Designing the Mind

Dukkha and the Art of Non-Attachment

The Greatest Insight of Buddhism


The core teachings of Buddhism boil down to Four Noble Truths, which are commonly translated as follows:

1. Life is suffering

2. The cause of suffering is desire

3. The end of suffering comes with an end to desire

4. The Eightfold Path can guide you away from desire and suffering

But like tax brackets, nuclear power, and that kid in high school who used to run through the halls like an anime character, these tenets are deeply misunderstood.

The fundamental message of these noble truths is not that we have to completely eliminate our desires in order to escape suffering. It’s that it’s possible to develop a healthy relationship to our cravings, see through the illusion of desired outcomes, and eliminate the friction from our emotional experience. I’m going to walk you through this core message and share how to master the art of nonattachment.

Non-attachment is not complacency. It doesn’t imply a lack of caring and commitment. The philosophy of non-attachment is based in the understanding that holding on too tightly to those things, which in any case are always going to be slipping through our fingers, hurts and gives us rope burn.

― Lama Surya Das

Psychitects, thanks so much for the incredible launch week for Become Who You Are. We sold nearly 5,000 copies over the course of the week, and set the book up for long-term reach and impact. I’ve already heard from dozens of readers on how it has changed their perspectives, and I would love to hear from you too.

The first noble truth of Buddhism, states the truth of “dukkha.” But though it is often translated as suffering, dukkha is more accurately translated as “there is unsatisfactoriness.”

What this means is primarily that the gratification of our attachments does not deeply satisfy us, as we so often expect it to. Desire and pleasure disguise themselves as the solution to our cravings, but they don’t deliver, and we often continually fall into the same mistakes.

The second noble truth of tanha is also frequently oversimplified. The Buddha claimed that tanha was responsible for the unsatisfactoriness of normal life. But tanha, most accurately translated as craving, thirsting, grasping, clinging, or attachment, is not generally thought to include all desire.

The idea of relinquishing all of our desires understandably strikes us as extreme and unattainable. And it leads us to assume that we could never truly master the Buddha’s teachings without making a full commitment to a radical lifestyle.

We also might conclude that we wouldn’t like the life that would result. We don’t like the idea of being passionless and unmotivated. If enlightenment is contentedly sitting around on a cushion for the rest of my life, I don’t want to be enlightened.

But I don’t think this is the case. In fact, I don’t think the Buddha himself is likely to have eliminated all desire from his own mind, and I don’t think he promoted this extreme goal to his followers. So what is the meaning of this message of nonattachment?


The Leash

Buddhism is very clear that tanha is the source of our problems. Eliminating it was the key to     a psychological state potent enough to popularize grunge music for nearly half a decade. Nirvana was a transcendent state characterized by the extinguishment of the fire of craving. This craving may seem close enough to desire that we might conclude they are synonymous, but I think this would be a mistake.

Tanha referred to a specific type of desire, not just any motivation, drive, or emotion. One of the most powerful metaphors for capturing the problem of attachment is that of a dog going on a walk.

Have you ever had the displeasure of taking a dog for a walk who was convinced it knew the right way to go? The kind of dog that pulls so hard on the leash that it nearly suffocates itself?

It’s frustrating for the person walking with the dog, but it’s also clearly not good for the dog. It’s crucial to understand that the problem is not that the dog has energy. It’s not that the dog desires to go on a walk or enjoys it. The problem is the nature of that desire, and the way it leads the dog to walk.

The dog is too convinced of its own plan, too attached to every specific plant and fire hydrant it sees. It fails to understand that it isn’t helping anything by pulling so hard.

If the dog could understand language, you would need to explain a few things to it. You might say “Listen, you’re not in control here; you’re only hurting yourself by straining so hard. You don’t know what you want, and guess what? This way has just as many urine-covered trees to sniff – every direction has its own opportunities. Can’t you just learn to love the process itself instead of just the trees?”

What we don’t often realize, is that we’re in the same predicament as the dog here. We all have desires, and this is a good thing. But there are two different ways to operate our desires. Two different ways to relate to the outcomes, objects, and people in our lives. Two different ways to walk on our leash.

The problematic way to handle them is to form attachments. To desire for specific goals or outcomes, and then inevitably get upset when life has other plans. To get attached to the individual trees we come across on our walk.

In Awakening the Buddha Within, Lama Surya Das says:

We are possessed by our possessions. We want success so much that we give up real lives; we want beautiful things so much that we only see the imperfections in what we have; we become so attached to others that we try to control or own them; we become so attached to something or somebody that we become totally dependent and forget who we are.

Buddhism is not the only tradition to recognize the flawed nature of our attachments. The Stoics were well aware of this principle as well. In fact, the Stoics used a very similar metaphor to our dog on a leash.

When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity, but if it does not want to follow it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they do not want to, they will be compelled in any case to follow what is destined.

– Chrysippus

He points out that there is no point in straining against the forces we can’t control, and should instead go along with the course of fate willingly.

In The Practicing Stoic, Ward Farnsworth says:

The Stoic’s first observation about desire is that getting what we want tends not to produce the satisfaction that we imagined. It makes us want more. New desires appear when other ones are spent; our minds seem to have an appetite for desire itself, and for the illusion that fulfilling it will bring us to an endpoint. The end never arrives.

And Seneca says:

Who was ever satisfied, after attainment, with that which loomed up large as he prayed for it?

