Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Important but Difficult Task of Letting Go and Buddhist Non-Attachment

Father giving a helping hand to toddler son to get up from snow

The Buddhist idea of non-attachment is highly commendable, and it is, in fact, a brilliant piece of philosophical advice, no matter what your religious beliefs or intentions may be. It goes hand in hand with the underlying notion of life being a temporary stage or a “loan.”

I see life more as a loan than a gift. It is not really mine; I have been given life for some time, yet one day, it has to be given back. It is like borrowing a book from the library. You can take advantage of reading the book, or you can ignore and reject the pearls of wisdom that it contains; either way, you do have to return it at a given time.

Apart from searching for truth and trying to understand our relevance or reason for existence in the endless cosmos, there is still the matter of non-attachment. As I am going forward in life, I cannot help but attach myself to all and everything. I get attached to my family, my friends, my school, my work, my neighborhood, my blog (!), and my possessions. The list is endless really. If you are like me, you keep all your souvenirs from ages ago and will not want to throw anything out!

One of the common misconceptions of non-attachment is that it means uncaring. That is far from the truth. Loving and caring for all that you deem important in life has little in common with grabbing onto everyone and everything and never wanting to let them go! In fact, the measure of love is indeed how willing you are to be non-attached; to love somebody and not to have a claim on them, not to see or treat them as your personal possession or little toy.

It is like the painfully difficult, yet beautiful stage when our children can finally stand on their feet and go out into the world, establishing their own life and leaving their very own footprints in the make of society. It is allowing others to make their own mistakes and to learn from them instead of constantly trying to protect them from harm and ultimately doing them more damage that way. And it is the most painful but unavoidable fact that at a given unknown and unpredictable time, we and also the loved ones will leave this plane of existence. Nobody lives forever, as they say.

And it is this leaving behind your cherished ones that I find the most difficult aspect. It is not so much death itself but a non-presence of protecting and caring for the ones we love. The task grows more difficult once you have a family. It is not so much holding onto myself then; rather, I would find it difficult to part with and from the kind of life with its intricate web and intimate connections that I have established here.

Yet to return the example of the borrowed library book: No matter how much I may love the book, no matter how much I would want to keep it and hold onto it under my pillow for comfort and consultation, one day (but in this case I will be given a specific date) I will be asked to return it to the “authorities.” And the less attached to it I am, that is, the more grateful for the temporary possession of the item I am, the easier it would be to face the due date.


Bryan White said...

Accepting the temporary nature of life is never an easy task. Sometimes the sense of your own mortality sends a sudden chill through you and makes the hair on your neck stands up. But you raise a good point. We should enjoy life while it lasts, and we should take the time to read the "book" before the due date arrives.

Jmyste said...

I lived "in sin" with a girl for almost seven years. Early in the relationship we discussed marriage and I asked her if she would be around forever. She mentioned this concept and said that our eternal union was impractical. She explained that she admired and ancient artifact and wanted to keep it forever, but knew that this was not possible. She said she would enjoy it while it was there and would remember it as long as her memory functioned, and that this was as good as it gets and was good enough. She also explained how the fact that it was transient gave it much of its beauty.

I remember her frequently and I will never forget the artifact as long as my memory still functions. That was a long time ago. I am married now and among other things, I cherish the transient beauty of my current wife, whom I wish I could keep forever.


Anonymous said...

Hitchhiking my way toward Death, but I'm just along for the ride.