attachment in Buddhism

Updated On — 11th Oct, 2022

The problem of attachment in Buddhism is not about having or not having an attachment, but it’s our tendency to not be aware an attachment ensnared us.

Did you hear the one about the person attending his first meditation retreat? He asked the teacher if he could check his email during breaks. The teacher said yes, but avoid attachments.

So let’s look at this question of attachments.

What exactly are they and why should we avoid them?

Buddhist philosophy approaches many of these kinds of questions on two levels, called the relative and the absolute. On the absolute level, there is nothing we can become attached to because in the universe in which we live, nothing is permanent.

Yet, we all have likes and dislikes.

I like to listen to 1960s jazz and eat high carb foods (not necessarily at the same time). I can’t get enough of Miles Davis and I have a weight problem.

Intellectually, we know nothing lasts for very long; the objects of our desires inevitably slip through our fingers. From the Buddhist point of view, we feel stress and unhappiness because our organism doesn’t want to be parted from its likes, and doesn’t want to deal with its dislikes.

So, how do we practice with attachment when they come up?

Our meditation practice is not about getting rid of attachments.

The desire for an unattached life is yet another attachment.

Rather, our practice is about being aware of them and appreciating them for what they are.

The issue of attachment in Buddhism our practice is about being aware of them and appreciating them for what they are.
The issue of attachment in Buddhism our practice is about being aware of them and appreciating them for what they are – lithograph by Derek Valez

If we didn’t have likes and dislikes we wouldn’t be fully human. Mindfulness asks us to appreciate our likes and dislikes without triggering reactive patterns of holding-on or pushing away things or experiences.

When we are not aware we have an attachment, we tend to react from our past conditioning. We have formed hundreds of reactive patterns in our organism over our lifetime.

The problem is not having or not having an attachment but it’s our tendencies to not be aware an attachment ensnared us and the subsequent acting out from our reactive patterning.

When we act out of our reactive patterning, we tend to say or do things that are harmful to others and to ourselves.

Our meditation practice is incredibly simple: be aware of “what is” moment by moment. But when we are attached to a thing or to an outcome, it diverts away our attention from simply “what is.” Rather, we react to what we wish was or wasn’t, what we believe should or shouldn’t be, instead of what is.

The goal of our Buddhist practice I think is summed up in one line from this ancient koan:

A student asks the Zen master of old, Yunmen, “What is the goal of a lifetime of practice?”

The answer that comes back is this: “An appropriate response.”

Our practice is about developing our hearts and minds to respond more appropriately to the whole kit and caboodle of this being human. And an appropriate response can only be based on the truth of our life as it is, right here and now.

I once read another line that also sums it all up nicely. In Ode to a Grecian Urn, the English poet John Keats wrote:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.

I love this line. Truth is what is right here and now, anything else is mental fabrication. And what is here right here and now is beautiful just as it is, precisely because it could not be any other way.

Our practice reveals the beauty all around us. It also encourages us to embrace the full spectrum of who and what we are, including our attachments and reactive habits.

And when we embrace all of it, we relish everything just as it is.

This opens up a very rich moment, a pause, or a space–as described by Viktor Frankl:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Our mindfulness practice teaches us to pause and let the habituated patterns play themselves out in consciousness for a few moments, and it is in this pause in which an appropriate response comes to be.

Our practice is this simple. Yet the results are truly profound.



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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

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