Not-Attached to Non Attachment; Suffering is Bliss. ~ Keith Molyneaux

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In buddhism there are four noble truths, and in a society that looks for spiritual understanding, these core concepts in Buddhism are often turned to for understanding.

One of the basic ideas, as interpreted by the Western Mind, is that attachment is the bane of happiness, and if a person is attached, then they have some serious issues. It is their fault for having attachments, and the subsequent pain and unhappiness that arises from this perceived mis-alignment is karmic and well-deserved punishment. I claim hog-wash.

The focus on non-attachment is the very definition of attachment.

When I hear people talk about attachment, and how a person is deluded because they are attached to a person, or work, or prosperity, I am hearing the words of a person caught in limiting judgments. While it is true that certain types of attachment may inevitably lead to pain, the suffering of longing is available only because of attachment. It is a blessing in disguise. And though unfulfilled or broken attachments may lead to suffering, the bliss that can be discovered through that suffering leads to wisdom.

I am attached to my family, to my ideals of an ethical life, and to certain people in my life. I am attached to having food, shelter, and security. I am attached to taking care of my body and living a fulfilling life. Those attachments are gifts that are normal and healthy in life. They give a direction and purpose. Without positive attachments, a person becomes a lump, or worse, an desensitized person who robotically uses spiritual ideals to remain separated from experiencing the gifts of life.

And I will feel pain when separated from my loved ones; I will yearn and suffer for the want of company; I will feel a deep ache because my beloved pets die; I will have agony for falling short in my desires. I know the trepidation of illness, pain and death. And I am enriched for the experience, and have deepest gratitude for being able to feel life to its fullest.

Attachment is not the problem, attachment to desires are the issue.

The issue with attachment is the imbalanced desire that everything only be positive and good: that life only fits within the box of personal attachments and expectations, and when it does not, we become agitated and have tantrums; or the attachment to a certain future outcome, where all efforts are guided to manipulate a certain course of events and final result; or attachments to belief structures and ideals that may or may not serve the best interests of an individual on the path of self-discovery.

Life does not operate like that. There are many unexpected twists and turns as we live. With every attachment that goes in one direction, there is an underlying aversion that leads in the opposite. Understanding, recognizing and honoring the balance between aversion and attachment is liberating. But it does not mean that a person becomes not attached. Attachments are necessary for operating in daily life.

Equanimity occurs when living in balance, and seeing the full scope of life.

Dukkha are the sufferings associated with aging, illness and death. It is also suffering associated with holding firm to things that constantly change, and a dissatisfaction with existence because it never meets up with personal expectation. By recognizing and accepting the transitory nature of life, the attachment to expected desires is released.

Naturally, one accepts the conditions of embodied existence. The demand that life be only as we see and demands life to be, fades away. The attachments to our loved ones will always lead to agony when they are gone, yet the agony only happens for the deeply sensitive heart who has experienced love. I would choose that agony over a vulcan-like non-emotional state any day, because it means I have also discovered and lived the fullness of love.

Judging a person for being attached violates the premise of non-violence.

One of my primary irritations are with spiritual know-it-alls who claim a person is attached and caught in illusion. Do you know anybody who isn’t? Do you know a Christ, Buddha or Krishna? Are you one?

No, you aren’t. Neither am I.

So the next time you want to put down a person, or point out how they are failing because of being attached, I might suggest allowing yourself to detach from your own idea of what non-attachment is, and to allow the person to be who they are.

The people who claim to be not attached are, in my experience, the ones who are most deeply ensnared by attachment. It is the failing of blinding pride that points condemning fingers with snarky comments about being attached, and fails to see the truth of one’s own self. After all, since those types of people are so not attached and liberated, they should please feel free to take their enlightened selves and transcend to the next dimension of existence and allow us poor mortals to live in peace.

Compassion supports where judgment fails.

The classical cures for the pains of life are love, compassion, faith and other spiritual virtues. Nowhere does it say to point out to the person who is hurting from a break-up, divorce, illness or other life trauma that they are going to be better because you tell them they are suffering from attachment.

All the ancient sources point out the virtues, and how they lead to liberation. It is why love is the focus, and not book knowledge. When focusing on love, one becomes naturally detached from egoistic concepts and control structures, and the true selfless nature emerges.

