I started practicing Buddhism and so trying to avoid attachment to anything.

This gives me benefits like a clear mind and calm spirit. But I think I'm starting to become attached to these benefits and to the process of avoiding attachment.

How is it possible to keep detaching without becoming attached to the process?

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    @die_humans not really a philosophy question as formulated; I might point you towards this area51 proposal -- area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/19564/buddhism – Joseph Weissman Jun 21 '11 at 21:49
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    @die Does it compromise the benefits if you become attached to the process? If not, what is the problem? – Phira Jun 21 '11 at 21:52
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    @Joe: I've added this to our poll of on- and off-topic questions: meta.philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/32/… – Jon Ericson Jun 21 '11 at 23:38
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    This is still a religious question, A philosophical question is possibly what the purpose of reducing ones humanity like that would be, and if you really get more godlike by becoming less like a human. But how to go about it is definitely not philosophy. – Lennart Regebro Jun 22 '11 at 6:52
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    @Lennart: I don't think that it is religious question, either. – Phira Jun 22 '11 at 11:32

It is true that you must relinquish all attachment. This cultivation is part of The Way (to enlightenment) and you should keep in mind that the body is an attachment only released at natural death.

Nonetheless, you must relinquish not only "attachment" but also attachment to the act of relinquishing attachment. How? The understanding comes from insight and wisdom, which harmoniously develop together as you read, contemplate, and meditate the teachings and your own situation.

Really, the idea of "attachment" is at its very base concern for self. As you live more selflessly, and thrive in the happiness of other sentient beings, it will be easier to detach, as you will increase awareness and mindfulness.

There are the precepts, which hold you from wordly and gripping attachments. By holding the precepts you are slowly released from karmatic bonds that would otherwise prevent you from even being able to understand and look for meaning in the Dharma. Naturally, you are experiencing a clarity of mind that is well-afforded by virtue and merit, and you should continue to cultivate.

What does it mean to cultivate?
In order to relinquish all attachment, one strives with vigilance to see all marks as no marks. One also strives to relinquish all attachment that is visible from the 'ego' or 'self'.

The Buddha taught Dharma because although one is capable of relinquishing attachment to what one directly "observes," one is incapable of relinquishing that which one does not know she/he is clutching. Your fist is clenched very tightly and you are holding something. Oh, what a grip! It is impossible to let go.

Imagine your surprise when your fist unclenches and there is nothing there. In a similar way, one clings to perception. The "information" from your eyes, nose, tongue, ears, body, and thoughts (as well as emotions) is ephemeral (temporary). It all passes because it all changes. Everything changes and nothing is permanent. To contemplate these thoughts is to contemplate Dharma.

How does one let go of "attachment" ? How do you let go of "letting go" ?

"Letting go" is just a concept. Really, there is nothing to let go of because you are not holding on to anything. The Buddha taught that our clinging is a consequence of Doubt, which arises from causes and conditions. Doubt is not real, and in trying to avoid doubt (rather than investigate it and understand that it is empty) sentient beings cling to that which feels good and comfortable, and avoid that which is "bad" or feels uncomfortable. Truly, the more comfortable you get at understanding that nothing is comfortable or uncomfortable, the more you will see.

Really, the attachment to physical objects is coarse. It is several steps removed from the very basis of attachment, yet they are the same entity. It is all one entity and it is all no entity, because there is no entity. Words do not suffice to explain concepts which are only truly received and understood at levels "between frames of time" -- as it is necessary for you to observe this "in motion" in order to understand what it "means," but the understanding and wisdom that liberates comes from within.

True attachment is not only the physical world -- it is the conceptual world, the emotional world, the perceptual world. Consider that you are sitting at a "desk" -- really it is no desk at all, it is just materials aligned in a configuration -- but again there is no material, it has no inherent existence of its own. It is constantly in flux and always changing, and your attachment to the label of "desk" is merely an attachment. Naturally, we cannot deny the reality around us, but we can strive toward understanding that it is all one fluid. Then, pondering that there is no fluid, that we are the fluid. Understand that there is no separation between "self" and "other" because we are all one fluid.

