile some ancient knowledge
turns out to be right on the mark, and this is one of those.
If you could become non-attached to the ideas in your head, you'd
be blissfully happy just sitting there doing nothing more than
breathing. No kidding.
Of course that's not easy, and that's why
not many of us have been able to do it. But the better you are
at unattaching yourself from an idea, the happier and less stressed
you will be. Gains in this area make a big difference.
Those people spending years meditating
in Zen monasteries for ten hours a day are doing what? They're
learning to catch themselves attaching to an idea and they are
learning to detach. That's it. That's all they're doing. Do it
enough and you're enlightened.
But you can practice it without sitting
down and crossing your legs. You can do it anytime during the
day. And the best time to do it (the time when it will make the
most difference to your happiness) is when you're experiencing
some form of stress.
You can also do it when you meditate. You'll
always find, as you begin repeating your mantra or paying attention
to your breath, that your mind will wander. Your mind will drift
to another subject, and you won't want to come back to the "boring"
task of thinking a mantra. This is why meditation is good practice
in non-attachment, because to do something boring, you have to
become unattached to the ideas about boredom, suffering, discomfort,
entertainment, what's interesting, and so on.
When you're meditating and you get lost
in a little imaginary conversation with someone, and then you
realize you have stopped focusing on your mantra, you don't want
to stop imagining this conversation right in the middle of it.
You're attached to the conversation. But you pull your attention
away from it (detach) and return to your mantra. Over and over
You do the same thing with your beliefs.
You are attached you cling with intensity
to the ideas you hold. And you don't want to let go of them.
And so you hang on, and you suffer.
As a matter of fact, all you have to do
is pay attention when you feel stress. At the moment of stress,
there is a 99.9% chance you are clinging to an idea. Ask yourself,
What idea am I clinging to?
Think about it. There is one. If you are
stressed, there is an idea you are holding onto.
Then ask yourself, Is it worth the stress?
About 80% of the time, it won't be, and you can let the idea
go. I don't mean try to forget the idea. I mean just don't
cling to it. It's just an idea.
For example, I went for a hike today. I
injured both my knees a few months ago, and I have been slowly
rehabilitating them. I miss running hard. I miss that great feeling
afterwards. So I'm in a hurry to heal up. The problem is, healing
doesn't speed up just because I'm in a hurry.
So as I was hiking, I was pushing myself
out of impatience, and it hurt. But I didn't want to go slow,
so I kept pushing myself. Then it occurred to me I was feeling
stress. I felt impatient and frustrated.
So I asked myself the question, What
idea am I clinging to? The answer was obvious: I want to
heal as soon as possible. Next question: Is it worth the stress?
In this case, as in most cases, no it wasn't. I doubt if it was
helping me heal faster anyway. And it was not enjoyable. Here
I was walking, more mobile than I've been in a long time, and
I wasn't enjoying it. I was pushing myself. That's stupid.
So I said to myself, Okay, that's it.
Even if this did heal me up a little faster, it's not worth it.
I let it go. My frustration went away. And I slowed down.
I didn't have to slow down much before
the pain in my knees went away too, and I had an enjoyable hike
after that. I'm sure it did me good, and now that I've become
somewhat detached from the idea I had about hurrying my healing,
it's easier to consider the possibility that pushing myself might
actually slow my healing. I don't know if that's true,
but I can see now it's quite possibly true, and it isn't an idea
I had been able to consider when I was attached to the "heal
My suffering, my frustration, had been
caused by an idea. I assumed it was caused by the objective
conditions. I took for granted that my frustration was caused
by the injury and the damper that injury put on my mobility.
But my unhappiness was actually caused by my attachment to the
idea that I must heal up faster than I was healing.
Here's a verse from the Dhammapada (a book
of sayings usually attributed to Buddha):
The craving of a person who lives heedlessly
Grows like a maluva creeper.
He moves from beyond to beyond,
Like a monkey, in a forest, wishing for fruit.
Whomsoever in the world
This childish entangled craving overcomes,
His sorrows grow,
Like birana grass, well rained upon.
But whosoever in the world
Overcomes this childish craving, hard to get beyond,
From him, sorrows fall away,
Like drops of water from a lotus leaf.
It's poetry, and it is obviously Eastern,
but it says something useful to you and me. Greed makes people
unhappy. Craving makes people unhappy. Clinging to ideas causes
sorrow and unhappiness. And all of us do it.
Once in awhile something happens to some
people and they get a chance to realize this great truth. Some
people get it when they are diagnosed with cancer. Or a parent
In the book, Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, Steven
Callahan writes with great poignancy on this truth. Callahan
was sailing across the Atlantic alone when his boat struck something
and sank. He was set adrift on a rubber life raft for seventy-six
days of very difficult struggle to survive.
In a calm moment between storms and shark
attacks, he gets the chance to drink some water, which he rations
very carefully because he doesn't have very much. In these
moments of peace, he wrote,
deprivation seems a strange sort of
gift. I find food in a couple hours of fishing each day, and
I seek shelter in a rubber tent. How unnecessarily complicated
my past life seems. For the first time, I clearly see a vast
difference between human needs and human wants. Before this voyage,
I always had what I needed food, shelter, clothing, and
companionship yet I was often dissatisfied when I didn't
get everything I wanted, when people didn't meet my expectations,
when a goal was thwarted, or when I couldn't acquire some material
goody. My plight has given me a strange kind of wealth, the most
important kind. I value each moment that is not spent in pain,
desperation, hunger, thirst, or loneliness.
This is wisdom. And pretty much everyone
knows it. But our bodies drive us to pursue acquisition anyway.
