Attachment is a mental factor that causes us to exaggerate the good qualities of an object, person, idea, etc., or project good qualities that aren’t there. It then leads to our wishing for and clinging to the object, seeing it as permanent, pleasurable, and existing in and of itself. This practice helps us to reflect on and work with attachment.
To begin, ask yourself: What specific things, people, emotions am I attached to? How do I view them when I’m attached? If that person or thing exists the way it appears to my attached mind, why doesn’t everyone see it that way? Why do I sometimes feel differently about it? What is a more realistic attitude toward the object of my attachment?
Keep these questions in mind as we continue our exploration. In order to take the ache out of attachment, it’s helpful to first consider its disadvantages. For example, it breeds dissatisfaction and frustration because we continually want more and better things, which prevents us from enjoying what we already have. It causes us to go up and down emotionally according to whether we have the object of our attachment or not. It might motivate us to connive, manipulate, and plot to get what we want. Under the spell of attachment, we could act hypocritically or with ulterior motives, which ends up damaging our relationships with others. Attachment might drive us to act unethically to get what we want, to harm others and increase our own sense of self-hatred and guilt. Ultimately, it causes us to spend our lives chasing after pleasures, none of which we can take with us when we die. Meanwhile, our potential to develop inner qualities such as love, compassion, generosity, patience, and wisdom goes untapped. In this way, attachment effectively blocks our clarity and even our potential for awakening.
Another by-product of attachment is anger. When we are strongly attached to something, we become disappointed and angry if we don’t get it or are separated from it once we have it. Think of an example in your life when that has been the case.
Then examine: Why do I get angry? What is the relationship between my expectations and my anger? What did I expect from the person, thing, or situation that it didn’t have or do? Were my expectations realistic? Was the problem in that person or thing, or in my thinking the person or object had qualities that he, she, or it didn’t? What is a more realistic view of that person, thing, or situation? How does this new view affect how I feel and relate to them?
Attachment causes us to fear not getting what we want or need, and losing what we have. Think of examples in your life in which this has been the case.
Then ask yourself: Do I really need those things? What is the worst-case scenario if I don’t get or lose them? Even if I did, would I be completely without tools to handle the situation, or are there things I can do to meet it effectively? What would happen if I gave up being attached to that person or thing? What would my life be like?
When it comes to relationships, attachment can lead to codependence, causing us to remain in harmful situations out of fear of change.
Consider: What am I attached to that makes me remain in that situation? Is that something worth holding on to? Is it in fact as wonderful as my attachment thinks it is? What would happen if I gave up being attached to it? What internal and external tools do I have to help me deal with the situation?
It is not realistic to expect external objects to be a lasting source of happiness.
Contemplate the disadvantages of being attached to those people, things, experiences in your life that you strongly cling to. Think of the transient nature of the object of your attachment and see if you can accept that change is the very nature of existence. Remind yourself that it is not realistic to expect external objects to be a lasting source of happiness. Reflect on the fact that by letting go, we can enjoy our health, our relationships, any wealth we might have when it’s there, and be relaxed when it isn’t.
Next, we’ll consider some antidotes to attachment. The main attitude to cultivate is one of balance: by eliminating our exaggerations and projections, we can be more balanced in our relationships to those things we want or need. Free of grasping and compulsiveness, we can be involved and caring in healthy ways. The points below are meant for repeated reflection. An intellectual understanding alone does not yield the force necessary to stop destructive patterns.
Reflecting on our mortality helps us to see clearly what is important in our life. Take a moment to imagine yourself dying. Really visualize where you are, how you are dying, the reactions of friends and family. How do you feel? What is happening in your mind? Then ask yourself: Given that I will die one day, what is important in my life? What do I feel good about having done? What do I regret? What do I want to do and to avoid doing while I’m alive? What can I do to prepare for death?
Contemplate the changing nature of the body, from fetus to infant, child, adult, to old person. Some guiding questions you can use are: Is my body composed of pure substances? Is it inherently beautiful? After death, what will my body become? Is it worthy of being attached to? Is there some
inherent essence that is my body? Am I my body?
There’s no question that we must take care of our bodies, keeping them clean and healthy, because they are the basis of our precious human life. By protecting them with wisdom but without attachment, we will be able to practice the dharma and benefit sentient beings.
We often cling to our ideas about how things should be done, to our opinions of who others are and what they should do, to our beliefs about the nature of life. We then become upset when others disagree with our ideas. Ask yourself: When someone criticizes my ideas, are they criticizing me? Is something right just because I think it is? What would happen if I saw things the way the other person sees them? How can I let go of the fear of losing power or getting taken advantage of?
If we see shortcomings in another’s ideas, we can express these in a kind way, without being defensive of our own views. Imagine yourself speaking firmly and clearly to state your opinions, but also remaining nondefensive. Remember to keep opening into a wider view.
Imagine receiving all the approval and praise you have ever craved. Imagine people saying or acknowledging all the things you have ever hoped they would. Enjoy the good feeling that this might bring. Then ask yourself, will this really make me lastingly happy? How do praise, approval, or a good reputation benefit me? Do they prevent illness or extend my life ? Do they really solve the problem of self-hatred and guilt? Do they purify my negative karma or make me closer to liberation or enlightenment? If not, is it worth being attached to them?
To develop our sense of being interconnected with all others and being the recipient of much kindness from them, contemplate the help, support, and encouragement you have received from friends or loved ones. Recognize these as acts of human kindness. Reflect on the benefit you have received from parents, relatives, and teachers—the care they gave you when you were young, protection, education. All talents, abilities, and skills we have now are due to the people who taught and trained us.
Consider all the help you have received from strangers: the home you inhabit, the clothes you wear, the food you eat, were all made by people you do not know. Without their efforts, you wouldn’t be able to survive. Then reflect on the benefit you have received from people you do not get along with and people who have harmed you. Through their actions, they give us the chance to develop patience, tolerance, and compassion—qualities that are essential for progressing along the path.
Love is the wish for others to have happiness and its causes. Begin by wishing yourself to be well and happy, not in a selfish way, but because you respect and care for yourself as one of many sentient beings. Gradually spread this love to friends, strangers, difficult people, and all beings. For each group of people, think of specific individuals and generate love for them. Then let that feeling spread to the entire group.
Think, feel, imagine, “May my friends and all those who have been kind to me have happiness and its causes. May they be free of suffering, confusion, and fear. May they have calm, peaceful, and fulfilled hearts.”
Generate the same feelings toward strangers. Spread the feeling to those who have harmed you or are difficult. Recognize that they do what you find objectionable because they are experiencing pain or confusion. How wonderful it would be if they were free.
As a conclusion, recognize attachment as your enemy. We usually think of attachment as our friend, but when we look carefully at our experience, we begin to see how clinging to things actually destroys our peace of mind and destroys our happiness. And when we see this, then that gives us some energy to want to counteract our attachment and not just to follow it blindly.
This article is based on a guided meditation that Venerable Thubten Chodron often leads on retreats.