Attachment, Detachment, Non-attachment

Clarification Is Required

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The stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome wrestled with many of the same basic questions addressed in Buddhism. What is happiness, and how does one attain it? What is real? What is not real? The stoics arrived at different conclusions from Buddhism, for the most part.  However, regarding attachment and non-attachment you can find strong agreement.

Oliver Burkeman explores that agreement at The Guardian in "This column will change your life.

" For example, Burkeman writes, the philosopher Epictetus realized that emotions are reactions to thoughts about reality, not reality itself. Whether you are fearful about something that hasn't happened yet, or disappointed about not having something you want, it's your own imagination and desire that are making you miserable.

"Since it isn't external reality that determines emotions," Burkeman writes, "you're wrong to imagine that the perfect relationship, job or house would make you happy. What's making you unhappy is the belief that you need them in order to be happy." Sounds familiar.

A superficial understanding of either Buddhism or Stoicism might lead one to think that detachment from the things one fears or desires is the answer to suffering. Indeed, I can't tell you how often I stumble across academics and sometimes even Buddhists declaring that Buddhism teaches "detachment." That might make sense considering how often teachers warn us to avoid "attachment." But flipping from one extreme to its opposite is not the Middle Way.

Detachment is just another form of being jerked around by your own thoughts. The real solution is to change your mind in a very deep way so that your thoughts no longer dictate your emotional state. What Buddhism (and Stoicism) teach is not detachment, but non-attachment.

Read More: Understanding Non-attachment: Why Detachment Is the Wrong Word

Burkeman quotes Vipassana meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein: "Detachment implies a sense of withdrawal," Goldstein said. "Non-attachment simply implies not holding on."

For the Stoics, as I understand it, the ideal was to be liberated from the tyranny of thoughts and the emotional reaction to thoughts. I don't believe the Stoics had a doctrine that in any way resembled anatta, however.

No Separation

For a Buddhist, detachment reinforces the idea of a self that can be separated from the world, which is not exactly the effect we're going for.

In Mahayana Buddhism especially, one definition of enlightenment is that it is the elimination of all dualisms. In particular, one must break through the delusion of a separate self. This is the conceptual habit of sorting reality into either "me" and "not me." This may make no sense, but as I understand it, the entire universe, including "your" body, is both you and not you at the same time. If everything is you, how can "you" detach from it?

Detachment also is the opposite of compassion. Remember, in Buddhism, compassion is said to arise naturally from wisdom -- the realization that we all inter-exist. We are not the stand-alone people-units we assume we are.

When the wall between self-and-other melts away, we are naturally more compassionate. At the same time, wisdom is said to arise from compassion, which causes the softening of the ego.

I understand that the Stoic philosopher Seneca believed to be compassionate is to recognize the bonds we have with others as suffering beings. Compassion accepts the suffering of others as one's own. Sounds very Buddhist. He also said, "While we are postponing, life speeds on." I need to remember that one.