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Mar 30 2010

Secular Buddhism, and the Difference Between Attachment and Engagement

Is there a difference between being attached to the world, and being engaged with it?

Smiling_buddha 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.

Hands_in_action_-_fist_1 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.)

Hand reach 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.

Sad_face 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.

Morphine 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.)

Jump for joy 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.

Related post:
The Meaning of Death, Part 3 of Many: Fear, Grief, and Actually Experiencing Your Emotions

23 comments

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  1. 1
    Steven Doyle Ph.D.

    I am a person who has had severe pain my entire life.Some years ago I came to a point where I realized that the suffering was something that I was doing. Pain by itself is not suffering. T suffer we must compare this moment with either the past or the future. We have to get out of this moment into a fantasy. W suffer because we believe that the past or future moment is better somehow. Yet if we simply exist in this moment and experience it as it is there is no suffering in it. Since I stopped suffering I am having a great deak of fun and I am happy. I recommend it.

  2. 2
    penn

    Greta, this is an incredibly timely post for me. I’ve been in counseling recently, and my counselor also has a somewhat secular Buddhist bent (e.g., acknowledge negative feelings, but don’t dwell and wallow in them, pain and stress are unavoidable but suffering from them is a choice, etc.). It’s gotten me back into my own meditation and mindfulness practice that I really enjoy. It’s all about recognizing that this present moment is all you ever have and all you ever will have.
    I agree with your assessment of attachment and engagement. Engaging is the goal and attachment hinders us from actually engaging the world and the people in it as they really are. Our attachments encourage us to worry and focus on how things should be or used to be or will be and thus miss out on how they actually are.

  3. 3
    Cliff

    I wonder if “attachment” is a too-literal translation of whatever the original word for it is in Pali. In the Buddhist literature I’ve read, “attachment” really seems to mean something like “getting caught up in and strongly identifying with the world” (not quite as catchy, I realize :). And the “world” here includes your inner world of thoughts and emotions as well as the outside world. They really seem to be going for engagement with the world as you describe it, rather than detachment from the world.

  4. 4
    D A

    Just today one of my students told me that her boyfriend broke up with her because she was considering becoming a Christian. The reason being, his family are devout Buddhists. Her family are also devout Buddhists and would be devastated if she left Buddhism. I’m not going to say there are no points of value in Buddhist philosophy, but ultimately it’s a religion, and just as screwed up and crazy as the rest of them.

  5. 5
    vel

    rather curious, DA. How can one be “devout” and still not be “attached” to something? Seems as usual, there is “do as I say and not as I do and it’s okay to be attached to the religion

  6. 6
    J. Ash Bowie

    This is a fantastic post, one of your best I think. I am in training to be a clinical psychologist, as it happens, and the attitude shift you talk about is actually gaining a lot of traction in the field.
    A similar point I often use with clients is the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is physical or emotional hurt, whereas suffering is grounded in the desire for pain to stop. Ideally, if one were able to have zero desire for pain to end, that person would not be suffering.
    This is not about wanting or deserving pain or avoiding attempts to reduce it when possible, but about acceptance of pain as one of the costs of embodiment. A demand or expectation that life be pain-free guarantees suffering. In this framework, sad-crying is a healthy expression of pain whereas protest-crying expresses suffering.
    Ash
    sacredriver.org

  7. 7
    Saul

    In-between suppression and attachment lies Zen, the Tao, the Middle Way; nonconceptual flow with/into life.
    Nonattached engagement is exactly what Buddhism encourages in all things.

  8. 8
    Eli

    Alan Watts mentioned (I think in “the way of Zen”) that “Worldly Attachment” would be better translated as simply “hang-up”. As in, don’t have hang-ups (but don’t get hung up on that either).
    I find a lot to like in Buddhism, but I realize that may very well be because I’m mostly exposed to its high-level philosophy as made available to me by sophisticated people. It might be very different if I was exposed to the Buddhist equivalent of street preachers and idiot fundamentalists every day…

