I’m continuing with the subject of love, desire and attachment started in this article.
Our attachment can be very strong. We’re in love with the idea of love in this society. It sometimes seems as if our whole society is focused on finding the right person — we need someone to complete us. We can’t be happy on our ownsome. “I need someone to give me that security, to hold my hand in the movies. That person is waiting. I know there’s happiness waiting somewhere for me. The credits will roll for me.” (Don’t you find it interesting how the credits roll just at that point when people have finally landed in each other’s arms – they have to be quick about it, too, before the story proceeds any further.)
As time goes on in our search for the ideal partner, we are often willing to settle for less. This is because when we are young, half an hour in front of the mirror can make us look like a million dollars, but as we get older we need that half an hour just to make ourselves look vaguely presentable. In an article about baby boomers not too long ago, the implication was that we are not allowed to get old or stop searching for the ideal partner. No, we are simply “seasoned”, like a well cooked leg of lamb or a rusty frying pan. Apparently there are umpteen books explaining how you can attract someone even into your sixties, seventies, eighties… It isn’t all on the outside, but it does help if you take care of your appearance and, if you can afford the nips and tucks, go ahead! It doesn’t ever stop! You’re not even allowed to relax when you’re seventy, much less when you’re under forty. According to this article, you’re not encouraged to recall that you’ve already had a partner (or five) and don’t want to go through all of that again.
What might Buddha say about this? Not that people should never partner up, or should be scared away from love. Perhaps that seeking happiness so desperately from outside in any form is a fool’s game as it is incapable of giving us real or lasting happiness. Especially if the other person is as neurotic as we are! How are they going to give us security when they can’t even find it themselves?
Falling in love (again)
So let’s look at the kind of thing that happens when we fall in love. If our attachment comes on strong, it is like falling in a ditch — completely out of our control.
Let’s say we’re hanging out with good friends. We’re having a whale of a time, joking, affectionate, enjoying a great night out, until suddenly a really attractive person (to our eyes) walks into the restaurant. Suddenly our happiness is over there. We’re feeling a bit bereft. We’re fast forgetting about our friends because now it’s, “I’ve got to meet that person!” Then they walk out the door, taking our happiness with them!
The scheming begins. How to get their number, set up a date, have their kids. There seem to be three stages to this kind of desire—scheming, indulging, and recovery. Scheming – they are going to complete me, this is it! Maybe we’re lucky enough and we do get their phone number, their email. We wait by the phone – are people still waiting by the phone now? Well, in the old days, before we were plugged 24/7 into the cloud, it went something like this: “I’ll just go buy some groceries, I’ll be away for an hour or so, then by the time I’ve got home they are bound to have called.” But no messages. No emails either. Nowadays, maybe no texts, or FB messages. This is painful. We get a call from our best friend, “No, I can’t talk just now, I can’t tie up the line”, then another from our mom, and we try not to sound too disappointed, “Yes, I know you gave birth to me but ….” Any addiction we had to email and Facebook is now really overpowering, but at the same time none of our messages is of the slightest interest.
Then maybe the right caller ID or a relevant email does show up, and, ecstatically relieved, we do manage to hook up. We take a thousand photos of our happiness on our Smart phone, from every angle. Everything about them is delicious and special – their perfume, their eating habits, the way they drive… They can do no wrong. The fact that others don’t get it, or even see faults in our angel, is just a sad indictment on their lack of discrimination.
This phase of romantic indulgence goes on, they tell us from studies, for about six months.
Then at some point we say to this person, “Honey, I really love you and want you to be happy.” And they reply, “I’m really glad to hear you say that because I’ve been taking ballroom dancing classes and I’ve fallen for Giovanna, she’s Italian.” Suddenly everything goes pear-shaped. That wasn’t what we meant. We say, “But I didn’t want you to be happy if you’re not giving me happiness!”
Now all the objects of happiness are causes of suffering. The same perfume is now unbearable, the same car is a horrible reminder. All the things that seemed causes of our happiness are now causes of our pain. Maybe we take all their stuff and throw it out of the window. “Take all of your stuff and get out!” We think it’s all their fault, but really the scales have fallen from our eyes and we are realizing that they weren’t the source of our happiness to begin with.
With attachment, we are set up from the get go for disillusionment when that person inevitably cannot deliver the happiness we sought in them, when they cannot live up to our hype. We need time to recover because thwarted attachment is very, very painful. It can make people feel down for months. It can drive people to kill themselves. And it is very dangerous because when we’re in the indulging phase it can look so good that we forget its outcome and fall for it time and time again.
As mentioned, attachment is called “sticky desire” If you have hairy arms, you can try this experiment, if not you’ll just have to imagine it. Plaster a sticky band aid onto your arm, leave it for a bit, and then tear it off. How does that feel? At some point also we are separated one way or another from our object of attachment, and it hurts. Tears. We often want to lash out.
In Transform Your Life, Geshe Kelsang says:
“If we are skillful, friends can be like treasure chests, from whom we can gain the precious wealth of love, compassion, patience, and so forth. For our friends to function in this way, however, our love for them must be free from attachment. If our love for our friends is mixed with strong attachment, it will be conditional on their behaving in ways that please us, and as soon as they do something we disapprove of, our fondness for them may turn to anger.”
Honey on a razor’s edge
Buddha used an exquisite analogy for attachment: it is like licking honey from a razor’s edge. If we want just the honey, we need to get rid of the attachment. But we don’t need to get rid of the intimacy or closeness. We can have that closeness without attachment. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be close to others but there’s everything wrong with trying to be close to others through attachment. In fact, strong attachment actually makes us hungrier, we can never get enough.
It is only with love that the gap between people is bridged. In attachment, it’s all about a dualistic “me and you”; we’re not actually in union. Because the object of attachment is necessarily “out there”, and we are “in here”, we can never get close to it any more than a donkey can catch up to the carrot on the stick. True intimacy, true “us”, comes from love – affectionate, cherishing, and wishing love.
Your turn: what do you think about Buddha’s analysis of love and attachment from your own experience?