Attachment as the Cause of all Suffering (a Comeuppance)

Irony materializes as a surprisingly heavy beach load

Well, the blogging has definitely slowed down this summer. I wrote at the start of the season how I wasn’t sure what summer would look like with a pandemic confounding it all. Sure, there are not trips home and fireworks in the same way, but I’ve found this year has had its own rhythm, and indeed, dare I say, charm. It has still had meaningful friend bonding and plenty of outdoor adventures, if slightly more alone.

In the course of this, my wife is home in another country with her mother at the end of life. A dear friend (and co-founder of this lovely website) gave her a book to read hoping it would help her find comfort. The book is a collection of short thoughts by contemporary American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. We’ve been reading it together across the distance as way of reflecting on the crazy times the world is living in, along with an impending loss of someone who is my wife’s whole world (as an only child).

The ideas in the book aren’t new. Siddhartha Gautama (AKA the Buddha) wrote about these ideas millenia ago. The core concept is that much of the suffering in life comes from attachment. Enlightenment is nothing more than being free from that often harmful attachment. Easy enough. Except in practice of course. Pema Chodron writes as someone from the modern world and frames those ancient concepts in small nuggets relevant to today.

I have found perhaps I am taking more away from it even than the wife. So much so that I’ve started recommending passages to some of my insomnia clients and friends in other contexts. Turns out attachment can be a key cause of rumination which produces worry, anxiety and insomnia. This is why meditation is so useful for insomnia, meditation literally trains the mind on detachment. There’s no better antidote to a spinning mind than practicing clearing it.

The intent isn’t not to be attached to loved ones. Or to meaningful memories or simple pleasures. The intent is to free those who are experiencing pain because of attachment, which often arises in situations we can’t control. A bad environment at work, or impossible boss. A dying mother. A terminal illness. An unrequited love. At the end of the day, these things which started out as positive (love, passion, etc.) can bound us in pain when we aren’t ready to let go. I say this of course with the undue privilege of not yet losing someone close. I figured maybe I’d call BS on myself and stop being so judgy about the excessively attached people (physical and emotional) in my life when the time comes. Turned out to be in the middle of writing this blog.

Attachment shows up as a fundamental difference in my marriage. Wifey is a hoarder. Not like 20 cats level but way more of a hanger-on to objects than I will ever be. I am the opposite. My various moves across the country have been marked by getting rid of all but at most a carful of possessions. I dream of a day when I am retired and living out of a van, the essential freedom of not being bogged down by things. Obviously, I will have to outlive wifey for this, or I’ll have to simply visit her in her house o’ junk from time to time. I remember when she cried when she lost her IPOD (this was the early 2000s when that was a slightly bigger deal than today). It blew me away. How could anyone cry over a thing? We didn’t grow up with a lot of extra, so my parents always de-emphasised material possessions. Whereas my wife grew up with even less, and so each thing was regarded as precious beyond measure (she comes from a long line of hoarders).

Recently, after more dreaming about the van life (precipitated by fantasies of dropping out of the rat race), my wife suggested I bring up with my shrink this overt, militant detachment to things. I said I could save the therapy bill on that one. I know my root. It was having the house foreclosed on, the cars impounded, my cats given away as part of a turbulent childhood. I learned not to get too attached to anything. This is not an indictment of that childhood- I am actually extremely grateful for learning this lesson. It strips down that which is essential: life and health. And if we are lucky, meaningful relationships, a roof overhead and food in the belly. Anything beyond that is complete gravy.

In these pandemic times, perhaps we are all learning a bit more about detachment. Releasing expectations for what summer is (in the simplest form), figuring out how to function with less work or income in some cases. Figuring out how to function without loved ones or our own health in the worst cases. The other day, I took a walk with an old friend and a new one, and we looked at weird leaves on a tree and remarked on them. I guarantee you we wouldn’t have done that in 2019. We were living in the moment, in nature (however suburban), and it was perfect. I craved much more of these simple interactions with nature.

As proof of concept, while the wife was out of the country and my dog happily being spoiled at one of his grandmas, I decided to embark on a brief attempt at car camping both to be more in nature and to practice living with fewer creature comforts. Also, I had been dying for some beach time. Pools are closed or limited, and I sustained a gross fungal infection trying to swim in a shallow creek by my house. I had read Wild earlier this year and this seemed like a great way to step into some crazy white girl adventure, without a ton of risk to personal safety.

Suffice it to say, I had started this somewhat smug sounding entry before leaving for the trip. My main goal for the adventure was to learn something from the universe. That I did, very non-metaphorically. I had these visions of being a great ascetic. Simple beach times in a natural park, a night (or so) sleeping in the car to see if I had what it took to live with less. My failings hit me like an anvil on the beach.

Because it’s a pandemic and everyone wanted to get away, it was a long trek to a spot of land which was appropriately social distanced. I thought I had packed just the essentials for the beach- boogie board, chair, umbrella, towel, sunscreen and water. I even skipped on food and a t-shirt. But a half mile in or so from carrying my load in 100 degree heat, sweating and worried I’d stroke out, I realized how attachment to these things was literally causing suffering. I tried creating a makeshift sled out of the boogie board, which was better than carrying the 40-odd pounds, but still many blocks later trudging in the hot sand, I was exhausted by the burden on my “essentials.” The trip back to the car was equally instructive. Here I was judging a few hoarders in my life for their undue attachment, but the lesson of the trip is, we all have attachments which cause us suffering of some form. I had plenty of work to do inward first.

As it to drive the point home, I was at Assateague Island (a cool national park in which wild horses roam freely). My closest encounter with the creatures was when a group of 8 or so wandered very near while I was swimming. I am not a horse person, I have a fear of them dating back to childhood. A normal person would have been thrilled to be so close (they were about 30 feet from me). But I was a mix of terrified for personal safety and worried they would make off with my camp stuff.

Wild horses on Assateague National Seashore

As for the first attempt at car camping – well, like I said, it was hot AF. In fact, the hottest day on record this year so far in Maryland. I laid in a pool of my own sweat for about 90 minutes trying to power through the discomfort of the completely still and sweltering air. I failed. I gave up and made the trip home, arriving around midnight. The next round of practice for asceticism will have to wait until it’s a bit cooler. I was at least glad that I gave up not for fear of sleeping alone, but because I’m a pansy-ass who apparently has some attachment issues to work on with air conditioning.

I set out hoping just to learn something and while I didn’t quite pull it off perfectly, I still came back with humility and a sense of needing to work on my own attachment issues. I’d call that a win.

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