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.

Beaster: The demon god of chocolate cravings

Painting of Mara tempting the Buddha by Tinlawin

I have a pretty wicked sweet tooth. I suspect I have about 20 of them. Not for long perhaps. Sweet teeth are like the suicide bombers of the dental realm – their core desire is incompatible with their continued existence. If they get what they want, they won’t be around for very long.

After eating anything savoury, particularly anything salty, my 20 foot soldiers of desire teeth kick into action and create a craving for sugar so strong that I’m often half way into some kind of chocolate monstrosity before I know what’s happened. If I do realise, I very rarely spit it out. I normally say “oh, well. It would be a shame to toss this out,” and so I jam the entire thing into my cake hole, muttering something about hungry kids in Africa and then my body downloads a few gigabytes of regret.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Resisting desire like this is tough. It’s self generating, and so fighting it tends to give it more power. When you suppress it, you’re not getting rid of it, you’re just packing it into a smaller space – making it more dense. More focussed. You’re spring loading your desire, and given any opportunity, it will break out with an explosive power directly proportional to the degree to which you tried to keep it down.

It seems really powerful, when you think about it like this. And it is. You suppress the feelings, at the cost of being eternally vigilant. You have to play a perfect game to keep them down, but they only have to leverage one opportunity, one moment of weakness and they’ve won.

But this power is really brittle. In only works in one direction. It only grows when you resist or run away from it.

This kind of power doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny and is absolutely devastated by a loving curiosity. Willingly get closer to it, examine it with curiosity, and before your eyes, it’s power will diminish.

In the buddhist mythology, this is known as “inviting Mara to tea”. It comes from the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, during which the Demon god Mara assaulted the Buddha with doubt, fear, lust and anger. Mara failed to corrupt the Buddha and left on the morning of his enlightenment, but would periodically return.

“Even after the Buddha had become deeply revered throughout India, Mara continued to make unexpected appearances. The Buddha’s loyal attendant, Ananda, always on the lookout for any harm that might come to his teacher, would report with dismay that the “Evil One” had again returned.

Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”

He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea, place them on the low table between them, and only then take his own seat. Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.”

Tara Brach

The story is a great illustration of the power of leaning into difficult feelings with a view to depriving them of they illusory power.

If you want some chocolate, if you have an itchy head, if you crave a cigarette, you have a couple of options:

  1. you can satisfy the craving by eating, scratching or smoking
  2. you can resist the craving or run away from it, in which case you’re spring loading it for a time when you’re not so strong, or
  3. you can invite Mara to tea, and sit down with the experience and examine it.

This last option is interesting because it tends to have the same effect as what you want from options 1 and 2, but without the negative consequences. The price that you pay in this case, is attention, effort and time. It requires your attention to realise what’s going on. It is a brief effort to stop and sit and turn the craving over in your mind. It will take a moment to watch all the power fall away.

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t banish the craving forever. Like Mara, it will probably come back, but each time it does, it has to start from scratch. It doesn’t have any residual power from your last encounter.

It’s also worth noting, that this kind of metaphor or mythological framework is just as illusory as the power of desire. Mara doesn’t exist, and neither does the tea. But they are both helpful tools for dealing with powerful behavioural and chemical processes which happen in our body at a speed and scale which are difficult for us to fathom.

Sometimes it’s helpful to move the fight to a battleground where we have more options, where we’re more familiar. Since we’re creatures driven by story and narrative, mythological stories resonate with us pretty deeply. Hence Jesus et al.

So, back to the chocolate.

If you don’t want to contribute to the world’s alarming Diabetes statistics and but you’re staring down the barrel of 20 sweet teeth screaming at you for sugar, then all you need to do is step a little closer. Invite those teeth to tea, sit down for a second and look at what they want. Approach their demands with curiosity, turning them over in your mind and then watch them dissolve.

It’s surprisingly easy, the difficulty comes in remembering to do it. Mara moves quickly, riding in on a storm of fresh horses with the wind at her back. You have to be prepared to get out in front of her and just sit.

But I figure, if you’ve got time to smoke or eat chocolate, you’ve got time to have a cup of tea with an imaginary, demonic, manifestation of human desire for the purposes of combatting the impulses of invisible chemical forces at war in your brain. Right?


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Arrows and emotions

Photo of arrows by Alan Lam
Photo by –

At 1.45 this morning, our four year-old son came into our bedroom, announced that he didn’t feel very well, and then promptly vomited everywhere. It was pretty awful, for a whole bunch of reasons.

The emotional response to situations like this is always interesting, because it’s likely that you’ll feel a whole lot of emotions so close together that it will feel simultaneous.

When Cass started to throw-up, I was immediately concerned for his well being, but that feeling was also quickly joined by:

  • surprise at the sheer volume of food that was coming up
  • fear that I was glimpsing at my own future (we’d eaten the same dinner)
  • panic at the prospect of losing precious sleep
  • disappointment at the prospect of spending the next hour, on my hands and knees, scrubbing the carpet.

We took him to the bathroom, sat with him until the vomiting settled down and then split into two teams: my wife focussed on cleaning Cass up and making him comfortable while I concentrated on dealing with the mess.

As a I was scrubbing I started to feel guilty about the fact that I was more concerned with having to spend the next hour scrubbing, and that my concern for Cass’ welfare was sitting towards the back of the queue.

What a weird thing to happen: feeling guilty about how I’m feeling about something else. But this happens all the time. Something bad happens and we’re not only struck by what’s happened, but also disappointed by our own response.

There are two things which are probably worth noting here:
1) In the aftermath of an awful event you might have one over-riding feeling, but that’s usually the one that came last, or which for some reason was loudest. It isn’t right or wrong, it just is. All the other responses are still there, you’re probably just not paying attention to them. It’s like eating a three-court meal and only being able to taste the garlic from the starter an hour later. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t eat dessert, or that it wasn’t nice – just that the starter was full of garlic.

2) In Buddhism there’s a concept of two arrows. These arrows can strike us when something bad happens and both are painful. The first arrow is the impact of the event itself but the second arrow (which can be just as painful) we fire ourself. It’s the result of our unhelpful reaction to a situation – usually guilt towards how we feel or act and it ties neatly into the saying “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional”.

When we responding to an event and there’s an overwhelming emotion, it’s worth taking a moment and making room for the other feelings which are there. Chances are, there was an emotional collision at the point of impact with whatever happened and there are lots of thoughts and feelings lying about if you take a moment to look. And, even if the the loudest emotional response isn’t the most noble one, you still don’t have to shoot yourself with that second arrow. What you feel isn’t as important as what you do about it.

Cass was fine after about 5 minutes, but the carpet didn’t fare so well. It’s seen worse in there last 5 years, something else which I could could feel guilty about, but this morning, that arrow can stay in the quiver.