What the Buddha Taught About Restraining and Dealing with Anger

Buddhist psychology identifies anger as one of the six root kleshas, detrimental emotional states that can cloud the mind, lead us to “unwholesome” actions, and cause our suffering.

Chapter XVII of the Dhammapada (ref. Max Muller’s Wisdom of the Buddha) compiles the teachings of the Buddha and his monastic community on the topic of restraining and dealing with anger:

  • “He who holds back rising anger like a rolling chariot, him I call a real driver; other people are but holding the reins.” (Verse 222)
  • “Beware of bodily anger, and control thy body! Leave the sins of the body, and with thy body practise virtue!” (Verse 231)
  • “Beware of the anger of the tongue, and control thy tongue! Leave the sins of the tongue, and practise virtue with thy tongue!” (Verse 232)
  • “Beware of the anger of the mind, and control thy mind! Leave the sins of the mind, and practise virtue with thy mind!” (Verse 233)
  • “The wise who control their body, who control their tongue, the wise who control their mind, are indeed well controlled.” (Verse 234)

As I’ve mentioned before, you will be at a marked disadvantage in life if you’re unable to perceive, endure, and manage negative emotions. And anger is the hardest of the negative emotions to subdue.

What the Buddha Taught About Restraining and Dealing with Anger

Investigating the nature of anger is important not only because it is such a destructive emotion, but also because anger often sums up many other self-judgments—sadness, powerlessness, fear, regret—that are entwined into it.

The Zen priest Jules Shuzen Harris advices approaching feelings of anger with awareness and mindfulness in his insightful article on “Uprooting the Seeds of Anger” in the Summer 2012 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review:

We must remember that we create our own anger. No one makes it for us. If we move from a particular event directly to our reaction, we are skipping a crucial awareness, a higher perspective on our own reactivity. What is that middle step, that deeper awareness? It is mindfulness about our own beliefs, our attitude, our understanding or lack of understanding about what has really happened. We notice that a given situation reliably provokes our anger, and yet somebody else can be exposed to the very same situation and not react angrily. Why is that? No one can tell us: we each have to find the answer ourselves, and to do that, we need to give ourselves the space to reflect mindfully.

We’re going to keep getting angry. It’s going to come up. It has come up in our lives before, and it will come up again. This practice is about becoming more mindful, becoming aware of how we are getting stuck. With care and work, we find ways to get unstuck. But we also know that the moment we get unstuck, we’re going to get stuck again. That’s why it is called practice—we never arrive. So when you find yourself upset or angry, use the moment as a part of your practice, as an opportunity to notice and uproot the seeds of anger and move into the heart of genuine compassion.

And as stated by the Chinese Sutra of Forty-two Chapters,

For those with no anger,
how can anger arise?
When you practice deep looking and master yourself,
you dwell in peace, freedom, and safety.
The one who offends another
after being offended by him,
harms himself and harms the other.
When you feel hurt
but do not hurt the other,
you are truly victorious.
Your practice and your victory benefit both of you.
When you understand the roots of anger in yourself and in the other,
your mind will enjoy true peace, joy, and lightness.
You become the doctor who heals himself and heals the other.
If you don’t understand,
you will think not getting angry to be the act of a fool.

Fight Ignorance, Not Each Other

Demonization in the Era of Hyper-polarization and Hyper-politicization

We live in a era of hyper-polarization and hyper-politicization. Studies suggest that we Americans have mostly devolved to two political groups that fervently believe that all wisdom resides in their particular standpoints and therefore care less and less to empathize with the other side.

People loathe the “other” ideological group with such visceral obsession that their hate pollutes their minds. Thanks partly to social media, self-organized tribes are isolating themselves into geographic, religious, ideological, educational, ethnic, and media bubbles of like-minded crusaders.

As I wrote previously, studies have shown that hanging around a group of likeminded folks can make people even more scornful of differing viewpoints, than they are as individuals. They demonize anyone who disagrees with them. They neither account for the case against their positions, nor find middle ground.

