Our lives, when it comes down to it, are ruled by our attachments. So what, we may ask, are ‘attachments’? The way in which we usually understand the word is in terms of the fondness which we might have for certain things; in this sense attachment might be seen as a sort of commitment because if I am attached to you then to some extent I am committed to you. Attachment might even be thought of as being much the same sort of thing as what we generally call ‘love’, but this is not the way in which we are meaning the word to be understood. When we use the word attachment we are using it in a much more specific context – in the strict sense that we are using the term, our attachments are our needs, or our cravings. There are two types of attachment – negative and positive. If I absolutely need to have something, then this is positive attachment, and if I absolutely need not to have something, then this is negative attachment.
An important point to highlight here is that the need in question is absolute (i.e. non-negotiable). This is just another way of saying that there is no freedom in it at all – it is not just that the attachment is asking me politely to do (or not do) something), it is telling me in no uncertain terms and the bottom line is that I have no choice in the matter. Fear is a good example – fear is pure negative attachment, it is a need that I cannot question. It is of course possible for us to over-ride fear sometimes, when the fear is not too strong perhaps, but this does mean that I am able to question it. On the contrary, when I over-ride fear (i.e. when I struggle against it) all I am doing is obeying another type of fear – I am driven in this case by the fear of what will happen if I don’t fight the original fear, and so I am still in the state of negative attachment.
The fact that I am absolutely averse to a particular outcome shows that I am in the state of negative attachment – if I am afraid of something happening then I am ‘averse to that outcome’, but if I am afraid of what will happen if I give in to my fear of that thing happening, then I am averse to that outcome, and so I am still driven by negative attachment. Saying that attachments are absolute is another way of saying that we are not able to question them. I can of course fight against my attachments, but all this means is that I am being driven by negative attachment to my attachments, and that is still attachment. I am ‘replacing one addiction with another’, but at the end of the day I am still addicted. What this shows us is that it is not possible to find freedom from our attachments by fighting against them, which is our first (and often only) reaction. What attachments actually represent therefore is a ‘loss of freedom’; they control us – they determine what we are able to do, and they determine what we are not able to do.
SEEING THINGS ‘UPSIDE DOWN’
The reason it is important to stress the fact that our needs equal a ‘loss of freedom’ is because we do not usually see it this way at all. Rather than seeing our attachments as controlling us, we identify with them and as a result of this ‘identification’ we understand our freedom in a sort of backwards or upside-down way, i.e. we understand freedom as meaning ‘the freedom to successfully obey our attachments’, rather that understanding freedom in terms of ‘freedom from our attachments’.
FREEDOM MEANS EQUANIMITY
This can be a tricky enough point to understand, but it is nevertheless very important to try to get it straight. A good way to get a handle on this is by thinking in terms of ‘likes and dislikes’. Normally I think that my likes and dislikes (i.e. what makes me comfortable and what makes me uncomfortable) are an expression of who I am, and that they represent my ‘free will’ in some way. Basically, we all take it for granted that the ability to exercise our choice with regard to our likes and dislikes is an inalienable expression of our rights as free individuals.
But the idea we are looking at here is completely different to this – what we are saying is that our likes and dislikes are grievous restrictions of our freedom, rather than being a natural expression of it. Actually freedom has nothing to do with our habitual preferences and whether we are in a position to follow them through; what freedom really has to do with is something called equanimity. So what exactly is equanimity? We can try to answer this question by saying that it is a quality that is akin to courage in one way and akin to curiosity in another way. We can also define equanimity by saying that it is a state of freedom with regard to our attachments.
Normally we are ruled by our habitual preferences, our likes and dislikes, our attachments. We are slaves when it comes down to it, even though we don’t see it like this. Suppose I am afraid, which is as we have said negative attachment. When I am obeying the impulse of fear it feels as if I want to obey it – it feels like ‘reacting to fear’ is what I myself want to do. But this is an illusion because if I try to decide ‘not to be afraid’ I discover that I can’t. I am not free to choose to not be afraid. In the same way if I have a problem with drinking and I obey the urge to reach for the bottle, it feels like this is what I myself want to do. But if I was to try to fight the positive attachment that I have towards alcohol, I would quickly discover that I am not free to decide to ‘have no craving for a drink’. The craving is imposed upon me; it is not the result of choice and therefore it has nothing to do with my own free will. This is true for all of our habitual preferences – they are not choices that we freely make, but choices that have already been made for us.
