Monday, 8 December 2008

Politics and Attachment

Over the past couple of years I have been working on getting better at remaining unattached to things, ideas and outcomes. Both Taoism and Buddhism make reference to striving for non-attachment. As I understand it, Buddhism sees attachment to the idea of a separate self as the root of all suffering.

"Everything changes. Everything is impermanent. It is our attempt to attach ourselves to impermanent things, and gain happiness thereby, that guarantees and perpetuates suffering. "

Taoism has a similar, but different take: in recognizing that all things are One, we don't need to distinguish between or make value judgments among things, and so we can remain unattached from the 'pull' of valuing one thing over another.

When you lose your attachment from “this and that”, you can then see that in reality all things are the same. By doing so you lose the attachment to “things” and awaken the attachment that has always existed between you and the source (Tao).

I've been getting a bit better at lessening my cravings for/attachments to certain things, like a new TV, or food to taste a certain way after I cook it, or having my plans go as planned. But where I have not made any progress at all is in the realm of my political expectations. This has been made quite clear to me in my reaction to the most recent political events in Canada, particularly last week's decision by the Governor General to prorogue Canada's parliament. I became mad, irrationally mad about it. I was in turns tearful, angry and nauseated. I wanted things to go a certain way (i.e., for the GG to tell Stephen Harper that he would have to face the non-confidence vote scheduled for today, December 8th, and deal with the consequences.) I was depending on this outcome for my happiness, and when it didn't happen, I suffered. I brought this suffering on myself, by expecting and hoping and wishing for a certain outcome. I had even built this up in my head to the point that I felt that everyone who wished for a different outcome than me was wrong. This lead to yet more suffering.

How to balance these things? How to be engaged and interested in political matters without becoming dependent on or attached to certain outcomes? How to be vocal and enthusiastic while not putting all one's emotional eggs in one basket?

I have no answer to this one. I have not yet found the balance point between engagement and entanglement, certainly not when it comes to the political leadership of this country I live in. Venerable Wuling wrote a few days ago about ancient Bodhisattvas and how they used 'window shopping' to hone their meditative abilities: while they looked at all the items on display in the bazaar, they were able to not be tempted by them. Perhaps the answer lies in there somewhere - in seeing political outcomes as similar to items put up for sale. I can pick them up and look them over, checking out their component parts and their price tags. And I can put them back down again, informed but not hooked.

If this is the case, then I will have to give up the one defense mechanism I had so far developed to cope with political disappointment - turning away from the fray. Instead, I will have to return to the 'bazaar' world of politics and practice looking things over until I am no longer tempted to latch on to one outome or another. That's not going to be easy.

Cartoon courtesy Dharma Cat


Coll said...

Hi, I certainly understand a need to change your approach to the political viewpoint. I learned a few years ago that I had to stop letting other's behavior determine how I felt inside. I still have a tendency to get pulled into politics occasionly but am learning that I have to let go once I do what I can. I am still hoping for a good outcome for our goverment and that hope is for me a better choice now labelling anything good or bad. Hope my earlier comments didn't stir the pot too much.

Theresa said...

Hi Coll;

No worries about your earlier comments - I do very much appreciate your and everyone's comments here as they really help me think things through.

What I struggle with is how to stay engaged enough to be an active citizen, but without becoming so attached to certain outcomes that I either stress myself out too much, or turn away and become apathetic. That whole balance thing is tricky. So I ponder about it :)

Ryan said...

I don't know. I find myself overly angry about these things sometimes as well.

I've thought about losing my attachment to "this world" as a way to remain mentally stable during these Kafka-esque times.

At the same time, I feel as if this is one of the times that we SHOULD be genuinely angry because this is probably the most authoritarian thing that has happened in this country in my lifetime. "For every thing there is a season," so to speak. And this is certainly a season for outrage.

Perhaps we need to let go of the attachments (ie material comforts) that keep us from actually doing something about it.

Heather @ SGF said...

My husband really struggles with this. He knows so much about government and politics, but he gets so angry about the news that 1) it can't be healthy for him (aka heart attack, blood pressure etc); 2) it's not healthy for me for him to be yelling and angry all the time; and 3) he doesn't do anything about what he reads (aka, if it moved him to action, then maybe I'd be ok with it sometimes).