In the wake of the 2011 Tucson shooting (where perpetrator Jared Loughner shot and killed six individuals, and injured 14 others at a political gathering,) meditation teacher James Baraz of wrote a Huffington Post essay underscoring the ignorance that brings about the aforesaid demonization:

The real villain is in this story is not Jared Loughner. It’s not the media. And it’s not the gun rights advocates. The real villain is ignorance. Because of ignorance, people project their fear and turn those who are different into enemies—both in their minds and in actuality. Once you demonize the “other” they become less than human and you can inflict pain on them without guilt or shame.

Don’t Lead a Dysfunctional Team

The difference between functional and dysfunctional teams often boils down to effective team leadership. If you’ve been asked to lead a team, you’ll get more from your team members if you know what’s expected of the team, and manage your roles and responsibilities.

  1. Define the charter. Find out what your customers want. Find out how much latitude your team has—decision-making, reporting procedure, access to resources and information. Make sure there’s organizational support for these matters.
  2. Build on strengths. If team members are selected for you, determine what each person can contribute to the team’s effort. Ask members to identify their strengths.
  3. Set ground rules. Discuss how the team will operate. Be clear about performance expectations. If necessary, write down the rules agreed upon by team members.
  4. Develop a mission and goals. Get your team talking about what needs to get done, by whom, and when.
  5. Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness Is Dangerous “Herd the sheep.” Part of your job is to be a sheepdog. Keep people together and herd them toward goals.
  6. Break up conflicts. Disagreements are fine, even healthy, but outright hostility or anger is counterproductive. Stop the discussion, clarify positions, and try to find areas of agreement.
  7. Avoid groupthink. Don’t compromise too much for the sake of consensus, harmony, and “esprit de corps.” Don’t settle on the lowest-common-denominator decision upon which everybody agrees.
  8. Build bridges. Keep your sponsor, your manager, and each team member’s boss informed of the progress of the team’s assignment.
  9. Be visible. Any crisis calls for constant, candid communication. Knowing how to step up your communications efforts to the right levels during confusion is a powerful tool in managing a crisis.
  10. Captain the ship. You’re responsible for your team’s every outcome—good or bad. You are wholly accountable for everything that happens under your authority. Never pass the blame should things go wrong.
  11. Make the work fun. Give your team lots of recognition. Celebrate the team’s accomplishments.
  12. Establish freedom and autonomy. Empower team members to innovate and make decisions. Encourage all ideas and make sure that they are respected, no matter how strange they may sound. Micromanage only when you must.
  13. Assess performance. Periodically, ask the team to rate its performance. Resolve any problems as quickly as possible.
  14. Get stuff done. Don’t lose sight of your goals and your mission. The only thing that matters is the relevant results.

How to Prevent a Communications Breakdown During Crisis

How to Prevent a Communications Breakdown During Crisis

The ultimate test of a leader’s and an organization’s communication skills is how they deal with a crisis—natural disasters, crisis of confidence, acts of malevolence, strategic errors, acts of deception, management misconduct, and so forth.

It’s not difficult to see why communication is an important element of crisis management: leaders today have to tackle media that is unsympathetic to what it regards as management incompetence, shareholders and customers who are ever more demanding, legislation and regulation that is getting stricter, and competitors eager to pinch customers during times of distress.

Effective crisis communications must be able to have a consistent and clear message and present this message swiftly and regularly following a crisis.

Here are seven elements of effective crisis communication.

