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Published in: The Middle Way Vol. 73, No. 4 (Feb. 1999), pp. 203-207
Attachment and Emotion
Buddhism is sometimes criticised for having a pessimistic world-view. The four noble truths can be seen as recommending something like this: our suffering comes from our attachment to the things of this life, from our wanting things we can't have, from our wanting our life to be different from what it is. Now if we were to let go of these desires and just accept things as they are, then we would be happy.
I think that for many people something feels right about this and something feels wrong. Yes, if we stopped craving for things we can't have, things we can't be, we would be happier, more contented. But following this line of thought it would seem that the fewer desires we have the better. The less we want, the less we will be disappointed. But this already may make us feel uneasy. It seems to suggest that the good life is one in which little is wanted, little achieved. The struggles of those who would change the world for the better seem to be discounted. The passions that are involved in creating a work of art, or a deep relationship, or a political reform seem to be being rather condescendingly dismissed. Indeed most of the things in life which involve effort, commitment, struggle against obstacles, and the corresponding joys and pains associated with success and failure, the things that we may feel are the very stuff of human life, seem threatened by an attitude of detachment, lack of involvement, an attitude which seems indifferent to the joyful-painful realities of human life and emotion.
One response to this would be to say that Buddhism doesn't aim to remove desire from our lives. To try to remove it would be absurd for several reasons. First, if we didn't have desires at all there would be no motivation for action, we would do nothing, and quickly die.
Secondly, even if we had just enough desire to live, but not more, then our emotional lives would be devastatingly impoverished. For almost all the emotions involve desire: without desire there would be no hope or fear, resentment or gratitude, pride or shame. Some might urge that we would do well to be without some of these emotions, such as resentment, fear or shame. But emotions come as a package deal: if you allow yourself to be open to the possibility of hope you allow the possibility of disappointment; if you take some pride in living up to an ideal, then shame will be involved in failure to live up to it. It is a feature of some current ‘new-age’ thought to regard some emotions, such as love, as ‘positive’ and others, such as hate, as ‘negative’, but I think that is a muddle. When people say that love is positive they are thinking only of certain kinds of love; they are not thinking of possessive forms of love, for example. And when people say that hate is negative they are presumably not thinking of examples such as the hatred of injustice1. There is of course an important distinction to be made between emotions which are appropriate in the circumstances, and emotions which are not. There is also an important distinction to be made between feeling an emotion and getting caught up in it, which is what I want to discuss below. But the project of getting rid of emotion or desire seems itself undesirable.
Thirdly, without desire how could there be any motivation to free oneself from desire? To desire freedom from desire is paradoxical, and while some paradoxes can be illuminating, it is not obvious that this one is.
Altogether then, the project of freeing ourselves from desire and emotion seems neither appealing, inspiring or even possible. But in Buddhism the original Sanskrit word that is translated as 'desire' is trsna which literally means 'thirst', and is often rendered in English as 'craving'. Getting rid of craving seems much more plausible an aim than getting rid of desire. But what is the difference between desire and craving? Is craving an especially intense form of desire? If so, the Buddhist aim would be not to eliminate desire but to eliminate very strong desires. This could be seen as fitting with that understanding of the Buddhist 'middle way' which sees it as akin to the Western notion, deriving from a misinterpretation of Aristotle, of 'moderation in all things'. Since, as I said, the emotions are bound up with desire, it would follow that emotion is all right in moderation, but we shouldn't go to extremes. This of course is a very familiar moral position, but it has some of the same drawbacks as the view that we should seek to eliminate desire altogether. For if we take all the strong emotion out of human life we impoverish it. Some situations call not for just some emotional response, but for a strong response. A grossly unjust situation for example may call for strong action, which requires strong feeling to motivate it. The emotion appropriate to a situation cannot to be determined by the principle of moderation. A moderate emotional response may be too strong in some situations or too weak in others. An analogy (borrowed from J.O. Urmson’s book Aristotle’s Ethics) would be: someone who has little experience of driving asks how fast one should normally go. We say, well - not too fast, not too slow. They go off and think: '80 mph is clearly too fast, 10 mph is clearly too slow. The middle position between 10 and 80 is 45, so I will proceed always at 45 mph'. They return to us complaining that they seem to have caused jams on motorways and terror in built-up areas, and say they don't think this middle-way idea is very satisfactory. So we have to explain: By 'not too fast, not too slow' we didn't mean 'stick to an average between possible extremes'. We meant 'look at the situation and try to see what is appropriate, what would count as 'not extreme' or ‘not out of place’ in that situation. Similarly with desires and emotions: the idea of a middle way should not be interpreted as 'moderation in all things'. Moderate emotions are inappropriate to extreme situations; we should be mindful of what the situation actually is, and respond emotionally to the reality of the situation, rather than try to impose a rule of 'moderation'. But if this is right we can't interpret 'craving' (which is clearly a bad thing) with 'strong desire' (which may not be). So what is distinctive of craving?
Consider what would clearly be a case of craving, rather than of mere desire. Examples might be cravings for alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. These are helpful examples because they bring out the fact that it is quite natural for us to experience our cravings as unsatisfactory (duhkha). We really do want the cigarette, but we don't want to have that want. The want is real, but it is duhkha. Unlike some of the desires and emotions I mentioned earlier, this one is one we would be quite happy to be rid of. The difficulty is that we are trapped by the desire; we find ourselves doing things to satisfy it, rather than freely choosing to follow that path. We have been 'taken over by' the desire, we can't separate ourself from it.