I tried to talk to him about it, saying that anger was nothing more than his own suffering and that it was possible to reduce his suffering. It ended up in a long discussion in which, yes, he got very angry with me (though I stayed amazingly calm which is weird for me). Now he says he just wont' read news at all (which he reminds me of constantly) so that he will no longer be angry. Yeah, right!

It didn't work out the way I planned (aka it doesn't help him if he just tried to avoid the news), but perhaps one of these days he'll recognize that I'm not as angry as I used to be and I'm the better for it.

SoapBoxTech said...

Theresa, bless you for your effort to find personal peace and enlightenment, however...

One of my biggest issues with (and I do acknowledge that my understanding of them is less than ideal) what I am going to call Eastern Philosophies, is that they seem to concentrate SO heavily on disengaging from this world in anticipation of the next (achieving enlightenment). I know this is not entirely the case, yet it does remain a significant portion of the teaching of these Eastern Philosophies. Now to me, this does not set in my soul very well. I do admire a great many of the Eastern teachings to which I have so far been exposed, but that level of detachment just does not set in my soul. My soul screams for balance. Perhaps this is the Libra in me, but what my soul tells me is that I must find balance in life, in consumption, spirituality, politics, etc.

I do not think that feeling disappointment in how one's nation seems to be headed is something that one should really let go of. I just cannot accept that to do so is to move closer to enlightenment. Sure, it might be the purging of some "negative" emotions but I guess I feel that the existence of the negative emotions, heightens the positive.

I do think that getting TOO emotionally tied to one political outcome is not good. For one thing, it can close one's mind to the larger picture or even to rationality. My example here is that no one should have been surprised when the GG granted the proroguing of Parliament. After all, was this GG not a Conservative nomination? Beyond the proroguing, would it be truly rational, at this point, to expect real long-term positive change from a government formed by this coalition? What platform have they offered up other than "we are not Harper"? All they have done is point out his lies and backpedalling. That is journalistic responsibility. Sure, the other parties should talk about it, but until they offer some kind of actual plan, talk is all it is...and looking is all it has been for both sides.

However, back to the point of the post to find balance? Well, this is not the easiest answer to hear usually and it really is just my two cents, but I think you just have to make yourself try to find the balance inside yourself, and accept that sometimes you will fail. That is just part of being human. But do not lament these failures. By all means, work to avoid them happening again...but when it does happen, offer up thanks for the reminder of being human.

Peace and love to you, Theresa, and to all.

Theresa said...

Ryan - Kafka-esque is right. I guess what I worry about is having people turn against each other for having different viewpoints. Province against province, family member against family member. That's not what Canada is supposed to be about at all.

At any rate, if I go by the example of the bodhisattvas, turning away isn't an option. Good point about the attachment to material things - we/I certainly like comfort rather than sacrifice. I/we will have to deal with that.

Theresa said...

Heather, I can certainly relate to that situation. It's the seeming helplessness in the face of certain events that brings out the most anger in me, and the feeling that I'm a fish out of water in this part of the country. No matter what I think, it is always the minority viewpoint. That gets exhausting after a while.

I'm glad to hear you are feeling less anger these days. I should probably meditate more, like you.

Theresa said...

Soapbox - I think I am failing somewhat in my conveying of the ideas that I'm learning about, because I don't get the sense that non-attachment is supposed to be disengagement from the world. Taoism I know is very much about the interconnection of all things, and Thich Nhat Hanh doesn't call his way of doing things engaged buddhism for nothing.

You are right of course, about the balance thing. It has to include times where I miss the boat completely, and that's ok. That's what I learn from - "the obstacles are part of the path" not separate from the path.

Thanks everyone, for your very thoughtful responses. We've achieved a bit more balance right here I think, thanks to all of you :)

abuddhistperspective said...

Another very good post Theresa! Especially the part about how expectations and our imagined future outcomes lead to suffering. And how we bring that suffering on ourselves.

And I love that Dharma the Cat cartoon. Occasionally we do manage nonattachment in a given situation. But it takes so much effort and concentration (and we too may be busy congratulating ourselves) that when something else happens we're unprepared. So we lose it. Again. All because we got "hooked."

