You might be familiar with the story of Gautama Buddha. Born a prince, he grew up protected within palace walls. Young Prince Gautama knew nothing of the realities faced by the common people. One day, out of curiosity, he wanted to see what lay outside his home. That’s when he discovered the horrible suffering experienced by most people.
The Buddha saw people starving—both physically and spiritually. They had to work hard for their food and shelter. People worried about their children and loved ones. They suffered from anger and jealousy. If injury or illness didn’t cause physical distress, then certainly old age did. There seemed to be no end to the ways in which they could suffer.
Prince Gautama resolved to find a way to end the suffering of his people. Through intense spiritual practices, he eventually achieved enlightenment. In that state, there is no suffering—only infinite peace and joy.
The Buddha spent the rest of his long life leading others along the path to enlightenment. One of his primary teachings: Attachment is the source of all suffering.
What Is Attachment?
Obviously, we don’t want to suffer. If you’re new to the spiritual path you might be confused about the term attachment. What does it mean? Why is non-attachment given such importance? What’s the harm in being attached, and are there any good forms of attachment? I’ll try to answer these basic questions in this post.
Attachment is a form of desire. It’s a clinging, holding on to something that we want to keep as our own. We might be attached to material objects, like clothes, cars, or cable television. We can also be attached to our social status, a bulging bank account, or physical beauty and youth. A young, dark-haired woman knows the effects of attachment when she discovers her first grey hair. Suffering can begin over the tiniest thing.
Attachment causes pain because it disturbs our mental peace. There’s no happiness without peace. When we fear losing something, we suffer—even before we’ve lost it! In this way, attachment is the opposite of contentment, one of a yogi’s most valued goals.
Attachment distracts us from our spiritual journey. It’s an obstacle. Patanjali spoke of it in the Yoga Sutras:
“The obstacles that cause man’s sufferings are: ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and the desire to cling to life.” (II:3)
The force of attachment can remove us from the spiritual path. This famous quote from the Bhagavad Gita warns us of its dangers:
“When a man dwells on objects, he feels an attachment for them. Attachment gives rise to desire, and desire breeds anger. From anger comes delusion; from delusion, the failure of memory; from the failure of memory, the ruin of discrimination; and from the ruin of discrimination the man perishes.” (2:62-63)
Attachments That Cause Suffering
A humorous example of attachment is noted in Yogananda’s autobiography. When he was living in his Guru’s ashram, he asked for some stories of Sri Yukteswar’s childhood. His Guru told this story:
“(An) early memory was my wish for an ugly dog belonging to a neighbor. I kept my household in turmoil for weeks to get that dog. My ears were deaf to offers of pets with more prepossessing appearance.”
Sri Yukteshwar continued with the story’s moral:
“Attachment is blinding; it lends an imaginary halo of attractiveness to the object of desire.”
It’s easy to see when we’re attached to a thing, an object outside ourselves. If we lose that thing, we feel distressed. We miss it and consider replacing it—or suffer more when we believe it’s irreplaceable.
Subtle attachments can be a bigger problem. Examples would include opinions, ideas, and preferences. These attachments can be especially distressing. It’s human nature to believe I am right.
By insisting on pressing our opinions on others we create inner discord. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says it clearly, “Attachment to views is the greatest impediment to the spiritual path.”
When Attachment is Good
On the other hand, some attachments are appropriate and good. Personally, you should be attached to your own well-being—physical, mental, and spiritual. Without a commitment to your own welfare, your health would deteriorate. Go ahead, be attached to wholesome food and exercise. In the same way, care for your mental health: Choosing good company and avoiding negative influences.
We play many roles throughout our lives, and some forms of attachment are appropriate. We can’t argue about the need for a parent’s attitude toward their child. The child’s growth and survival depend on their nurturing, which is borne of attachment. Similarly, business owners should have attachment to the success of their companies. Their employees depend upon its success to care for their families. As citizens we should be attached to the well-being of our communities and country. We should care about helping others and providing a safe and pleasant environment for everyone.
But the best kind of attachment is that which benefits our spiritual growth. It takes the form of fierce commitment to our highest good—spiritual enlightenment. As aspirants, we know that meditation, study, and other practices are essential to our spiritual growth. As Patanjali stated in the sutra mentioned earlier, there are many obstacles along the spiritual path. But a healthy attachment to treading that path, come what may, will keep us steadily working toward our goal of enlightenment.
Finding the Balance: Developing Discrimination
Some attachments are appropriate, like those I’ve pointed out. But most attachment causes some kind of trouble. We need to develop the skill of identifying which is which. Yogis call this skill discrimination.
“You should try to overcome attachment through discrimination, through the right kind of thoughts.” – Baba Muktananda
Few of us are born with the natural ability to discriminate like yoga masters. As Baba suggests, discrimination is a matter of right thinking. This requires mental clarity and strength. We must be able to see our thought patterns—and then change them when necessary.
