The Double-Edged Sword Of Attachment, Redux


Photo: Snake3yes

Several years ago, my then 15-month-old son developed a fever to 103.5 F. Usually a champion sleeper, that night he woke several times with a frenetic look in his eyes and a jerkiness to his movements that unnerved me. The heat coming off his little febrile body almost made me start sweating myself. He had no other symptoms to suggest the cause of his fevers, and even though our pediatrician had been reassuring when I’d called early in the day (“fevers in kids are a dime a dozen”), my doctor brain was kicking in full-blast with worry over its cause.

The fevers lasted five days and then ceased on the sixth, just as a diffuse rash broke out over his chest, neck, and arms. “Roseola,” I told my wife after a quick bit of research, a benign viral infection that strikes children ages 1-3. Our pediatrician confirmed the diagnosis and within two days he was back to normal.


From the moment we’re born we face a troubling paradox: life is made interesting, fun, and happy by the attachments we form, but the loss of these same attachments lies as the root cause of our worst pain in life. Even when merely threatened with the loss of a beloved attachment—whether a person or a thing—we often suffer. The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, referred to birth as the first of the four sufferings (old age, sickness, and death being the remaining three) to indicate that being born into this world inevitably destines us to suffer the pain of separation from our attachments. These four sufferings are what led him to ask this most fundamental question: how can we achieve any kind of meaningful, lasting happiness when every person and every thing to which we ever become attached will eventually be lost to us?


There are many ways people throughout history have either consciously or unconsciously attempted to answer this question. What follows are the strategies I’ve found to be the most common ones:

  1. Limit the number of external things upon which we base our happiness. When we lose something we care about, this approach often leads us to remind ourselves things like, “At least I still have my health” or “As long as my children are okay, I’ll be all right…” But two problems exist with this strategy: one, we remain vulnerable to losing everything, including those few things we think we can’t lose and still remain happy; and two, whenever we do lose one of those key attachments, feeling grateful for not having lost something equally or even more precious rarely blunts the pain of it.
  2. Attach to nothing. An unreachable goal many people attempt anyway. Desire is ingrained in us psychologically, physiologically, probably even genetically if for no other reason than to ensure our survival. How can you live without being attached to breathing? Further, human beings are intrinsically meaning-seeking creatures—but how can we create value if we weren’t attached to achieving goals? How would it serve our friends, our spouses, or our children to limit the degree to which we care about them simply to be able to diminish the force of the blow that losing them might one day bring us?
  3. Attach to things but deny the pain of their loss. Another common strategy doomed to produce more misery than it avoids. As experience confirms, when we refuse to allow ourselves to experience legitimate grief, it remains somewhere within us, freezing our ability to recover from our loss. Experiencing grief over loss is necessary to return to happiness. Any pain we’re due that instead we bury will fester like a wound that never heals, often manifesting in surprising—and always damaging—ways.

How, then, can we be happy if our lives are destined to be filled with the pain of loss? The answer, I believe, lies in breaking through two delusions:

  1. That our happiness is created out of any one particular attachment, no matter how precious it may be. For me, this would mean giving up a belief that I couldn’t be happy if I lost my wife, my son, or my ability to write. There was, of course, a time in my life before I had any of those things when I was nevertheless happy. Why, then, if I lost them now do I believe such happiness would be impossible to regain? The answer: not because it actually would be, but because I believe it would be. There are numerous reasons why I believe this—and if you’ve suffered a heartbreaking loss, you may be screaming out that you can’t be happy again even as you read this—but the truth is you can even if you don’t want to be. As I wrote in a previous post, Letter To A Widow, having lost a loved one we sometimes become reluctant to fully surrender our grief even after it’s run its proper course, as if it were something precious in and of itself—perhaps believing the pain of loss is the only thing keeping us connected to our loved one, or that to feel happy again would be to diminish the significance of the relationship we once enjoyed. But neither is true. If I allowed the loss of my son to destroy me, it would only happen as a result of just exactly that: my allowing it.
  2. That the pain of loss necessarily destroys happiness. Pain, by definition, is aversive. But viewing the pain of loss from an enlightened perspective can give it a purpose that mutes its aversiveness just as when a weightlifter embraces the perspective that “pain equals gain” (the pain of lifting a heavy weight is transformed into a survivable—even enjoyable—experience because of the result it produces, growth). The Buddha’s solution to the inevitability of the suffering of birth was to connect to a source of happiness that relied on nothing external, a connection he was ultimately only able to attain by using the pain of being separated from his attachments as a springboard. And having achieved that connection to the core truth about himself he was able to manifest a life-condition in which he could experience all of life joyfully—even while being at the same time sad, mad, hurt, or ill. As I wrote in another previous post, Changing Poison Into Medicine, it’s precisely because we’re challenged with the pain of loss that we’re able to develop this lofty state of life.