When my only interest is in obeying my likes and dislikes, then this is a state of very limited curiosity – I am not exploring myself or the world, I am just conforming to the pattern of how I have always been. If I can obtain the things I like, and avoid the things that I don’t like, then I am content. Basically, that’s all I live for – I live to ‘service my needs’. When we look at attachment carefully we can see that it is not a very inspiring state of affairs; if I am ruled by my attachments than I am not interested in anything except stuff that will help me obtain the outcomes that I like and avoid the outcomes that I don’t like. But what kind of a life is this? Equanimity is often understood as being something similar to ‘indifference’ or ‘not-caring’. If all outcomes are the same to me, I might think, then that does not exactly make for a very exciting life. But this is not an understanding but a misunderstanding – equanimity does not mean I am indifferent to the world, but rather that I am indifferent to my likes and dislikes.
Actually, if the truth were known it is attachment that is indifferent – after all, when I am ruled by my likes and dislikes I don’t give a damn about the world as it is in itself (or as it is for itself); all I care about is how I can exploit it, what I can get out of it. This isn’t really interest or curiosity, its just self-absorbed indifference.
BEING A ‘SLAVE TO COMFORT’
When I spend all my time obeying my likes and dislikes, what this means is that I am trying only to do things that makes me feel good, and trying to not do things that make me feel bad. My primary concern is that I should not feel uncomfortable, and this aversion to discomfort is the root of all my behaviour when I am in the state of attachment. Basically, being a slave to attachment is the exact same thing as being a slave to comfort. “So what is wrong with this?” we might ask, “who wants to go looking for hardship?” There are severe drawbacks to being a slave to comfort however (or being a slave to the urge to avoid discomfort) and those drawbacks can be explained as follows. For a start, when we automatically seek comfort at all times, our lives automatically become very routine, predictable and boring; this is because the only stuff we do is safe stuff, we never explore or push out our boundaries. All we ever do is endlessly recycle old behaviour.
Furthermore, it doesn’t even stick at this because when avoiding discomfort means avoiding risk, and since risk is an essential part of life, this means that we end up avoiding life itself. In practice, what happens when we start avoiding risk is that our world gradually shrinks, and goes on shrinking. All we ever do is give up ground, and so the bit of ground that we do feel comfortable with diminishes and diminishes, until the life we are left with is no life at all. If this is the price we pay for being a ‘slave to comfort’, then clearly there is not much comfort in the comfort at the end of the day! As we have said, when I am in the state of attachment, all I really care about is how I feel. I want to feel good, and I don’t want to feel bad. I am obsessed with my own comfort. The result of this is that I end up only caring about myself – I do not act for any other reason than the reason of my own comfort, and this basically make me totally self-obsessed’, which is not a great way to be. There is no humour in me anymore – there is no lightness, no playfulness, no joy, only anxious self-concern.
It can easily be seen that attachment is itself the cause of anxiety because whilst I would feel safe if I knew for sure that I could always get what I want (and get away from what I don’t want) the actually fact of the matter is that I can never be sure that things will work out this way. And when I am attached to things being one way, and it starts to look like that isn’t going to happen, then this is when anxiety hits home big time.
As we have said, freedom from anxiety comes from increasing the amount of equanimity that we have, and even a little increase helps. Often enough we are inclined to say – “Yes all this is fine in principle, but realistically speaking most of us are highly unlikely ever to reach this marvellous state of being where we are not ruled by our likes and dislikes.” But no one is talking about totally transforming ourselves in one go. The truth is that we at all times have a choice that is constantly open to us – either we increase the power that our attachments have over us or we decrease it. It is one way or the other. If we increase the strength of our attachments by automatically obeying them, then we are condemning ourselves to great suffering in the future. On the other hand, if we don’t always automatically obey our attachments, but test them from time to time, then we are making life a little better for ourselves – we are gaining a bit more freedom. This may not sound like much but the fact of the matter is that even the tiniest increase in freedom makes a big difference in terms of quality of life – it actually makes a very big difference indeed because it shows us what is possible. I now know that it is possible to move in the other direction – the direction that isn’t ‘downhill’.
SEEING OUR ATTACHMENTS
The one thing we have to remember all the time, and keep on remembering, is that we can’t bully ourselves to be free from our attachments. Bullying (or blaming) is not the answer. The secret lies in learning to see our attachments. Actually, we are all attached to not seeing our attachments – I’d prefer to kid myself that what the attachment (or compulsion) wants me to do is what I want to do, and so I don’t see the compulsion for what it is. Normally I’d rather see things one way rather than the other way and this is attachment. I’d rather believe that I’m free when actually I’m not free. What this means is that if I can allow myself to see the true nature of my attachments, and how I am controlled by them, then in this there is equanimity. I am willing to see the truth – whether I like it or not. This attitude is both courageous and curious and therefore, as soon as I learn to take the time to patiently and gently notice my attachments, then that means that straightaway I am developing equanimity.