One becomes sensitive and aware to the conditions of life and, when faced with the shadows and tribulations of the body, allows these events to occur with less and less struggle. It does not mean there is an absence of pain, it is just that the pain is accepted as part of the path, and a transcended perception arises that recognizes the necessity and value of the shadow side of life.

A different response becomes available, both within oneself, and to others. A gentler, expansive, and more holistic perspective of the experiences of living and dying.

Love remains the path, and the cure.

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Keith Artisan

Keith Artisan believes each human is innately good and imbued with talent. Believing that life is a mystery, he feels it is his life purpose to inspire people to believe in themselves and live their truth. Living what he believes, Keith actively serves his community as an entrepreneur, artist, yoga instructor, musician, writer, and mentor. He is online at Facebook and his website, Living Artisan .

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anonymous Mar 21, 2016 5:57am

My last thought here is this: Sometimes we can become so "caught up" in our (unhealthy) attachments to things that we loose the ability to see the effects they might be having on us or those around us. We become unconscious. We loose our sense of present-awareness, or, at worst, our sense of self. Unfortunately, this is all-too-often the case for many of us, and when this happens we are indeed what Keith has termed “deluded”. So, given that we are not, as Keith points out, “Christ, Buddha or Krishna”, we are all at risk of forming unhealthy attachments. We are all at risk of turning our ordinary and appropriate experiences of pain into intractable experiences of suffering, and even worse, continually making this known to everyone around us in pursuit of sympathy or special attention. 

So, with this in mind, maybe it’s actually a blessing to have so many “spiritual-know-it-alls” in the world? For each time we are accused of being “caught in an illusion” we are also being presented with a little reminder, an opportunity, to reflect on the nature of our attachments, and whether or not this may, in fact, be the case. If our Egos feel a little bruised after such an encounter, or if we become annoyed with “the people who claim to be not attached”, then perhaps we ought to pause for a moment and consider why this might be the case.

If we don’t, we may well be caught in more than just the illusion of attachment. If we don’t…the “spiritual-know-it-alls” may, in fact, be right! 

anonymous Oct 29, 2015 2:47am

I appreciate so much of this article. Though we must do our best to lay our judgments down to those who may be lost in hostility or misperceptions, or we are no better. “Snarky, know it all, blinding pride” feels aggressive maybe from our own hurt pride, towards others who are also learning. It is easy to meet self righteous tendencies with the same, or we can meet it with love and understanding that they, the “know it alls,” are learning, too. Nonattachment in my eyes is meeting the nature of attachment with a disciplined mind. Being aware of the condition of attachment but using equanimity to see duality. Being aware you feel attachment but cradling it with love & a balanced conscious mind, to see the nature of duality.

    anonymous Mar 21, 2016 5:55am

    I am comforted to know that someone else sensed the ever-so-slightly "aggressive" energy that you point to in your response, Marie. I suppose that what I felt when I read this piece is something along the lines of what Rick Henderson had to say in his comments. I will try to articulate my thoughts below.

    If we are to approach each person we meet, and each encounter we have with them, as an opportunity to move one little step close to enlightenment/self-actualization/supreme consciousness, then it should not really matter whether a response to our ostensible attachment is coming from a place of judgment or not. It is simply a response. It is not ours to own. Rather, it is our reaction to that perceived 'judgment' that counts most. Indeed, if we are in a state of 'unhealthy attachment’ to something or someone, we may very well perceive a healthy dose of "grandmotherly kindness" – of discerning wisdom – as a rather harsh and condemnatory ‘judgment’ of our behaviour. But our perception says nothing at all about the response itself. Our perception, in and of itself, is simply a judgment too.  And, at any rate, it would be quite impossible to get inside the 'judgers' head so as to work out the 'actual' intention underpinning the words they use to describe our own experience/relationships at that particular moment in time. 

    Ultimately, any response to a person's behaviour or experience must, necessarily, involve some degree of 'judgment', and it is simply our own reaction to that perceived judgment that will determine whether it (the perceived judgment) comes from a place of (un)consciousness or not. In other words, whether we choose to see it as a condemnation of our relationship(s) or as a useful point on which to reflect, either way we will be right. 

      anonymous Mar 21, 2016 5:55am

      Ultimately, any response to a person's behaviour or experience must, necessarily, involve some degree of 'judgment', and it is simply our own reaction to that perceived judgment that will determine whether it (the perceived judgment) comes from a place of (un)consciousness or not. In other words, whether we choose to see it as a condemnation of our relationship(s) or as a useful point on which to reflect, either way we will be right. 

