Big surprise! Attachment is the main source of our problems

Jul 4, 2024

As far as the four noble truths are concerned, the main source of our suffering is attachment: this is what we have to understand. This is surprising: we don’t think like this. This is not Jung’s model of the mind, or Freud’s. And you don’t get attachment from your mummy and daddy – in fact, for the Buddha, we bring attachment with us from the past.

Attachment is multi-faceted: it functions in so many ways.

If, according to this view, each of our emotional states is based on a concept, then what’s the concept here? What’s attachment saying? Its energy is self-pity; it’s like,I haven’t got enough, I am not enough.There’s an aching feeling of deep dissatisfaction: something’s missing.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a person on the planet who is satisfied with their body, for example. All we notice is the faults. When you’re old, all you notice is your wrinkles: in other words, we’re not satisfied.

When it’s really extreme –I’m not good enough, I don’t do this, I can’t do that– we loathe ourselves. I remember the Dalai Lama said when he saw the extent of this self-hate in the West, he was quite shocked, you know, and so sad.

Then comes the proactive part of attachment: it has to look for this something that’s missing, you know? In other words, the dissatisfaction leads to emotional hunger, and then it dumps that emotional hunger onto the cake, the boyfriend, the handbag, the thing, whatever it might be.

And then it exaggerates the deliciousness of the cake, the deliciousness of the handbag, the deliciousness of the boyfriend, or whatever the event or thing or person or action might be. It’s totally instinctive because it’s so habitual, so ingrained.

Attachment goes from the energy of dissatisfaction to emotional hunger to manipulating, controlling – what is the word we use in the West? Control freak: that’s attachment: it wants to control everything to make it the way I want it – and then to exaggerating the deliciousness of objects to expectations, projection, possessiveness.

Even more fundamentally, attachment craves only the nice things, only wants everything to be lovely – which, of course, means it only wants what I want: it’s totally self-centered in its nature.

So we’re actually walking through life not satisfied, always wanting something more; always looking for something; always, minute by minute, wanting things to go nicely. And always we’re driven by the belief that when I get the nice coffee for breakfast, then I’ll feel happy; and then I’ll get this and then I’ll get that and then I’ll be happy; and I’ll go to work and I’ll drive in the car and I’ll do this and I’ll get that and then I’ll be happy. It’s constant.

All the time attachment’s yearning for this moment when we’ll be satisfied. But the Buddha’s saying that attachment, by definition, can’t be satisfied – and it’s hard to hear this, to understand it.

In other words, as my mother used to say – as a kid, I’d think and think about it:the more you get, the more you want.”

The hunger for happy feelings is so strong that as soon as we don’t get them, we get a shock, and that’s called disappointment, aversion, anger.

So what to do? We need to learn to change the narrative, to reinterpret things. When you stub your toe, you feel the pain, but you learn not to be angry: bad enough to have pain, but why be angry as well? If things go wrong, you manage them; the red light comes, you don’t have a mental breakdown: you can’t change it, so you accept it. We go against the instinct of attachment and aversion and we learn to navigate the dramas of life; we stay steady.

You begin by doing some practice every day. You start to hear the thoughts that inform the emotions, start to identify them before they get to the level of emotion. That’s the key to success, and of course this goes to incredibly subtle levels. Lama Yeshe would say that he could tell us about attachmentfor one whole year,but that we’d never begin to comprehend it until we start doing the work internally.

Every day you start to hear attachment’s story a bit more clearly, a bit more clearly, a bit more clearly, and then you can argue with it. We all do that anyway; we all talk to ourselves, like when you’re mad at your sister, you know, and you say,Come on, Robina, you don’t have to say anything. Give the girl a break.You talk yourself through – that’s all that we’re talking about here – before it becomes emotional and bursts out of the mouth.

As always: one step at a time.

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