I agree with you that not getting hooked is a tough practice (which is why it takes eons of practice for a bodhisattva to reach perfect enlightenment). But as much as I might like otherwise, all I can control is what goes on inside my own mind and heart. While doing everything I can to meet my responsibilities as a worker, family member, friend, and citizen, I need to keep reminding myself that I have no control over the external outcome. So instead of hooking my happiness to an external outcome, I need to find it in knowing I did my best.

For the news, we might think of the mirror analogy. A mirror sees everything clearly, but it does not get attached. As the objects pass from view, the mirror does not cling to them.

I know, easier said than done!

Soapbox Tech, I certainly can't speak for “eastern philosophies,” but I can offer a few thoughts from my own perspective.

Until our mind is calm, our reactions will arise from emotions. When we're reacting emotionally, we usually create more problems while failing to solve the one we wanted to. And what looks like disengagement to someone at a distance may well be an individual working very hard. Anyone who has tried to replace a bad habit with a good one will know what I mean. ;-)

Theresa mentioned the bodhisattvas who were strolling around the marketplace practicing meditation. With their calm minds, they would have been engaged with what was happening around them, just not attached to it. They would have noticed, for example, if someone needed help and then would have helped that person. The busy shoppers probably wouldn’t have noticed much beyond their own activities.

In the beginning, it is difficult to understand “attachment.” The common perception is that our goal is the opposite of attachment, in other words “detachment.” But detachment is negative as it means indifference. What Buddhists speak of is “non-attachment.”

In Mahayana Buddhism, the first of the four great vows of bodhisattvas is “Sentient beings are innumerable, I vow to aid them all.” “All” is not just humans; it includes animals, insects, reptiles—all beings with sentience. And not just beings in our country, or even on our planet or in just this one lifetime. The first vow of a bodhisattva is to help all beings throughout the universe throughout all time. Also, bodhisattvas are not seeking enlightenment for themselves, they’re seeking to help all beings leave suffering and attain happiness. We can’t do that if we’re stumbling around even if we have the best of intentions, but we lack wisdom.

So yes I completely agree with you that we need balance. Balance comes from the calm mind. The calm mind is what we practice to attain. When the mind is calm, we will be more effective in helping others. And happier in what we do. In our Buddhist center, the monastics work all day long seven days a week and don’t take vacations or retire. Having written this, it sounds terribly severe! But it’s not severe because we want to fulfill that first bodhisattva vow. So we are happy and very engaged in our work. But when we meditate, we have to stop thinking of work or our chanting will be ineffective. We put down the work to focus on the practice. And this is where that balance comes in.

Theresa said...

Thank you Venerable Wuling for this valuable message and lesson. I'm sure I will be reading and re-reading it many times. :)

Anonymous said...


I'm with you in that I'm becoming more and more politically engaged and I often wonder what other people are thinking when they make what I think is the wrong choice.

With our last Alberta provincial election I watched the debates and discussed the issues with my family and friends. I followed the election coverage in the news as everyone said how tired they were of the Conservatives and what the government was doing to our province. Then I almost fell off my chair when the Conservatives won by such a landslide. I still wonder how the heck that happened.

Disappointment in outcomes happens. For the federal election I became even more involved. I volunteered for my NDP candidate and, holy crap, they won. What a great feeling. Through my actions, I also demonstrated to my family and friends, especially to my teenage kids, how important I feel political issues are and to get involved. My mom voted for the Green Party in the federal election and my best friend attended the rally at the legislature last week protesting the coalition government. Hey, at least she got involved, albeit for the "wrong" side. I take no small amount of credit for their engagement. I take huge credit.

You need to remain passionate and involved and don't disregard the impact you are making on others around you. Life is convoluted and sometimes what seems a step backwards is a step to the side, or a step forward in disguise. Even if it seems people aren't listening or paying attention, words seep through. You have to be true to your beliefs and stand strong in them. So, pick yourself back up and let us get back to it and participate in these exciting times.

Nothing is a mistake as long as a person learns from it.


SoapBoxTech said...

I apologize for the generalizing I had to do in my pondering, in order to respond with less than a novel length comment. I certainly appreciate the responding perspectives, although I may not agree entirely.

