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Desire and Attachment

In the Four Noble Truths the Buddha reminds us that the origin of suffering is attachment. I am going to try and convince you of the truth of this assertion.

You might remember the quote from “A Course in Miracles” that I commenced my previous blog with:

I am affected only by my thoughts.

This is very relevant in our discussion about detachment. Let me try to explain.

One of the traps that we human beings often fall into, and this is propagated by our materialistic society, that our happiness, our well being, is dependant on satisfying our desires. We think that to be happy we need to have an attractive partner. We believe that we will not be satisfied unless we can “keep up with the Jones’s”. Therefore we need to have a great house, a fashionable car, a plasma TV, and all the modern accoutrements that materialistic marketing suggests that is necessary for us to possess to be happy.

An insightful person has said, “We are not attached to things. We are attached to our idea about things.”

Again it is our thoughts we are contending with. This is an issue that many of our sages have contended with. For example, the Greek stoic Epictetus 2000 years ago came to the realisation that emotions are reactions to thoughts about reality, not reality itself. Thus how we think about the world is of paramount importance. Elsewhere we have called this our “worldview”.

It has been said that anything I think I need to make me happy has already harmed me. If I believe that I need a desirable partner, a host of material possessions or to be “successful” in conventional terms to be happy, then I am immediately vulnerable. As Jack Kornfield, the American Buddhist teacher points out, “Clearly we do not possess outer things; we are in some sort of relationship with our cars, our home, our family, our jobs, but whatever that relationship is, it is ‘ours’ only for a short time. In the end, things, people or tasks die or change or we lose them. Nothing is exempt.”

Attachment and desire are related. Those things we are attached to we inevitably desire. But we can never satisfy our desires. And in addition those benefits we thought we might get when our desires are fulfilled are limited and quickly diminish.

We are driven by our desires – but they never can be fulfilled. Suppose I think I need someone special – a lover, a partner, a soulmate – to be happy. Here our thoughts delude us. We find someone very special. We believe they are our ideal. They, and they alone will make us complete. Finally we woo them and they are ours. (First mistake – we treat them as a possession. They are now something we own and our well-being is dependent on this relationship.)

Now consider how vulnerable we are. Our happiness is dependent on a relationship with someone who (even if we cannot admit it) might decide to leave us. But not only this, this marvellous human being whom we worshipped, when we really get to know them have failings and frailties that we never realised when they were an object of desire that we had not yet attained. All of a sudden our object of desire has lost its lustre.

Or perhaps we had a great desire for a new car. We had been titillated by the advertisements we had seen. Besides which our best friend has just bought a new car and we are left driving an unfashionable old bomb that has served us well but has seen better days. We decide it is time to treat ourselves to a new vehicle. We imagine how exciting it will be to drive the new machine and to try out all the new gadgets that come with it. So we purchase an upmarket vehicle and think how “with it” we now are. But strangely after a week or two the novelty wears off and we don’t feel much better than when we had the old car. It is surprising when we go driving how many cars there are like ours. But we see some other vehicles that look decidedly unique. Now we are determined to acquire one of those as soon as possible.

I think it might have been Matthieu Ricard (French scientist turned Buddhist Monk and author of “Happiness”) who coined the term the ‘hedonic treadmill’. We get caught in our pursuit of our desires. We run after them but really find ourselves getting nowhere.

We would do well at this time to heed the words of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who said, “It is not the man who has little, but the man who craves more that is poor.”

Or indeed the words of Diogenes of Sinope who was reputed to have said to Alexander the Great, “I am a greater man than you my lord, because I have eschewed more than you have conquered!”

Our desire for these things erroneously leads us to believe we need them to make us happy. Now does this mean that we can not appreciate such things? Of course not – it is just that we must never believe our happiness is dependant on having them. (I touched briefly on this in my blog of 26 June.)

It is a marvellous thing to have a loving partner but it is not necessary for your sense of well-being. Your new car may bring you some temporary pleasure but it is not necessary for your happiness. Certainly your favourite programs look better on your plasma TV but you can be contented without one. The true path to liberation comes when you can let go everything. Our long term sense of well-being doesn’t depend on what we own or our personal relationships, it depends on how we think.

Chapters 1, 9 & 24 in “Augustus Finds Serenity” have more to say on this issue.

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