Attachment is the cause of all suffering. It’s the central tenet of Buddhism and the recurring theme of Anthony de Mello’s The Way to Love.
We are programmed from a young age - by our parents, our friends, our culture, our religion – with certain beliefs. Because these beliefs are established while we’re young, and because many of them are widely held, it rarely occurs to us to question them.
However, says De Mello, many of these beliefs are false. Foremost among them is the belief that we need certain things to be happy:
“Everywhere people have actually built their lives on the unquestioned belief that without certain things—money, power, success, approval, a good reputation, love, friendship, spirituality, God—they cannot be happy. What is your particular combination? Once you swallowed your belief you naturally developed an attachment to this person or thing you were convinced you could not be happy without. Then came the efforts to acquire your precious thing or person, to cling to it once it was acquired, and to fight off every possibility of losing it. This finally led you to abject emotional dependence so that the object of your attachment had the power to thrill you when you attained it, to make you anxious lest you be deprived of it and miserable when you lost it. Stop for a moment now and contemplate in horror the endless list of attachments that you have become a prisoner to.”
These attachments cause almost all of our negative emotions:
“Each time you are anxious and afraid, it is because you may lose or fail to get the object of your attachment, isn’t it? And each time you feel jealous, isn’t it because someone may make off with what you are attached to? And almost all your anger comes from someone standing in the way of your attachment, doesn’t it? And see how paranoid you become when your attachment is threatened—you cannot think objectively; your whole vision becomes distorted, doesn’t it? And every time you feel bored, isn’t it because you are not getting a sufficient supply of what you believe will make you happy, of what you are attached to? And when you are depressed and miserable, the cause is there for all to see: Life is not giving you what you have convinced yourself you cannot be happy without.”
To be happy, we have to change our programming. We have to rid ourselves of our attachments. “You must choose between your attachment and happiness. You cannot have both,” says De Mello.
De Mello is careful to distinguish between happiness, which cannot co-exist with attachment, and pleasure, which can. Pleasure is what we feel when things are going our way. It is different from happiness because it is short-lived and accompanied by the fear that it will not last (which it never does).
“What you call the experience of happiness is not happiness at all but the excitement and thrill caused by some person or thing or event. True happiness is uncaused. You are happy for no reason at all.”
However, the pursuit of happiness cannot be our goal, because that, in itself, would be an attachment:
“If you desire happiness you will be anxious lest you do not attain it. You will be constantly in a state of dissatisfaction; and dissatisfaction and anxiety kill the very happiness that they set out to gain.”
Rather, happiness arises naturally when attachment has been eliminated, like the blue sky that is revealed when the clouds clear.
De Mello stresses that ridding ourselves of attachment does not stop us loving people and things and enjoying them thoroughly. Nor does it prevent us preferring that a favourable situation continue or savouring the enjoyment we are experiencing right now. It simply means not worrying about prolonging the experience because we know we don’t need it to be happy.
“If you just enjoy things, refusing to let yourself be attached to them, that is, refusing to hold the false belief that you will not be happy without them, you are spared all the struggle and emotional strain of protecting them and guarding them for yourself. Has it occurred to you that you can keep all the objects of your attachments without giving them up, without renouncing a single one of them and you can enjoy them even more on a nonattachment, a nonclinging basis, because you are peaceful now and relaxed and unthreatened in your enjoyment of them?”
Letting go of our attachments and beliefs and expectations is difficult because they have often been part of us for a long time. They feel like statements of absolute truth rather than an arbitrary set of inherited values.
However, we need only look at other people to see this cannot be true. We are all programmed differently. We know that many people are perfectly happy without a thing or person that we have convinced ourselves we cannot live without. We know that there are people who would not be irritated by the things that annoy us. “You see persons and things not as they are but as you are,” says De Mello. Our negative emotions are not caused by external things but by our programming. And this is something we can change (although doing so may not be easy).
Attachment is not only the cause of our negative emotions. It also discourages us from seeking out other people or things:
“If you learn to enjoy the scent of a thousand flowers you will not cling to one or suffer when you cannot get it. If you have a thousand favorite dishes, the loss of one will go unnoticed and leave your happiness unimpaired. But it is precisely your attachments that prevent you from developing a wider and more varied taste for things and people.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in romantic love. Our culture promotes monogamy, encouraging us to attach ourselves to a single person, to the exclusion of all others.
Most of us seek love because we want to be special to someone. However, most people will only care for us if we please them in some way. This requires us to modify our behaviour to gain and keep their approval. And thus we lose our freedom to be ourselves.
Requiring someone to satisfy our expectations of how they should behave isn’t love, argues De Mello. We cannot truly love another person without giving them the freedom to be themselves:
“Now say to this person, “I leave you free to be yourself, to think your thoughts, to indulge your taste, follow your inclinations, behave in any way that you decide is to your liking.” The moment you say that you will observe one of two things: Either your heart will resist those words and you will be exposed for the clinger and exploiter that you are; so now is the time to examine your false belief that without this person you cannot live or cannot be happy. Or your heart will pronounce the words sincerely and in that very instant all control, manipulation, exploitation, possessiveness, jealousy will drop. And you will notice something else: The person automatically ceases to be especial and important to you. And he/she becomes important the way a sunset or a symphony is lovely in itself, the way a tree is especial in itself and not for the fruit or the shade that it can offer you. Your beloved will then belong not to you but to everyone or to no one like the sunrise and the tree.”
Love, according to De Mello, is about seeing and appreciating another person for the person they are. It is not about finding someone to meet our needs. Love demands nothing. It is unconditional.
And this means we cannot love unless we are comfortable with solitude. “To love persons is to have died to the need for persons and to be utterly alone,” says De Mello.