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.