The most troublesome beliefs are related to our attachments, which are often hard to identify. Attachments are simple beliefs—fantasies, in fact—that have become solidified as “truth” in our mind. They also partake of the energy of desire, which is based on the underlying belief that without some particular person or thing, we can never be free from suffering. Attachment also takes the form of avoidance; we believe we can't be happy as long as a particular person, condition, or object is in our lives. To experience negative attachment, just think of your least favorite food or person.
We all develop attachments to the persons or things we believe are essential to our happiness. Often we're more attached to our belief than we are to the actual person or thing. The belief fuels our anxious efforts to attain or keep this someone or something. If we succeed, we might experience an ephemeral excitement. But because we'll always be anxious about losing what we gained, our satisfaction is short-lived.
In order to practice with attachment, we have to first see our belief with clarity, precision, and honesty. Next, we have to see that not only is this belief false, but clinging to it is the source of our unhappiness. It's because we are attached that we are unhappy.
For example, it's easy to see how we are attached to other people, truly believing that our happiness somehow depends on them. We can also easily see how we are attached to food, pleasure, or comfort. We maintain the belief that our emotional well-being is inextricably linked to having what we believe will make us happy. But holding these beliefs guarantees that we cannot be deeply satisfied, because we will always be anxious at the thought of losing what we believe makes us happy. If we wish to be really happy, we have to give up our attachments.
In other words, we have to make the choice between happiness and attachment. Do we want to be attached or do we want to be happy? The answer is very clear—we want to be attached! For example, even though we can see that our desires give us ephemeral pleasure at best, we still cling to them. We won't give up the belief that they will in fact eventually make us happy.
Will money or position make us happy in the sense of a deep or abiding satisfaction? Even when we experience that they won't, we often still pursue them, because we still believe that they could. Will another person make us happy? This is a little more difficult to see, because we all cling to the desire to feel appreciated, loved, secure, connected, and we believe that someone can provide this. Even when we see that someone can't give us what we want and require, we still believe they can! This belief is our attachment, the source of our suffering. As long as we see another person through the filter of our fear-based requirement that they make us feel a certain way, we are setting ourselves up for reaction and disappointment.
Do our core beliefs that we are unworthy, unlovable, and incomplete make us happy? Just the opposite, yet our attachment to our core beliefs remains one of the strongest attachments, and also one of the most difficult to see, because what we are attached to is so close to home. It's our defining identity as a self. We feel a sense of stability in the familiar, even when it makes us miserable.
We can find attachments everywhere: to our accomplishments, to identities based on how others see us, to our occupation, to where we live, to what kind of car we drive. We can certainly find our attachments to another person being a particular way, based on the belief that we need them to be a certain way for us to be happy. But love, or the happiness that we naturally derive from love, is not based on need. And to the extent that we are attached to the fulfillment of our needs, we cannot really love.
Freedom from attachment requires that we first see the ways in which we're attached. In particular, we have to see how attachments arise out of beliefs. For example, physical pain presents an opportunity to look at our attachment to comfort and the beliefs we hold around it. The belief that life should be free from pain might express itself in thoughts such as “This is too much” or “Nobody should have to put up with this.” Underlying those thoughts is the belief that we can't feel happiness while we're feeling discomfort. I certainly used to believe this, but now I know that it simply isn't true. In fact, attachment to the belief that we can't be happy while in pain may be a greater source of suffering than physical discomfort itself. Until we see this belief for what it is, a belief that may not even be true, we'll remain attached to physical comfort, guaranteeing our dissatisfaction.
I'm not talking about becoming totally free of attachment, but about loosening our clinging. We can move from the demand that we get some particular thing to the less emotion-based preference for that thing. For example, suppose we are attached to our health. If we become sick or disabled, especially for a long time, we may experience our attachment, at least in part, in the form of anger. Our attachment to a picture of how life should be, healthy in this case, takes the form of an emotion-based demand. When life doesn't meet this demand, we feel angry. Only as we work with our attachment can we see through the demands that we're placing on life. As the demand loses its hold, we can enjoy it as a preference. Having preferences isn't a problem, nor is enjoying them. What is problematic, and what gives rise to suffering, is enslavement to our attachments to such an extent that they run our life.
The practice of working with attachment first requires that we experience the prison of our attachments.
Second, we have to see that we don't want to get out of this prison, that we prefer believing our beliefs to being free. Third, we have to observe ourselves and—with clarity, precision, and honesty—come to know all the beliefs that maintain a particular attachment.
Fourth, we need to see with equal clarity that our beliefs are not the truth; they are just beliefs. This is much easier said than done. It's at this point that we can understand why we hold on to our beliefs and why we're afraid to give them up. We begin to see how we use our beliefs as a shield against feeling our fears.
Then we must enter the experiential world, where we begin to drop our beliefs and allow the fear of losing our belief-based identity to arise. But who wants to reside in this sinking quiver of groundlessness? No one does. However, only when we're able to reside in the physical experience of groundlessness—no longer clinging to our believed thoughts—can we disconnect the circuitry of our conditioning and diminish the power of our attachments. But it may take a large dose of disappointment to make this understanding real.
In this way, we gradually begin to experience a genuine life, without the beliefs and beyond the terror. This is the path of practice. When we fully see through and experience our attachments, the result is freedom. When we see through our fears, the result is love. When we see without our filters, judgments, and desires, the result is appreciation and the quiet joy of being.
At any given moment, you can ask the questions: Where do my attachments lie right now? What someone or something do I believe I can't be content without?