  1. Strategic Thinking: Think purposefully about what you want your constituencies (employees, stockholders, customers, suppliers, communities, the media) to know under the given circumstances. Many a routine problem has transformed into a crisis because too many people were told too much and the situation became exaggerated and out of control.
    • What happened
    • Who is responsible
    • Why did it happen
    • Who is affected
    • What should be done
    • Whom can we trust
    • What should we say
    • Who should say it
    • How should we say it
  2. Openness: When a crisis befalls, be prepared to talk about it internally and externally as assertively as you respond to the crisis operationally. Understand the expectations of your constituencies and go beyond what is expected or required. If you are not communicative enough, people may make erroneous assumptions about the crisis. Bad news can travel fast and sell best.
  3. Candor: If your constituencies should know about a crisis that your organization is experiencing, talk about it as quickly and as completely as you can, especially to those most directly affected.
  4. Concern: Keep the people most directly affected by the crisis updated until the crisis is completely resolved. Do not brand a whistle blower a troublemaker.
  5. Sensitivity: At the earliest possible moment, step back and analyze the impact of the crisis. Inform and alert all the constituencies that are affected. Demonstrate concern, compassion, sympathy, remorse, or contrition, whatever the case may require.
  6. Integrity: If you are responsible for the crisis or perceived as such, acknowledge the situation promptly. Be true to your corporate and personal conscience. Share the crisis action plan and seek inputs.
  7. Honesty: Learn from your mistakes and talk openly about what you’ve learned. Demonstrate your commitment to keeping errors and problems from resurfacing.

Idea for Impact: Reputation and goodwill represent a great part of business value. Protect yourself when faced with attacks on your reputation and competence. If you do not communicate effectively and frequently with your constituents, somebody else will. In the absence of information, your constituents can develop their own perceptions of the problem and its implications.

Expressive Writing Can Help You Heal

Give sorrow words;
the grief that does not speak;
whispers the o’er-fraught heart
and bids it break.
William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act 4, Scene 3)

Expressive Writing Can Help You Heal

Confronting Upsetting Experiences: Expressive Writing for Healing

People often block out thoughts that provoke negative emotions as a way of reducing their stress and regulating their moods. However, intentional suppression of deep-seated emotions not only increases susceptibility to illness, but also amplifies the emotionality and associated psychological effects of the suppressed thoughts.

Discussing, venting, clarifying, or expressing a trauma is a natural human response. When this necessity is inhibited, emotional stress and physical illness ensue.

Facing up to deeply personal issues can promote physical health, well-being, and beneficial behaviors.

The scientific research on the benefits of putting negative experiences into words is extensive. Studies have shown that expressive writing about oneself and one’s traumatic or stressful experiences does produce significant health benefits. Expressive writing helps ameliorate mood disorders, reduces symptoms among patients with serious illness, improve a person’s physical condition after a heart attack, and even enhance memory.

Writing about Emotional Topics Brings About Improved Physical and Emotional Wellbeing

'Opening Up' by James Pennebaker (ISBN 1572302380) James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, first investigated expressive writing as a healing process in the 1980s. Since then, research that spawned from Pennebaker’s pioneering studies, has revealed benefits could accrue to those who were dealing with divorces, lost love, death of loved ones, job rejections, terminal illness, even college students struggling with first-year transitions.

Here are the main points about the expressive writing method:

