Saturday, February 09, 2008

thinking about Buddhism- detachment

This was the hardest one for me to wrap my brain around, and I have to be honest-- it still is not all that appealing to me. But the Buddhist idea of being detached, of not allowing yourself to be attached to anything, still has been very interesting to me as a mental exercise. Again, I think part of the reason that it took me so long to even begin to understand detachment is because there is no good word in English for what is meant when a Buddhist uses it. Before I knew anything about Buddhism, if you had asked me to tell you what it means to say someone is "detached," I would have said they were emotionally cold, unavailable, and stand-offish. But I don't think that is what Buddhists mean by the term at all. The word "un-attached" is somewhat closer to the meaning, I think, but still doesn't quite get it.

My understanding is that Buddhists believe that everything we do and see and feel is dictated by our thoughts. And our thoughts are nothing but our perceptions; they have no literal value, no basis in what is truly real. So there is no point in becoming attached to the way we think. You may think that it's depressing when it rains. You may think that you are worthless because your parents were so horrible when you were a child. You may think that you aren't capable of achieving greatness because you tried once or twice and failed. You may think that your neighbor is angry at you because he barely spoke to you at the mailbox yesterday. All of those are thoughts that could have a strong influence on how you act, maybe with all kinds of consequences that could go on for a lifetime. But all of those thoughts are just your impressions, they're just smoke, or maybe soap bubbles. They have no validity beyond what you give them. They may or may not have anything to do with anything.

So the idea is that there is no point in getting attached to your ideas or opinions. The goal is to live your life with an open mind, not let pre-conceptions get in the way of your direct experience of reality. Try to drop all your opinions and just live, keep breathing. Just see what happens. I'm not sure I'm explaining this very well. I'm trying to learn to approach my experience with a feeling of softness and vulnerability, rather being defensive and clutching tightly onto my ideas about what is scary and what is impossible.

Each of us has situations where this is harder or easier, depending on our own experience and personality. Ideas and objects and people that are particularly difficult to let go of are "sticky"-- they cause us to grab on tight to our fears and insecurities and not want to let go. We know that new pair of shoes would (briefly) make us feel better so we clench tightly the idea that having a new pair of shoes will make us happy. We are absolutely positive that this job is essential to staying financially solvent, so we fuss and fret about every little detail of what goes on at work. We try to protect ourselves by clutching tightly onto whatever makes us feel safe.

But the only thing that is dependable, really, is that things will change. The tighter we clutch, the more seriously we take our attachments, the more miserable we will be when they fail us. When the shoes don't provide durable happiness. When my job is eliminated and I don't know what to do.

In classical Buddhism, you want to get to the point where you attach no importance to anything in this world. And that's where I get stuck (um, so to speak). I do think there are things in this world that are worth forming attachments to, even if it will hurt like hell when the attachment fails. And I think if you follow the philosophy of non-attachment to its conclusion, it is difficult to make a case for art (art for art's sake, anyway)-- which is very important to me. So a classical Buddhist would probably just think that I am admitting to my immaturity, and of course I am. But I'm OK with that.

So that's my take on it. Since I think this is the last of my posts on Buddhism (for now, anyway), I'll just say it one more time: I'm a beginner in the study of Buddhism. If someone out there with more experience would chime in and clarify things, I'd appreciate it.


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