We can see here how the notion of craving links with the idea of a 'fixed self' in a way that the notion of desire does not. I can be aware of various desires and decide which of them to act on, which to allow full rein, which to curb. They are all, as it were, different bits of me, like the different members of a committee. But I, as the chairperson, can orchestrate the demands and doubts raised by members of the committee, and can even exercise a veto if that seems necessary. In a well-functioning committee there is a lot of give-and-take, of appropriate compromise, of flexibility. The situation changes drastically if one member of the committee demands exclusive attention and insists that the committee acts in accordance with his or her wishes. If the chairperson is weak, then this member may take over and force the committee's decisions along one fixed track. This I would suggest as analogous to a craving: a craving insists on getting what it wants, irrespective of what else is wanted and irrespective of which desires I feel it appropriate to pursue. The craving fixes the self in one particular shape, and I lose my freedom to choose what I should do or be.
In other words, just as the committee's agenda becomes identified with the agenda of one member, so my life may become identified with the life of one bit of me. This identification of the self with particular feelings or desires is, I suggest, central to duhkha and samsara being what they are.
If this is what craving amounts to, it might seem to apply to only a small part of most people's lives. Most people's lives, that is, do not centre around addictions to tobacco or other drugs. However, what Buddhism suggests is that much in our lives is closer to addictive states than we care to acknowledge. For a great deal of the time we are not very mindful of what we are doing. Rather, we are caught up in our emotions, our hopes, our fears, our plans. We are, much of the time, identified with parts of ourselves, rather than responding fully and freely to our situation. When a plan fails we are disappointed, rather than noticing that the bit of us that wanted it so much is disappointed. We let the disappointment get to us, take us over; or else we brush it aside and pretend it wasn't very important after all. What we don't often do is simple notice it, accept it and relate to it.
In Buddhist terms, we forget that there is no fixed self, because we feel so strongly that this is me that is hurt. But if we reflect or meditate on the situation we can see that there is not really a hurt me, but rather that there is something in me that hurts right now, something that needs my care and attention, my compassion.
How can giving this bit of myself care and attention help? Well, how does giving a young child care and attention help? Perhaps by putting the pain or disappointment in a context. In relating to a caring adult the child engages a different part of themself; they are no longer immersed in the pain, but can look at it, talk about it. There is some separation from the pain. It is still there but it it is no longer overwhelming. Similarly with ourselves, in attending to our hurts and disappointments we create a space for them, and a space for us, and this frees us from their power. They are there, and they are part of our experience, but we are no longer identified with them. In Buddhist terminology we are no longer attached to them.
There are other ways in which reflection or meditation on our states of mind can help free us from attachment to them. In particular, meditation may bring to light various ways in which our states of mind can be ‘illusory’. In my previous example the disappointment was a genuine bit of me; the illusion consisted in identifying myself with this bit. But quite often the emotional states we identify with are not really living parts of ourselves at all.
There are two important ways in which this can be so. One is that the feelings may be out of date. That is, they were once appropriate to the situation in which they arose, but the situation no longer obtains. For example, a child's situation may be such that it must at all costs avoid angering its parents (its safety or even its life may depend on this). So the child develops a placating way of dealing with people, always avoiding confrontations. The feeling that anger is dangerous was, in the past, quite appropriate, but it may no longer be so. The grown-up child may still have the feeling that to get angry will be disastrous, and this may lead to misunderstandings in close relationships. For instance, other people may come to think that the person is happy about situations which they are not at all happy about. Old feelings like this, fossilised feelings, frozen feelings, need thawing out if they are not to exert a compulsive quality in our lives. If we don't give them our attention and let them free up they will control us in the same sort of way that an addiction controls us.
The second sort of case is the interesting one where we are deluded about whose feelings are whose. For example, a child may grow up in a family where one parent is very afraid of dogs. Now it is always crucially important to a young child that they be close to, or in tune with those who bring them up. It is only through that close initial relationship that the child is inducted into the human world. But this means that deviating too much from the parent's view of things is a threat. Hence if a parent has strong emotional attitudes in a particular area the child will often 'take these on board' even if the child does not have the feelings on his or her own account. In our example the parent's fear of dogs might arise from having been attacked and bitten; the fear is rooted in their own experience. But the child is not afraid of dogs in that way; he or she is identifying with the parent's fear. The child, we could say, is not feeling his or her own fear, but the fear of the parent. Later in life, if the ex-child reflects on their fear, they may come to sense that there is something odd about it, and come to express this in some such way as 'You know, deep down I'm not really afraid of dogs. But it’s as if this fear is lodged in me from somewhere, and I want to get rid of it. The more I stay with this feeling the more it seems not my feeling; I think it’s my mother's fear I am trapped in'. This could then lead to the person trying to get a sense of what they feel about dogs, as distinct from what mother feels; they can begin to separate from mother, and incidentally, therefore, come to relate to her better.
What I hope to show with these examples is that what is trapping (samsaric, dukhha) about emotions and desires is not the having of them but the being caught up in them, the being attached to, or being identified with them. Freedom from duhkha is not a matter of eliminating emotion, or detaching from emotional situations, but of disidentifying from the emotion. The disidentification from (non-attachment to) our own feelings and desires allows us to relate to them, just as disidentification from (non-attachment to) a person allows us to relate to them. This non-attachment is quite different from detachment in the sense of not caring; indeed we can only properly care for ourselves and others where we are non-attached.
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