  • Choose the part of the day when you are most contemplative (that’s the morning for most people.) Sit down at a place where you are not likely to be disturbed.
  • Reflect about a very personal and important event. Consider a significant emotional upheaval that influences your life the most or has in the past. Your topic can be about a distress or failure, lost love, health-, school- or career-related anxiety, relationships, inner conflicts, death of a loved one, or just about any topic that you would like to express.
  • If you’re writing about an experience or an event that involves another person, it can help to organize your writing as a letter to that person, whether alive or dead.
  • Write your deepest thoughts about your chosen event or experience continuously for 20 minutes. If you run out of things to write or reach a mental block, just repeat or recap what you have previously written.
  • In your writing, deeply explore your thoughts about the event and describe its effect on you. In other words, write both about what happened and how you feel about it. Think about how you can handle these events and their consequences now—what you can do specifically.
  • Connect your personal experiences to other parts of your life. How do they relate to your childhood, your parents, people you love, who you are, or who you want to be?
  • Write for yourself as your thoughts arise. Be as direct, intense, and serious as possible. Do not worry about grammar, spelling, comprehensiveness, legibility, or structure. On the opening day of writing, your stories are not very structured, but over the three or four days, you will develop a more structured narrative.
  • After writing for 20 minutes, do not look back over. Simply fold the papers you used, seal them, and put them away (read more about the “worry box technique.”) Unlike psychotherapy, the expressive writing technique does not employ feedback to the participant.
  • 'Writing as a Way of Healing' by Louise Desalvo (ISBN 0807072435) Make a mental note of how you feel. It is not unusual to feel sad or disheartened after writing—these feelings usually fade away in an hour or so. In research experiments, many participants have reported crying or getting upset by the experience of writing about emotional upheavals, but most participants testify that the writing experience was meaningful in helping them organize their experiences.
  • Repeat this exercise for four consecutive days. You can write about the same experience on all four days or about different experiences each day. If you choose to write about the same topic on all the four days, try to wrap everything up by the fourth day.

Note that expressive writing is distinct from keeping a daily journal in that it allows people to step back for a moment and evaluate their lives. Pennebaker once said, “I’m not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity. … But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.”

Translating an Emotional Experience Into Language Makes the Experience Graspable: it Can Help You Find New Meaning in Life’s Ordeals

New research has shown that expressive writing—followed by expressive rewriting—can improve happiness and lead to behavioral changes. Narrative storytelling of an unpleasant and chaotic experience may make the experience and its effects more controllable. For instance, according this New York Times article,

At the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, life coaches ask clients to identify their goals, then to write about why they haven’t achieved those goals. Once the clients have written their old stories, they are asked to reflect on them and edit the narratives to come up with a new, more honest assessment. While the institute doesn’t have long-term data, the intervention has produced strong anecdotal results.

Expressive Writing Can Help Change the Way You Feel About Traumatic Events and About Yourself

Idea for Impact: Expressive Writing Can Help Change the Way You Feel About Traumatic Events and About Yourself

Expressive writing is a method of self-help that supplements the value of therapeutic talking to someone accepting and non-judgmental.

By exploring your deepest thoughts and feelings with a reflective, inquiring, honest attitude, you can shift perspective. Standing back and reflecting on your suffering from different points of view can bring about an improved emotional state. You can create your greatest opportunities for change by confronting the realities, reframing your experiences in terms of your values and priorities, and identifying impediments that stand in the way of purpose, joy, and contentment.

For more on the means and methods of expressive writing, as well its many confirmed physiological and behavioral benefits, read James Pennebaker’s Opening Up: the Healing Power of Expressing Emotion (1997) and Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing (1999)

How People Defend Themselves in a Crisis

How People Defend Themselves in a Crisis The desire to protect and enhance one’s self-image is among the strongest motives of human behavior. No wonder scientific literature is laden with discussions on the ways in which people invoke self-deception in the interest of maintaining a favorable sense of their selves.

People have a propensity to avoid conscious awareness of fear-triggering worries, conflicts, and uncertainties. They engage in thought patterns that distort the external realities as a way of coping with distress.

Psychologists use the term “ego defense mechanisms” to describe the pattern of thought and behavior that arises in response to the perception of psychical danger.

Defense Mechanisms Play an Important Role in Self-Preservation

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) wrote in The Ego and the Id (1923,) “We have come upon something in the ego itself which is also unconscious, which behaves exactly like the repressed—that is, which produces powerful effects without itself being conscious and which requires special work before it can be made conscious.” Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud (1895–1982,) and other psychologists identified twelve primary defense mechanisms:

