Dharma Wheel by Bob Jacobson
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"Grasping at things can only yield one of two results:
Either the thing you are grasping at disappears, or you yourself disappear.
It is only a matter of which occurs first."


What is the problem with attachment?
The suffering of pleasure?
Some notes on ordinary love
Handling attachment - antidotes
Meditation on attachment


It may be important to know the following definitions and descriptions in order to understand the problems we have with attachment, and make sense about the ways in which we can deal with them.

Definition: Exaggerated not wanting to be separated from someone or something. (Exact opposite of Aversion) Because the label of "pleasant" is very relative and based upon limited information, Attachment includes an aspect of exaggeration or "projection".
Near "enemy" (or not to be confused with): Real appreciation, love and compassion.
Opposite: Wanting to be separated from someone or something: aversion.
Main quality: exaggeration of positive qualities, which can only lead to disappointment. Falling in love will usually fit very well in this category.

Definition: Wishing others to be happy.
Near enemy: Conditional love (attachment).
Opposite: Wishing others to be unhappy: hatred --or-- not wishing others to be happy: which is indifference or egotism.
Main qualities: Unconditional, no self-interest, but based on self-acceptance.

Definition: Wishing others to be free from suffering.
Near enemy: Sorry for someone, pity.
Opposite: Wishing others to suffer: cruelty.
Main qualities: Sorry with someone, com-passion means with-feeling, urge to help.

Definition: wanting to be free from all problems of cyclic existence, not wanting objects that cause more misery. It is not, that someone suddenly gets excited, abandons all his belongings and escapes to a cave in the mountains, simply hoping to escape his present problems; these people usually return in a week or two, weak and discouraged.
Near enemies: Not caring about anything or extreme asceticism, suicidal attitude.
Opposite: Attachment to "worldly" happiness; ultimately leading to misery.
Main qualities: Discovery of what ultimately leads to misery and avoiding that.
Lama Yeshe: "Renunciation comes from within, it is inner wisdom, inner knowledge."

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Although attachment may at first appear to be much less destructive than anger and hatred, in terms of being caught up in the uncontrolled process of rebirth, it is actually the bigger evil. Attachment to pleasure and ultimately to life itself as our inborn survival instinct, is the main type of misunderstanding that holds us prisoner in samsara.
An example to illustrate attachment that I love:

In the South of India, people used to catch monkeys in a very special way. Actually they let monkeys catch themselves. What they did is cutting a small hole in a coconut, just large enough for a monkey to put its hand in. Next, you fix the coconut to a tree, and fill it with a sweet. The monkey smells the sweet, squeezes its hand into the coconut, grabs the sweet and .... finds that the fist does not fit through the hole. Now the trick is, that the last thing the monkey will think of is to let go of the sweet; and it holds itself prisoner. Nothing could be easier for a human being who comes and catches it.

The Buddha compared desires to being in debt. If you owe money to the bank for your house, every month you have to pay. In the end, you will own the house. With sensual desires however, you cannot pay off the debt; they arise again and again. Hunger, thirst, lust for sex, warmth, coolness, they all come back again and again. Trying to fulfil our desires is like carrying water to the sea; a never ending task and ultimately completely useless.

In some very direct words of the Buddha:

"I have killed all of you before.
I was chopped up by all of you in previous lives.
We have all killed each other as enemies.
So why should we be attached to each other?"

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It can be a sobering experience when one deeply reflects in meditation on what we normally describe as pleasure. The Buddha said that relative to the blissful experience of release of cyclic existence, everything within cyclic existence is suffering. (See also the first of the "4 Noble Truths".)
Can this make sense?
Please take a few moments to reflect the following thoughts, while taking a pleasurable experience in mind:

- In how far is this "pleasure" simply an escape or a temporary forgetting of daily problems?
- How nice would it be if I kept doing this without interruption for a few days?
- How fulfilled do I feel by this experience after 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days?
- To achieve the same great feeling as the first time, do I need more of the same the next time?
The Buddha concluded that putting our energy in grasping for temporary pleasures is not only useless, it creates many problems, also karmic actions which we had better avoided.

From a Buddha's point of view this is exactly what sentient beings do all the time; holding themselves prisoner with their attachment to temporary pleasures and life itself.

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- "Love with attachment consists of waves of emotion, usually creating invisible iron chains." Ordinary love tends to create bonds that may turn very unpleasant.
- Ordinary love is based on selfishness: attraction to others because they help us.
- Ordinary love is often based on opinions like beauty and status, which may be quite irrelevant or even obstacles for being able to live happily together with the person.
- Exaggeration and projection are the main reasons that ordinary love leads to disappointments. To illustrate this some words from M. Scott Peck on "ordinary love":

 "The myth of romantic love is a dreadful lie. Perhaps it is a necessary lie in that it assures the "falling in love"- experience that traps us into marriage. But as a psychiatrist I weep in my heart almost daily for the ghastly confusion and suffering that this myth fosters. Millions of people waste vast amounts of energy desperately in an attempt to make the reality of their lives conform to the unreality of the myth."

