‘What you cling to you lose’, the Buddha is reported as saying (or ‘what you don’t let go of you lose‘, which comes to the same thing). “Aah,” we might reply in all our Western sophistication, “but if we’re not holding on to it then we don’t have it anyway and so what’s the difference?” What’s the difference between losing because we’re holding on to it and losing it because we never tried to win it in the first place?
Another thing the Buddha might have said however is that when we cling we create a false self. When we hold on we create the illusion of who we think we are but actually aren’t. Once this is taken into account then it changes everything – not only do we lose whatever it is we are so determinedly clinging to (and experience therefore the anguish of loss that goes with this), we’re suffering in vain because it wasn’t us who wanted it in the first place but ‘the mistaken notion of who we thought we are’. We’re suffering in vain because we’re not really the clinger who loses – we just think we are.
When we cling we create, by this act, ‘the clinger’, but this clinger is not at all who we are. The clinger is the false idea of who we are; the clinger is the false self, the ‘self who we are not’. To this false self, to this clinger, to this ‘attached one’, the thing that is being clung to is of course very important indeed. The strength of the clinging is a measure of this importance and the strength (or rather, the pure desperation) of this clinging goes off the scale. The urgency (or rather desperation) of our clinging has no end, no limits…
The ironic point about all this however is that ‘the thing that is being clung to’ is desperately important only to the clinger and the clinger (as we have been saying) isn’t who we are. The thing we are clinging to is desperately important to the false self, to the ‘mistaken idea of who we are’, but not at all important to who we really are. How can we be so sure of this? Simply because what the false self, the ‘clinger’, the ‘attached one’, is clinging to is actually itself.
The attached one, the clinger, only really cares about one thing and that is itself. What else would it be attached to? It is not attached to anything other than itself, and never could be. We can understand this very clearly just as soon as we see that clinging is how we create the self. That’s the whole point of clinging, that’s the ‘secret agenda’ behind this whole tiresome business of attachment. We naively imagine that when we grasp we are wanting to obtain something to benefit the self, something to enhance or augment or accessorize the self but this isn’t true. The bottom line is that what we’re doing when we cling (or strive) is to create the one who clings, to create the one who strives…
It could be said perhaps that from a psychological point of view what we’re trying to obtain by our clinging and striving (to / for whatever it is that we’re clinging / striving to/for) is an increase in our sense of ontological security. This is true, but what constitutes ontological security for the false self is the belief that it actually exists when it doesn’t! ‘Striving for ontological security’ is the very same thing as ‘striving to exist’, therefore.
This is a tremendously frustrating sort of a business, obviously. When we play the game which we don’t know to be a game (the game that we exist as this concrete self when we don’t) there is only one thing that really matters to us and that thing is obtaining a type of security that just isn’t possible for us. Obtaining the sense of security that we are so painfully missing (necessarily missing, since the false or attached self doesn’t actually exist) is more important to us than anything else. It is desperately important to us in fact and at yet the same time as being desperately important it is at the same time flatly impossible. This isn’t just ‘a tremendously frustrating situation’, it’s the most frustrating situation there ever could be! It’s also the situation we find ourselves in every day.
In one way this strategy might be said to be working for us. It works for us in the sense that we get to believe very firmly indeed that we are this concrete self, for good or for bad, for better or for worse. We REALLY DO get to believe that we are the wanter, the striver, the clinger! The other side of the coin is however that we have to base our life on believing that we can obtain something that we can’t actually obtain, and at the same time avoid something that we can’t really avoid. We’re always ‘straining in a futile way’, therefore, and this straining is suffering.
The straining is futile because there is never a satisfactory outcome, because we can never ever get the result that we want to get (although it on occasion might for a while seem to us that we have). In another sense – as we have just said – the painful straining isn’t futile because we have created a self. As Alan Watts says in one of his talks, this painful knot of futile straining is the self! By striving to achieve the goal we create the striver, the wanter, the hoper. By planning and scheming we create the planner, the schemer. Is the planner or schemer ever happy? Plainly not, but who cares? Ultimately, it’s not being happy we care about but possessing – however temporarily – a misleading sense of ontological security. It’s believing that we are this ‘concrete self’ that matters, not anything else.
The wanter and the striver, the schemer and the planner, cannot ever be happy, obviously. If we’re wanting then by definition we’re not happy. By definition we are suffering. We haven’t got what we think we need, so how can we be happy? We have something else instead of happiness though – we have a workable substitute and the substitute is the excitement we experience when we (falsely) believe that we really are going obtain what we are so determinedly looking for. This ‘enjoyable excitement’ is a fool’s paradise, however – it’s all just a mirage that’s about to vanish into thin air the moment I close my hand on the prize. And the greater my excitement was beforehand, the greater the let-down is going to be afterwards when the mirage slips through my fingers (as it always does, as it always has done, as it always will do).
Once the prize has slipped (yet again) from my fingers then there is nothing for it but to go chasing after the next ‘object of desire’; I have to start playing the game again so that I can receive the next dose of enjoyable excitement. I have no choice apart from ‘playing the game all over again’ because this is the only way I know of getting to feel good again. I need this feeling of pleasurable anticipation – I am addicted to it, I am a slave to it. All I know is the euphoria of hope and the anguished let-down of loss and I crave the former just as much as a hate and the fear the latter. This attraction to euphoria and aversion to dysphoria is what traps me in the ultimately unfulfilling cycle of conditioned existence therefore. This is what traps me in the game of samsara.
Not only have I made myself into a slave of the enjoyable excitement (which is ‘the rapture of self-creation’) therefore, I have at the same time set up another master over me – that master being the negative excitement (or dysphoria) which is dread and anxiety. What I am in dread of is also only an empty mirage, but it is very real to me because that is the game I am playing. Because I want so much to believe in the concrete self, I have to be a slave to the fear that comes with it. The ‘addictive excitement’ of which we speak is nothing other than the excitement of creating the self but any pleasurable excitement which I manage to gain in the game is always going to be counterbalanced or cancelled out later on by unpleasant variety! This ‘pleasurable excitement’ is what Daisaku Ikeda calls the state of rapture. Because I crave euphoria so much, I have to make myself subject to the dreadful scourge of dysphoria. In order to have what like I also have to have what I don’t like. If I am to believe in the ‘positive’ euphoria-producing projections then I also have to believe in the ‘negative’ (dysphoria-producing) ones.
So in this game not only am I compelled to be forever chasing after attractive illusions, I am also compelled to be forever fleeing the frightening ones. This game – the game that I am playing – is the game of the self, and this is how I CREATE the self – by planning and scheming, by hoping and striving, by constantly chasing after attractive illusions and running away from repellent ones.