  9. 9
    Kat Molitor

    The one annoying thing I notice as I read this is that the Four Noble Truths are NEVER translated into English well :\ “Life is suffering” is really more like “When life exists, it inherently involves suffering”…which makes more sense and is way less dismal.
    Also, “attachment” never really translates over well, both in language and in cultural context. Westerners tend to think about things in terms of good/evil, sin/good deeds, etc. So Jesus and others like him spoke of being attached to our possessions or our money, vices, etc…as something sinful and distracting. This is very much in the context of a good vs. bad kind of reality.
    In a Buddhist context, the concept of “attachment” is not even addressing anything on a moral level…addressing something much loftier and above/outside any societal, human definition of reality (which is considered illusory and fleeting next to what reality actually is). It’s really focusing on the human self’s relationship (or lack of) with reality, and our attachment to an illusion of reality, rather than accepting that it’s beyond our definitions of it and our comprehension.
    The real “attachment” being addressed is our attachment to believing we can grasp the world with our mind, language, and concepts, when in reality it is above and beyond those things…whatever reality is, Tao, cannot ever be spoken or thought about. Another aspect of the Eastern definition of “attachment” is that reality, Tao, whatever you want to call it, is fluid and transitory. And we have a strong desire to cling to reality as we want it rather than it is…we find a frame in time that we liked and we try to impose it on the other frames, instead of accepting the flow of reality as it comes.
    I dunno if any of that makes sense…it’s very hard to discuss things that you are declaring inherently un-discussable…and the irony is that when you talk about Tao, you can’t actually even talk about it… Basically, I like some of what this post has to say, but because it starts with a completely wrong definition of what Buddhism even is, it makes me a bit uncomfortable because people are going to be reading something that completely misrepresents it.
    I guess, though, even if a Westerner gets interested in an inaccurate definition of Buddhism, they will hopefully continue studying it until they stumble upon what it really is. It’s just very hard for it to translate into a Western mindset at all…I say that from personal experience, as much as I love Buddhism I have a hard time really actualizing in myself because of how Western religion has programmed me.
    The morphine drip thing I felt was really negative and just totally out there. I guess I don’t get why you think of “engagement” as opposed to or a challenge to Buddhism/de-attachment…Buddhism basically holds that if you can let go of your attachments, you CAN be fully engaged…that’s the whole idea!!! There is a story about a Zen monk who started bawling when he heard news that a close relative died…and one of his students made a snarky remark that a true monk wouldn’t be so emotional. But the monk said, “Don’t be stupid! I’m crying because I want to cry.” This whole notion that Buddhism = removing emotions is totally wrong.
    Another problem I had: The last paragraph is kind of implying that Buddhism’s focus is on suffering and doesn’t really address or work towards joy. The reason someone might get that impression is, again, a cultural context issue.
    Firstly, again, “Life is suffering” is a horribly incorrect translation and gives nearly every Westerner the worst first impression of Buddhism. Also, like I mentioned above, in the West it’s all about opposites…always some version of good vs. bad. We also like to think of more as better…we like to earn, gain, and progress. Life is seen as a series of goals, obstacles, milemarkers, etc. that we are constantly overcoming and bypassing. In the East, the mindset is much more focused on negation (as a GOOD thing). The idea there is more that reality, Tao, is already exactly what it needs to be (yourself included as part of the universe)…not because it’s good or bad, but just because it is what it is. Our attachments to illusions (as I described above) give us this sense that we aren’t the way we should be, or reality isn’t the way it should be. They view progress in the opposite direction…if you remove these layers of attachment and illusion, you will gradually work down and away at all of that, and get to the heart of everything. Contentment, acceptance, “joy”, whatever you’d like to call it…is ALREADY THERE, we just don’t realize or fully comprehend it because we have all these other things piled on top of us.
    So her last paragraph was kind of harsh, in my opinion. Buddhists don’t sit around all day thinking about suffering and how it’s what life is. They are actually attempting to free their minds of any attachment to a “goal” or a “way things are supposed to be”, so they can truly live in the now and be engaged with what reality IS, rather than what they want it to be. The idea that you can let go of your attachment to an illusory reality is supposed to be a way to be truly joyful because you are FREED from the things you were attached to. This form of negation is a beautiful thing, not a dismal or mopey thing.
    And wow: [the good kind of attachment, the clinical- psychology "connecting with others" definition of attachment, not the bad Buddhist definition.] There is so much ignorance and misunderstanding in this statement, I don’t even know where to start. How can you call something the “bad Buddhist definition” when you don’t even understand what the real Buddhist definition is?