…but quite another to believe such a state of life is possible. And even quite another to actually manifest it. And yet…I’ve experienced brief moments of what that kind of life-condition feels like. And each time I’ve thought to myself: if this experience can happen for a single moment, why couldn’t it happen for several moments? Why couldn’t it happen for an hour? A day? A week? Why, in fact, couldn’t it become my predominant life state? And yours?

This would require, it seems to me, two things: a great enough expectation that such a life state is indeed possible to motivate us to seek the second thing, a reliable method for manifesting it. A method that, like weight lifting, if done correctly, would build not strength of muscle but strength of life force.

If such a life state isn’t possible, then we’re all doomed to have our happiness remain at the mercy of our changing environment, to gather to ourselves what external attachments we can and do our best to hide them from the purview of fate and circumstance, desperately hoping to avoid their loss even knowing eventually we will lose something critical to our happiness.

I know many people are resigned to believing this, but not me. One reason is that I’ve encountered patients who’ve lost spouses and even children who, though still carrying their sadness with them, have managed somehow not to be destroyed by it; who’ve not only learned to be happy again but even, in one particular case, to radiate joy. There’s something these people know that the rest of us don’t. But if they can learn it, so can we.

There’s ample reason to try. When my son was first learning to walk and would occasionally trip and smash his head on our maple wood floor, freezing my heart mid-beat, I found myself thinking the same thing: we’re all born into constant danger, both ourselves and our loved ones. It may change its face as we age but never for one moment does it relax its grip. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could develop a life state in which our worry over that danger ultimately became unimportant?

NEXT WEEK: How To Reset Your Happiness Set Point

13 comments to The Double-Edged Sword Of Attachment, Redux

  • I’ve been haunted by this passage from The Bridges of Madison County since I saw that movie when it first came out: “When a woman makes the choice to marry, to have children…in one way her life begins but in another way it stops. You build a life of details. You…stop and stay steady so that your children can move. And when they leave they take your life of details with them.”

    Our daughter, Katie, is taking my life of details with her when she heads to college in (gulp) about four months. Care to explore this topic with me the next time you’re on the show, Alex? I’m sure I’ll need the therapy session!

    Maureen: Sounds like a great topic. Let’s do it!


  • susan schwartz

    A doctor/writer/person with as much education as you have should know that in this observation—”my doctor brain was kicking in full-blast with worry over it’s cause”—the word its should not have had an apostrophe. The apostrophe is used only when the word is intended as an abbreviation of the two words “it is.” Otherwise, no apostrophe; the possessive, its, as you used it, takes no apostrophe. Not a big deal—except for the way in which it makes me wonder whether you got something else wrong …

    Susan: Your criticism seems a bit harsh for what was a typo. Nevertheless, thanks for pointing it out.


  • Steven Polakoff

    Although it can sound trite, I believe what you are affirming in this week’s posting is the great power which comes with the ability of a person to accept “what is.” I have known great loss and abundant and pervasive sorrow upon the sudden and untimely death of two people I never thought would predecease me. And I held on to that sorrow as a sign that that I was still deeply attached and connected to them, as if they were still present.

    When I learned that letting go of the loss, making it a past rather than a present event, the pain and sorrow diminished to the point of becoming present but not at all controlling. And with life once again calm, the importance and beauty of what had been could be remembered and revisited and be a joyful experience. By accepting what had changed, I got to keep and remember without agitation all that had been wonderful.

    But to this day I have to admit that knowledge of this phenomena does not make it easier to achieve again when death and loss pays a repeat visit. Only a true master I suppose can achieve such a state without effort.