A regular meditation practice helps us notice the thoughts passing through our minds. Meditation calms our internal chatter. A peaceful mind is strong—it can do anything. When we notice unhealthy attachments we can release them. And we can choose the thoughts and actions that make us truly happy.
Developing discrimination and controlling attachment are noble aims. But we don’t develop those qualities just by acknowledging that they are good for us. We must keep working at it. I assure you, it gets easier with time and practice.
Do you have an experience of how attachment caused suffering—and how you overcame it? Please share in the comments section below.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.
Over the years I have seen that desire is a deep-seated force. A strong force that only a Guru can free me from. It’s great to see strong desires surface and then fade away, this is freedom. I often don’t see what’s best for me. My Guru will often give me little jobs just to get the chance to be around him. The best part of the bad stuff is that all the good stuff came from him. I miss your writing lately, not many seekers seem to be interested but just the same your time is enjoyed by us.
Thank you for your comment, Tony. You’re a thoughtful and lucky person. Anyone who has a real Guru in their life has exceptionally good karma. Namaste.
Good article, and quite appropriate for this time in our lives. I guess if I allow myself to be stuck on how things should be — I do feel a sense of loss or frustration. I believe there should be justice for all people. And I think rules and laws are there to help us all be civilized, kind, respectful, and humane to each other. When I see that there is corruption, lack of respect and compassion I feel angry and sad. But when I detach myself from my opinions and judgement. And I watch what is happening like I watch a picture show, and I remember that this is God’s theater. I then realize that I am just the witness — the watcher, and there’s no need to feel attached to the situation.
I appreciate your thoughts, Nakisa. Being attached to our opinions is both subtle and destructive. It’s good that you’ve learned to step back and witness. That’s where peace and joy begin. Namaste.
Yes, meditation is key to quieting the mind, and much more. With my Guru’s blessings, and meditation, I feel my ego has diminished, or at least become more balanced, giving me a better sense of self-discrimination in which to better handle the challenges of the multitude of worldly desires and attachments.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Tosh. Meditation is truly the key to happiness. I wonder that more people don’t use that wonderful tool. Could it be that they think sitting and “doing nothing” can’t have much effect? Namaste.
As I reflected on how my attachments and aversions have become somewhat lessened over time, ultimately, I had to conclude that “I” did not do it. What I can say is that progress was associated with:
1) noticing when it was happening,
2) letting go of self judgment as quickly as possible,
3) redirecting my focus on the spiritual practices and teachings as prescribed by my Guru.
Excellent points, Richard! Awareness and the ability to take action are essential to inner peace and happiness. I appreciate that you used the words “over time.” These things don’t happen instantly. We need to keep working on ourselves, follow the direction of truly wise souls, and never fall short on our practices like daily meditation. Namaste.
We are all proud of, and attached to, our notions; they are like our little children, or our fantastic creations. My wife and I married almost 3 years ago, and we both came in with certain notions. If found that I was suffering from mine, because I thought she should be this way, and that way, etc. And she wasn’t. No doubt she suffered as well from the “fallout.”
Then one day my Guru was reading comments about suffering written by a great saint. In the middle of a paragraph, he paused and commented, “If you are suffering, then maybe you made something up.” Meaning you have a dumb notion that has no basis in reality – that was simply made up in your own mind, and that you can dump just as easily as it was acquired. I realized the truth of his wise insight, and made the decision to let it go. Now, thankfully, we are free of that suffering.
Thank you, Richard. That’s a great real-life example of how attachment to our ideas causes suffering. How blessed you are to have a Guru’s wisdom to set you straight! Saved your marriage–and relieved your suffering. Of course, that happened because you were wise enough to follow His guidance. Namaste.
Thank you for this excellent post. You mention false halos on things we desire. In my experience, fulfilled desire seldom turns out as great as expected. I try to take a neutral attitude about things, sort of an easy come/easy go vibe. All that really matters is getting closer to God and realizing our true Self. The rest is just his sideshow. ओं शान्ति
Thank you for your insight, Modesto. Neutrality requires the ability to witness your thoughts and make a decision not to react–and then have the power to follow up on that decision. That only comes with practice and meditation. Otherwise the mind just takes us on one trip or another, like the sideshow you mention. नमस्ते
Dear Svāmī Chityānanda Sarasvatī,
This entry is always going to be appropriate anytime in our lives. When our loved ones pass away the attachment that goes with these events brings home the points you made. My experience is that I am so fortunate to have a Guru to give me constant direction in these matters. I also have loved ones who seem to lose their direction and have a more difficult time when a loss occurs. This makes meditation and spiritual practices all the more important.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, John. Losing a beloved friend or relative is always challenging to our sense of attachment. It’s a real test. It’s fine to mourn for them, but then we need to move on too. A healthy yogi does this in good time without undue suffering. Namaste.