Attachments create suffering.
This is one of the most fundamental truths that any serious spiritual person must know. Without attachment, we are at peace with whatever life offers us. With attachments, we are constantly moving from states of contentment to agitation as we attempt to protect, avoid, acquire, and get rid of the different things and experiences that come to us.
Usually, the practice of letting go of attachments starts with letting go of the “bad” ones. These are the things that we already know are causing us suffering. People know that alcoholism is bad, and an attachment to alcohol can cause all kinds of suffering. People know that abusive relationships cause pain. People know when they don’t like their jobs. There are all kind of things that people want to get rid of, and so we usually start there in releasing attachments. Yet even then, people often hold on for dear life to these attachments that clearly cause them pain.
But the big step-up on the spiritual path is letting go of attachments to things that people want. It’s one thing to throw out the stinky couch with bedbugs infesting it. It’s another thing to let go of the beautiful armoire your mother gave you as a wedding gift. However, the path to spiritual freedom is a going out of business sale, and everything must go.
On this note, I wanted to discuss what letting go of attachments means and why if you truly want to progress you have to let go of attachments to things, situations, relationships, and experiences you like.
Before I go too far, I want to make sure that it’s clear what an attachment is. An attachment is a preference of some kind. It is very often a belief. It can also be a kind of preference for a physical state. Most people’s bodies prefer to feel a certain way, and they release different kinds of sensory hormones and neurotransmitters to communicate those preferences. In general, most people are deeply attached to their bodies.
With that said, the attachment is NOT the thing itself. While I just offered the metaphor of the couch and armoire, letting go of attachments doesn’t mean physically getting rid of stuff. The physical stuff doesn’t really matter. Sometimes for spiritual beginners, getting rid of stuff in their homes is useful as a ritual for letting go of the emotional and psychological attachments they have to things. It gives them a chance to feel the literal spaciousness as well as some inner spaciousness of letting go. Confusing letting go of attachments as requiring physically getting rid of every thing and relationship is completely wrong. Yet some people try and do this without the proper understanding and spiritual guidance, and they can get themselves into a world of trouble.
So let me be clear: attachments are the inner preferences. They have nothing to do with the external world. You cannot shape-shift your external world into a better “spiritual” world by getting rid of stuff, although lots of people try. When people do this, this is just another kind of attachments and preferences trying to control the external world instead of going within to the root internal ego attachment.
Confronted by Giving up Things You Like
Most people won’t voluntarily give up attachments they like for some time. So life often forces the issue. Life forces them to give up something that they really, really like. If they can let go, they progress, and this can then be the start of someone’s true spiritual path. If they get stuck pining over something that they lost, then they are stuck.
And I know this really sounds unfair and nasty to the ego self. It’s like, “You’re taking away all the good stuff too!” But it does not understand. Few people understand how all attachments cause suffering. That’s why life has to make you give up something that you don’t want to give up, and if you are fortunate, you’ll be able to discover the spaciousness that was masked by that attachment.
Losing Positive Social Traits
Here’s one example of what I mean: many people are protectors. They conform to certain ideas about what should and should not be protected, and they then try to protect things from harm. This generally gains a lot of social approval, and so the idea that being attached to protecting things could cause suffering seems completely counter-intuitive.
For a more specific example, let’s consider a firefighter. Protecting people from fires is the essence of a firefighter’s job. However, if we are too attached to protecting things, problems arise. The ecological system of much of the West is built to have regular fires, and regular fires are a kind of maintenance system that drives regeneration. If that system is disrupted, then much larger and more deadly fires arise as overgrowth is allowed via “protection.” So ironically in the interests of protecting homes and lives, far worse disasters have been created.
I understand that this example is not a simple issue, and I’m not talking about getting rid of firefighters. What we’re looking at is problems caused by seemingly “good” attachments. In the example of the “protector” ego, we must learn to investigate what this even means. When should something be or not be protected. Where do those beliefs and ego attachments that value some things and not others come from? How do we know when protecting something is truly serving it? What about the personal growth that occurs when something is allowed to break down, get hurt, burn (in the case of the above example), and so forth?
The more we open up to the truth, the more we see that clinging to our attachments can engender a simple-mindedness that is blind to a lot of the realities of life. The truth thrusts into a far more complicated world.
