In 1922 Albert Einstein wrote a note on how to live a happy life. It said: “A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.” That note recently sold at auction for $1.56 million. Einstein’s note subtly hints that attachment prevents us from being happy, and non-attachment brings joy. Here’s why.
All of us have varying levels of attachment to desired outcomes or to life situations. Attachment is a buzzword that pinpoints the cause of suffering. To define attachment, Buddhist philosophy is a good place to start. In particular, the Four Noble Truths, which are:
- Dukkha (life is full of suffering)
- Samudāya (the origin of suffering is attachment)
- Nirodha (we can be liberated from such suffering)
- Magga (there is a path that can be followed to be liberated from suffering)
I won’t go in-depth on the intricacies of the Noble Truths here, as they’ve been covered elsewhere. However, it’s important to acknowledge how Buddhist philosophy highlights the conflict in seeking and craving pleasure in the outside world. The Buddha taught that the root of all suffering is tanhā, which translates to desire, craving or (that word again) attachment. Unfortunately, craving pleasure from physical senses (food, sex, alcohol) is destined to fail as it only brings short-lived happiness. It lacks true meaning, true purpose. Or in Einstein’s words, the pursuit of what we crave is bound with unrest.
Interestingly, attachment also applies to things we see as positive. Maybe it’s our health, our iPhone, our partner. We catch colds, break bones, drop our phones down the toilet and argue (or worse still, break up with) our partners. For sake of simplicity, let’s call these attachment to current positives. It’s the deep-rooted sense of “I like x now, I don’t want it to change.” The trouble is, everything changes (more on impermanence later) and the more attached you become to good things, the more you suffer when they change. Which they will. Always.
The Influence Of Buddhism On Psychotherapy
Before moving on to non-attachment (or nirvana in Buddhism) it’s important to note that the principles above also provide the building blocks for the scientific approach to psychology. For example, meditation master Chögyam Trungpa identified in his 1975 book Glimpses of Abhidharma just how influential Buddhism has been to psychotherapy:
“Many modern psychologists have found that the discoveries and explanations of the abhidharma [ancient Buddhist texts] coincide with their own recent discoveries and new ideas; as though the abhidharma, which was taught 2,500 years ago, had been redeveloped in the modern idiom.”
Many well-respected thinkers of Western psychology agree. Analytical psychologist Carl Jung wrote a 30-page foreword to D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a popular form of talking therapy in the West, aims to restructure the mind. Further still, a branch of CBT, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, takes huge inspiration from Buddhist philosophy, in particular, the Eightfold Path. The Indian Journal of Psychiatry even identifies the Buddha as a “unique psychotherapist.”
How To Practice Non-Attachment
A statement I’ll end up repeating a lot on Mind That Ego: the moment you become aware of a specific behaviour or habit is the moment that sparks change. As soon as you realise your own personal relationship to attachment, you can apply clarity to it to help it reduce its hold. In his book Essential Spirituality, Roger Walsh identifies four exercises in non-attachment to reduce craving. These are:
- Recognise pain as feedback. This is the first point of awareness, as mentioned above. It’s the acknowledgement that the pain or suffering you are feeling isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom of attachments and cravings.
- Examine the experience of craving. This exercise has deep roots in mindfulness. Walsh highlights that often when we think about our cravings, we pay attention to what we are trying to get (cake, a new car, that last Rolo) and not the sensation of craving itself.
- Reflect on the costs of craving. We all need motivation now and again, and what better motivation than giving some consideration to how such attachments are influencing our lives? Especially a process that uses energy and keeps us in an unhappy loop of seek, find, seek, find.
- Recognise underlying thoughts and beliefs. I mention CBT above, which is relevant to this exercise. CBT therapy focuses on changing our thought patterns and beliefs. This technique can also be applied to our particular attachments, our “I’ll be happy whens.” If we crave money our primary thought is more than likely: “I’ll be happy when I have made more money.” Dig deeper, and you might find thoughts linked to self-esteem (“I need to earn x per year to be a valuable person”) or even comparison and jealousy (“my friend earns x, I should earn the same”).
If Spirituality Means Giving Up Everything Fun, Why Bother?
Most of us like a cheeky beer, splashing out on new clothes or having sex (probably not at the same time). Here’s the good news — you don’t have to give them up. I’m a huge believer in moderation, and in the right dose, all of the pleasures we physically seek can be indulged now and again. The key, though, is to make sure that process of seeking doesn’t become interlinked with a sense of craving. When you feel you need any of these things to be happy, that’s when it’s a problem.
When you practice non-attachment and finding self-fulfilment in “the now,” you won’t need to seek more money, more sex or more alcohol. That means you’re the one in control, choosing to divulge when necessary. Curiously, once this relationship has changed from attachment to non-attachment, behaviour soon follows, almost out of our conscious control. You might no longer feel the need to drink or binge-eat or whatever your attachments are.
In fact, you may start to live a quiet and modest life, full of joy.