  1. Denial: explicitly refusing to acknowledge the threatening reality even when presented with indisputable data (e.g. someone with a terminal illness rejecting the imminence of his death.) Denial may give the respondent some time to evaluate the meaning and seriousness of the threatening reality before reacting to it.
  2. Disavowal: acknowledging the threatening reality but downplaying its significance
  3. Suppression: intentionally engaging distractions to eliminate from consciousness any thoughts of the threatening reality
  4. Fixation: committing inflexibly to one specific mind-set or course of action
  5. Substitution: replacing an unattainable or unacceptable instinctual object or emotion with one that is more accessible or tolerable
  6. Displacement / Transference: redirecting emotions from their original object to a substitute object that is somehow associated with the original one.
  7. Compensation: making amends for a perceived deficiency that cannot be eliminated (e.g., a physical defect) by excelling in some other way.
  8. Grandiosity: exaggerated feeling of power or influence over the threatening reality
  9. Idealization: ascribing power or influence to an existent or imaginary “savior” (an individual or a organization)
  10. Defense Mechanisms Play an Important Role in Self-Preservation Intellectualization: thoroughly rationalizing a particular thought or action, by means of a misleading, but self-serving justification
  11. Projection: incorrectly attributing to others any objectionable thoughts or actions. According to Sigmund Freud, projection makes a person perceive his objectionable character traits in others as a means of avoiding seeing those very faults in himself. For example, a man who cannot accept his own anger may cope with his feelings by accusing others as angry.
  12. Splitting: fragmenting, isolating, and focusing on only certain elements of the threatening reality, instead of considering the complexity brought about by the crisis as a coherent whole

Idea for Impact: It pays to familiarize yourself with these twelve defense mechanisms and be able to identify them in how you (and others) react to emotionally charged situations, especially in close relationships. Defense mechanisms are natural forms of self-protection. However, used excessively, they can turn out to be pathological.

Reference: Cheryl Travers, “Handling the Stress” in Michael Bland (Ed.) Communicating out of a Crisis (1998)

Stop Trying to Prove Yourself to the World

When you assess your life and become conscious of how you look at the world and how you look at yourself, you may realize that you often obsess about what people think of you.

'Seeds for a Boundless Life' by Blanche Hartman (ISBN 1611802849) In the delightful and poignant Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart, the Soto Zen teacher Blanche Hartman (1926–2016) explains that freeing yourself from being controlled by what other people think is the key to living life with a composed and peaceful mind:

I noticed somewhere in the early years of my [Buddhist] practice that my big effort was to get people to love me. I really wanted people to love me. And what I discovered in practice was that it really didn’t matter what other people thought. The one whose love and appreciation and approval I wanted was right here, and I wouldn’t give it to myself. What I found out was that no matter how much approval I got from outside, it didn’t count if I was not able to appreciate myself and be willing to be who I am. Whatever this is, it has becomes this over an accumulation of the actions of body, speech, and mind of more than eighty years. It’s my creation in a way. And yet it’s really helpful if I acknowledge it and befriend this being that I have created with the help of all the beings with whom I have shared my life.

Be Your Own Person

Stop trying to prove yourself to the naysayers and critics. Avoid assertive behavior and insubordinate conduct that intends to prove you’re worthy to others. You don’t need others’ approval.

Idea for Impact: Don’t fritter away precious time and energy seeking to prove your worth and worrying that you could fall short. The right people will love you for who you are.

Our Vision of What Our Parents Achieved Influences Our Life Goals: The Psychic Contract

Understanding Others’ Motivations is a Key to Building Better Relationships

Psychic Contract Theory: Children are Programmed to Want to Do as Well as or Better Than Their Parents Understanding others’ deep-held motivations involves recognizing what drives them, why and how they want to work, work styles they may adopt in various circumstances, and what levers you have to motivate them.

Take for example Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a motivation hypothesis used widely for several decades now. Represented as a pyramid, this hypothesis proposes that people are motivated to fulfill basic subconscious desires such as food and shelter before trying to fulfill higher-level needs such as affection and prestige. Even though academics have extensively debated its specifics, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has provided a handy framework to value the multifaceted composition of human motivation and to understand how to engage others.

