You’ve suspected, at least for some time, that attachment leads to suffering.
But some forms of attachment are more problematic than others.
In Buddhism, attachment suffering means you are in opposition to the forces of the universe, making you susceptible to negative emotions.
The Buddha warns of the dangers of becoming attached to people, material things, and specific outcomes.
But is attachment always a bad thing?
Isn’t it good to feel attached to the people you love?
We know you’ve got questions — good ones, too.
We’ll do our best to answer them.
- How Is Attachment the Root of All Suffering?
- Who Said Attachment Leads to Suffering?
- What Does the Buddha Say about Attachment?
- Attachment is the Root of Suffering: 9 Ways It Occurs in Your Life
- 1. Attachment to a luxurious lifestyle as necessary to your happiness.
- 2. Caring more about the idea someone embodies than for the real person.
- 3. Attachment to needing a prestigious job or title to be successful.
- 4. Attachment to a person you know you shouldn’t want.
- 5. Attachment to the idea that you have to look a certain way to be attractive.
- 6. Attachment to beliefs that don’t serve you or alienate you from others.
- 7. Attachment to a specific idea of how your life should turn out.
- 8. Attachment to stuff you don’t need, use, or love.
- 9. Attachment to your assumptions, which prevents you from questioning them.
How Is Attachment the Root of All Suffering?
With the world around you telling you you need this or that to have a life worth living, you learn attachment early:
- To people you love and trust
- To ideas espoused by the ones you love and trust the most
- To material objects that you learn to take for granted
- To routines that help you get through the day
- To personal goals and ideals (borrowed and formed along the way)
You find some stability in your most important and formative relationships. And along the way, you feel drawn to one person or another who feels familiar to you—but just different enough to challenge your thinking and help you grow.
Some people, in particular, are good at doing that even when they’re far away.
Who Said Attachment Leads to Suffering?
According to Buddhism, attachment is the root of suffering. When you get attached, you cling to something or someone because you believe you wouldn’t be happy without them.
You cling to people who make life more rewarding than it otherwise would be. And sometimes you cling to things you enjoy but don’t really need
Losing the people and things that matter most to you isn’t the only way attachment leads to suffering, though. The fear of losing them is torture enough. And sometimes, you don’t realize just how attached you are until that someone or something is out of your reach.
What Does the Buddha Say about Attachment?
Buddha taught that “the root of suffering is attachment” because the only constant in the universe is change. And change often involves loss.
When you allow yourself to become attached to someone or something, you’re more likely to dwell on the pain of losing them.
Suffering follows because you can’t change the laws of the universe. Trying to stop your world from changing or trying to protect yourself from loss and disappointment leads to anxiety, depression, and a whole slew of negative emotions.
So, what does attachment look like? And what can you do about it?
Attachment is the Root of Suffering: 9 Ways It Occurs in Your Life
We’ve found nine distinct ways attachment can make you miserable (if you let it). Read carefully through the following examples and note the ones that sound familiar.
1. Attachment to a luxurious lifestyle as necessary to your happiness.
Maybe you’re waiting for that winning lottery ticket or just venting about how your lifestyle falls short of what you wanted. Perhaps you’re trapped by “golden handcuffs” as you try to maintain your current lifestyle.
Attachment to a standard of living that’s out of reach or suffering to maintain the one you already have is always a recipe for misery.
It’s one thing to work steadily toward improving your life by taking daily action toward your goals. It’s another to do what you’ve always done and spend that time complaining instead.
2. Caring more about the idea someone embodies than for the real person.
It’s easy to get attached to an idea of your “perfect partner” — so attached that when your partner doesn’t live up to that idea, you show your disappointment in various ways, all of which sabotage the relationship (and ultimately destroy it).
No one is obligated to conform to your laundry list of ideal characteristics to make you happy. And even if someone managed to match it completely, your happiness would elude you.
Loving them as they are while accepting that life may rob you of their company makes it easier to enjoy the time you have together.
3. Attachment to needing a prestigious job or title to be successful.
Clear professional goals can be a good thing. But when you trap yourself into thinking you need a particular career and title to be a “success,” you become too attached to a specific outcome, making it seem all the more elusive.
It’s fine to know what you want to accomplish in your life, but attachment to a specific, detailed image of what that life should look like is a recipe for disappointment.
Focus on your smaller wins along the way — and on what you can learn from your mistakes. Ultimately, life is about more about learning and experiences than accomplishments.
4. Attachment to a person you know you shouldn’t want.
Put aside for a moment the moral implications of wanting a relationship with someone who’s already with someone else — or when you’re already with someone else.
Wanting someone you have no business wanting or constantly thinking about them is distracting, making it harder for you to live in the present and get the right things done. Your unhealthy attachment will sabotage your relationships and the progress you’ve made.
Letting go can seem impossible, but refusing to will take a heavier toll.
5. Attachment to the idea that you have to look a certain way to be attractive.
All around you, the world is telling you you need to fit a certain narrow aesthetic to be “attractive” or “sexy” or “desirable.” Defying that inch-deep ideal can be challenging but also empowering. Attachment to that ideal contributes to the following:
- Extreme dieting and exercise
- Eating disorders
- Self-harm and/or suicide
- Severe depression
- Anxiety / social anxiety
All it takes is one person you trust telling you you need to look a certain way to be pleasing to them (because they “worry about your health,” etc.) to make this attachment exponentially stronger.
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6. Attachment to beliefs that don’t serve you or alienate you from others.
Whatever your age, the chances are good that you still have some beliefs that are leftovers from childhood, borrowed from someone whose influence on you shaped the person you are now, for good or otherwise.
It’s hard to question beliefs you’ve taken for granted for years. If you’re lucky enough to meet someone who challenges those beliefs (without attacking you for them), it’s easier to re-evaluate them, put them to the test, and let them go if they’re not serving you.
Otherwise, it’s easier to hold onto beliefs that anchor you to people who were important to you (or still are) than to question them.
7. Attachment to a specific idea of how your life should turn out.
It’s one thing to have ideals and to want to live a life that reflects your core personal values. It’s another to get attached to a specific idea of how your life should look at a particular age.
The one thing you can count on in life is that things happen that you haven’t planned for — something you won’t expect or even want. There’s also an excellent chance changes will occur that you never knew you wanted.
Enjoying the ride and learning to adapt is far more rewarding than clinging to a life limited by your own imagination (however fertile and active it may be).
8. Attachment to stuff you don’t need, use, or love.
Acquiring and hoarding more and more stuff inevitably does more harm than good. Even if you think you might need this or that someday, chances are good you won’t be able to find it when you do.
More than that, all your stuff takes up room you or someone else could put to much better use. If your stuff is taking up more than your share of the available space, it’s time to consider what you’re more attached to.
And if you’re not willing to downsize your possessions to make more room for them, don’t be surprised if they look for it elsewhere.
9. Attachment to your assumptions, which prevents you from questioning them.
Assumptions are huge time-savers when it comes to thinking. But that savings comes at a cost. Sure, it saves you the effort of digging deeper and considering alternative ideas, but in doing so, it also robs you of the clarity you need to see things as they are and to make the best possible decisions.
Assumptions disguised as facts are tricky things. And we all fall for them at some point. You might question an assumption one minute only to cling to another assumption an hour later. Thinking is tiring work. But assumptions cost more.
Now that you have a better idea of how and why attachments lead to suffering, which of the points stood out for you? Which had you nodding your head thinking, “Yep, that’s me?” And what will you do differently today?