Yesterday, I talked about acceptance and its link to finding serenity. A huge part of accepting is letting go of things outside my circle of influence. Another key part of acceptance is letting go of attachment.
Attachment, I like to think of it as a ball and chain. When we are attached to something, it has the potential to keep us weighted down and stuck where we are drowning or wallowing in our own egos.
In the Pali canon, Buddha says, “upadhi dukkhassa mūlanti,” which translates to “The root of suffering is attachment.” The more I think about this, the more I agree. Attachment to outcomes, attachment to goals, attachment to people, attachment to anything my ego wants (desire) seems to be the root of much of my suffering.
When I want something and I don’t get it, I suffer. This suffering can come in the form of hurt, anger, jealousy and a host of other negative emotions.
Whenever I find myself grasping at something I imagine that item as the ball and my desire for it as the chain. This visualization helps me put the situation into perspective. This in turn, helps me reframe my negative thoughts and start looking for my circle of influence. What can I do in spite of the circumstances?
I have already established that I cannot control other people, so I can choose to love them despite them not doing what I wanted them to do. I can choose to be happy despite the fact that a situation did not go the way I intended.
When I put things into perspective, it is my attachment to my idea of how something should be that causes my discomfort. I choose to be jealous, angry or hurt because I didn’t get my way. I choose to attach myself to those feelings and I can just as easily choose not to.
When I find discomfort somewhere, I ask myself what am I attached to here? What am I afraid to let go of? Acceptance means truth. I have to accept the facts. When my best friend recently conveyed a story to me about her unhappiness in marriage, I asked her if she was willing to accept things as they were. To this she emphatically said, “NO!” “Well, you can’t change him and if you cannot accept the situation as it is, the only part you have control over is what you are going to do about it,” I said. To which she responded, “I can’t leave him!” Until she chooses to accept her responsibility in the situation and let go of her attachment to the idea that things should be different, the ball and chain remain and she will continue to suffer.
It is her attachment to her vision of the way things should be that cause her to suffer. The ball is her ideal of what the marriage should be like, her chain is her attachment to that vision. When she cuts the chain and lets go of that vision, she will be free to decide what comes next. It could mean accepting things as they are and choosing to be happy. It could mean she does not accept the way things are but accepts the fact that she has no control over him. At this point she has the power to choose what to do with what is in her circle of influence. Either way, until she lets go of that vision of what her marriage is supposed to be like, she is stuck.
Letting go of attachments frees our spirit. It makes room for us to know what we really want and what level of discomfort we are willing to endure to get it. Think of the ball and chain again and imagine someone has thrown you into the water. You can struggle, flap your arms, kick your legs, try to swim to the surface but the fact remains the ball is sinking and it is pulling you with it. Once the ball drops to the bottom, you are stuck there, no amount of flailing will help you breathe. But, when you cut the chain and release your attachment to the ball (the vision, the expectation, the outcome), you can now swim to the surface.
When I cut the chain, I free myself, I free up my mental energy, because I am no longer focused on the ball. Now, I am able to focus on action. Maybe, I have scuba gear so I choose to stay and explore and watch and see what happens, when I let go. Maybe I swim away from the ball, exhausted by the attention I have been putting on it, desperate for fresh air. Either way, until I drop my focus from that ball, I cut my attachment to it. Now I have the power back and the freedom to choose my actions. That mental freedom gives me creative solutions, it helps me to see my options. But, when I stay focused on the ball, I cant seem to see that I have choices, I am too busy flailing at the ball and chain pulling at my ankles, I forget I have a pocket knife (freedom to choose). In every situation, I have the freedom to choose. I can choose my thoughts, I can choose my mood, I can choose my responses and actions. I can choose to look around and see what my options are, what my resources are, what my alternative visions can be. But first, I have to let go of that focus, that attachment, that expectation, that ball and chain.