How Our Cravings and Attachments Cause Our Pain And Suffering, Part 2

If you look deeply into your own life, into your own disappointments, you’ll find something shocking. Much of our unhappiness comes from our desires and attachments – even the ones we achieve! How does this happen? How is this possible? This post is an attempt to describe this strange phenomenon.

Furthermore, for many, there is fear in letting go of our attachments – what will life be like without attachments and cravings? Do we turn into a passionless statue; does all joy disappear? No – we are simply left with the freedom to enjoy all we have.

This is Part Two of the series on attachment. It builds on the ideas and exercises found in Part One.

Looking Deeply Into Our Desires

And so we’ve spoken of how attachment almost always ends in pain. The first question we need to ask is – is there a difference between attachment and desire? If we end our attachments, do our desires go with them? So many have been confused about this – what is left without attachments and desire? They fear turning into a sexless, emotionless, passionless vegetable; something less than human, unable to enjoy anything in life.

But that is simply not true. Perhaps the distinction has to be made, then, between desire and attachment, which is characterised by craving. Please be careful, for this is not simply clever word play; nor is it a matter of varying degrees.

Desire and Attachment

Let us divide this into smaller portions. The first – is it possible to desire something and not be attached to it? Is it possible to desire something and not suffer?

Take the most mundane attachment – just as an example, please don’t get caught up in what I describe. Chocolate, chips, pizza. Sometimes they are just that – food, a small pleasure. One night, we just feel like eating some pizza, and that is all. If we don’t get it, so what? Nothing. It is still desire, but it is not afflictive.

But comfort eating is a term we are all familiar with. No longer is chocolate just chocolate, it is now a band-aid for stress, for anger, for loneliness. Smokers, for instance, know that their addiction has two parts – the physical cravings, born of chemistry, and the mental, created from emotional neediness and unresolved issues.

It is the same for almost everything one can think of. We turn to our lovers for comfort and company, and if they are too busy, or too tired, what then? What do we take their rejection to mean? Are we looking to be with them simply for the sake of being with them? Or are we looking for them to fill something deep inside us?

How would one know the difference? Simply watch what happens if you can’t get what you want? What do you say? How do you feel? Do you resort to manipulation, fall into despair, run to a substitute, or do you try to distract yourself? Can you simply let the desire slide?

The First Distinction

And so this is the first distinction. Is all desire bad; does it all lead to unhappiness? No. Perhaps I am just assigning new meanings to words here, but just for now, let us make a distinction between harmless desire and afflictive cravings. The cravings and attachment we discuss here come from a feeling of being incomplete, unfulfilled, and a longing for something to fill it.

Some desires can even be seen as good, positive, compassionate. When you see a crying child, is it wrong to desire to comfort her? When you see a homeless man, is it wrong to want him to be happy and comfortable? Ask yourself – is it a desire, or is it a craving? Is your concern for them a desire, perhaps selfless and genuine, or do your actions and thoughts stem from a need to be recognized as a “good person”?

The Intangibles

This leads us to the next point – cravings do not extend merely to the physical. We could crave respect, popularity, love. From whom? “Them.”

So many people cannot even name who “they” are, and yet so much of their lives revolve around getting “their” approval. Many people also crave their own approval, their own love, too. And the list goes on – we could crave control, power, or safety.

And again the distinction is important. There is nothing wrong with being popular, in control, or being loved by that special someone. But when we begin craving it, when it comes from a feeling of lack – the troubles begin.

Many people begin manipulating, lying, controlling, forcing others to give them what they want. And so the anguish they cause is not restricted to themselves.

Another becomes a doormat, disrespecting himself, in a useless attempt to get someone to like him. Yet another becomes arrogant, a braggart, thinking it is the same as confidence. In the end, she ends up being disliked – the very opposite of what she wanted.

The Root of Attachment

How else do our cravings hurt us? In the first part of this series, we’ve looked at our own lives, for how our attachments operate, and what their roots are. One of the most common roots is being a failure – I once read that everyone suffers from a deep feeling of not being enough.

For me, this sense of failure shows itself in so many hidden ways. Just one: A fear that I am gullible, boyish and not manly, a distinct lack of worldliness, experience, and street toughness that is obvious to anyone who meets me.

And this hidden shame has driven so much of my life in ways I did not realise. I was shocked the day I looked at my own attachments and unskilful behaviour – the day I followed them down to the core – for they all stemmed from this same shame.

I used to find myself attracted to people and situations I saw as dangerous. I thought girlfriends who lived a wild life, for instance, would give me the worldliness I craved. I would seek out the most dangerous nightspots, places where fights and stabbings and drug abuse were rampant. I was shy and submissive around people I saw as having that life experience, that toughness. My old smoking habits, among other vices, were a cover-up, a subtle form of rebellion – only worldly adults smoked, was the subconscious driving assumption. This is my body, I am in control of it. I will hurt it if I want to!

