Lessons in Non-Attachment from Meditation Teacher Joseph Goldstein

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Renowned meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein’s quote gave me a glimpse at the truth: non-attatchment. And yet, all hope remains if you are mindful and experience the spiritual journey of constant change.

Once in a while, you hear a quote that splits you wide open.

Recently I was listening to an old talk from Joseph Goldstein, the distinguished meditation teacher. He was speaking about impermanence and attachment. If we realize things are constantly dissolving, he noted, we stop clinging to them.

(Imagine him holding a glass aloft.)

“The best way to relate to this cup,” said Goldstein, “is as if it’s already broken. Because when we relate to it as if it’s already broken—we use it, we care for it, we wash it—we do all the things in proper relationship to it. But there’s no attachment, because we see that it’s already gone.” (1)

Because we see that it’s already gone. This fragment got my nerves tingling. I surveyed the old wooden deck beneath my feet. Good as gone. My mind raced through my past relationships. They didn’t last. In a flash, the insight expanded to my most personal things: my thoughts, my body, my mind. They were all impermanent. I wasn’t used to feeling this way.

Our minds play a clever trick on us. We are deceived into thinking ourselves permanent fixtures in a changing universe. The facts don’t seem to matter. Ninety-eight percent of our bodies’ atoms, for instance, are replaced each year. And the smallest particles that currently make up who we are interact at speeds that make an eye blink seem like an eternity. (2) What’s more, our tiny building blocks don’t appear to have fixed locations in space. (Just probabilities of being in one place or another.) At the smallest level—according to the science—we simply cannot be pinned down. (3)

The objects and people we see each day are perpetually changing. It’s our concepts—and our attachment to them—that creates fixity from fluid. “We take this world to be so real,” said Goldstein. “We create that sense of solidity through our wanting…through our desiring…through our reaching…through our holding.” (4)

3 Things We Have Attachment Issues With: Things, Concepts and Thoughts

What do we hold on to? Often some pretty trivial things. I remember the day some years ago when I noticed a new feature on the door of my parked Hyundai: a cavernous impression the size and shape of Zimbabwe. I guess the hit-and-run driver didn’t have a pen and paper handy—there was no note. For weeks, the mere sight of the dent would make me angry. It took me over a month to realize that parking on city streets just accelerates an inevitable fate: my car in the junkyard.

Concepts also hold us in their grasp. Attachment to the notion of enlightenment—the primary goal of many spiritual practices—puts undue pressure on those who seek it. The confused devotee might sit for hours, wondering when this glorious state will come. This is not a mental pattern we want to cultivate.

But our very deepest attachment—our identification with an internal self—is also the subtlest. Reality is, at base, impersonal. From moment to moment, thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise in consciousness. Then we tack on the self. A strong itch might develop on your left ear. My itch. You grow irritated that your neighbor has decided to chainsaw at 8:00 a.m. I’m pissed. When everything is linked to “I”, we blow our problems out of proportion.

And thoughts, if unnoticed, simply take over. We identify with this ceaseless internal dialogue as “me.” But the inner yammering, if we pay attention, is not really that interesting. For instance, I sometimes catch myself planning my next meal while I eat. I’ll contemplate, mid-chew, a spice profile that might pair well with tonight’s chicken skewer. Then, if I’m dining with a friend, I’ll raise the topic for discussion—effectively torpedoing their eating experience. I get so caught up in this self-talk that I forget to taste my food.

But if we can stand sentinel to these vicissitudes of thought, noting it for what it is—thinking, thinking, still thinking– the mind learns something. We stop identifying with thoughts. We become detached from the cycle. Thoughts still come, but—seeing them clearly—we let them go.

The Conclusion: Non-Attachment Is the Way to Go

Viewing the world as transient doesn’t shatter our organized lives. We won’t vanish or spin off the planet. But when the car gets dinged up, we can shrug it off. When a relationship ends, we can move on. When we feel sad or lonely, we realize these feelings are just ephemeral appearances and will pass.

Goldstein’s quote gave me a glimpse at the truth: that there is nothing in life to cling to. Although it sounds grim, the insight had quite the opposite effect on me. I felt suffused with energy—alive and connected with the world around me—caught in the cosmic dance of changing conditions. Then, like everything does, the feeling passed.

