Is Attachment the Root of Suffering?
With the recent deaths of both my mother and my longtime feline companion, I’ve been immersed in thoughts about mortality, relationships, and the very purpose of life.
When I went to visit my mom for what would be the last time, I knew I would tell her that it was okay to go, if I felt she needed me to. She had been sick for quite some time, and we had been given many chances to cope and accept the inevitable. I was worried she might be holding on for the sake of her family, or out of her own fear of the unknown, so I wanted to make sure she knew that everything would be be alright. She managed to slip away in her sleep that very night, before I could verbally give her my ‘permission’, but I believe my mental acknowledgement helped us both.
Similarly, while coming to terms with my cat’s departure from this world, in his last 24 hours I made a conscious decision to let go, and I believe it helped facilitate his transition in a beautiful way, while I held him, despite how incredibly sad it was to know that he was dying.
In those inevitable final hours with each, I subscribed to a Buddhist aphorism that states: “The root of suffering is attachment.” Though I am nowhere near an expert on any religion or philosophy, I always inquisitively take what resonates with me, and often mold it to my own needs or personal beliefs.
Later, when I spoke about these deaths with a dear friend who happens to be a psychotherapist, I mentioned this Buddhist philosophy relating to attachment, and how I felt it helped us through a difficult time. But she pointed out that while attachment may cause suffering, it is also necessary for all life.
Well of course — no person on this planet arrives here without at least the very brief attachment of two other humans! But this other side to the coin that my friend pointed out got me thinking:
When relating this Buddhist thought, are we defining attachment in the way it was intended for the understanding of suffering? Is it dangerous, psychologically, to remove attachment? Is attachment, in the particular definition that we give it, absolutely necessary in life? Is detachment the opposite of attachment, and if we see detachment as the goal, is that healthy? Is this all just another way of defining boundaries? How else can we describe love?
Indeed, upon diving into some research, I found that the translation of the Sanskrit word upadana into attachment is not entirely accurate. Nor is the word Duḥkha wholly translatable into suffering. To properly understand these words one needs a few somewhat more nuanced concepts.
Upadana refers more specifically to a kind of clinging. Even more compelling to ponder is the concept that our clinging comes from a sense of separateness from the world around us. What a paradoxical notion! Yet, it makes sense: in Buddhism we are encouraged to see the oneness in all life, and not to identify ourself as an individual entity free of confluence from that which surrounds us. When we believe that we are separate from nature, we have a fundamental concept that we are not held, and that we hold nothing; therefore we seek control by clinging to that with which we do not feel connected.
The Sanskrit word Duḥkha is known to have many connotations. It most literally translates into something like the uncentered axis of a wheel — something that makes for a bumpy ride. In this context the term can perhaps be equated more to lack of satisfaction, rather than suffering. If you’re able to remove or avoid this sense of the world being bumpy or unsatisfying, it is possible to reach nirvāṇa— understood as the state in which one can find oneself satisfied in any situation. Reaching nirvāṇa, some say, can be as simple as giving up any concepts that perpetuate individuality or egotism, separation from nature, and hate.
Through better defining these terms, we can understand that the Buddha’s aims were not meant to encourage people toward detachment. We certainly will not achieve any level of bliss, contentment, or satisfaction by consciously removing relationships and necessities from our life.
Some say then, that what Buddhism teaches is non-attachment, which we can now understand is better interpreted as absence of clinging. If we know that we are all one, and that all life is interconnected, we can therefore surmise that it is never necessary to attach, to cling, or even detach. We could yet say that it is not possible to do any of these things. We simply strive to avoid getting to the state of clinging by maintaining awareness that we are not separate from the people and things we need to survive or which help us to enjoy or appreciate our earthly presence.
As it relates to death, the Buddhist sense of non-attachment is what can help us understand that a beloved family member, significant other, friend, or pet is not actually leaving. They are simply transitioning into a different form, one which still remains a part of our universe, with which we are perpetually connected. Life will certainly change without the particular presence to which we were once accustomed, but we can accept that their presence has taken on a new form. We may have felt bonded to this entity in life, but we never had control over which form they inhabited. In death, we are forced to accept this lack of control, but also invited to experience the integration and unity of all life.
When writing about my cat’s death, I described the experience as being “fused with a greater essence”, regarding this as the ether which exists simultaneously, concurrently, and in the same space as our physical world. Scientifically, matter cannot be created or destroyed — it simply changes forms. I believe the same of the soul, or whatever you might call the phenomenon of life that escapes the mortal vessel upon death.
I knew that my mother and my cat would continue to exist in some capacity, within and without me. This concept comforted me, and liberated me from the potential anguish of believing they were completely gone or fundamentally inaccessible from that point forward.
Similarly, in relationships, we can more easily accept an unrequited love or a partner’s decision to move on by understanding that we never were attached to this person in the way we understand attachment as a fusing or a fastening. In actuality there is no such thing. In the Buddhist sense of the word, it was only the concept created in our mind that we were with this person in a way more permanent than life can ever be, or in a way in which we are not already connected. We became attached to a concept of them, to the way they made us feel, or to the fantasies we entertained about a future together — yet these mental and emotional perceptions were always both ephemeral and unnecessary to some degree.
“If you love them, let them go” is another common phrase that comes to mind. Yet I wonder how many people say that with an accurate understanding of this Buddhist concept?
Love needs no physicality, no closeness, no attachment. You can love someone on the other side of the planet yet not be debilitated by their absence because you’re aware that they exist. You can love someone who is no longer physically here because their memory, lessons, and advice are always with you. You can love someone who doesn’t love you back because you respect their autonomy and know that no matter what, you’re both two parts of a larger whole. It’s easier to accept when you realize that you’re not separate, and that clinging to an ideal will not bring you closer.
It’s important to establish boundaries, both upon yourself to ensure that love does not turn into unhealthy attachment; and upon other people, so that you do not allow them (or your mental concept of them) to needlessly uproot your life by deifying them.
In effect, attachment is not real. At the very least, it is not eternal; it is made to be temporal. We all know this deep down, yet we try to hold on. This grasping at that with which we are truly already fused is redundant, unnecessary, and frustrating.
Take a deep breath. Know that the air you inhale is shared by the entire planet. It has touched all lifeforms, having been inhaled by every other creature as oxygen, and exhaled as carbon dioxide–only to be absorbed by every living plant and recirculated once again as oxygen. The cycle is eternal. You receive that which flows throughout our atmosphere, which has done so throughout time.
This air is touched by you as it is touched by everything. This air is inside you and outside you in every second, while it simultaneously surrounds and fills everyone and everything else. This air is ancient, and therefore carries with it the life of everything that has gone before. This air is eternal, and will continue to sustain life far into the future.
We are one, and there is no need to hold anything too tightly, just as there is no need to hold your breath. Release it as you release both your attachments, and your detachments.
Breathe. Know that life is ever-changing. Breathe. We are all, always together. Breathe. This is love.