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 the light goes out

light in a window at the end of a dark corridor

From where I sit and write, I can look down a long, narrow corridor, across a 15km gulf of London and see Canary Wharf.

Each morning I look out at the blinking light on top of the tower with the pyramid shaped roof. It has the regularity of a metronome and is a lovely anchor point.

Blink, blink, blink, blink, blink.

It can be seen in all but the heaviest fog and the brightest sunlight, so it’s a reliable beacon.

If it’s dark outside and the the building is visible, the light is visible.

Blink, blink, blink, blink, blink.

It’s dependability is comforting. Soothing. Like watching the heartbeat of London.

But this morning, the light has been irregular. It’s there for a few blinks, then it dims, then it disappears. It comes back moments later, but in that brief period, everything changes.

All the value it confers is lost. If it’s not there all the time, if it’s not dependable, then it’s of no help. Now it’s not comforting, it’s just a frightening reflection of the “real world”.

It awakens our fear of change. The light use to tell me that everything will be alright. What’s it saying now?

The light’s gone out, all bets are off. London’s lost its heartbeat – beware what follows.

An early morning view of Canary Wharf from Haringay

Now, here’s the the thing. That light, on that building isn’t there for me. It’s there so that pilots know where the building is when they fly into City Airport.

If the light fails (as lights often do), then it’s got nothing to do with me, or London or anything except the infrastructure which supports the blinking.

It’s not personal, it’s not a message, it’s not a code to be interpreted.

The meaning I’ve attached to the light is completely personal, but the circumstances which have stopped it from blinking are not. The two are completely independent and the state of the light shouldn’t influence how I feel about anything.

So much of the suffering and hardship we experience is the result of us inferring personal meanings from impersonal circumstances. From thinking that the light should be something other than what it is, and railing against it when it deviates from our expectations.

So much of it is all imagined.

That’s not to say that tough things don’t happen to us. They do. But we would be much better off just working on the things which have a real impact, than worrying about what happens when faraway lights stop blinking.

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.