  • Tara

    Having experienced one terrible gut-wrenching loss, I know now exactly how bad it is, but have learned that I can survive it and be happy again after grinding through the grief. This gives me the courage to continue to love and be attached despite how painful I know it will be when we are separated inevitably.

  • Michelle

    Another coping mechanism is to attach to things but deny that their loss is permanent, that is, “we’ll be together again in Heaven.” I think many people who adhere to this do accept the poison as medicine—the pain of grief is part of God’s plan of spiritual growth for them.

  • Catherine Heath

    I found this post extremely inspiring. Each time I read a paragraph I thought you had astonished my with your insight for the last time but there was always more.

    One of the reasons I really like this post is because luckily I have never experienced loss through bereavement. I’m already twenty three (nearly four!) and I have been fortunate enough to still have everyone I love around me.

    But I know at some point bereavement is coming, as it will for everyone, and especially because one of my grandparents is seriously ill.

    As ever with your posts you have touched on something relevant and thought-provoking for everyone. I am inspired to practice letting go of attachment! (And obviously making the most of the time there is with everyone I love).

    Catherine: I’m so glad the post resonated with you.


  • Andrea Pelfrey

    I have known great loss, and still know amazing joy. I see my mother’s joy and love each spring with each 4-leaf clover I find. I see our daughter’s beauty with each flower and my brother in the sweet smell of cut grass. I never thought I would know happiness after each heart-wrenching loss, but I find in my meditations and connection with the earth and its bounty, the essence of those I love but lost in body are present in the beauty around me. Find happiness in the earth, in nature, in the animals who depend upon our stewardship for their very survival…there you will find the essence of those we have lost and you will know that the cycle of life mirrors our joy and sorrow. It is spring and new life shows our connections with all we have loved and lost and will find again.

  • chris

    I believe that strong emotions have lives of their own. It is the human condition. We cannot think or meditate our way over, under, around or through a strong emotion such as grief. I think we have to allow ourselves to be buffeted by the storm of grief.

    Your next point, to use the grief as a springboard, sounds like the work of creativity and openness.

    I also find it useful to acknowledge the value of the paradox: in this case, that grief may be a springboard to serenity, and maybe in time, to joy.

    I also believe that the passage of time dulls the keenness of the grief.

    I also accept that the grief comes again, as if it is a tidal wave. That, too, has a life of its own. I have no control over the timing of the recurring waves.

  • Yip Wai Fong

    “But viewing the pain of loss from an enlightened perspective can give it a purpose that mutes its aversiveness just as when a weightlifter embraces the perspective that “pain equals gain” (the pain of lifting a heavy weight is transformed into a survivable—even enjoyable—experience because of the result it produces, growth).”

    I can think of other examples—like how suicide bomber were indoctrinated that what they do would take them to heaven, or, on a more positive note, the single mother who worked multiple jobs on the belief that her children would get future better than her. Clearly, the strategy itself is double-edged, too!

  • sekishin


    Your blog truly is a shining light in a sea of darkness.

    In gassho,


  • Leaetta Wacker

    The day I act and feel as if nothing happened when someone close to me dies will be the day I am no longer human.

  • Leaetta Wacker

    For some reason the photo used for this blog entry has shadows of a crucifix. Suffering is real for humans and religion was invented or experienced in order to ameliorate those unavoidable events. What I don’t understand is why does it seem necessary to rise above our human frailties? Is it because we don’t want life to beat us, grind us up and spit us out? Is it to give dignity to the human condition and triumph over all?

  • Dear Alex,

    Attachment was once again a focal point of my life again recently. One method which I tried was not to become overly attached to minimise the effects of loss. i.e. To attach an expiry date to it. Example, this friend will be leaving in a year’s time. Hence I am not overly upset when the time comes. Of course later I realised, instinctively I took caution to minimise overattachment and ensure that my life did not revolve around a single person too much. Unfortunately this means the potential in possible expansion of the friendship was killed by the expiry date.

    Nonetheless, it did help to reduce the feeling of loss in the end. I believe that as humans, we go through attachments and loss as part of our lives—it’s part and parcel of the life journey and we learn more about ourselves each time round.

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