Letting Go of Attachments to be More Fully Present
There are a whole host of “positive” traits that end up being insufficient to life and the ever-changing reality we live in. That’s part of the problems with attachments. They come from the past. They are ideas and preferences we’ve had before that we keep applying to ourselves and the present moment again and again as we attempt to make life behave the way we think we will be best be served. But really, we’re doing this according to how our ego program thinks we’ll best be served, and how often is it really right?
The answer is far less often than we can possibly imagine, and that understanding is part of what fuels serious spiritual people to go deeper and let go of attachments to the things, people, and experiences they like. It sends them deeper into looking at “characteristics” like protecting things or being positive to see what is really going on and if it is serving present moment reality or some sense of ego.
Dissolving a Positive Personality
If you know how to let go of your painful attachments–as I’m assuming in this post–then it’s time to let go of the seemingly positive ones. For many people, they construct a positive personality to mask a lot of negative feelings. The more you resolve old pain, the less you need such a mask. Furthermore, trying to make yourself always feel or think positive is nothing but ego manipulation. There’s no need to think positively about a school district where half of the children are living in poverty. Who would do such a thing?
The answer is that more than a few people do because they are not yet mature enough to handle the pain and suffering of others. In essence, many “positive” people are just putting on the rose-colored glasses.
But then you realize this. And you have to let go of that attachment to being positive. You’ll go through a time of not knowing how to act or think, which is where many people get stuck. But on the other side of this unknown is more space and freedom to respond to any situation as it most makes sense. A kind of pragmatism arises in the present moment when we are no longer attached to an idea about how it should be or how we should be. From that pragmatism, we can discover what wisdom in action is like.
Dealing with a Screaming Ego
If you’re really getting what I’m saying today, then you may be dealing with a screaming ego right now. It may be shouting things like:
- I can’t give up my attachment to my kids
- I won’t give up my loving partner
- I have to have my awesome job
- I wouldn’t want to live if my body didn’t feel this good
- But I’m supposed to be a good/positive person
The list can go on for some time. I recommend writing down your ego’s screams and objections so that you can see the objections in front of you and so that they can’t hide in your mind. When ego attachments are allowed to fester in the dark corners of the mind, all kinds of weird assumptions come up.
Once again, I’m NOT telling you to get rid of your kids, spouse, job, or your exercise regime. I’m telling you that your attachments are making you suffer. Sometimes, that suffering is hidden because life is briefly going the way you want it to. So you’re super happy with your kids, but then your kids become teenagers and no longer play by your rules, your attachments. Your ego re-emerges and is upset. They’re ruining the family life you created! Whoops. You’re suffering. In many respects, children are a tour de force through letting go of attachments because to be a good parent you have to accept your child at the developmental stage they are at. You don’t treat a teenager like a baby and vice versa.
Additionally, bodies change; jobs change; and partners change. All of human life is change, and our attachments are generally a kind of permanent preference. Because of that, you realize that you have to let them go to be fully here and now.
Peeling Away Deeper Layers of Attachment
Are you ready to go deeper? Sure you are.
Some of our most fundamental attachments are to a body that prefers to feels healthy and to be alive. If you want a sign of just how attached human beings are to their bodies, then look at the healthcare industry. This billion dollar industry is a massive declaration of our attachments to our bodies, and guess what, those attachments don’t go over night. Just see what happens the next time you feel significant pain. Watch the ego response. Watch the physical response. With certain experiences, the body sends all kinds of painful signals to you to tell you that it has a preference for health and living. That’s one of the most basic elements of physical pain. It’s a communication tool, and that tool is primarily about survival.
Getting into our attachments to our bodies is big work, and just as we usually work on letting go of attachments to things we don’t like first, we tend to get into dissolving these primal attachments later on after we’ve let go of a lot of other attachments to things we like. It seems we need a certain amount of practice otherwise we give up in the face of these super powerful, primal attachments.
Surrendering in Awareness
Yet for all I’ve said, the tools to engage with these attachments are simple. Be aware. Sit in presence. Stop fueling the attachment with energy, and be present to what is needed now in the moment. See how that changes how you parent, work your job, meditate, treat your body, and so much more. What happens if your attachments don’t decide how you behave or tell you what you should “like?” More than a few people find out that some of the things they thought they liked don’t suit them at all. Some will discover that the things they liked actually brought suffering like the parent holding onto a child who is now an adult and how that causes tons of strife in the relationship.
Again and again, the maturing spiritual person sees the error of their attachments, and they surrender. They sit with each one as it arises, and they let it burn away in the light of their awareness. In so doing, they come deeper into realization of spiritual freedom.