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Samsara & Selfhood: The (Four Noble) Truth(s) Will Set You Free.

We will suffer in our relationships when we forget that we will suffer in our relationships. The more comfortable we become with the ever-changing nature of our reality (and relationships), the less we’ll struggle and suffer when the next big shift occurs.

Last week I wrote about how exciting I find the Four Noble Truths lately. Perhaps it officially makes me a Buddhist nerd, but its true. Working with these very basic tenets of Buddhist thought feels so liberating. Given the 3rd and 4th Truths this makes perfect sense. To liberate is “to set free, as from imprisonment or bondage” which could be understood as one intention of a Buddhist practice - to find freedom from the imprisonment of suffering - freedom from samsara. The Four Noble Truths point us in that direction.

A few days ago I got a message from a new friend asking about the 2nd Noble Truth. She’s begun meditating and looking into Buddhist philosophy and wrote, “I’m having the most trouble at the moment with the idea of attachment as a cause of suffering. It's obvious that that is true, but I'm not sure how to understand the idea of not being attached to friends/family/relationships...wouldn't therapists say being detached is a bad thing?” I too have struggled with this question, and despite my best efforts I often locate attachment to loved ones as the origin of my suffering. Rather than send her a long response privately, I asked if I could contemplate her question out loud through my post for this week. She agreed. I won’t pretend to have the answers, but I do have a lot of thoughts and questions of my own that relate to my friend’s struggle with this specific kind of attachment.

So much of our world operates in binaries -binaries that make up some of the major storylines that haunt us. In my understanding, Buddhist philosophy rejects binary thinking. Reality is seldom that simple. We cling to the notion that things are either black or white, but they are so often actually various shades of gray. As the story goes the Buddha left his life of grandeur (i.e. attachment) for a life of asceticism (i.e. detachment) but to no avail. It was only after the Buddha embraced the Middle Way that he was able to reach enlightenment. To apply this to the 2nd Noble Truth,  attachment is the cause of suffering, but detachment will only provide a new variety of suffering. Even still, with the emphasis in Buddhist philosophy on compassion (toward yourself and others), and the inherent interdependence of life detachment from others just doesn’t seem to make sense to me either.

When the Buddha talked about attachment he meant attachment to physical, tangible things and people. What’s important to note though is that he was also talking about attachment to concepts, notions, ideas, and beliefs. The potential suffering in clinging to material objects or even becoming lost in infatuation for another person is usually pretty obvious. It's the potential suffering that lingers in our attachment to often-unconscious ideas and perceptions that is really profound to me. The biggest of these immaterial things is our desire for permanence, and stability in a world of impermanence and fluctuation. This is where I think the Middle Path begins to appear in regard to how we relate to those we love.

Of course we will love. Of course we will feel deeply connected to other people. We should. In fact, developing a Buddhist practice will heighten this connectedness and compassion we feel. The suffering comes when we lose sight of the fact that these people, and these connections are like everything else - impermanent. The people we love will change. We will change. Our relationships will change and change again, and they will end. Suffering begins when we forget this or try desperately to make it not so. We suffer when we wish this reality to be different. It does aggression toward our selves, and our loved ones, and takes us out of the very wonderful present moment we have before us. We will suffer in our relationships when we forget that we will suffer in our relationships.

So the question then becomes - how do love, fully, without attachment? This is something I struggle with daily. If I knew the answer I’d be on a national speaking and book tour, rather than writing this blog from my little home office. Or better still, hanging out with Pema Chödrön. I’m fairly certain developing a regular meditation practice is part of it somewhere, and participating in a contemplative practice somewhere like the IDP Project is probably a good idea too. For me, these things have helped me develop more of the self-awareness needed to notice myself clinging to ideas of stability and futurity. The more comfortable we become with the ever-changing nature of our reality (and relationships), the less we’ll struggle and suffer when the next big shift occurs.

It seems to be though, that it’s only when we are able to love without attachment that we are able to love, actually, and fully. It’s when we are no longer demanding things from the people we love, that we are able to love them for exactly who they are. When we get lost in thoughts of the future and keeping our happiness, we rob ourselves of the moment of real happiness we could be having in that very instance. It’s when we stop denying the inevitability of our friendships, family relationships, and romances that we will be able to fully enjoy all that these relationships can give us. Letting go of our attachments sets us free to really, genuinely love, and there is nothing more profound than that…

What are your thoughts? How do you work with the 2nd Noble Truth? What would it look like to love fully, to love without attachment? 

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