Is it possible to love without attachment?

Oct 28, 2021


According to the Buddhist model of the mind, we divide its contents into three categories; there’s no fourth. There are the so-called positive states, such as love, compassion, forgiveness; the negative ones, such as attachment, anger, depression; and the neutral. Examples of neutral – which doesn’t mean they’re not important; it means they’re neither negative nor positive in their character – are concentration, mindfulness, discrimination, alertness, attention, intention, and so on. These are vital states of mind that enable anyone to function properly – whether you’re a murderer or a meditator. I like to call them the mechanics of the mind. Remember, we’re not discussing the brain here. Buddha doesn’t talk about the brain, he’s talking about the cognitive process itself: thoughts and feelings and emotions. 


The virtuous ones are altruistic, the source of our own happiness and cause us to want to help others. The negative ones are necessarily I-based, fear-based, totally self-centered and in their raw form really neurotic, really delusional, and really disturbing; and they’re the source of my suffering and, of course, the source of why I harm others.


In the long-term we need to use the single-pointed concentration technique that hones concentration, mindfulness, alertness and the rest to an incredible degree of brilliance and clarity, and with these we learn to unpack and unravel our delusions and eventually rid our minds of them.


So, what are the stumbling blocks, then – because it sounds pretty straightforward. Why is it so difficult to distinguish between the negative and the positive states of mind? Well, there’s various stumbling blocks, various things that go on in our lives that hinder us from doing this. 


Right now, for example, if I say, “I love Andy,” and you’ll know by the way I say it that I mean “in love” not just “like.” There is indeed the altruistic state of mind called love – the wish that Andy be happy – but it’s polluted by attachment. 


There I was, hankering after someone, a boyfriend. I’m looking and looking and eventually – boom! – this fellow comes into my sight. I grab hold, we talk, and it’s not long before I’ve got my entire next eighty years planned. “Finally I’ve found happiness!” Attachment’s main function is to absurdly exaggerate his deliciousness. Certainly in the beginning, when we’re completely blissed out, you can’t believe how divine this person is. You can’t stop thinking about him all the time. You just hear his name, you practically want to faint. We know this experience.


It seems cruel of Buddha to say that attachment causes suffering; because everything in your being at this moment, when it’s all fresh and new, is telling you that it’s the exact opposite: it’s the cause of unbelievable happiness. 


Attachment is multi-faceted. Its energy is dissatisfaction. It possesses. And there’s this massive expectation, anticipation that he will do everything that that my attachment wants. And then attachment manipulates, controls, to make it happen.


Of course, there is plenty of love there too: that means I want him to be happy. But if the attachment if fierce, it pollutes the love, and it won’t last.


So what happens to my expectations? Now that we’re in close proximity, I’ll start to see that he’s a regular human being. He might snore at night. Maybe his armpits stink, you know? He’ll leave the toilet seat up. He mightn’t do the dishes. The smallest things. The more I have attachment, the more I’m a control freak, the more I’m anticipating, the more I’m needy, then the more poor Andy will disappoint me; he can’t blink without doing the wrong thing. That’s because of my attachment. With this, love has got no chance!


And then gradually what comes is aversion, irritation, annoyance, frustration, upset – all these polite words for anger. Because anger is the response when attachment doesn’t get what it wants, when it’s thwarted. Then, a month later you look at this man in your bed and you wonder, “Who the hell’s this awful person?” 


Attachment over-exaggerates his deliciousness, but it has the bonus of triggering pleasant feelings, and that’s what throws us. And it’s almost impossible to distinguish between genuine love and this attachment and neediness and expectation and possessiveness and all the rest.


Love, then, is under the positive heading. It’s altruistic in its nature. Defined simply, the bare-bones level of love is: “May Andy be happy.” It’s the delight in Andy’s happiness. The trouble is, we simply can’t tell the difference between love and attachment. Ironically, it’s the presence of our good qualities that make it difficult. If I had just raw attachment for Andy, and virtually no love, I’d be a vampire and I’d eat him up for breakfast. Then it’s easy to identify attachment. 


The trouble is, attachment is a honey-covered razor blade because it looks like I’m being kind, it seems like love. We know when we’re on the receiving end of that kind of attachment, it’s a terrible letdown when you realize a person’s just been using you. I’m not being mean about us; we all do this; this is what attachment is. It’s like this monster, you know. So, interestingly, our love and our compassion temper our attachment but at the same make it hard to see it; we fool ourselves. 


So, at the moment, because I’m in love with Andy, of course I love Andy. Absolutely, I want him to be happy. I will love him to death, you know – but only as long as he does what my attachment wants. When he starts coming home late and being mean and not looking at me any longer and not being so kind my love will turn off like a tap, and then only anger will be there and then if I’m not careful I’ll kill him. Do you understand? I mean, I know I sound dramatic. . .


But we think, “Oh, this is normal; this is relationships.” Well, Buddha says, sure, it’s normal but it’s mental illness. Our heart should break for ourselves when we realize the pain that we’re experiencing because of attachment. 


But we can get rid of it eventually – that’s Buddha’s amazing finding. Even lessening it: that’s already amazing.


So what’s our job? We need to learn to be our own therapist, as Lama Yeshe says. We need to learn to distinguish between love and attachment. And this demands much awareness of our own mind: what’s going on in there, moment by moment. 


No easy job, but it’s doable. This is Buddhist practice.

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