Attachment or love: where is the borderline?


Buddhists believe that we should aim for a state of non-attachment, and that anyway, everything we attach ourselves to is temporary, so it’s kind of pointless to get attached. Well, that’s a gross over-simplication of a profound philosophy, but it’ll do as a definition for now.

I do recognise that it may often be a Bad Thing to become over-attached to people or things or ideas.

Attaching ourselves to objects

If we are over-attached to objects, that may imply that we have invested too much pride in material possessions. We are greedy pigs.

Or maybe we have endowed a certain object with the power to represent a certain memory, or belief, or perhaps our self-image. We may be in love with an object for its beauty or nostalgia or usefulness or symbolism or rarity.

I imagine that attachment to objects is the crudest form of attachment.

But is it a Bad Thing to be intensely aware of the merits of an object, for example, an apple or the planet Earth? Isn’t that better than taking them for granted?

Attaching ourselves to ideas

If we are over-attached to an idea, that may mean we are closed to other ideas. We cling to our own perception or theory. We become boring, banging on about the same-old same-old year after year. We don’t listen to other ideas. We cannot collaborate. We become snarky, prickly conversation-stoppers, defending our idea against all comers. We may join a cult of fellow-worshippers. Other people won’t let us join their book group.

And yet how thrilling it can be to fall in love with an idea! Then we want to explore it to the limit, to test it to destruction, to talk about it all the time. One day we may find pot-holes in our beloved theory — and that’s fine. We can still can keep the idea as a valuable tool or even an inspiration, loving it for itself, on its merits.

Attaching ourselves to people

And if we are over-attached to people? OK, the Buddhist warnings may simply imply that romantic love is fleeting, or that co-dependence is a sickness.

But setting aside hormone-driven romance and pathological states of infatuation or neediness, I am unwilling to let go my attachment to my personal band of family and friends.

I do my best to hold their hands lightly so that they can slip away at any time. Eventually, on my deathbed or theirs, I will let my dear ones go. But please, Mr Buddha, allow us to love one other consciously and carefully until that moment.

Let go, let go! No no no no!

I consider myself pretty good at letting things go. Books flow in and out of my house like a river. Every time I buy something, I try to give something equivalent away. Messiness is fine but clutter offends me and gets dealt with pretty smartly.

But I had better let go of my self-image as a clutter-clearer. Because last week I thought I had lost my little blue change purse, and this was unexpectedly disturbing. When I lost it, I almost lost it. I was ready to slap LOST notices on every lamp-post and send out a press release and undertake grief counselling.

Luckily the purse turned up a few days later: it was just hiding.

Seems I am irrationally attached to that change purse. Hm, why, I wonder?

  1. Usefulness. It is perfectly designed for its purpose. Though tiny, it has three compartments: one for notes, one for cards and one for change. It fits into my smallest pocket.
  2. Beauty. It is beautiful object of the softest bluest leather.
  3. Nostalgia. It is a memento of a happy family event in Morocco.
  4. Rarity. It is impossible to replace without going back to Morocco.
  5. Symbolism. It is simple and cheap and unappreciated by other people. I honour the designer and the maker.
  6. Oops. I just noticed a more significant symbolism: the purse holds my money. How humiliating. How deeply unspiritual.

These are all reasons for enjoying the purse, but surely not for attachment.

OK, not perfect. But we knew that.

NOTE ABOUT THIS POST: “Attachment…” was posted elsewhere on 15 July 2015. Friends had trouble leaving comments on that site, but Lesley Maclean said:

Maybe it’s ok to be attached to things and people. Or rather it is neither ok nor not ok. There’s no wagging finger around to tell us either way. But, when we lose these things, we suffer because of that attachment. And if we would like to lessen our suffering it may pay to enquire into this attachment a bit as you have so admirably done with with purse, bulging with coins.

But when I lose someone or something dear to me and I cry, I think that’s a good thing. The Buddha cried, and we can too…

To which I replied:

I like your delicate approach to this thorny topic. My approach is more like a bulldozer, sometimes.

4 thoughts on “Attachment or love: where is the borderline?

  1. Robyn Haynes says:

    Thanks for this invitation to think about my attachments and why I have them. Attached to the constellation of ideas around identity as I am, I have to say that the things and people I’m attached to scaffold who I think I am, or more specifically who I’m projecting myself to be. Is it a bad thing to mourn that part of myself when the attachment is lost? Or maybe I can celebrate the emergence of a new me?

  2. I want to see these crucial attachments as Lesley does: neither good nor bad, just real. You raise this fascinating issue of attachment to our identity and to the people who contribute to its construction. How precious they are! How can we be who we are if we float entirely free like helium balloons?

  3. robert87004 says:

    After reading the comments along with this post I’d like to add that I think the rationale of non-attachment is to remain emotionally centered, or to say this another way, our emotional attachments should not create disharmony within us, individually.

    1. That’s a good benchmark.

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