      Our reaction to the judgment will say infinitely more about the nature of our own relation to our attachments than it will about the words that are being used to evaluate and describe them by others. In such instances, it might be useful to remember that "meaning is up for grabs", to quote an old professor of mine. But, just as "meaning is up for grabs", our reaction to the the perceived meaning is, equally, "up for grabs”. 

      By labelling a person who responds to our perceived attachment a "spiritual know-it-all", we become equally 'guilty' of casting a judgment upon others, and by holding on to this form of reaction as a "primary irritation" we are probably acting in a way that is even less mindful than the actions we perceive to be the source of our irritation. 

        anonymous Mar 21, 2016 5:56am

        Basically, we can choose to allow the supposed judgment to irritate us or to liberate us. To paraphrase the words of an ancient Zen master we might ask: "Is the judgment really coming to irritate me, or am I going out (of my state of present awareness) to irritate the judgment?”. 

        I would like to say how excellent oz’s insights are – indicative of precisely the kind of wisdom he refers to in his citation of Kornfield. Certainly, I am quite sure that no Buddhist perspective would either classify or condemn the love that one has for one's family as an unhealthy form of attachment. Nor would this be the case for the desire that we all have to satisfy our basic needs for food, shelter and security. 

        The questions, IMHO, that a Buddha might ask of us in relation to these ‘attachments’ are simply: “Are these ‘attachments’ geared towards attaining enlightenment for the benefit of all beings?” and “What would happen if the objects of these ‘attachments' were taken away from us?”. Perhaps those are two of the most important keys to truly unlocking the ‘real’ nature of our attachments. Thus, to experience the pain of life and the loss of healthy ‘attachments’, and to be "enriched for the experience, and have deepest gratitude for being able to feel life to its fullest”, is quite the opposite of someone who jumps from one unhealthy attachment to the next, causing themselves and others great suffering in the process, whilst remaining oblivious to the true nature of things and failing to see the underlying ‘cause’ of their suffering. Put differently, a little Buddhist teaching (that, incidentally, once changed my life) might summarize this idea by saying that the latter example involves asking, “Why me?”, whilst the former consists of asking, “Well, why NOT me?” in relation to the pain we experience as an ordinary and inevitable part of our human existence.

          anonymous Mar 21, 2016 5:57am

          In response to another of oz’s most valuable comments, I would like to suggest that it might, perhaps, be possible to agree with part of Keith’s statement that the “Western Mind” would perceive someone’s attachment-based suffering as "their fault for having attachments…”. They might even see it as “well-deserved”. My own spiritual path takes an unusual approach to karma, so I won’t respond to that part of the statement here. However, I would also (cautiously) add that perhaps even the “Eastern Mind” would agree with the “Western Mind” here, but not in the most obvious sense. I fully agree with oz in doubting that any compassionate and conscious being would ‘blame’ someone for experiencing the pain of, say, loosing a partner or child. This, importantly, is where the distinction oz draws our attention to – between pain and suffering – is so critical. That is to say that it would be unthinkable to fault someone for their pain, but the ‘fault’ here might arise when the pain becomes suffering – particularly if the suffering is prolonged, harmful or dysfunctional and yet no action is taken to remedy it.

          So, at what point, then, does pain become ‘suffering’. Again, oz is instructive in his suggestion that “attachment is more about the energy that one brings”. Similarly, I would suggest that, for example, the process of mourning “is more about the energy one brings”. For is it not quite possible to be in a state of profound emotional or psychological pain and yet, simultaneously, hope for a brighter and more peaceful tomorrow? Is it not possible to “hold” your pain with self-compassion, or to allow it to be held by others in a way that makes it less insufferable?  The point I am trying to make here is that in both of the preceding examples, the pain of mourning is recognized as a process, as a ‘state’, as something that is not fix, nor permanent, nor beyond our ability to intervene upon it in some way. No one can simply will away the pain of mourning, but anyone can take a step – no matter how tiny – towards attempting to put it in its place within the greater process of Life. Anyone can TRY to observe their experience of pain in an attempt to understand, accept and heal it. We may well fail (repeatedly) in or attempts to do so, but we can, nevertheless, try. 