  10. 10
    twitter.com/Broadsnark

    I studied buddhist thought with someone whose specialty was both eastern religion and language. Some people translate the word as attachment. Some people as desire. But he said the most accurate translation was thirst. The key to ending suffering was to stop thirsting for things. It’s the self-absorbed pursuit of things we can’t have that makes us unhappy. You are absolutely correct that it does not mean disengaging. Clearly Thich Nhat Hanh is engaged with the world. But his engagement is not driven by the fulfillment of his own desire/thirst. Rather it is a commitment to ending suffering…supposedly, anyway :)

  11. 11
    Greta Christina

    Kat, thank you for your insights into Buddhism. But I really was just using Buddhist philosophy as a jumping off point for other ideas. This piece was not intended as a critique of Buddhism; it was an attempt to incorporate some aspects of secular Buddhism into a humanist philosophy. Other commenters are participating in that endeavor (and thanks, everybody, I’m getting a huge amount out of this conversation and hope it continues!). I hope you’ll do that, too.
    And D.A. and Vel: I agree that religious Buddhism has some fucked-up aspects to it, like any other religion. I’m just trying to incorporate the useful and insightful aspects of the philosophy into my own philosophy. Just like I try to incorporate useful and insightful aspects of, say, Judaic philosophy into my own philosophy, while leaving the religious stuff on the curb.

  12. 12
    Jared

    One thing that I’ve learned is that when considering Eastern thought, it is important to separate the philosophical elements from the religious ones.
    Western metaphysics and Eastern metaphysics are very different. It is difficult for someone who grew up in one culture with it’s metaphysics to easily understand another culture’s metaphysics. Language can be another factor. Translation doesn’t always convey the connotations or denotation that we mean it too. Dealing with intension and extension are also notoriously difficult.
    I liked this piece, and I think you make a good point with the attachment-engagement divide. (If Buddhists seek engagement without attachment, and I bet they do, at least this will still help educate us in the west.)

  13. 13
    Justin

    As a ‘secular Buddhist’ – practicing Zen Buddhism for 8 years, also a trainee Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy teacher – I’d say your observation of the difference between attachment and engagement is right on the money (although there is a tendency in Buddhism itself sometimes to not understand this difference) and your description of allowing yourself to ‘feel your emotions’ is a good example of mindfulness. I also enjoyed the distinction you shared between ‘protest crying’ and ‘sad crying’. One effect I’ve of my practice that I’ve noticed is that I tend to process emotional experiences more quickly and effectively (as opposed to not feeling anything).

  14. 14
    D A

    Let me first say I enjoyed the post and am not trying to derail the conversation, but address part of it. I recognize that your post was more about philosophical application than religion as such. Also let me say that I have a fair amount of experience with Buddhist practice and some experience with Buddhist scholarship.
    Here’s my thing with secular Buddhism; it’s ahistorical and intellectually dishonest, kind of like Karen Armstrong’s version of Abrahamic religion. I think our impression of Buddhism as being more advanced is, eh, mostly a Victorian thing leftover from Europeans that wanted to find a “reasonable” religion and nominated everything from Buddhism to Confucianism to Islam. Buddhism has been intertwined with superstition, misogyny, and all the other fun stuff we get from religion from the earliest records we have of it (although our earliest records of Buddhism, like Christianity, come quite a bit later than the supposed life of the character they’re based on). Where I live these days (China), Buddhism is if anything more sexist, nationalistic, superstitious, and just plain messed up than the Protestant churches. You can’t remove this to get to the “true” Buddhism because, much like Jesus again, Buddha said some incredibly messed up stuff (including a statement that apostates from Buddhism would be reborn in hell in their next life). The conditions I described are present in pretty much every Buddhist country and the watered-down Western “secular” Buddhism would be unrecognizable anywhere in Asia except (maybe) Japan. Even in the west a lot of long-term practitioners develop a fundamentalist attitude towards Buddhism.
    Now, I think Buddhism does have some very important ideas. And I think some of the meditative techniques are incredibly useful ( I still meditate about 5 times a week). But as Sam Harris noted (paraphrasing), there’s no Muslim algebra and there’s no Buddhist techniques, anything true is true without regard to it’s cultural or religious origins.
    Also, just on a personal note, I get more out of ye olde Asian humanists like Caravaka and Wang Yangming than Buddha and Dogen. Just sayin.