From my perspective, part of the balance I speak of is reveling in our emotions. While I agree that always approaching or reacting to a situation out of sheer emotion is not good, there are times that doing so is entirely appropriate, I believe. I also have trouble accepting that all suffering is to be left behind. As I said, without the negatives, how can we truly appreciate the positives?

(I think we might also disagree on the meaning of sentience but that is something of a whole different conversation, lol).

However, having said all of that, I still believe that I subscribe to the vow mentioned. I may not devote myself entirely to this vow, but I do believe it to be one of the most important aspects of my existence. So I am completely happy to pleasantly debate the lighter details as we all seem to be aimed in the same general direction.

Which leads me to:

Theresa, I think you do a very good job of conveying your learning. I was not commenting on your descriptions, but on MY take on certain generalities I see within what I call "eastern philosophies".

Simply Authentic said...

the cartoon is great! it's difficult--this issue of attachment. when it comes to things, i still struggle with attachment but try to remember that my attachment to my fellow humans should be first and foremost regardless of who they are. although a difficult feat to follow at times. sometimes a break from politics is a good thing, but it has been an interesting political year there in canada!

Jenifer@SeattleSoupLine said...

My Mother is from Canada and so on occasion I enjoy watching The National on CBUT. It was interesting watching the recent uproar in Ottawa and I too was hoping for a no confidence vote. As a person who has lived with rage and frustration for 8 years of the Bush administration it was inspiring to watch political leaders take a stand against improper leadership. But the fact is that Harper has done nothing like what Bush has got away with and still is getting away with. Be thankful you have a government that not only has the ability to take action but also the political courage to make an attempt.
These days I am trying to take the Obama approach to everything. Remove the emotional component, remain calm, and allow yourself some perspective. It is a work in progress.

Theresa said...

Ingrid - how amazing it must have been to be working on Linda Duncan's campaign! What a relief it was when she one and prevented a total blue sweep of the province.

I don't think that I will be removing myself from engagement with the politics of this country, I just think I need to balance it better and not become so dependent on the outcome for my happiness. That is bound to burn me out, and I definitely want to avoid that. So I have certainly learned from this experience!

SoapBox - I've heard other people I've spoken with also mention the seeming 'detachment' of the Eastern Philosophies and I've struggled to explain why I don't think that's what's supposed to be conveyed in them. But there seems to be a subtlety or a paradox that I probably don't quite yet grasp myself. I keep writing about it though, hoping I manage to hit on the right combination of words that conveys it. It's part mystery I think, so I may never get it just right (both receptively or expressively!) Oh, and I discussion on sentience would be very interesting, I think - your blog or mine? :)

SA - I really liked that cartoon as well - it really summed things up! Both of our countries have had very interesting years in politics, that's for sure, and I don't think it's over just yet. I have a feeling 2009 will bring more change than we can yet imagine.

Jennifer@Seattle - hello and thanks for stopping by :) I think you're right about Obama being a good role model for how to remain involved but not overwrought in things. An even temperament is a good thing - a work in progress for me as well.

You have lots of yummy recipes on your blog - the hot buttered rum looks particularly good!

Anonymous said...


I am new to your blog thanks to Ven. Master Wu Ling's Blog. Regarding attachment: Having feelings or not having feelings is not a consideration when it comes attachement, for me. It is what do i do with these feelings that arise.

I have them, review them, observe them and i release them as soon as humanly possible.

My actions and reactions create more of the same. So i really don't want to contribute more anger into the cosmic universe.

I don't want my karmic debters following me around. So i take this opportunity to sincerely restrain myself as much as possible. But it only works if i work at it.

What i think and feel i create more of and i want to be diligently training myself as much as possible. Afterall, I am ultimately responsible for myself.

Don't get me wrong my life is filled with a Great Deal of passion but it is in balance and that comes with lots of self-hard work!

kinder teacher

Theresa said...

Thank you k.t. for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I'm very honored that Venerable WuLing would link from her blog to mine :) As I'm sure you can tell, I am very new to the ideas of Buddhism. I really like what you say about releasing the emotions that arise and not clinging to them - I don't want to contribute to increasing anger and aggression in the world either: that is certainly good for nothing and no one. Thanks again for the encouragement!