OK friends. I am officially now part of the problem. In Zen we call this kind of talk “going into the weeds” and I caution you not to get entangled in the vines. Here are my worthless opinions on the meanings of some commonly misunderstood Buddhist terms and why I think they are so easily misjudged.
DISCLAIMER: Notice that I just used the words problem, opinion, meaning, misunderstood, why, think and misjudge at the same time. Watch your step, and don’t take my word for any of this.
Glossary of Misconceptions
Attachment – Oooh la la. We think attachment means loving devotion, as in “attached at the hip.” But sometimes that isn’t love, is it? When we’re intoxicated by romance (or just intoxicated) we might want to stay attached forever. Don’t leave me! I can’t live without you! But attachment becomes uncomfortable and confining, suffocating and debilitating. And it doesn’t only mean clinging to what we like, it also means rejecting what we don’t like. Attachments are desires and aversions that we can’t let go of; the places we get emotionally, physically and mentally stuck. Life itself never sticks. So when an attachment gets ripped from our grasp by the ebb and sway of life as it is, we hurt. Attachments are the source of our suffering and unfulfillment. Can we ever let ourselves stop hurting? Can we ever be satisfied and happy with life as it is? The dark truth is that we are often attached to our suffering. We relive it over and over in our minds and reignite familiar, painful feelings. Sometimes we’re not quite sure who we would be if we didn’t have our unfulfillment to fill us up. The funny thing is, when we drop an attachment we find out that we’ve lost nothing at all.
Non-attachment – Boo hiss! Who wants non-attachment? That sounds downright sinister and at the very least indifferent. But non-attachment isn’t inhumane, unconcerned or indifferent. It simply means that when the ebb and sway of life carries us along, we can let go because we see all of it in a different way. It doesn’t create the absence of feeling or smug disregard. It allows instead the complete acceptance of all feelings and circumstances as they are, empty and impermanent. We hurt, and then we stop hurting. We grieve, and then we stop grieving. We are free. When we truly love someone or something, we grant them freedom from our own preferences. We neither clutch nor reject. Non-attachment is the nature of life itself: it keeps going. Non-attachment allows us to love one another and life as it is regardless of whether we like it right now or not. It gives rise to trust and cultivates faith in something far greater than what we wish: life as it is. Non-attachment is selfless compassion.
Ego – Uh-oh. Now the party’s over. Who invited the deadly sins? Envy, anger, greed, pride and all the rest are sure signs of ego. Thankfully I don’t have any of those symptoms if I do say so myself! There: that’s ego too. Ego is you when you are talking to yourself. “I like this; I don’t like that. I think so; I don’t think so. I agree; I disagree.” Ego is the voice of the thinking mind, the mind that conceives, perceives, measures, judges, evaluates, picks and chooses, likes and dislikes, clutches and rejects from the standpoint of a separate “I.” There is nothing wrong with ego, or thinking. Only most of your thoughts are not pleasant, and egoism is by nature self-serving and fearful. The attachment to ego is our most pernicious attachment. Still, we do not aim to destroy ego, just suspend its driving privileges!
True Self – Now here’s a term I keep running into in peculiar places. What is true self or true nature? When you dig down deep into your psyche, examine your honest feelings, and find the courage to say what you really think and do what you really want, is that true self? No, that’s ego. True self is you when you are not thinking about or serving yourself at all. You’re not formulating likes and dislikes based on conversations with yourself. There is no “I” in true self. There is no “self” in true self. But there is everything else. The whole universe, in fact. That’s what makes the true self true: it’s not just your idea. Your true self is the source of infinite wisdom and eternal, unconditional love, the real “you” you might bump into some night when it’s dark and quiet.
Just as I finished writing this, I went into my daughter’s bedroom to tuck her in to sleep.
“Will you snuggle with me?” she asked in the shadowy light, and I laid sideways on the rim of the twin bed. We’ve outgrown the bed, you see, but not each other.
I remembered all the nights we’d shared this hour and place. She on my lap, in my arms, in the rocker, in the crib, until she was weightless in slumber.
“If I could have one wish, it would be that nothing would change from the way it is now,” she whispered.
“Me too,” I said. “But I’ll still love you more than anything else. More than any number I can count or even imagine.”
“Me too,” she said. “That’s how I love you too. And I’ll always be your baby,” she reassured us. Then night’s calm descended into the spaces we’d left behind. Every night, every day, every hour, we leave all of it behind.
This is how I see the truth, and this is how I live my faith. Not by definition. I sincerely encourage you to just keep going, and forget whatever it is you call it.
Reprinted from March 2008, because we always forget what is important to remember, and remember what is important to forget.