This is exactly the message the Buddha sought to convey in his truths. We must learn from this timeless wisdom and quit falling into the trap of our own desires.

Stoic remedies tend to involve working to view the object of a desire accurately to achieve detachment from it. Once we identify that a desire is irrational and won’t actually make us happy, we can work to lower that desire. Marcus Aurelius encourages us to view objects for what they really are without all the heated passion:

When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: ‘This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish’…This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For the outward show [of things] is a wonderful perverter of reason, and when we are certain the things we are dealing with are worth the trouble, that is when it cheats us most.

And Buddhism offers a similar exercise for those under the spell of unwanted sexual desire, in which one meditates on the more repulsive aspects of the human body such as organs, tissues, and fluids in order to “…extinguish the fire of lust by removing its fuel.”

Frictionless Desire

I got a question from a young reader a while back:

“I’m sure we both agree that mitigating negative emotion is beneficial and healthy, but how about mitigating positive emotion? I’m asking this question because I’ve been mitigating “positive” feelings in hopes of retaining a level of equanimity, but also because I’m afraid that positive feelings will bring about negative ones when things don’t go as planned. I find that life is easier to take on with a clear head, free from the influence of strong emotions. In this case, I’ve been trying to not get my hopes up or be too excited about this girl I’m talking to. In my last relationship, I found myself not being able to control my emotions and I feel that it heavily affected both my relationship and my mental health. I know that you said that the “happiest” people are those who feel the subjective right amounts of the subjective right emotion; you would ideally feel whatever emotions your ideal self would feel in a given situation.”

My reply:

“That’s a great question on mitigating positive emotions to maintain equanimity – I have grappled with this myself, and here’s what I’ve learned: Some positive emotions have a catch – others don’t. And you actually touch on the difference in your email with the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. You’re right that allowing yourself to get excited about the girl you’re talking to is likely to make it hurt more if things don’t work out. It also might contribute to things not working out, especially if the emotions cause you to seem too clingy or desperate (attraction is weird). These types of positive emotions tend to center around extrinsic rewards or achievements, and can be called attachments. I have learned to try to temper the positive emotions that result from attachment to particular outcomes. So I don’t let myself get that excited about a person I might end up dating, a job I might get, or a number of copies of my book I might sell. But I try to maximize the positive emotions that result from intrinsic rewards and present-moment experience. So I maximize the joy and love I experience in the moment with my partner in a way that isn’t dependent on any future outcome. I maximize the flow, excitement, and purpose I get from my intrinsically-rewarding work. And I maximize the pride I feel when publishing a book I worked hard on and getting closer to the person I would like to be.

The healthy way to deal with our desires is not to eliminate them completely. It is to direct them toward the intrinsic and timeless. It’s not the absence of desire. It’s a frictionless experience with desire.

Attachments cause more than the occasional frustration when we forget to add them to our emails. Attachments are the friction that cause us to get hung up and suffer over the many unintended outcomes in our lives. What Buddhism offers is not a car that doesn’t move – it’s a car with round wheels instead of square ones that scrape their way down a hill.

It’s not a light bulb that doesn’t turn on – it’s an LED light bulb instead of an incandescent one that wastes energy in the form of heat.

It’s not passionlessness. It’s passion without pain. Striving without strain. Preference without possessiveness.

When they are visiting in this country, enlightened lamas still prefer their Tibetan noodles over pizza. But they don’t get upset about not being able to attain their preferred food. They are not invested or identified with their desires. Spiritual masters are able to be in the world, but not of it. They are sometimes likened to graceful, snow-colored swans who travel the lakes of this world without making waves.

– Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha Within

But you don’t have to be an enlightened lama to master this mindset, and arguably a human has a better shot at understanding it anyway.

If you genuinely love someone, you accept them without attempting to control or manipulate them. You want to appreciate them as a person, not control them as a possession.

Similarly, if you genuinely love life, you accept it without attempting to control or manipulate it. You want to appreciate it as an unfolding experience, not control it as a possession.

Don’t get confused: When we talk about “attachment” as an uncontrolled “poison” or “fire,” we are not referring to genuine acceptance and love, which is unselfish and not codependent.

– Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha Within

To master Buddhist non-attachment, you don’t have to stop enjoying the roller-coaster ride of life. You just have to keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle. You have to stop reaching out and trying to grab onto every tree you pass, beating and bloodying your hands in the process.

When there is nothing wanting, there is nothing working against anything. There is no grasping at anything; there is no grasper and nothing being grasped. There are no karmic sticks rubbing together igniting these fiery conflicting passions; there is no clinging to sights or sounds or smells or tastes or touches. There is just the unimpeded, spontaneous, free experiencing of things just as they are, moment after miraculous moment. This is the natural great perfection.

– Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha Within

Try to start noticing and logging when you start strongly craving a particular object or situation. There is a very good chance that this longing is deceiving you. And you can get better at seeing through this illusion and shooting it down. Deep happiness doesn’t tend to come from the things we gain or achieve, but from who we are able to become.

The many practical philosophies through the ages and across cultures are all telling us to understand and do the same things. And the things we need to hear are exactly the same things we wish we could explain to that impatient dog. What were those again?

1. You’re not in control here

2. You’re only hurting yourself by straining so hard

3. You don’t know what you want

4. Every direction has its own opportunities

5. Learn to love the process itself

Copyright Designing the Mind © 2024

Privacy Policy and Terms