 

Notes:

1)     Goldstein, Joseph. “The Power of Restraint.” Dharma Talk. Nov 23 1984. (Here, Goldstein is relating the teachings of Ajahn Cha.)
2)     Quarks emit gluons, for example, in one yoctosecond  (10-24 sec)
3)     According to quantum mechanics, particles travel in a wave that can only be measured in terms of probability
4)     Goldstein, Joseph. “The Power of Restraint.” Dharma Talk. Nov 23 1984.

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Relephant:

The True Lesson in Embracing Non-attachment.

Why Non-attachment is one of the Keys to a Happy Life & Relationship.

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Relephant bonus:

Non-attachment is also one of the Buddhist tips for making relationships last:

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Author: Brian Stanton

Editor: Travis May

Image: Flickr/Julien Belli

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Brian Stanton

Brian Stanton is a freelancer who writes on his own blog – mostly on nutrition, meditation and philosophy – at primalsapien.com. Part caveman, part Buddhist monk – Brian practices yoga and various forms of meditation, all while appearing to fit in with society. He loves the forest in all seasons.

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anonymous Jan 28, 2016 9:26am

I loved this analogy from when I first read it, but forgot the author, as I had read it quoted in another book. In that book, they used the analogy to talk about death and how we think it’s something far off, in the future, coming. But that in actuality, death is already here, i.e., the glass is already broken. While it does sound a bit dark, it really isn’t, as it can be a valuable reminder to live in each moment as it occurs, as that is the only reality. I say it to myself often, “the glass is already broken,” when I find myself counting on time that isn’t a reality. Thanks for writing this, excellent article!

anonymous Jan 28, 2016 9:00am

Good point – it’s not a perfect analogy for living things. Yet I think if we keep the transiency of life in mind – with regard to ourselves, friends, pets, family, etc – it helps us appreciate everyone more deeply. If everyone were immortal, we might not value our time together so much.

anonymous Jan 28, 2016 8:19am

The analogy with the glass is perfect!! It really helps put things in a proper perspective. However I have this issue translating it to living things like pets and friends and family. It’s not exactly easy to picture them broken…. Any suggestions on how to translate the glass analogy to loved ones??!! It would be most helpful!

anonymous Jan 26, 2016 8:14pm

Hi Bernie- thanks for the kind words. I think the car example applies to most material things. (They aren’t getting any newer.) Perhaps the analogy breaks down a bit with the human body, which can regenerate and become biologically younger in some circumstances. Of course, in the long run, the body ends up in the “junkyard” as well.

anonymous Jan 26, 2016 3:04pm

Thankyou for your post today Brian, a very good way to explain Impermanence, I love the point about the car—it’s already travelling along it’s path of existence & getting closer to the junk yard each day ! so a bump here or there is not so devastating in this context .

Ed Hare Jun 19, 2016 9:26am

I agree that when seen through the lens of time, nothing is permanent, but we may need to look at things from an even larger perspective. The glass is a glass, and even in its whole form, it is filled; it is used; it is emptied; it is washed; it is put back on the shelf and in some period of time, it is used again. One day, that use includes its being dropped and it is swept up and thrown "away," or it may just be proclaimed to be old and worn, and so is put into the recycle bin.." But the story of the glass is more than the parts we see. Before it was a glass, it was silica sand that was mined and turned into glass. Before that, it was part of a mountain and once upon a long time ago, it was the molten ball of heavy elements that ultimately cooled into the earth. It was the wispy gasses in space that came from the supernovae stars that glass once was, and if we keep looking back in time, everything in that glass was the entire Universe without form, in the singularity that exploded forth into every physical thing the Universe is. When did it become "a glass?" And even "away" is a unknown. If recycled, what will it become? If incinerated,will its molten ash become part of what is used to create construction material, to be used anew? If buried in the ground, after millions of years it will be subducted, to become once again a part of the Earth it spent time being. So, in that timelessness is found all of the different things a glass could be, and the idea of "non-attachment" loses all meaning for me. If I am attached to "a glass" I am appreciating and knowing only one of the many things that glass has been, and its ultimate "end" as a glass is as much a part of what it is as any other. What happens if I choose attachment instead of non-attachment? What if the impermanence of a glass, or of a human life, is all the reason more to be deeply attached to whatever form things are taking in the present moment, but expanded to remain attached as those things or people change throughout their lives? Can we really say, "this person will not be in my life forever, so I need to cherish every moment she is here?" Can I also see this to say, "This person will never again be exactly what she if being and feeling in this moment; every moment will never happen to me again, so I will attach to it as completely as I can to find every value in it that I can see and experience?" Can I continue to find as much value in its constant change as I do it what it is right now?