Happiness & Attachments – Part 1Posted: September 9, 2007
I’ll introduce my topic with a brief excerpt from an episode from NBC’s popular Heroes series (“Parasite”, Season 1, Episode 18). I admit that I haven’t watched any of the episodes in this series, but this excerpt caught my attention and deserves some reflection. (Thanks to my MySpace friend going by the name “Supernatural” for the heads up.)
MR. LINDERMAN: But I think that most people eat when they’re happy. I like to see people happy. Are you happy, Nathan?
NATHAN: Not especially. I guess I have a few issues that plague me.
MR. LINDERMAN: Oh, dear, I’m sorry to hear that. You see, I think there comes a time when a man has to ask himself whether he wants a life of happiness or a life of meaning.
NATHAN: I’d like to have both.
(Linderman chuckles and shakes his head.)
MR. LINDERMAN: It can’t be done. Two very different paths. I mean, to be truly happy a man must live absolutely in the present, and with no thought of what’s gone before, and no thought of what lies ahead. But a life of meaning, a man is condemned to wallow in the past, and obsess about the future. My guess is that you’ve done quite a bit of obsessing about yours these last few days.
Mr. Linderman expresses a fundamental Buddhist belief here: Happiness comes from living in the present. This belief stems from a core Buddhist belief that emotional attachments are the primary cause of pain and that happiness can only be achieved by divorcing ourselves from all attachments, whether they be on things from the past (nostalgia) or things in the future (hopes and dreams).
Having been taught Mormonism since childhood, I was exposed to an entirely different world view. The Mormon belief is that saints only loose valuable things for a short time (the remainder of their lives) and that all good things will be restored to them when they are resurrected (pass from death into new life). These are all the big things like real estate holdings and relationships (friendships, marriages, etc.).
Both the Buddhist and the Mormon view seem rather unrealistic. The Buddhist belief seems overly pessimistic while the Mormon view seems overly optimistic. While I can see benefits to the Buddhist view, taken to a purist extreme, it would really reduce ones chances for survival in this dog-eat-dog world. Just imagine tossing out everything that you’ve bound yourself to contractually (attachments), your car, your house, etc. If you took no thought of these things, the best you can hope for in life is living in a homeless shelter and if everyone thought this way, there would be no homeless shelter. No one would sow a seed with hopes of it growing to maturity and providing food, because hope is an attachment. Therefore taken to the extreme this view dooms its adherents to extremely short lives.
On the flip side of the coin, most of us are aware of the health tolls that chronic stress produces and we’ve all had moments where we’ve felt driven to madness over something which our minds just wouldn’t let go of. So for most of us there is something to be gained from the Buddhist philosophy of avoiding attachments, but it just isn’t realistic to think that we can avoid attachments altogether.
So where is the middle ground? How do we go about forming healthy attachments? From experience we know that putting all of our hopes in one thing can be devastating, because that one thing is bound to fail us from time to time. In fact, when it comes to human relationships, putting those kinds of hopes and expectations on a relationship can be the cause of failure, as we tend to smother the object of our affection if we don’t have other outlets for it. So what can be done? Broadening the number of attachments makes the loss of any single attachment less painful. However, the more attachments we have, the less resources we have for maintaining any one of them. When quantity increases, quality fails. So we have to determine where to draw the line between being attached to too many and too few things.
Pruning unproductive attachments can maximize our happiness. We should periodically evaluate the long term value of each of our attachments and consider how much of our resources (time, energy, money, emotions, etc.) we are spending on each attachment and determine whether those resources would be better spent on other attachments. You’ll find that some attachments can be discarded altogether. We tend to place high value on attachments that we’ve had for a long time, usually with good reason, but even these attachments should be re-evaluated from time to time. Just because something is old, doesn’t necessarily make it valuable. The same goes for something that we’ve spent a great deal on. Age and price aren’t always indicators of worth. It really is a matter of figuring out what we really want in our lives and having the courage to end unproductive attachments and create new promising ones. As any arborist knows, as painful as it may be, pruning is essential to the growth of any healthy tree. Choose your attachments carefully, your happiness depends on it.