          So, it is in exactly this sense that "pain is mandatory, suffering optional’. Ultimately, what (I think) both the Eastern and Western Minds would find fault with, then, is the refusal to see the pain for what it really is, to completely identify with the pain, or to allow the pain to cause unnecessary suffering for oneself or others. This may be especially true when a person has at their disposal all the spiritual ‘tools’ or resources required to (at least begin to) transcend the pain, and yet continue to "become agitated and have tantrums” in relation to what they might perceive as their unique and insurmountable suffering. In such a case we might even say – but only ever in the wisest and most compassionate way, and perhaps only to ourselves – that “they deserve it”. 

anonymous Jan 14, 2014 11:12am

This was a very thought provoking and interesting article. Thanks for the thought and heart that went into writing it!

I will say that I've studied Buddhism for some time now, have learned from dozens of well regarded teachers, and I doubt any would agree with this statement:

"It is their fault for having attachments, and the subsequent pain and unhappiness that arises from this perceived mis-alignment is karmic and well-deserved punishment."

Much of what you wrote here is excellent – but there are semantic issues, IMO, that undermine those excellent points. What exactly do you mean by 'suffering', for example, and do you distinguish it from pain? That is, as implied in the well known Buddhist saying 'pain is mandatory, suffering optional'. I don't see that conceptual dichotomy being honored here, and IMO it's a vitally important one.

Similarly, there is a difference between detachment (aka "a vulcan-like non-emotional state") and non-attachment that is not at all made clear, and in fact this piece muddies any distinction one might make between the two.

[To some degree, I think these issues are because these are English analogues to the Pali, and to some degree, it's the standard black and white thinking that our culture conditions into us that needs to polarize everything.]

Attachment is more about the energy that one brings – so while you say you are "attached to having food, shelter, and security" – if this leads to gluttony and a mcmansion in a gated community patrolled by armed guards, perhaps it's not so healthy as you suggest. I'd suggest that latter situation is what Buddhists mean by unhealthy 'attachment.' But if those needs are attended to simply and not dependent on exploitation or oppression or harm being done, then while you still might refer to it as 'attachment,' I don't think any wise person, Buddhist or otherwise, would think it unhealthy.

In other words, we have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I definitely agree with the notion that there are spiritual 'know-it-alls' who are unhealthfully attached to the activity of judging non-attachment in others. As one teacher explained it to me, there is a fine line between judgement and discernment. And I think you are absolutely right that compassion helps to demarcate the difference.

You go on to suggest that "Love remains the path, and the cure," but I prefer Jack Kornfield's assertion that a Buddhist way of being relies not on one, but on TWO wings – wisdom and compassion. IMO, both are necessary and one is not more necessary than the other, although for many of us, love and compassion is the more difficult to cultivate.

So let's say yes to the cultivation of love – but also to the commitment to 'seeing things as they are' that comes from the cultivation of wisdom. If you look at our civilization, both are desperately, desperately needed.

    anonymous Jan 14, 2014 3:04pm

    You responded beautifully and communicated my own thoughts better than I couldve. Though I think I understood his point, I was uncomfortable with the extremes. Perhaps he's had bad examples, but compassion and love are wonderful at showing us how to respond in presence. I feel it's always better to live from presence and openness rather than a set of rules we may or may not intellectually understand.

    anonymous Jan 16, 2014 8:31am

    Hello oz,
    I loved your response here. I really enjoy when a writer provokes a great response from a reader. Both of you have done so today!
    I would love to create a connection with you, via sm (do you have facebook?). I’m asking with the intention to create connections with people who grow my mind and heart– since you just did, I am reaching out my hand to introduce myself. If you would like to accept my gesture, you will find me on facebook. It was a pleasure meeting you. Thank you for your thoughtful comment posted here.

    anonymous Jan 16, 2014 6:15pm

    Thank you for so cogently stating my own discomfort at the absolutes in this piece, wonderful and expressive as it is. It's that ancient conundrum of the judgment judging the judgmental. My most valuable take-away from your discourse is the classic Buddhist premise that pain is certain, suffering optional. Thank you.

anonymous Jan 14, 2014 5:21am

Bravo… Just bravo

anonymous Jan 14, 2014 5:19am

Perhaps it's a little like skiing – if you want to avoid hitting the tree, don't stare at the tree. Stare at the spaces between the trees, and you will fly through that space safely. If you want to avoid attachment, don't focus on attachment. Focus on the space around it instead.