Is there a difference between being attached to the world, and being engaged with it?
I’ve been talking with a friend who is, for lack of a better term, a secular Buddhist. He’s an atheist and a materialist, but he engages in a meditation practice, and he applies aspects of a Buddhist philosophy to his life.
So we’ve been talking about the Buddhist philosophy of life. Specifically, we’ve been talking about the philosophy that’s summed up in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:
Life is suffering.
The origin of suffering is attachment.
The cessation of suffering is attainable.
The path to the cessation of suffering is the eightfold path.
Whenever I’ve heard about this philosophy in the past, it always bugged me. I was always like, “What do you mean, life and attachment are suffering? Screw that. I love life. I don’t want to be detached from it. Especially since I’m an atheist and a materialist. It’s not like I’m going to purify my soul or win some cosmic prize in the afterlife if I can just detach myself from life. There is no soul, and there is no afterlife, This life, this physical world, is all there is — so I want to participate in it, as richly and as fully as I possibly can.”
But I’ve been thinking about this more carefully of late. And it’s occurring to me that there’s a difference between being attached to the world… and being engaged with it.
I have no idea if this philosophy is consistent with Buddhism, secular or otherwise. But here’s the way I’ve been thinking of it lately.
Attachment to the world means being unwilling to let the world change. It means being attached to certain specific aspects and iterations of the world — objects, places, moments, people — exactly as they are right now. It’s like a sense of entitlement: the idea that I have the right to keep things exactly the way I like them, forever. (Tangent: It occurs to me that the traditional Christian view of Heaven is a very attached view. It’s a desire to have all the good things you ever had in your life, all the people you ever loved, all with you at once, forever… only, mysteriously, without any of the conflict or striving that made these people and your relationships with them what they were. But I digress.)
Engagement with the world, on the other hand, means accepting that the world changes. It means participating in the world, loving it, letting it in, letting myself out into it. But it also means accepting that some aspects and iterations of the world that I love are going to change, or even disappear. Sometimes temporarily — sometimes forever. It means understanding that change is inherent in the nature of the world, and that loving the world means loving and accepting the ways that it changes. It means letting the world flow through me, instead of trying to hang onto it and keep the good bits in a jar.
Engagement is sort of the opposite of attachment. But it’s not the opposite of attachment in the same way that detachment is. It doesn’t deal with the problem of attachment in a changing world by setting myself apart from the world so I won’t get hurt by it. It deals with the problem of attachment in a changing world by accepting that the world changes, by accepting that change is one of the few real constants in the world… and by not fighting against that.
But I think that engagement also means accepting that these changes are going to affect me… and it means not fighting against that, either.
One of the things I’ve been doing for my mental and emotional health in recent years has been to let myself just feel my emotions. Instead of constantly trying to manage them or ignore them or over-analyze them or shove them on the back burner, I’ve been trying to just let myself… well, feel what I feel already. At least sometimes. (It’s a technique taught to me by a therapist who I’m pretty sure was a Buddhist, although we never talked about it.)
All of that ignoring/ managing/ back-burner shoving I tend to do with my emotions is obviously an attempt to not suffer. But it’s not a very effective attempt in the long run, or indeed in the medium run. In an odd way, it’s a form of attachment: an attachment to not suffering, to not feeling bad. If I can let go of my attachment to not experiencing grief or fear or anger or disappointment or what have you, and simply let myself feel it, it becomes easier to move on from it. My feelings of suffering about loss have been hard-wired into me by millions of years of evolution, and denying them makes no more sense than denying any other fundamental reality. My feelings about the world are part of the world… and thus they’re part of what I’m trying to accept, part of what I’m learning to just let flow through me.
In the world of clinical psychology and social work, among attachment theorists and clinicians who study crying and grief, there are some who make a distinction between “sad crying” and “protest crying.” “Protest crying” expresses the refusal to accept loss. It treats the fact of loss as a terrible injustice, and demands an immediate return of whatever it is that’s been lost. It says, “I don’t want this, and I don’t accept it.” (Not coincidentally, “protest crying” is more likely to elicit a hostile or irritated reaction from others, since it’s out of proportion, disconnected from reality, and makes people feel manipulated.)
“Sad crying,” on the other hand, expresses despair over loss. It expresses our recognition that whatever’s been lost is really gone, and expresses our feelings of grief about it. It says, “I don’t want this, but I understand that this is how it is.” (And it’s more likely to elicit sympathy and compassion and attachment from other people… the good kind of attachment, the clinical- psychology “connecting with others” definition of attachment, not the bad Buddhist definition.)
I think this theory gets to the heart of this difference between attachment and engagement. Protesting against the world as it is, protesting against the very fact of change and loss? That’s attachment. Experiencing sadness at the fact that things or people you love are gone? That’s engagement. That’s part of the process of accepting change. And I’m okay with that.
Maybe the Buddhists are right. Maybe the cessation of suffering is attainable. But I don’t think I want to attain it. If I really wanted to attain the cessation of suffering, I’d just hook myself up to a morphine drip and call it a day. I don’t want to do that. (To be fair, that’s not what Buddhism advocates, either. It’s not like “hook yourself up to a morphine drip until you die” is one of the steps on the Eightfold Path.)
Maybe life is suffering. But I don’t see my goal in life as minimizing suffering. I see my goal in life as maximizing joy. For other people, as well as for myself. Caring about life, and being connected and engaged with it, is how I get that joy. And feeling grief or anger or disappointment or whatnot when the things I’m connected with disappear… well, that’s a fair price to pay for that joy. More than fair. For me, being engaged with the world involves accepting that the world changes, and letting that be… but it also involves accepting that I’m going to have my feelings about the world changing, and letting that be as well.