Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

The Double-Edged Sword Of Attachment

How to manage the loss of our attachments

Several weeks ago, my now 15-month-old son developed a fever to 103.5 F. Usually a champion sleeper, that night he woke several times with a frenetic look in his eyes and a jerkiness to his movements that frankly unnerved me. The heat coming off his little febrile body almost made me start sweating myself. He had no other symptoms to suggest the cause of his fevers, and even though our pediatrician had been reassuring when I'd called early in the day ("fevers in kids are a dime a dozen"), my doctor brain was kicking in full-blast with worry over it's cause.

The fevers lasted five days and then ceased on the sixth, just as a diffuse rash broke out over his chest, neck, and arms. "Roseola," I told my wife after a quick bit of research, a benign viral infection that strikes children ages 1-3. Our pediatrician confirmed the diagnosis and within two days he was back to normal.

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WE ALL HAVE ATTACHMENTS

From the moment we're born we face a troubling paradox: life is made interesting, fun, and happy by the attachments we form, but the loss of these same attachments lies as the root cause of our worst pain in life. Even when merely threatened with the loss of a beloved attachment—whether a person or a thing—we often suffer. The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, referred to birth as the first of the four sufferings (old age, sickness, and death being the remaining three) to indicate that being born into this world inevitably destines us to suffer the pain of separation from our attachments. These four sufferings are what led him to ask this most fundamental question: how can we achieve any kind of meaningful, lasting happiness when every person and every thing to which we ever become attached will eventually be lost to us?

COMMON SOLUTIONS

There are many ways people throughout history have either consciously or unconsciously attempted to answer this question. What follows are the strategies I've found to be the most common ones:

  1. Limit the number of external things upon which we base our happiness. When we lose something we care about, this approach often leads us to remind ourselves things like, "At least I still have my health" or "As long as my children are okay, I'll be all right..." But two problems exist with this strategy: one, we remain vulnerable to losing everything, including those few things we think we can't lose and still remain happy; and two, whenever we do lose one of those key attachments, feeling grateful for not having lost something equally or even more precious rarely blunts the pain of it.
  2. Attach to nothing. An unreachable goal many people attempt anyway. Desire is ingrained in us psychologically, physiologically, probably even genetically if for no other reason than to ensure our survival. How can you live without being attached to breathing, for example? Further, human beings are intrinsically meaning-seeking creatures—but how could we create value if we weren't attached to achieving goals? How would it serve our friends, our spouses, or our children to limit the degree to which we care about them simply to be able to diminish the force of the blow that losing them might one day bring us?
  3. Attach to things but deny the pain of their loss. Another common strategy doomed to produce more misery than it avoids. As experience confirms, when we refuse to allow ourselves to experience legitimate grief, it remains somewhere within us, freezing our ability to recover from our loss. Experiencing grief over loss is necessary to return to happiness. Any pain we're due that instead we bury will fester like a wound that never heals, often manifesting in surprising—and always damaging—ways.

APPREHEND THE TRUTH

How, then, can we be happy if our lives are destined to be filled with the pain of loss? The answer, I believe, lies in breaking through two delusions:

  1. That our happiness is created out of any one particular attachment, no matter how precious it may be. For me, this would mean giving up a belief that I couldn't be happy if I lost my wife, my son, or my ability to write. There was, of course, a time in my life before I had any of those things when I was nevertheless happy. Why, then, if I lost them now do I believe such happiness would be impossible to regain? The answer: not because it actually would be, but because I believe it would be. There are numerous reasons why I believe this—and if you've suffered a heartbreaking loss, you may be screaming out that you can't be happy again even as you read this—but the truth is you can even if you don't want to be. As I wrote in a previous post, Letter To A Widow, having lost a loved one we sometimes become reluctant to fully surrender our grief even after it's run its proper course, as if it were something precious in and of itself—perhaps believing the pain of loss is the only thing keeping us connected to our loved one, or that to feel happy again would be to diminish the significance of the relationship we once enjoyed. But neither is true. If I allowed the loss of my son to destroy me, it would only happen as a result of just exactly that: my allowing it.
  2. That the pain of loss necessarily destroys happiness. Pain, by definition, is aversive. But viewing the pain of loss from an enlightened perspective can give it a purpose that mutes its aversiveness just as when a weightlifter embraces the perspective that "pain equals gain" (the pain of lifting a heavy weight is transformed into a survivable—even enjoyable—experience because of the result it produces, growth). The Buddha's solution to the inevitability of the suffering of birth was to connect to a source of happiness that relied on nothing external, a connection he was ultimately only able to attain by using the pain of being separated from his attachments as a springboard. And having achieved that connection to the core truth about himself he was able to manifest a life-condition in which he could experience all of life joyfully—even while being at the same time sad, mad, hurt, or ill. As I wrote in another previous post, Changing Poison Into Medicine, it's precisely because we're challenged with the pain of loss that we're able to develop this lofty state of life.

IT'S EASY TO SAY...

...but quite another to believe such a state of life is possible. And even quite another to actually manifest it. And yet...I've experienced brief moments of what that kind of life-condition feels like. And each time I've thought to myself: if this experience can happen for a single moment, why couldn't it happen for several moments? Why couldn't it happen for an hour? A day? A week? Why, in fact, couldn't it become my predominant life state? And yours?

This would require, it seems to me, two things: a great enough expectation that such a life state is indeed possible to motivate us to seek the second thing, a reliable method for manifesting it. A method that, like weight lifting, if done correctly, would build not strength of muscle but strength of life force.

If such a life state isn't possible, then we're all doomed to have our happiness remain at the mercy of our changing environment, to gather to ourselves what external attachments we can and do our best to hide them from the purview of fate and circumstance, desperately hoping to avoid their loss even knowing eventually we will lose something critical to our happiness.

I know many people are resigned to believing this, but not me. One reason is that I've encountered patients who've lost spouses and even children who, though still carrying their sadness with them, have managed somehow not to be destroyed by it; who've not only learned to be happy again but even, in once case, to radiate joy. There's something these people know that the rest of us don't. But if they can learn it, so can we.

There's ample reason to try. Each time my son has tripped and smashed his head on our maple wood floor, freezing my heart mid-beat, I've thought the same thing: we're all born into constant danger, both ourselves and our loved ones. It may change its face as we age but never for one moment does it relax its grip. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could only develop a life state in which our worry over that danger ultimately became unimportant?

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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