Attachments: Just Relax

July 6th, 2009

It’s strange how often I hear variations of the question, “If attachment causes suffering, does that mean we’re not supposed to have goals?” I often tell people that there is no Buddhist commandment, “Thou shalt never have any attachments whatsoever.” That’s not why the Buddha taught about attachment’s role in suffering.

Maybe it would help to change the terms we use: rather than saying “end attachment,” say “relax attachment.” It’s your karma to be alive here and now, so maybe your role in this lifetime is not to become a forest monk with no attachments; maybe it’s to be a 21st-century person who is able to relax those attachments.

Of course we still have the same resistance to relaxing attachment. Many of us often don’t like to relax. We think that if we relax for just a moment, we’ll lose everything we worked for. But the truth is that we can’t get everything we desire, and getting desires fulfilled often just leads to more desires. You succeed at getting As in middle school, so you think you’re entitled to As in high school, and then As in a university. There’s no point where you can say, “I’ve succeeded,” and relax. So we live in continual panic, because we never relax our attachments.

We relax our attachments by playing them like a game. It’s fun to win, but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t. I’d like to have success, and I’ll take the logical steps that I predict will lead to success, but if I don’t succeed, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the world or wrong with me. And because so much of our success is compared with others–I want good grades so that I can get into a better school than you–when we relax, we can be happy for people who are more successful than we are. I didn’t get that job, but someone else did, and I’m happy, because there’s no way we could both get it.

And maybe it helps to think of the opposing attachment. If you want to lose weight, contemplate the idea of relaxing your attachment to high-calorie foods. If you want to learn well at school, contemplate relaxing your attachment to leisure activities that cut into your study time.

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