The Relationship between Your Own Vision of Success and Your Parental Influence

'The Anatomy of a Great Executive' by John Wareham (ISBN 0887305059) One less-known framework for understanding the provenance of people’s life goals—their deep-seated aspirations for want to achieve in life—is the “Psychic Contract” hypothesis, a concept that dominates The Anatomy of a Great Executive (1991) by John Wareham, a leadership psychologist from New Zealand.

According to Wareham, a psychic contract is a set of “deals” we subconsciously strike with our parents early in life. Our life-goals are defined primarily by our own vision of what our parents achieved—and what they failed to achieve:

As we grow we absorb the values of our parents, and are conditioned to improve (albeit marginally) upon their achievements. We strike a psychic contract with them whereby “success” in life is defined by the attainment of a similar social positioning, which we later embark upon attaining, sometimes very consciously, but often entirely unconsciously.

Throughout our lives, we unintentionally adhere to our psychic contracts, despite the limitations they place on us. We use our psychic contracts to not only define and approach our life goals but also think about how we measure success.

We consciously measure success in terms of milestones and standards instilled by our parents.

As a rule of thumb, about three quarters or more of people in westernized culture seek first to equal, then marginally to improve upon the lifestyle or status level perceived to exist in the childhood home.

Psychic Contract Theory: Children are Programmed to Want to Do as Well as or Better Than Their Parents

Our Vision of What Our Parents Achieved Influences Our Life Goals: The Psychic Contract In The Anatomy of a Great Executive, Wareham goes into depth explaining how we can know our own psychic contracts and how we can reset our goals to give ourselves permission to succeed. Here are some other prominent learning points:

  • Our psychic contract is based on our birth order, our parents’ birth order, and roles we play relative to our parents in our families.
  • The so-called “prime parental injunction” sits at the heart of our conscious. We go through our lives trying to become the people our parents wanted us to be. Even people who spend their lives trying to become exactly the opposite of what their parents wished are still influenced by this injunction.
  • Every person has a pre-programmed financial comfort level. Most of us strive to reach this level; but once there, we slow down—not because we are lazy, but because we have fulfilled our inner desires and don’t need more. Wareham cites the example of commission-based sales people who, after earning adequate commission to reach their financial comfort level, tend to be less aggressive in selling cars to customers for the rest of the month.

Idea for Impact: “Psychic Contract” is a handy and thought provoking—if unsubstantiated—hypothesis to understand how your and other people’s deep-seated life goals are established. It can give you one more data point in trying to figure people out.

20 Reasons People Don’t Change

They Don't Want to Change

If you have trouble getting people to change, perhaps one—or more—of the following reasons are to blame:

  1. They don’t want to change … they find reassurance in the status quo
  2. Their environment is holding them back
  3. They’ve tried to change in the past, failed, and have given up
  4. Your coaching / feedback is garbled … the benefits of change are unclear
  5. They don’t react well to criticism
  6. They’re suspicious of your motives (i.e. fear of manipulation)
  7. They see little incentive to change
  8. They don’t know how to change
  9. They have no role models
  10. There’s no support (or resources) for change
  11. Change threatens their self-image
  12. They can’t tell what’s really important
  13. They don’t feel courageous enough … i.e. they fear failure
  14. They don’t feel enough pain yet
  15. They’re overconfident or arrogant
  16. They fear their weaknesses will be exposed
  17. They’re too lazy and undisciplined
  18. Change requires giving up something they presently value
  19. They resist change that’s imposed from outside … i.e. they’re not intrinsically motivated for change
  20. Change undermines their self-confidence

Idea for Impact: Temper your expectations of others. Old habits die hard. Even Einstein’s doctor couldn’t get the great physicist to quit smoking despite his deteriorating health.

Be realistic about changing others’ hearts and minds. If you can learn to accept them for who they are and let go of your conceptions of their perfection, your relationships become more richer.