- "Being in love" may be a very exciting emotional condition, but is it really happiness, or is it often mixed with a fair amount of suffering?
- Attachment gives us the feeling of: How can this relationship fulfil MY needs? Real love would ask: What can I do for the OTHER?
- Attachment based on selfishness: if you are good to me, I am good to you. Altruistic love is based on equanimity: one realises that others are like me and want happiness. It is wishing others to be happy just because they exist.
- Attachment leads to possessiveness: MY husband, MY wife, MY friend, MY family. Did you ever realise that we cannot own people, unless you believe in slavery? Possessiveness leads to FEAR of losing, fake affection out of fear, overprotection, craving, jealousy or even the feeling: I can't live without her/him/my car/my cat/chocolate/pizzas/my job/my jewellery/my music....
- Is the perfection we think to see in the loved one really there, or do we simply close our eyes for the negative qualities?
- Is the perfection we are looking for achievable? An old Sufi tale as illustration:

One afternoon, Nasruddin and his friend were sitting in a cafe, drinking tea and talking about life and love.  His friend asked: "How come you never married?"
 "Well," said Nasruddin, "to tell you the truth, I spend my youth looking for the perfect woman. In Cairo I met a beautiful and intelligent woman, but she was unkind. Then in Baghdad, I met a woman who was a wonderful and generous soul, but we had no common interests. One woman after another would seem just right, but there would always be something missing. Then, one day, I met her. Beautiful, intelligent, generous and kind. We had very much in common. In fact, she was perfect!"
 "What happened?" asked Nasruddin's friend, "Why didn't you marry her?"
 Nasruddin sipped his tea reflectively. "Well," he replied, "it's really the sad story of my life.... It seemed she was looking for the perfect man...
To summarise: our own projections, selfish expectations and exaggerations are the foundations of attachment and the unavoidable disappointment.

We want to get love, rather than give love.
We seek understanding, rather than trying to understand.
We seek self-confidence, rather than respecting others.
We seek praise and encouragement, rather than giving praise and encouragement .
We don't like criticism, but like to criticise others.

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The following antidotes can be applied throughout daily life, but are profound meditation exercises as well.

ANTIDOTE 1 - Observe Yourself: Do I exaggerate positive qualities of things I am attached to, are they really worth all my troubles? Is it really worth to work hard for days, weeks or months to have an hour of fun?

ANTIDOTE 2 - Use Your Inner Wisdom: Discover how exaggerated attachment is and how desire works against oneself. Try to be wiser than the monkey and let go of the candy to be free.

ANTIDOTE 3 - Reflect on the Unsatisfactory Nature of Existence. This is also called the First Noble Truth. How much fun is fun really, and how much is it forgetting the pain? Do desires ever stop or is it an endless job to fulfil them?

ANTIDOTE 4 - Reflect on Impermanence. How important is the person or object: everything will end someday, people die, things break.

ANTIDOTE 5 - Reflect on the Problems of Attachment. Lying in the sun is great, but it quickly leads to sunburn. Eating nice food is great, but it leads to indigestion and obesity. Driving around in big cars is great, but how long do I have to work to enjoy this?

ANTIDOTE 6 - Reflect on bodily attraction (lust for sex). Loving someone is great, but what happens when the "honeymoon-days" are over? But what is the body really? What more is it than a skin bag filled with bones, flesh, disgusting organs and fluids?

ANTIDOTE 7 - Reflect on the Results of Attachment. Greed and craving lead to stealing and all kinds of crime, including war. Addiction to alcohol and drugs are simply forms of strong craving; they destroy the addict and the surroundings. Uncontrolled lust leads to sexual abuse. The feeling of greed, craving and lust in themselves can be easily seen as forms of suffering.

ANTIDOTE 8 - Reflect on Death. What are all objects of attachment worth at "the moment of truth" or death?

ANTIDOTE 9 - Emptiness. The ultimate antidote to attachment and all other negative emotions is the realisation of emptiness, see more in the page on Wisdom.

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Remember to take sufficient time at each step below to remain calm and concentrated.

1. Sit relaxed with a straight back, breathe deeply a few times and start breathing with the belly.

2. Set your motivation for the session, for example:

May all living beings be equanimous, free from attachment, anger and prejudice.
May all living beings be happy and have the causes for future happiness.
May all living beings be free from suffering and the causes for suffering.
May they never be separate from the ultimate happiness, free from all suffering.

3. Concentrate on the tip of your nose, feel the breath going in and out. At every outbreath count 1, and count from 1 to 10. When you come at 10, simply start at 1 again. Focus all attention on the tip of the nose and the counting. (some 5 minutes)

4. Release the counting and the concentration on the tip of the nose.
5. Bring to mind person you feel very attached to, a lover or good friend.
6. How does it feel if you think of him or her?
7. Is it a feeling of freedom or bondage to think of this person?
8. Is he or she as perfect as I want to be?
9. Am I sure this person will forever be a good friend of mine? Am I actually such a perfect friend?
10. Am I attached to this human being or to a fantasy of the perfect friend?
11. Is this person an ordinary human being like me, with some good and some bad qualities?
12. In what way is this person really different from any other, with some good and some bad qualities?
13. Do I tend to exaggerate this persons good qualities, is he / she always nice, warm, friendly?
14. Does exaggeration not always lead to disappointment?
15. What is the essence of this person who I like? Is it the mind that I will never fully understand, or the body; a skin, holding blood, flesh and bones together?
16. Take a few minutes to review the meditation session so far, and try to reach a one line simple conclusion.
17. Now concentrate very strongly on the conclusion without thinking about it, just focus on your feelings.
18. Relax and dedicate the positive energy of the session:

By the positive energy of this session:
M ay all living beings be equanimous, free from attachment, anger and prejudice.
May all living beings be happy and have the causes for future happiness.
May all living beings be free from suffering and the causes for suffering.
May they never be separate from the ultimate happiness, free from all suffering.

Thank you!

For more meditations, see the List of Sample Meditations.

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Last updated: April 28, 2001