When Thor Hyradal (author of Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft) was
young he went to live with nature on an island in the South Pacific,
just he and his girlfriend. On the little boat that took them
to a remote island, the captain of the boat told Hyradal about
the islanders and their lust for material goodies: "It's
all crazy, but they want it like everybody else. I detest our
own civilization; that's why I'm here. Yet I spread it from island
to island. They want it, once they have a taste of it
The captain seemed exasperated. "Why
do they want sewing-machines and tricycles," he exclaimed,
"or underclothing and canned salmon? They don't need any
The needs increase. The expenditure. Then they have
to work although they hate it. To earn money they don't need."
The native peoples had lived a kind of
life many of us yearn for. They lived in beautiful surroundings.
They had an abundance of natural sources of food. They had to
spend very little of their time "working" for a living.
And as long as the temptations of civilization weren't available,
they were happy.
But then they saw things they wanted. The
wanting created their unhappiness.
I told all this once to a friend of mine,
Richard, and he had a question: "When I ask the second question,
Is it worth the stress? and the answer is no, then what?
My mind will have nowhere to go."
That's a good question because when you
discover yourself clinging to an idea and you know it's causing
you stress, you won't want to cling to the idea any more. So
far so good, but if you try to avoid thinking about something,
that thought will come up more often than if you don't try to
resist thinking about it. There are a lot of experiments showing
this to be the case. The more you try to suppress a thought,
the more obsessional the thought becomes. Trying to avoid it
makes it impossible to get away from.
So my answer to Richard was: "Get
your mind interested in something else. Your mind is in some
ways like a little kid. Have you ever seen what parents do when
little Johnny wants to chew on the tablecloth?"
"Yes," he said, "They hand
him a toy or do something that puts his attention on something
"Right. And if what they divert his
attention to captures his interest, he forgets all about the
tablecloth. We haven't changed much since we were kids. The same
thing works now."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, instead of grabbing the tablecloth
out of your mouth, so to speak, and having your mind throw a
fit, hand it a toy: Tag a slogan onto the end of it."
"Like what?" asked Richard, now
looking pensive, "Are some better for this than others?"
"Yes. Slogans that put your mind on
a purpose are best. Stay on track, for example. Or a good
question: What is my goal here? Or simply state your purpose
and start getting to work on it"
Do not try. Do not use force. Don't try
to force the idea you've been clinging to out of your
mind, or try to "let it go." Force itself is a form
of clinging, and just causes more stress.
One of the things you learn when you're
meditating is that the mind concentrates best when you do not
try. Researchers using biofeedback equipment to train people
to lower their blood pressure find that the only people who can't
do it are those who try really hard.
Your mind works best relaxed. So you repeat
your mantra, and you will find your mind drifts. When you notice
it, you gently bring your mind back to repeating the mantra.
Use effort and your mind will wander even more. You cannot concentrate
by using strong effort.
Now bring the ability you've learned in
meditation to this situation. When you have something you're
clinging to and it's causing you stress, use your purpose as
a kind of mantra. Keep gently bringing your mind back to your
purpose. When you find it wanders, bring it back again. And again,
and again. But each time without any force or effort.
It is a subtle skill, but you will learn
it with practice. If you don't learn it fast enough, do not try
to force yourself to learn it faster, because that'll take you
further from it.
There is a term from chemistry called dilatancy,
which describes a liquid that solidifies the more pressure you
put on it. In other words, you can easily stir it slowly, but
when you try to stir it quickly, it becomes very difficult to
stir at all.
Some things in life work like that. The
harder you push, the less you gain. Here we have one of those.
When you try not to think of something, you will think of it
all the more. But when you don't worry about it and get involved
in something else, your mind lets go of what it was thinking
The question always comes up: Won't the
practice of non-attachment prevent you from accomplishing your
goals? This is an important question. It is often pointed out
by successful people that they were "driven" to succeed,
that they had a burning desire, that the goal had become a necessity.
They are obviously describing a solid attachment to an idea:
I must succeed.
While someone can surely accomplish something
with attachment, it is not necessary, and it's a rather stressful
way of going about it. Listen to what Gandhi said about this.
He was a man who knew something about accomplishment. He accomplished
what no one thought was possible. He said,
He who is ever brooding over the result,
often loses nerve in the performance of duty. He becomes impatient
and then gives vent to anger and begins to do unworthy things;
he jumps from action to action, never remaining faithful to any.
He who broods over results is like a man given to the objects
of the senses; he is ever distracted, he says good-bye to all
scruples, everything is right in his estimation and he therefore
resorts to means fair and foul to attain his end.
Gandhi is saying that not only does a lack
of clinging not hinder accomplishment, it actually makes you
more effective! And less likely to do something you'll
Looking back at the example of my knee
pain, my attachment to healing caused impatience and probably
slowed down my rehabilitation efforts thus making my efforts
"Brooding over results" is a
form of "clinging to the idea" (that I need
this to turn out well). And clinging like that causes unhappiness.
Worse still, the clinging doesn't even
improve your chances of success. You can create a goal for no
other reason than because having a game to play is more enjoyable
than having no game, and you can pursue that goal, calmly and
happily through delays and setbacks and failures.
And your calm, steadfast doggedness will
make you more progress toward your goal than intense feelings
of frustration and defeatism when the delays and setbacks and
failures come your way.
So the answer to the question is: No,
this method will not keep you from accomplishing your goals.
In fact, it will make you more able to accomplish them.
When you feel anxious, ask yourself,
"What idea am I clinging to?
And then, "Is it worth the stress?"