Attachment and desire are two terms translated from ancient wisdom traditions that often confuse modern Western students. This article aims to briefly clarify these terms, and then show how a more complete understanding can aid our spiritual journey and practice. On retreat, we can work with more diligence on these hinderances.
In Western psychology, attachment is usually understood as a positive quality. A child’s attachment to a caregiver creates deep bonds and a sense of belonging to the human community. The child’s brain depends on attachment. Babies and toddlers that reactive less touch and have no deep attachment actually form smaller brains. To be attached, in our culture, means to care, to love, to feel a part of, yet ancient wisdom traditions often point to attachment as the source of nearly all suffering. What’s going on here?
The Parable of the Two Arrows
The Buddha tells a wonderful story called The Parable of the Two Arrows (Sallatha Sutta). The first arrow we can think of as life and its twists and turns, its sickness and disappointments, and finally death. No matter how wholesome our thoughts, how careful our choices, we will still be struck by the first arrow at various times in our life. That’s the nature of being human. The human condition contains both joy and sorrow, gain and loss, birth and death. Let’s call this arrow “pain.”
The second arrow (and the third, fourth, fifth, etc) are what happens after our interaction with the first arrow (with life, with base reality). We may wonder “why me,” we may tighten and resist, we may blame, become angry, we may brood over the same hurts for hours, days, weeks, even years. These arrows represent the self-inflicted wounds of suffering. They represent a kind of fantasy world, divorced from reality (even if there is truth in them), leading us to experience suffering in reaction to pain.
The Source of Suffering
So what does it mean that attachment is the root source of nearly all suffering? Attachment in this context means more of a grasping. It’s the difference between wanting your partner to be happy, and wanting them to be a certain way so you are happy. It’s the difference between having a preference, and having to have things go your way to feel okay.
Feel it in your body. Attachment feels tight, small, contracted, freaked-out, controlling. It’s a clenched fist. Attachment-free love feels open, healing, expansive. To be unattached, in this context, isn’t to be deadened or cold, distant or removed. It’s simply to be able to have a preference but have no clinging to the preference, to how you think things ought to be. It’s the ability to be able to accept base reality (aka reality without our added embellishment or denial) as it is. It’s the ability for the present moment to be enough for you, as is.
The Second Hindrance: Desire
In many ancient wisdom traditions desire also gets a bad rap. However, this also an often misunderstood concept. Desire is a natural part of being human. Without desire we wouldn’t find food to survive or procreate. Without desire we may not have music, art, or technology. Desire as it is referred to in wisdom traditions means compulsive desire. It means to be hooked. We all can understand the difference between someone that desires a glass of wine in the evening vs someone that must have a glass of wine to unwind, and becomes irritable when denied.
Compulsive desire is a desire unconnected to joy, and, at most, serves as a momentary amelioration from suffering. Desire that is addictive, even subtly, stands in the way of our happiness and of ethical practice. To know if a desire is compulsive, simply deny yourself for one day. A healthy, unattached desire can bow to spirit, the big picture, to our hearts; a compulsive desire drives from the ego away from from spirit or our higher self.
The Value of Retreat
In a world that uses unhealthy desires as marketing, it can be challenging to unplug from attached desires and move toward what is truly wholesome, fulfilling, and satisfying to all aspects of our being. We often need to go on retreat, in order to slow down enough to see what “hooks” us. At SpiritQuest we try to help you find your true path, the path in life that can bring lasting meaning. Spiritual growth isn’t about attaining some esoteric state of zoned out non-attachment, it’s about living every moment true to yourself, free of habit and compulsions.
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