To a great extent, the guideposts for my life are based on numerous quotes that I’ve read over the years. There are thousands of great quotes in books and on the Internet, but only a relatively small number have a real impact on an individual’s life. These are the quotes that elicit a “Wow!” in your brain — the ones that stick with you forever and help form the foundation for the way you live your life.
The number of quotes that make this kind of impact vary widely from person to person. There are about two dozen that I consider to be instrumental in guiding my day-to-day actions. And right up near the top of this treasured list is a quote by Buddha that I first heard nearly thirty years ago: “All unhappiness is caused by attachment.”
I thought about this quote most recently when I read The Universe in a Single Atom, by the Dalai Lama. It’s a remarkable work, though I do not recommend it to anyone who likes information to be presented in easily digestible bites. It’s a difficult read, to say the least.
The Dalai Lama explains that Buddhism sees the major dividing line between sentience (consciousness) and non-sentience as the interest in the alleviation of suffering and the quest for happiness. This phenomenon is tied to the Four Noble Truths that Buddha taught in his initial sermon:
Noble Truth No. 1: There is suffering.
Noble Truth No. 2: Suffering has an origin.
Noble Truth No. 3: The cessation of suffering is possible.
Noble Truth No. 4: There is a path to the cessation of suffering.
I’m no Buddha by a long shot, but nevertheless I’d like to share with you my own take on Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, particularly as they relate to his observation that “All unhappiness is caused by attachment.” My main objective here is to act as a catalyst in motivating you to develop your own insights into these fascinating concepts.
The First Noble Truth — that there is suffering in the world — is axiomatic. This includes everything from disease and illness to starvation and war. These are large and obvious issues that I won’t even attempt to address in this article, because I do not have the space to begin to do justice to them.
The kind of suffering I’m going to focus on is mental pain. This is the kind of pain that a person may endure over a perceived injustice, problems with his children, job termination, or the end of a romantic relationship, to name but a few.
The Second Noble Truth — that suffering has an origin — is also axiomatic. More simply put, there is always something or someone that is the cause of a person’s suffering. There is a reason for an injustice, a reason for your child’s problems, a reason for losing your job, a reason for an end to a romance.
Cause and effect is easily demonstrated in science, but most straight-thinking adults have little doubt that all actions have consequences. Buddha believed that craving is the main culprit when it comes to suffering. Modern man craves so many things that it seems as though it is impossible for him to ever be content.
The Third Noble Truth — that it’s possible to put an end to one’s suffering — is one of the most positive aspects of the Buddhist doctrine. In other words, you should feel relieved to know that you don’t have to suffer. Suffering is not mandated by a higher authority.
The Fourth Noble Truth — that there is a path to the cessation of suffering. To the extent you are successful in analyzing the origin of your suffering, you have an excellent chance of putting an end to it — or at least to ease its effects on you. Buddhists believe that enlightenment — the successful search for truth — is the key to eliminating pain. If so, I would suggest that the best place to start looking for enlightenment is in the mirror:
What did I do (or not do) to put myself in a position whereby an injustice could be inflicted upon me?
What did I do (or not do) to contribute to my children’s problems?
What did I do (or not do) to lose my job?
What did I do (or not do) to contribute to the failure of my romantic relationship?
No matter what someone else did to you, your focus should always be on what you did wrong. Remember that great line from the 1994 film classic The Shawshank Redemption? When a new inmate was proclaiming his innocence to the other prisoners at one of the mess-hall tables, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) sarcastically replied, “Oh, didn’t you know? Everyone in here is innocent.”
The point is that if you really want to put an end to your suffering, the first step is to let go of the notion that you are a victim of circumstances. As with everything in life, there are exceptions — but not many.
What I’m suggesting — and what I have believed ever since I first read Buddha’s words about all unhappiness being caused by attachment — is that letting go is often the path to the cessation of suffering. I find that the more detached I am, the more objective I can be. And the more objective I am, the more enlightened I become.
When people think of attachment, they usually think of material possessions. And, indeed, attachment to the material world can cause great suffering. But there are subtle kinds of attachments that can cause suffering as well.
For example, late in his career, my father apparently got shafted out of his share of a business by his partners. My mother was extremely upset by the incident, and talked about it incessantly for decades. Remaining steadfastly attached to this unpleasant situation — long after my father died — caused her an enormous amount of mental anguish.
Others suffer from not being able to let go of a single mistake. This is common in sports, where fans and sportswriters can often be cruel. Baseball aficionados still remember the infamous home-run pitch thrown by Angels hurler Donnie Moore in the fifth game of the 1986 playoffs against the Red Sox. The Angels, up three games to one, were just one out away from going to their first World Series.
Instead, Dave Henderson hit a home run to keep Boston in the game, and the Angels went on to lose both the game and the series. In the ensuing years, fans booed Donnie Moore everywhere he went. In 1989, after years of depression, he committed suicide. Donnie Moore apparently had a history of troubles, but it seems clear that his attachment to that one moment helped push him over the edge.
What I’m getting at here is the importance of detachment from outcomes. It’s one of those things that is easy to say, but extremely difficult to do. Even the most stoic people cannot completely detach themselves from outcomes 100 percent of the time.
Hugh Downs put it well in an interview he did with me several years ago when he explained that it is possible to drop the burden of concern about things over which we have no control. In fact, he firmly believes that this to be a key to letting go of hatred.
There is no conflict here with the Fourth Noble Truth (that there is a path to the cessation of suffering). When you accept the things you cannot change (such as the death of a loved one or a failed business) — when you let go — only then can there be an end to your suffering.
This is critical, because only when you put an end to your suffering are you in a position to move on. The moving on may involve finances, love, friendship, sports, or myriad other things. But regardless of what the issue is, you cannot move on to happiness and success so long as you remain attached to whatever it is that is causing you unhappiness.
I would encourage you to think about this all-important principle every day of your life, especially when you’re upset about something. Time after time, it has brought me seemingly miraculous results, and there is no reason to believe that it cannot do the same for you if you make a serious effort to integrate it into your thinking.