I opened my last post by warning that its message might be upsetting, but my admonition may have been unnecessary and melodramatic. The essay said nothing too surprising. Today’s post will bring us closer to the edge of psychic discomfort, I hope. For what’s the point of blogging about mental health if you don’t explore the raw surfaces of emotional life?
So what did I say last time? Desires can lead to trouble. I hear my readers thinking: “Tell us something we don’t already know.” We’ve all read many novels depicting the mayhem that surrounds those who act without restraint. We recognize that a major task of growing up is learning to steady our behavior rather than pursue our whims. Granted, the Buddha took that basic knowledge to the next level, and showed how even subtle craving can cause suffering, but the message still sounds like common sense: unbridled wants lead to angst.
In the millennia since the Buddha imparted his teachings, these concepts have been elaborated into sophisticated recommendations for achieving equanimity. During the past fifty years, many Westerners have adopted Buddhist practices and precepts. For instance, the doctrine of non-attachment has entered common parlance.
As I have done with a number of spiritual systems, I devoted myself to Buddhist study and practice for a time. I learned the deep peacefulness that comes with following the breath during meditation. I even managed to experience my egoic personality as a mirage, as a biological process within this body’s neural structure, suspended midway between the subatomic and galactic realms.
For all the insight I gleamed from Buddhist practice, however, the idea of non-attachment always remained a bit troubling. Sure, it works fine if applied to material or fleeting pleasures like cars, chocolate, or love affairs. The transient pleasures of life cannot be sustained, and chasing thrills is a doomed strategy for happiness. But what about genuine, deep-seated, love? How can non-attachment make sense when we speak of those closest to us?
For once, I don’t have an answer here. In theory, we could love with all our depth while a person is with us, then calmly let go when he or she departs to the next plane. But even Buddhists grieve, right? And isn’t grief the necessary and worthy price of love? Even so, we fear it.
Keeping a loose grip is fine, and not that hard, when pleasures are only of the senses. But when they have deeper roots, and touch the heart and soul, holding lightly becomes far more challenging. And is it even desirable? Do we really want to remain non-attached to those around us? Are not the joy and pain of love and loss vital experiences in life? Where do we draw the line between the attachments we should release, and the ones that sustain our humanity?
In trying to work this out, I think about how we deal with the mortality of those we love. Quite often we revert to denial, that powerful tool of the mind. Even when we know better, we block out awareness of the inevitable death of those we hold dear. My father was hospitalized with ominous medical problems a year before he died, but when I received the dreadful phone notification of his passing, it still came as a shock. I should have known better, but I didn’t want to.
My bond to him, despite our many conflicts, was too important for me to permit thought of sunder. Unfortunately, my fear of loss fueled a denial that tricked me into squandering time I might have spent with my dad in his final year. My attachment was so intense, it kept me from contemplating the obvious and working to resolve my relationship with a man who both inspired and frustrated me. Perhaps if I had been less attached, I’d have been able to face my fear, spend time with my father, and traverse the minefield of admiration, anger, and the tragic fact of his mortality.
The hardship of losing those we love is one of those ordeals that can expand and teach us. But getting to that enlarged and wise state requires that we embrace the pain of grief, and at the same time relax our grip on the dying or departed. Only then can we experience the timeless alchemy of tragedy and grace.
So how to sum up non-attachment in matters of the deeper heart? It comes down to cherishing every moment with those we love. We recognize the fleeting nature of all our relationships, and the inevitable breaking of all attachments. As painful as loss is to contemplate, we accept that our bonds of affection will be disrupted at the end of every life. We guide our hearts by this truth of transience, while keeping our minds in the present, focused on those dear to us. Attachment to the ones alive, sweet letting go of those deceased.