Attachments are Commonly the Cause of Much Suffering
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?
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 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
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.