Saturday, November 12, 2011

what's "attachment"?

[Shannon has been kicking ass on her blog lately, which inspires me to write some Buddhist-y things.]

A friend, on Facebook:
Not being attached to the outcome is like trying not to think of something. I need a Buddhist SWAT team.
Every English speaker who encounters Buddhism struggles with any discussion of "attachment" and "non-attachment". I think it's because in our casual speech, we use "attached" to mean "closeness" and "affection". When we're not ready or in the mood to say "I love you", we say "I'm quite attached to you". We use it to mean someone is in a romantic relationship:
"Sorry, honey, he's attached."
"There are no unattached women in this town."
This isn't a bad way to use the word, but when people first started translating Buddhist texts into English, they used "attachment" to describe concepts that have absolutely nothing to do with emotional closeness: "grasping" is usually a more evocative term. It's possible this was perfectly consonant with the meaning of "attachment" a century ago, as in the famous case of the lovely St. Paul's Cathedral being originally described as "amusing, awful, and artificial." Then again, maybe the translations sucked, which was common. It's certainly confusing now, and of course we're stuck with it.

One word that often comes out as "attachments" is klesha, which many people render as "afflictive emotions," which I like. These are things like desire, anger, and aversion generally, but in Buddhist practice we're particularly concerned with the times when we put extra energy into those emotions instead of just feeling them and letting them pass. That extra energy is what we call "grasping" or "attachment." Until you see this happen for yourself, it takes a variety of metaphors to describe it. For example, I would get angry with my students in Chile, and in that moment of anger I had a choice: I could either put more energy into being angry, speaking sharply at them and trying hard to make them do what I wanted; or, I could let myself feel that moment of anger, but then let it pass and decide to respond differently, with calm firmness. Our emotions are transient, and they will change, but only if we step back and let them change. There's a sense of righteous power in being angry, and it's hard to step back from that.

Remember those playground spinners?

The chaos of our emotions often feels like we're spinning around and around on one of these, completely out of control. We don't understand why we're caught up in such a tumult. The turning point in our practice is seeing, really seeing and knowing inside, that we ourselves provide the motive power for the spinning, by putting that extra energy into our thoughts and emotions. We start out on the edge of the disc, moving so fast we feel sick. With practice--zazen meditation combined with an intention to look carefully at our experience in and out of zazen--we move a bit more toward the center of the disc, moving slower and slower. Eventually we realize the disc is only moving because we keep kicking it along, and we learn to back off, let go, and stop adding that extra momentum. The spinning slows down, and occasionally, for times that can be instants or hours, the spinning stops entirely, and everything is quiet.

[By the way, you can read about the Three Poisons or kleshas and seek in vain for a unified presentation, even within a single Buddhist tradition. The Buddha had many formulations and presentations of his teaching, varying with time (45 years!) and audience. The subsequent systematizers further modified things, often with significant misunderstandings, as I'm learning from Richard Gombrich. That kind of brutal consistency, prized in Western philosophy and theology, doesn't exist in Buddhist thought. Buddha's goal was not to create a system of things to believe in: he wanted to give everyone a complete set of tools for understanding and ending our own mental anguish. Buddhist teaching is quite coherent, but it is as multi-faceted as any human being.)

Another way to think about it is with a lawnmower: if I grab really hard onto a running lawnmower, the vibration hurts my shoulders and rattles my teeth. If I hold the lawnmower lightly, it just makes my hands tingle.

Does that make any sense? I never know if you're nodding excitedly and going "YES! YES!" or just thinking, "Why doesn't he post more cat pictures? I like cat pictures. Am I out of Oreos again?".

Anyway. May you (and all beings) successfully stop kicking your playground spinner.


  1. It does make sense. Your posts on these and similar topics have always been interesting to me. Thinking about human behavior and how many of our reactions to things are a bit instinctive, is enlightening (no pun intended).

    The first part about attachments reminded me of my favorite Buddhist joke. But you've heard it already.

    I definitely am out of Oreos.

  2. " I never know if you're nodding excitedly and going 'YES! YES!' or just thinking, 'Why doesn't he post more cat pictures? I like cat pictures.'"

    The two thoughts are not mutually exclusive. ;)

  3. I like your posts, even though I've never commented on them. You're at a different stage of understanding than I am and so sometimes it's like seeing into the future (my future understanding of zen). Thank you for your honesty and your concrete examples.
    Also, as a fellow blogger, I share your wondering about what people think when they read my posts. I guess it's just the nature of blog writing but I've discovered, as I read other people's blogs and don't comment myself, that lack of comments doesn't necessarily mean an abundance of desire for photos of cats.
    And hey, congratulations on your ninja wedding!