Einstein’s Million-Dollar Note On Happiness Explains Spiritual Attachment

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.

We often crave “things” to make us feel happy

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


How To Find Self-Fulfilment

Semantics are both insufficient and crucial when discussing spirituality. They’re insufficient in that individual spirituality is a direct experience. All the words in the world can only point you in the right direction, they can’t fully explain what the destination feels like, looks like, sounds like. But they’re crucial in making sure those directions are as accurate as possible. Mind That Ego is a self-fulfilment blog, a label I feel best fits. But what is self-fulfilment? And how is it different from everyday fulfilment?

There are three definitions of fulfilment: the fulfilment of a dream, to achieve fulfilment of one’s hopes, or the state or quality of being fulfilled. We’re concerned with the latter, for one crucial reason — it’s an internal state. Of course, fulfilling a dream or achieving a goal is an extremely rewarding, healthy part of life. But this subset of fulfilment is linked to external events. When our sense of fulfilment is linked to external events, it’s outside of our control. If we don’t achieve our goals or realise that dream, then what?

Fleeting Fulfilment And The “I’ll Be Happy When” Mindset

That’s where self-fulfilment is your friend. Self-fulfilment can be defined as being content with oneself, in the present moment, regardless of external factors. It’s the antithesis of one of the biggest ailments of modern Western civilisation, the “I’ll be happy when” mindset (capitalism is a huge purveyor of this mindset, but more on that later). The “I’ll be happy when” mindset is a red herring, a spiteful illusion. It’s the mind tricking you into looking elsewhere for fulfilment, anywhere but “the now.” Some examples of how it can manifest include:

  • I’ll be happy when… I meet the perfect partner.
  • I’ll be happy when… I get that pay-rise.
  • I’ll be happy when… I lose weight.
  • I’ll be happy when… the sun is shining, my bills are paid, I get my haircut, I have sex, I eat the meal, drink the drink, take the drugs, etc.
  • I’ll be happy when… Bristol Rovers are in the Premier League (that one’s mine).

Just looking at this list of “I’ll be happy” whens exposes them for their true value. Not only are they out of our control (maybe you won’t meet the perfect partner, maybe you’ll lose your job, maybe you’ll gain weight) they’re also fleeting. That is, once they are “fulfilled,” the mind will instantly be looking for the next “I’ll be happy when,” because this “I’ll be happy when” becomes “I thought I’d be happy when.” And so the cycle continues.

Self-Fulfilment, Being Present And Appreciation

“Well, that’s just great, Ricky. But how can I break the cycle?” Good question. As highlighted above, the “I’ll be happy when” mindset is a product of the thinking mind. Or, as I’ll refer to it for now and forever, the ego (more on the intricacies of the ego later). Consequently, you can’t think your way out of this one. This is a lot harder than it sounds, because most of us born into Western culture have been raised in a way that strongly identifies with the thinking mind — as Descartes said: “I think, therefore I am.” Thinking your way out of the “I’ll be happy when” cycle is like trying to extinguish a campfire by sprinkling gasoline on it, for want of a better metaphor. You may even find you start to think “I’ll be happy when I’m free from I’ll be happy whens.”

Instead of thinking your way out, the answer is experience itself. Being, “the now,” present, awareness… Whatever you call it, the experience of pure being is the antidote to thought. It’s the ingredient freeing your sense of fulfilment (and sense of worth, for that matter) from external events and provides headspace from the thinking mind and its accompanying emotions. But it’s not a magic fix. It requires practice, and plenty of it, in the form of meditation and mindfulness. If you’re new to spirituality you may well be thinking this sounds too good to be true, but, I promise you, the effects can be life-changing.

To highlight my point crudely, a common benefit of mindfulness, meditation and being present is appreciation. Not in the thinking sense of “I should appreciate the fact I have food and shelter,” but instead as a direct experience, a state. By being present, you appreciate the moment, directly, away from all those pesky “I’ll be happy whens.” The more you tap in to this appreciation of being present, the more those “I’ll be happy whens” dissolve, leading to their eventual disappearance.

A Lack Of “I’ll Be Happy Whens” Doesn’t Mean A Life Without Goals

By dissolving the “I’ll be happy whens,” does this mean we can give up on society? Stop having goals? Become content just being and never seek fulfilment from the endlessly surprising, vibrant, exciting outside world? No. The key with self-fulfilment and “I’ll be happy whens” is the change in relationship. Rather than having a sense of fulfilment dependent on an outcome (and suffering with lack of success), you’ll have a non-attached relationship with your goals. You’ll feel content whether you achieve them or not. Success is the cherry on top, the added bonus.

This could be you, but it doesn’t have to be.

For example, let’s say one of my “I’ll be happy whens” is relationship based. I’ll be happy when I have the perfect girlfriend. My sense of fulfilment is linked to an outcome I can’t predict (not to mention “perfect” doesn’t exist). I’m attached to the result. Every encounter with a potential partner is seen through the perspective of whether they will be the one to fulfil my “I’ll be happy when.” Not only is that putting an immense amount of pressure on potential partners, it’s also handing away my autonomy for happiness onto the most unpredictable external factor — someone else.

Self-fulfilment alters this “I’ll be happy when” drastically. The first step is acknowledging the ego’s role by becoming aware of it. This example is particularly pertinent because thanks to Hollywood culture, we’ve been programmed to believe in the notion of romantic love, or “the one.” So, most of us have such “I’ll be happy when” thoughts at some stage.

The next step is the practice of mindfulness and meditation to gain inner self-worth and contentment. Then the approach to the “I’ll be happy when” changes. Without any attachment to the outcome, it doesn’t matter whether or not you find the “perfect partner.” But that doesn’t mean you’re then destined to die alone, quite the opposite; it means when meeting someone, you have no pre-existing ideas. You aren’t seeking fulfilment from them, you’re already fulfilled. You can experience all the joy of falling in love, sharing goals, providing support to each other, growing spiritually together and all those nice things, but also remain independent and self-fulfilled away from the relationship. Sounds a lot like friendship, right?

Finally, Self-Fulfilment Isn’t…

Now we know how self-fulfilment can break the cycle of “I’ll be happy whens,” here are few things it isn’t:

  • Selfish. In fact it’s the opposite. By being more content in the now and feeling fulfilled, all of your relationships will be enhanced, and you’ll approach your goals with more clarity.
  • The abolition of goals and motivation. As mentioned before, self-fulfilment will change your relationship to goals and success. It doesn’t mean you have to give them up, you just no longer have the sense of needing them to be fulfilled. It’s liberating, and may even see your goals change.
  • Easy. It’s important to end on this caveat. It’s bloody hard work, and it takes time. But it is possible with dedicated spiritual practice.

If all of this seems daunting, just remember, as soon as you are aware of these thought processes, you’re already one step into the journey of changing the relationship. And don’t fall into the trap of: “I’ll be happy when I am free of I’ll be happy whens.”

What are your “I’ll be happy whens”? Do you feel they prevent your happiness in the present?