Attachment to Mental Positions and Beliefs

There is pleasure when a sore is scratched,
But to be without sores is more pleasurable still.
Just so, there are pleasures in worldly desires,
But to be without desires is more pleasurable still.

~ Nagarjuna

We have heard it many times before – desire and attachment to an object, to a person, causes us to suffer. For most people, that is where it ends. But what if attachment goes beyond that? In this article, we expand attachment to another area: “objects” in our inner life. These attachments are, in many cases, even more painful and yet harder to detect.

The Forming Of Attachment – Another Perspective

In Misunderstandings around Non-Attachment, we discussed the Buddhist perspective of how attachment is formed – it arises from wrong conceptions. Lorne Ladner states that Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective is essentially the same. We don’t see the target of our desires as they are, but rather, our fantasy about them. Our attachment is to the concept rather than the actual target, and it is very important to note that our concepts are usually distorted; we only see what supports it.

Lorne gives a young infant as an example. Ever since she was born, this baby has slept with her mother, finding comfort in her warmth and presence, living in a fantasy of perfect safety and bonding. Even if the mother is not always kind or available, the baby is already able to deny or ignore these facts – or anything else in reality that does not match her fantasy.

As our infant gets older, her parents begin to insist that she sleeps on her own. The young girl naturally feels anguish and fear, but she eventually learns to hug a soft toy as she sleeps. This replacement reduces the anxiety of losing her fantasy, but now she has formed an attachment to this toy – she has transferred her fears and needs onto it. And on and on this goes – every time she loses the target of her attachment, she frantically searches for something to replace it. If she doesn’t, the primal anxieties return. As she becomes an adult, she might attach to her husband and feel the same infantile dread when he is unavailable.

Infantile Fantasies and Fears

Is it possible that we are all giant babies in our own way? Even as adults, we cling and grasp to something, anything, in order to stay in our fantasy, to keep these fears at bay. Take a moment to think about your attachments now – what are you trying to block off? Existential psychologists theorise that our main fears are meaninglessness, death, loneliness, and responsibility for our own lives and choices. Is it possible that these fears come rushing back into our awareness when we lose our attachments? No wonder losing something relatively minor can cause such disproportionate pain!

And so there are four points we have to keep in mind as we proceed. First, we never see the object of our attachments as they truly are. Secondly, to maintain the fantasy, we can ignore anything that doesn’t match it. Thirdly, the loss of the object of attachment will often bring back primal fears, which then cause emotions or behaviour that is disproportionate to what we have lost. And lastly, many of these processes are unconscious. That is, we don’t know they are happening, and they don’t always make sense.

With these in mind, let’s discuss our internal attachments.

Beliefs and Mental Positions

The first internal “object” we are attached to would be our mental positions and beliefs. It is easy to see how they cause much of our conflict. This doesn’t have to be war on a global scale; a domestic argument, for instance, can also come from two different beliefs. Who should wash the dishes? Who should throw out the rubbish?

Our mental positions need special discussion. In fact, they might be the foundation of all our beliefs and false self-identity, and therefore our suffering. They are so common that almost everyone has them; so pervasive that we are often unaware of them. Analyse anything you feel any amount of negative emotion about, and see if you find any of these:

  • I have to win at all costs.
  • I have to be right at all costs.
  • Wrongs must be righted (or punished, for some people).
  • Things have to be fair.

Note that these are stated differently for each person. It is just not fair! can be the way the last position shows up in your own life, for instance. In my own work, these are the hardest obstacles to overcome.

Why would we hold on to these positions? Why does being right mean so much, even for people we have not seen in years? Why do we insist things have to be fair, even though the person who hurt us might not even be alive anymore? Think back to the four concerns of existential psychology – could they be the cause? There are some people in my life that I still cannot forgive, for that would mean I would have lost. I desperately want to be free, but defeat – to my infantile mind – meant death.

I was reading of a man who had suffered from anger and depression for 20 years over a misunderstanding with his father, who had passed away long ago. He thought his father had hated him the entire time, but one day, he was confronted with evidence that his father had, in fact, loved him very much. And yet he still couldn’t let go of his suffering. When asked why, his answer was striking. How could I admit that I wasted the best 20 years of my life?

Core Practices

How exactly do we let go of our attachments? There are two core practices I regularly use. The first is letting go of them, as described in Welcoming and Releasing. While the article covers emotions, attachments are released in the same way.

The second practice is inquiry, using The Work of Byron Katie. In particular, spend lots of time contemplating the 3rd and 4th questions; feel for yourself the pain these positions cause and the freedom that comes from being without them. I have three articles introducing inquiry in the Start Here page; in the near future I will condense them into one Core Practice article.

Please stay tuned for the rest of this series, where we discuss judgements, self-image, and more!