The idea of non-attachment can sound cold and unfeeling. After all, we feel attached to our loved ones, our homes, to beautiful objects and experiences. Perhaps we see Buddhist monks giving all these things up when they enter a monastery and feel that if being a Buddhist means we must say goodbye to all that we hold dear and makes life worth living then Buddhism is not for us.
However, if we look at what non-attachment really means we shall see that we are not being asked to give up the people and things that we love, but to examine our relationship to them in a way I will describe in a moment. Far from becoming unfeeling, non-attachment is actually pointing to a much deeper love, respect and appreciation for all aspects of life than we ever thought possible.
Let’s look first at the word attachment. Dictionaries define it as an emotional bond, a feeling that binds one to a person, thing, ideal etc. In other words we are tying our emotions to the object of our attachment, expecting the object to provide us with the feeling of happiness, contentment, self-worth or whatever it is that we feel we need. You could say that we are placing demands on the relationship, whether it is with a person or the latest iPhone or the new gym membership. And when the day comes, sooner or later, that the object of our attachment fails to provide us with the emotion we desire we experience suffering.
Our response may be to look for another friendship, a newer phone, a different gym. But this is an endless cycle. And Buddhism teaches us that it is based on the false perception that we are separate beings, insufficient, with holes that we need to fill.
Instead of jettisoning the object of our dissatisfaction we can gain much self-knowledge by considering why we are so disappointed. What is it that we were expecting to gain from the relationship with this person or thing or ideology or whatever? And is it really true that you need an “external” object to provide it? Can it actually do so? Do you want to be dependent in this way? Or is it possible that there is no hole to be filled, that you are sufficient, you are whole, that maybe you are not actually separate from everything/everyone else in the first place?
Asking these questions, in order to see how and why we bind ourselves, and that it is all based on a faulty premise, puts us on the path of non-attachment, the ultimate purpose of which is to realise truth. On the way, we find that when we don’t place demands on the people and things we are drawn to we actually have a much deeper and more rewarding relationship with them.
William Blake wrote:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.