Is it possible to love without attachment?

Sep 1, 2013

First of all, we assume that love and attachment mean the same thing. But the Buddhist way of understanding our emotions is that attachment is the neurotic, needy, dissatisfied part of us that yearns for someone out there, believing that when I get him, then I’ll be happy.

Love, on the other hand, is referring to an altruistic part of our being, a connection with others, a wish that they be happy, a delight in their wellbeing.

We have both of these, of course, but it’s so hard to see the difference. They’re like milk and water mixed together. If there’s any joy in our relationship, it’s because of love. If there’s anger and hurt and jealousy and the rest, it’s because of attachment. But it’s so hard to see this.

Attachment is such a simple word, but it’s multi-faceted. At the most fundamental level it’s that feeling of neediness deep inside us; that belief that somehow I am not enough, I don’t have enough, and no matter what I do or what I get, it’s never enough. Then, of course, because we’re convinced that’s true, we hanker after someone out there, and then when we find the one who triggers our good feelings, attachment manipulates to get him, convinced that he’s the one who will fulfill my needs, make me happy. Then we assume he’s our possession, almost an extension of myself.

This attachment is the source of all our other unhappy emotions. Because it’s desperate to get what it wants, the minute it doesn’t – the moment he doesn’t ring, or comes home late, or looks at someone else – panic arises that immediately becomes anger and then jealousy or low-self esteem or whatever our old habits are. In fact, anger is the response when attachment doesn’t get what it wants.

All these assumptions are so deep in us and we believe these stories so totally that it seems ridiculous to even question them. But we need to. And the only way we can do that is know our own minds, our feelings: we need to learn to be our own therapist.

The fact is attachment, anger, jealousy and the other painful emotions are not set in stone; they’re old, old habits, and we know we can change habits. The first step is to have some confidence that by knowing our own minds well we can learn to distinguish the various emotions inside us and gradually learn to change them.

The first step is to have confidence that I can accomplish this. And that alone is huge – without it, we’re stuck.

The next step is to step back from all the endless chatter in our heads, to give ourselves some mental space. And a really simple way to do that – it’s so simple that it’s boring! – is for just a few minutes every morning, before we start our day, to sit down and focus on something. The breath is a good start. It’s nothing special; there’s no trick to it; it’s not mystical. It’s a practical psychological technique. With determination you decide that you will pay attention to the breath – the sensation at your nostrils as you breathe in and out. The moment your mind wanders off – and it certainly will! – you bring your attention back to the breath. That’s it.

The goal is not to make the thoughts go away; it’s to not get involved in them; to learn to let them come and go.

The long term result of a technique like this is a super focused mind, and that’ll take time. But the almost immediate benefit will be that because we’re attempting to step back from all the stories in our head for even a few minutes, we will begin to be objective about them, hear them more clearly, and slowly, slowly can start to unravel them, deconstruct them, and eventually change them.

It’s said that one of the signs of success is that we think we’re getting worse! But we’re not. We’re starting to hear the stories more clearly, and it’s then that we can begin to change them.

We need confidence and courage – and patience with ourselves – to do this job, but it’s possible.

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