  15. 15
    Greta Christina

    D.A.: Again, I’m not disagreeing with most of what you say. I just don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If there are good ideas in Buddhism that I can incorporate into my own philosophy of life, I don’t see any reason not to. Just like I’m not going to throw out the good ideas of, say, secular Judaism just because the Old Testament is a nightmare.
    See, this is the great thing about atheism and humanism. We can cherry-pick with impunity. We’re under no obligation to adhere to any one particular dogma, or to try to force that dogma into consistency like fanfic writers trying to resolve the inconsistencies in “Star Trek.” We can acknowledge and reject the inconsistencies and the sexism and the retrograde politics and the flat-out stupidities of “Star Trek” (or Buddhism, or Abrahamic religions, or whatever) and still get enjoyment and inspiration out of it. I don’t see that as “ahistorical and intellectually dishonest.” It’s not like Karen Armstrong’s watered-down Christianity. It’s like secular Judaism: preserving the good stuff that makes the religion culturally valuable, and rejecting the bad stuff that makes it divisive and out of touch with reality.
    We can take what we need and leave the rest. Why is that a bad thing?

  16. 16
    JohnFrost

    Greta, as a huge fan of your blog and as a secular Buddhist, gotta say I loved this post. I agree with the others who said you hit the nail on the head with non-attachment =/= detachment.
    I’ve been an atheist going on 3 years now and a secular Buddhist for 2, and what I’ve found through my exploration into Buddhism is that a lot of what makes up the core of Buddhism is really just good, common sense… except that it’s not common; it’s one of those truths that you have to be told over and over to make sink in. A stubborn resistance to change will make us miserable? Yeah, no duh… only we do it over and over.
    I find–for me, anyway–that by identifying with secular Buddhism, I can actually use that label against myself to better remind me of the truths of impermanence and interconnectedness; a kind of reverse psychology trick I play on myself.

  17. 17
    Jiun Foster

    Greta – I just discovered your blog, and what a treat!
    Self-disclosure: I’m a former Buddhist monk, current Buddhist priest and teacher – and 100% secular. I’m also working on my doctor of clinical psychology. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see a lot of the “Buddhism + Psychology = atheist/humanist” happening.
    In any case, you’re bang-on when it comes to your descriptions of attachment/engagement. My own teacher used to say that “Suffering is just wanting the universe to be other than what it is” (which, I suspect, is just a nicer way of saying “reality doesn’t care if it hurts your feelings”).
    Wonderful writing, and I’m looking forward to visiting here regularly!

  18. 18
    Kamaka

    Please read “Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama”, narrated by Daniel Goleman, for a scientific and rational discourse about Buddhist thought.
    Nice post, Greta, you get it.

  19. 19
    Gwenny Todd

    One thing I don’t understand is why suffering is to be avoided. It’s almost like they break one of the first things Lao Tzu talks about, assigning value to things. Suffering just is. There are negative and positive aspects. I, for one, have endured a level of suffering few people have the opportunity to experience. It has made me a stronger person. It has made me a loving, sympathetic person. To eradicate suffering is to diminish your chance to learn . . to grow . . to choose to be a better person.
    Let me share something that has kept me going through some dark times:
    Invictus
    William Ernest Henley
    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.
    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.
    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds and shall find me unafraid.
    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.
    The way I see it, rather than avoid suffering, because you can’t a be and real member of your community and the human race, embrace it and use. It will make you a better person.

  20. 20
    Jiun Foster

    Gwenny – you seem to be conflating “suffering” with “pain” – whether physical or emotional. These two are not the same.
    One of them can’t be avoided so long as you’re alive, and the other is manufactured in your mind.
    One is a natural part of being alive, and frequently teaches us things about ourselves. The other is a type of mental tantrum that screams to have things back the way they were.

  21. 21
    Gwenny

    It depends, Jiun, on your definitions. And even if we embrace ONLY your definition, some “emotional” suffering brings good change.
    But . . . you know, I subscribe to about 300 news sources and blogs. I beg your forgiveness that I wasted your time and mine by attempting to expand this conversation.
    This is me, not suffering fools.

  22. 22
    Wilderthanyou

    I feel like a lot of the OP reminded me also very strongly of Epicurus and the 40 Doctrines. If it’s a correct interpretation of Buddhism, then Buddhism and Epicureanism seem to be very similar.

  23. 23
    Bokono

    Buddhism is atheistic. There is no creator. Non-violence and compassion are at the core of the teachings It would be more accurate to describe it as a philosophy than a religion. It is unfair and just plain ignorant to lump it together with the Abraham religions and such. It is based on psychology and logic. It defies the common definition of a religion.

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