A twisted form of control, killing yourself, but until we look at it, we do not realise what is happening inside us. What absurd assumptions, all of them. Typed onto the screen like this, how silly and childish they seem. But they drove me subconsciously for years.

Projections of Our Internal

Further, when we crave, when we cling, we do not see people as they are. We are projecting our neediness, our sorrows – all the garbage inside us – onto them. And it is an insult. For them not to be seen as a human being; but for what they can do for us. Make me feel good, make me feel loved, make me feel safe, feed me, take care of me, impress my friends. That is all they are reduced to – a function, a service.

And it is just as likely they are doing it to us too, and then what do we have? Not two human beings together, but two images, two roles, two cardboard cut-outs. Where has the humanity gone? This is so cruel, and yet so painstakingly common that it simply seems normal.

Disillusionment and Guilt

And this leads to the next thing – how can they be more than what they simply are? A man is just a man; a woman is just a woman, a car is just a car, a title is just a title. What can they do to remove your sorrows, to make you feel better?

How many of our arguments with those close to us started because we look for them to be something more than what they are? When we are looking for them to fill a hole, one they cannot fill, that they are not obligated to fill? How many romances have begun simply out of this false sense of incompleteness?

And we don’t know this – so we keep looking. We look for the next sensual pleasure to take away our hidden shames; we look for a special man or woman to cover our loneliness.

And the whole time, the craving is still there – it is always there. It has just been covered up briefly, and then it returns. Sometimes, this leads to a deep sense of despair – will it never end? How much more must I gather before I can be at peace? Some fall into apathy, giving up. Others become disillusioned. And still others get mad, blaming those they selected for not fulfilling their needs.

Similarly, some cravings are bad for us, not in the philosophical or moral sense, but plain bad – drugs hurt our bodies irreparably, for instance. And when we do give in – not only do the cravings return soon after, but we are wracked with guilt for having indulged.

How many of the worst behaviours in humanity’s history have come from cravings that have gone out of control?

The Object Does Not Cause The Pain

And so we come to the most common misconception that needs to be cleared up. Letting go of our attachments does not mean we do not protect ourselves – let the thieves empty our houses, let the frauds take our belongings, let the violence ravage our bodies!

Non-attachment is an inner state. A rich man could give away all his possessions and suffer even more because he was still internally attached. And yet – if his possessions were stolen, and he has done all he can to get them back – what would cause him more anguish? Attachment, or non-attachment?

The opposing end is true as well. A rich man could have everything he wanted, and enjoy them all the more without the cravings, the attachments. There is nothing wrong with having most of the things we desire. Naturally, some cravings are just plain nasty – wanting to hurt another person is a fine example. But if you want money, or love, or any of those, then go for it. Does removing your attachment to health mean you stop exercising, stop looking after yourself?

Most definitely not! Chasing new joys, setting new goals, all of these can still be pursued, but from a place of freedom, and not from the unease of craving.

So let us be clear – it is the internal craving that causes our suffering; it is our inner attachments that have to be dealt with. Removing them is freedom.

The Receptionist Who Made a Mistake

This last point can be hard to see, so a small example might help – please try to see how this would apply to a situation from your own life, your own attachments.

A few weeks ago, an old back injury began acting up. It got so bad that I went for a massage from a sports therapist, and afterwards, went for lunch. As I walked into the restaurant, I opened my wallet – and found that it was empty. I suddenly realised the receptionist had not given me my change.

I rushed back into my car and drove back to the therapist, but lunchtime traffic was heavy, and the drive took a while. It gave me time to notice what I was feeling. My mind was racing – did he do it intentionally? Once I get there, will he deny my claim? Or did I drop the money without realising?

It was then I realised worrying could not help at all. It would not have made any difference. During the drive, I decided to let go of my attachment to my money and to the outcome of the upcoming talk with the receptionist. When I reached the office, I politely notified the receptionist of his error, and he quickly gave me back my change.

Giving up Attachment Does Not Mean Simply Giving Up

A minor example, but it explains two important points. First, without attachment to the outcome of the meeting, I was actually more effective. There was no anxiety or accusation in my voice when I spoke to him. Imagine, briefly, how the interaction would have gone if the drive had been shorter and I arrived in anxiety or anger.

Secondly, and perhaps the most important, it did not mean I simply gave up on my money. I might have simply decided to go without lunch, but it didn’t have to be that way.

Giving up your attachment to anything does not mean that you still can’t work for it, enjoy it, or desire it. The difference, then, is in the how, not the what. When I re-entered the office, I was not worried, angry, or upset – all signs of attachment. Rather, I entered with an attitude of curiosity – what will happen?

And most importantly, regardless of the outcome, I was free and relaxed.

What’s Next?

With the preparatory material out of the way, we can finally get to the meat of the series. How, exactly, do we remove these cravings and attachments? What are the good ways of doing so, and what are the dangerous and misguided methods?