Attachment, Detachment, and the Happiness in Both

I’ve recently grown fascinated with Buddhism, particularly the idea that life is meant to be lived free from attachments: to people, to things, to states of being. A chocolate covered concept with the whipped cream and cherry on top, at least for the girl in the process of detaching herself from a recent disappointment.  How nice, I thought, must it be to live a life where logic is the captain of my ship, and emotion the idle whale in the distance. With the waves of adversity crashing in perpetuity, they’d be nothing I could not handle because I’d be indifferent to the life in the sea; to any life apart from my own.

Then I learned a little more about Buddha's upbringing. Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) was the son of a king in northern India. Once born, his father was informed of a prophesy that Siddhartha was destined to leave. So as the prince grew into adulthood, he was tied down and kept in the palace by way of sensual pleasures and all the luxuries afforded to the family's royalty. The father would keep his son home by any means necessary. And I think most any parent would understand the desire to keep a child away from the dangers and uncertainties of the world on the wrong side of the walls of a home. Despite all the beauty laid out before him (within the confines of the palace), the prince still, understandably so, had an insatiable curiosity for that world.  One day, the prince asked his father to go for a chariot ride into town, and his father allowed him the trip, ordering all those who were old, crippled and sick to remain inside while the prince was out. Despite such orders, over the course of his next three trips into town, Siddhartha saw an old man, a crippled man and a sick man, and learned that those were the fates promised to us all. Upon learning that disease and death were a part of our destiny, he (as prophesized) left the palace and set forth on his journey to enlightenment. He conceded that life was suffering, and that the only way to escape such suffering was to break free of any and all attachments that bind us to pleasure, achievement and life.

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, argues this: What if the young prince stopped and actually spoke to the sick, the old and the crippled? What if he wasn't, for lack of a better word, “trapped” inside the palace his entire life, and learned, through daily excursions, that those same people actually had happiness and fulfillment in their lives, by way of love and emotional attachments? Would he have taken the same journey to disparage attachment as a concept? Would he have become the “Buddha” we know and praise today?

This changed my entire outlook on the Buddhist notion of attachment. In 1990, research was conducted on patients who suffered from head trauma, either from tumors or concussions, and lost parts of their frontal cortex. And when one of those parts, particularly the orbitofrontal cortex, was damaged, those patients lost most of their emotional lives. Meaning they, in fact, did navigate their lives with logic at the wheel, and their idle whales far off in the distance. And scientists found the exact opposite of what I ignorantly assumed: these people lived miserable lives, unable to make simple decisions and set goals; unable to choose from their lists of options because they lacked the emotional attachment necessary in day-to-day decision making. So while I sit and pout and ruminate over the dead weight of the whale on my ship, maybe I’m just not making good use of her.

Attachments, while considerably frustrating if made to undeserving recipients (the decidedly onerous and lax lovers, jobs, environments), they bring the same amount of joy on the other side of the spectrum. In fact, if you don’t make attachments in life, you don’t feel pain and you don’t fight adversity: something psychologists have proven to be essential in both adapting and surviving in life.

But maybe you can twist what Buddha said. I’m no psychologist, and the only research I’ve truly done prior to this post was read a good book and spend a few minutes web surfing. But here’s a thought: maybe the way to go through life isn’t by detachment, but rather, having that skill and utilizing it when necessary.

You know the old: “You can’t love someone until you love yourself”? If I had a penny for every time I heard this sentiment, I could buy Beyoncé. And Jay-Z. It’s so tired. But it’s painstakingly true. The first attachment we make is to ourselves. We are our own whales. But a commitment to oneself isn’t what terrifies people. It’s the commitment to others: to other people, to other jobs, to other things. “Commitment,” I think, is more terrifying than “death” – because its uses today point to the false belief that you can never escape. Once you make a commitment to a person, you can’t escape them (i.e. they’re in your life, that’s it, you can’t sample the other snacks in the store, you’re finished, you're done.) But that’s just not true. That’s not the point.

The point of commitment is to make the choice: I choose you. I choose that. I choose this. It’s to wake up every morning making those same choices. So, if you love yourself, it means that you trust that you made the right choice. Not worrying about what else is out there in the world. Because let me tell you something: there is a lot out there in the world. Things that are subjectively better, greater, more beautiful, more promising, more ideal. You won’t see or experience most of those things. It’s commendable to try; to experience as much as you can. But you will be searching forever if you’re looking for something unattainable; you will be searching forever if you do not trust yourself to make a connection, an attachment, a decision.

My first commitment is to myself. Everyday, I wake up deciding that I want to be happy. That’s it. That’s my bottom line. And so the people I date, the jobs I work at, the things I do: I choose those things because they make me happy. They serve me, they fulfill me, they support and feed my soul. I form those bonds and those attachments. But, being that my happiness comes first, I know that I have the strength and resiliency to detach myself should those things stop serving me. If the person that makes me happy stops treating me well, I can detach. If a job no longer serves me mentally (not financially – read this post here), I detach. If I’m living an unhappy life, I can work to make the necessary changes and detachments because I trust myself to make the right decisions. I’ll attach – love, thrive – and I’ll take my hand off the knob of the exit door, and simply be in the moment. But I’ll always know that if people and things and experiences were to stop serving me – if they stopped making me happy – I’d be able to detach myself and honor the commitment I made to myself.

Nautical analogies aside, that’s the greatest realization of mine to date. I’ll be okay because I want to be, and I deserve to be. I’ll continue to love fiercely, to throw myself at opportunities and to enjoy every bit of joy out there for me. But I’ll also know that it all begins and ends with me. Because no matter how far out I go into the ocean, no matter how much I can put into people, places and things, no matter how many fat whales I allow on my ship, I know that I always know my way back to me.