Attachment and suffering

We’re very sensitive to negative stimulus. Pain is a great teacher, precisely because we’re wired to avoid a loss more strongly than we are to pursue a gain.
It’s a hangover from our evolutionary development when the preservation of resources was more closely correlated with our survival.
If we lost our food, we starved to death.
(it’s amazing how everything becomes simpler when we look at through the lens of staving or not)
But the only reason this wiring works, is that we have an enormous capacity attach ourselves to whatever we encounter. Food, people, money, possessions & ideas.
Once a meal is put in front of us, it becomes our meal.
Once we exchange our money” for that car, it becomes our car.
In many ways this attachment underpins a large part of how we operate as both individuals and society within a commercial environment.
And perhaps it’s because this attachment forms a key part of our personal “operating system” that we don’t spot when it starts to become very unhelpful.
We become attached to things we don’t own, to outcomes outside of our control, to circumstances which are bound to change.
And when our attachment is violated, we suffer.
We become frustrated when we don’t get what we want.
We become angry when we break something precious to us.
We become sad and despondent when a pleasant situation begins to sour.
The Buddhists are acutely aware of the power of attachment and the role that it plays in our suffering.
It’s why they meditate on impermanence and change. They understand that loosening the grip that attachment has on their thoughts and behaviour, undermines its ability to create suffering.
Less attachment = less suffering.
And since we’re able to take control of our attachment, we’re largely responsive for the extend to which we experience suffering.
And while it’s beyond the scope of this post to try and cram 2500 thousand years of contemplative tradition into 350 words, there is a simple place to start – and that’s to look.
We can look for attachment in our everyday life and be mindful of the influence it has on our thoughts and behaviour. We can ask whether or not the attachment help our lives, and we can try to be more skilful with our actions.
We can try to be less attached and as a result, less prone to suffering.

When intuitions break down

We’re not very good at updating our intuitions about the world.

Whether it’s due to pride, cognitive dissonance or sheer bloody-mindedness, we cling to ideas, notions and wishes which are… well… bullshit.

Changing our minds is expensive – both cognitively and reputationally. Not only do we have to figure out what we actually believe, but we have to deal with the fact that we might have been wrong about something for a long time. And that last part can be incredibly painful.

Whilst we might understand and accept that our views have to change if the situation becomes radically different, we don’t often appreciate how our intuitions and assumptions about the world break down completely at scales and perspectives which are different from our own.

The cosmologist Max Tegmark gives some examples from physics

“At high speeds, Einstein realized that time slows down…

…At low temperatures, liquid helium can flow upward.

…At high temperatures, colliding particles change identity…

…if you intuitively understand all aspects of black holes [then you] should immediately put down this book and publish your findings before someone scoops you on the Nobel Prize for quantum gravity”

As we move away from our normal speed, size and temperature, what we know about the world comes apart and becomes untrue. In fact, in some cases, the opposite becomes true.

This shows us that the truths we cling to are often tied to parameters which are not part of our intuition. And when the parameters change, our intuitions will be out of step with reality.

Our truths depend on perspective, so we should not be surprised when those with different perspectives, hold different truths, intuitions and assumptions about the world.

When we know this we can begin to ask of others:

what parameters (some of which might be invisible to me) are their intuitions relying on?

And of ourselves:

what happens to our own intuitions if we adjust those same parameters?

At what point do our own intuitions and truths completely break down?

By doing this we can get a better understanding of others and why they believe what they do.

We also recognise that the cut and dried world is actually messier than it might seem. Our assumptions might keep us clean and dry, but if we want to know what’s really going on, we need to roll up our sleeves and be prepared to get our intuitions dirty.

Sunlight is a great disinfectant

Our natural tendency when things go wrong is to bury them under a rock somewhere and hope that nobody finds out.

Sometimes nobody does, but under these hidden conditions, problems often fester and rot. They might not always get worse, but they will almost never get better.

Exposure to light, compassionate inspection and curiosity can help stop the rot from setting in. It’s rarely enough to solve the problem outright, but it helps to illuminate options and solutions. To light the way forward.

Like most disinfectant, there is often an initial sting upon first exposure, but it’s nothing compared to the pain of buried problems, rotting behind the scenes.

Taking a stand is a line in the sand

When we take a stand against something, we’re drawing a line in the sand. We’re saying “here is a line that we’re not willing to cross”.

It’s an appropriate metaphor, because the line is visible at the time we draw it, but it’s ephemeral. Once the situation passes and the context in which we made the stand is gone, then it’s as if the wind has blown our line away and the sand is smooth again.

Time isn’t the only threat to the line. It can also get trampled on and obscured by both ourselves and those we’re dealing with.

How many times have we drawn lines, only to jump, shuffle or stumble over them later?

The reality of the situation is that we need to be to keep drawing our lines for the rest of our lives. Because we want them to be visible.

They’re not meant to be a prison, a box we have to stand in. We don’t do this to separate ourselves off from the rest of the world, but to define a good space in it.

Our lines in the sand aren’t a prison, they’re a map.

We’re creating markers and waypoints that both ourselves and others can use to navigate. To plot a course that is safe, ethical and worthwhile.

“Here is good solid land, but here be dragons.”

Nailing our colours to the mast

We all like to be chameleons these days, changing our colours based on the situation, the audience, the social medial network.

It feels kind of old fashioned to nail your colours to the mast and have a single set of values.

And with a growing trend towards a secular society many of us don’t have institutions drilling us in codes, creeds or commandments. Retargeted advertising on the internet is probably the closest that many of us get to a repeated, daily message – Nike Air Pegasus, now 30% off.

But there is value in articulating what we stand for.

It gives us something noble to aspire to.

It gives us a benchmark to review our actions against.

It gives us a guiding light when we’ve lost our way.

We constantly transgress our own values, because we’re not giving our values enough time out in the sun to grow and become strong. Without air and light, they remain atrophied waifs who can only whisper to us from the dark.

If we want to rely on our values to help guide our way, then we have to grow them with intention and attention. We need to think about what is important to us and take the time to remind and reinforce what we believe.

It doesn’t mean putting them on a t-shirt – this isn’t a necessarily public act – but it does mean being able to articulate them at least to ourselves.

What would we stand for?

What would we fight for?

What would we die for?

Values can be the batteries that power our whole selves, but only if we’ve taken the time to find them, dust them off and plug them in.