Release Your Cows … Be Happy

Attachments are Commonly the Cause of Much Suffering

In response to my article on tempering our expectations and avoiding disappointments, a dear friend inquired,

I follow the idea that when one has no control over a situation, one should not have their desired outcome be their expectations or it will lead to disappointment. Ex: I want my favorite sports team to win, but I am not a player who can change the outcome.

But where does this leave someone with a grand vision or a 10-year plan? We all start out having to learn, having to grow, not having the answers, having to “figure it out”. Do you tell a young doctor “you can’t cure cancer”?

How do you bridge from this idea of expectations to one that explains how one can navigate through life and achieve great accomplishments, like finding a cure for cancer?

Attachments are Commonly the Cause of Much Suffering

We Suffer—and Make Our Loved Ones Suffer—when We Try to Hold on to Things

Life is enjoyable, joyful, fascinating, and purposeful because of the attachments we form. Nevertheless, Buddhism teaches us, the loss of these very attachments is the root cause of the worst pains in life. Even the realization of the prospective loss of a cherished attachment—a person, pet, feeling, hope, ambition, or an inanimate object—can make us suffer.

'The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching' by Thich Nhat Hanh (ISBN 0767903692) The Buddha taught that all conditioned phenomena (everything we can know through our senses) are impermanent and transient. Everything we come across and all our “encounters” end in eventual separation. Expounding this foremost ingredient of the Buddhist thinking, the renowned Vietnamese-French Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (b.1926) narrates a Buddhist parable in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:

One day, after the Buddha and a group of monks finished eating lunch mindfully together, a farmer, very agitated, came by and asked, “Monks, have you seen my cows? I don’t think I can survive so much misfortune.” The Buddha asked him, “What happened” and the man said, “Monks, this morning all twelve of my cows ran away. And this year my whole crop of sesame plants was eaten by insects!” The Buddha said, “Sir, we have not seen your cows. Perhaps they have gone in the other direction.” After the farmer went off in that direction, the Buddha turned to his Sangha and said, “Dear friends, do you know you are the happiest people on Earth? You have no cows or sesame plants to lose.” We always try to accumulate more and more, and we think these ‘cows’ are essential for our existence. In fact, they may be the obstacles that prevent us from being happy. Release your cows and become a free person. Release your cows so you can be truly happy.

In a Graceful State, There is No Clinging, No Expectation, and No Desire

Though somewhat pedestrian, there is a profound wisdom in developing a sense of nonattachment (Sanskrit: upādāna.) Take for example our personal relationships. They are always a challenge because we keep wanting others—family, friends, and colleagues, even pets—to be who we want them to be for us. But if we can learn to accept them for who they are and let go of our conceptions of their perfection for us, our relationships become more straightforward and richer.

Often, the Buddhist concept of nonattachment is misunderstood as “non-loving” and relinquishment. The “absence of craving” (alobha) is the opposite of “craving” or “greed” (lobha). Nonattachment is not to abandon our loved ones, but to dispose of tendencies of self-protective clinging that preclude us from treasuring our loved ones more unreservedly and unconditionally.

All conditioned phenomenon are subject to emerging and passing. The more we attach to things that will change and pass away, the more we will suffer. The more expectations we have—for material success, for comfort, for exclusively happy relationships—the greater our inevitable disappointments.

Idea for Impact: Let Go, Be Happy

Release Your Cows » No Clinging, No Expectation, and No Desire Learn to let go of your metaphorical cows—those things you’re attached to. Only when you can get out of your own way, you can allow the world and its riches to work their magic. Embrace that prosperity.

Remember, nonattachment is neither indifference nor self-denial. Accepting the nature of our clinging and attachments in their true and transient nature eases our fears, opens our hearts, and benefits others and ourselves. Letting go of attachments is the secret to really enjoying life and loving others. It is freedom. It is nirvāṇa.