Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thoughts on Attachment and Expectation

Today is a glorious, sunny Sunday in the south. A bit chilly, to be sure, but it is late-November and it seems winter is finally settling in. Last week the trees were resplendent in their fall foliage, almost surreal in vibrant golds and reds, and now that season has passed, as quietly and quickly as it crept in.

We talk a lot in Buddhist practice about the transitory nature of all life, and the changing seasons provide us with excellent example. The study of impermanence is part of the mediations on death, which are essential to attaining freedom from attachment. Death and Attachment. Okay, maybe I'm biting off more than I can chew in one humble blog, so let me speak first of attachment, because understanding its nature is fundamental to all else in Buddhist practice, and it is one of the most difficult habits to transcend.

Thubten Chodron's Buddhism for Beginners defines attachment as follows:

Attachment is an attitude that exaggerates other people's good qualities or projects good qualities that aren't there and then clings to these people. With attachment, we care for others because they please us. With love, we want sentient beings (defined as beings with consciousness) to have happiness and its causes simply because they are living beings just like ourselves. When we are attached to others, we don't see them for who they are and thereby develop many expectations of them, thinking they should be like this and they should do that. Then, when they don't live up to what we thought they were or should be, we feel hurt, disillusioned and angry. When we love others, we don't expect anything in return. We accept people for who they are and try to help them, but we aren't concerned with how we'll benefit from the relationship. Real love isn't jealous, possessive or limited to just a few near and dear ones. Rather it's impartial and is felt for all beings.

That's quite a different take on the word than we hold in Western culture, where we tend to equate attachment to something or someone in terms of love—or it can mean a document or other electronic file sent along with an email. But the clinical definition of attachment, per my good friends at Wikipedia, goes to the attachment theory, which was pioneered by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the late 1960s and stated that a young child needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development to occur normally. (And for those of you, like me, who are thinking that the fact that this theory only surfaced in the latter part of the 20th century and that it had to come from a scientific study, and wasn't just common sense  is quite amazing, and perhaps very revealing since I—and many of you, I suspect—was raised during this decade. But that's a different blog altogether!) I'm parsing definitions now, but the point is this: When I hear the word attachment, my Western-side thinks good thing, but when coming to understand its Buddhist meaning, attachment begins to unfold with an entirely different connotation. And it's important to note this distinction because understanding the Nature of Attachment is central to all other Buddhist practice.

Attachment in the Buddhist sense is perhaps the answer as to why we have so many difficulties with relationships. Let's face it, it's why I'm here. 

I love Chodron's definition. (And for those Bible scholars out there, yes, there is some symmetry with Corinthians 13:4—and yes, I had to Google that, don't be too impressed.) But the first part is what hit me between the eyes: Attachment is an attitude that exaggerates other people's good qualities or projects good qualities that aren't there and then clings to these people. With attachment we care for others because they please us. Okay. Guilty as charged. I have certainly heaped attributes on others unduly, particularly in romantic relationships. I always thought that was a good thing. I thought I was seeing the good in those men. I wanted them to be my ideal but then I was very disappointed when they failed to meet my expectations. Oh, there's another good word: expectation. Buddhist practice espouses to end expectation. You should give love freely, without expectation of return. With expectation creeps in dissatisfaction, and dissatisfaction breeds discontentment, and discontentment makes you feel, well, crappy. So there I sit with my attachments and expectation feeling miserable. And guess what? The other person didn't do a thing to harm me, but I feel miserable. I brought it upon myself. 

Remember how I said in my previous blog entry that Buddhism was all about ending suffering and the causes of suffering? Well, my friends, attachment is one of the main causes of suffering. And suffering in the mind is an affliction that the pharma industry banks on, quite literally. There are infinite pills you can take to end suffering, and I assure you none of them are sanctioned by the Dalai Lama. (And a note of disclaimer here: I realize that some people do have clinical depression, anxiety disorders and neurosis, and they probably should take a pill, as prescribed by his/her physician.) For me, the realization that I was the cause of much of my own mental strife was an enormous breakthrough. Not that I have attained total freedom from said suffering, but knowing the cause of a malady (aka diagnosis) is the first step to any meaningful recovery, right?

As I've stated before, sometimes it is in asking the right questions that we find, if not the answer, then at least some peace. So my question remains: How do I love without expectation or attachment? Is it enough to just love for love's sake? Is it possible to acknowledge that the feeling of warmth and compassion is just there without cause or motive? Can human beings possibly be that altruistic? I contend that it is possible and even easy to extend love and compassion to strangers, but it becomes so difficult when the relationship has history and presence and future. Therein lies the dilemma, and perhaps, the key. When we desire a future with someone, expectations creep in. And I know what you are saying, Isn't this where staying in the moment comes in? Don't Buddhists prescribe to live in the present, in the moment? Yes, yes they do. And that, my friends, is a blog for another day, because in this moment, I must get ready to go to Buddhist practice, the insights from which I will share with you soon. And yes, that is an expectation, but one that is realistic. Truly.

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