Figuring out attachment
There will come a time, if you are a practitioner of yoga or a seeker of spiritual wisdom, when a teacher will tell you to let go of whatever it is you are attached to. At first, this will seem reasonable enough and maybe you’ve heard it before so you do the best you can to “relinquish your attachment” to whatever benign thing you can think of to let go of, i.e. your attachment to bagels with cream cheese or checking your email first thing in the morning. But while you might think you are letting go of attachment, we often just let go of that thing or we beat ourselves up about how attached to it we are. The idea of attachment shows itself in so many aspects of our lives and we're told to let go of it before we even know what we should be letting go of.
So let’s start with what attachment feels like. Attachment is that feeling when you are SO into someone, maybe too into them. But being with them doesn’t make you feel warm and gushy inside, or like you can be a better person with them, or like you have someone to depend on to move through life. Being with them makes you feel a heaviness in your chest that won’t go away, makes you feel claustrophobic but still makes you feel like if you lose them you will surely die. Attachment feels like your high school sweetheart.
Attachment is that feeling when you eat the same thing at 3pm every Thursday but one week you go into your favorite sandwich place and they are out of your favorite thing. Instead of ordering something else or politely leaving, attachment means you get angry at the cashier who is probably not responsible at all. It means you refuse to order something different, it means you boil over with anger.
Attachment feels like trying over and over and over again to perfect a certain asana. It feels like tweaking your back and ignoring all the other poses because you are singularly focused on one pose. It feels like finally nailing the pose you have been trying to get for so long and the feeling of accomplishment lasting for a whole five minutes. Attachment is the feeling when you have been able to do a pose for years and you wake up one day and you can’t do it any more.
Mostly attachment feels like disappointment. It’s the feeling you get when you expect someone to act a certain way or say something specific and they don’t. It’s the feeling when alcohol, sex, drugs, yoga, sugar, coffee, music, dance, love use to make you feel good but doesn’t any more. It’s the feeling when you expect your hard work to lead to one thing and it leads to something else completely - maybe something that you didn’t want.
Finally, attachment is the feeling that if we didn’t have our money, our things or even our relationships we wouldn’t be able to know happiness. As my teacher Jack Kornfield says, attachment feels like clinging, fear and grasping.
In Buddhist philosophy, the human condition is comprised of five different rivers. The rivers of feelings, senses, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness. Ordinary people suffer because of attachments they have in one or all of these rivers. Liberated people are free of attachment to anything that happens in the five rivers. Liberated people still have feelings, senses, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness just like the rest of us, but unlike the rest of us, they do not cling to any of it, they do not expect certain outcomes, they are free of wanting to feel a certain way or have things be a certain way.
So sure, attachment is “wrong” and it’s leads to our suffering. It’s probably the reason why people are angry and depressed and can’t move forward in life, but that doesn't mean you should give up everything you love. Like most big “problems” in life, it has to be tackled one step at a time and that means keeping things in your life that light you up but knowing that you could also let them go.
The work of this practice is most often just to notice. Notice, observe, write down what it is you know you are attached to. Notice when you feel fearful or clingy or trapped and see if maybe it’s attributed to attachment in one of the five rivers. Little by little, you’ll start to notice where you’re attachments are, and little by little they will start to fade. Luckily, this practice, as a whole, is focused on bringing our awareness into the present moment. Each time we bring our awareness back to our breath and back to our body, we get a little farther away from the thoughts that our money, our things and our relationships are who we are and all we need. Love embraces all things without exception and since we are at our core only love, every time we come back to ourselves we learn a little bit more to embrace all people, feelings and circumstances without exception.