With the motivation to be happy and free of attachment, to be free of suffering, it will become more and more effortless to see, feel, understand, and speak true Dharma. Patience in the ways of suffering is of measureless virtue and merit. Your mind is brilliant -- like "a blue sky filled with white light" -- but it cannot answer a half-baked question. No matter how correct, if you don't know what you are asking then no answer will be of use to you. Thus, I recommend working with what you are trying to wrap your head around at the moment, and letting the true question form over time. In my case, I have found it helpful to ponder and meditate on such things as "What is attachment?" -- work with your mind to perceive and exist in the current singular moment. There is present, past, and future, as is taught in Buddhism, but really you cannot ever truly dwell in the "past" or catch up to the "future" because all concepts are attachments.

When leaving the world of concepts, recall your ambition to feel happy and to "embrace" liberation. We are all one intellect, striving to unify. May we all, in the last words of the Buddha (really the physical body is just a form, and death is a transformation), strive with vigilance.

love and wisdom, my friend and eternal brother.

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    I can't say I understand most of this answer, but I'm grateful to have a more expert opinion on the question. Am I correct in my assumption that according to Buddhist thought, all things collapse, for want of a better word, into each other and therefore singling out any particular part of everything is a form of "attachment"? – Jon Ericson Jun 22 '11 at 20:09
  • I am no expert, but I am happy if my thoughts may be of use to your contemplation. Really, the true reality of things defies description, any words to it and it's like cramping your whole spirit into one human body! (something we do every day). Really, you are not capable of "singling out" anything based on will alone, because it is a latent tendency that you can eliminate by practicing good conduct. The tendency to "attach" is also known as Accumulation and is sometimes used synonymously with "karma" -- holding on is dragging karma with you. Good karma is positive, the "best" is Virtuous – sova Jun 22 '11 at 22:26
  • But in order to help you reason it out, don't be satisfied until you have a clear understanding. Truly, all forms of "wisdom" merge at a point, as you cultivate the "Awakening Mind" from multiple angles. The Buddha says that there are sentient beings (bits of "intelligence" like you and I) that desire pleasure and avoid pain -- but really what we are looking for is lasting happiness, which cannot occur with attachment to the everchanging, constantly-in-flux "world" ... "around" us. The Buddha demonstrates that all sentient beings want lasting happiness and the teachings are the way "there" – sova Jun 22 '11 at 22:30
  • Typically, it is assumed that there is "environment" and "sentient beings" -- yet, one may discover that the environment is really just a result of the attachments sentience has to the everchanging sea of cyclical rebirth ("Samsara"). It is not that time and space and all people collapse into a single point -- it is that there is no time and space, that these are conceptual illusions imposed by "ego." Imagine you are looking at a swarm of small flies and are trying to draw a dotted line in space to label what is going on. Everything moves so quickly that the label is out-dated immediately. – sova Jun 22 '11 at 22:37
  • But in short: Yes, one cannot single any one particular thing out for the reason that you stated. Really, the important part is letting your mind search for the right questions, as the "answer" may become obvious to you when you examine things from a different angle, or different concepts altogether. When you do feel it hit you as "obvious" or have a moment of insight, just float on through it and stay calm. The calm and abiding mind, the not agitated/excitable mind, is a gateway to insight. (Apologies for writing you a whole book to read in comments) – sova Jun 22 '11 at 22:43

I don't know much about Buddhism. But the Epicurean might find himself caught in the same paradox. He strives after detachment; but what if this striving should become an obsession? The simple answer is: then you're doing it wrong. Forget about the need to keep your soul unperturbed (ataraxia) occasionally, and you shall attain it all the sooner. And if you should obsess about it occasionally, well, don't worry about it.

Stoics might be troubled by this paradox a bit more. He might say: "if you want to achieve true freedom from emotion (apatheia), you must not think. Just live a humble life, neither striving for anything nor intellectualizing it." But can one avoid striving without consciously battling it in the soul?

Aristotle would probably have replied to "should we practice moderation in moderation too?" in a fashion similar to Epicurus. "It's not the end of the world if you stray from the path of moderation now and then; just try not to do it too often." The meta-paradox would be, "if I must be moderate in my moderation too, then how is this not an immoderate consistency on the meta-level?". To that, Aristotle would have replied that any question or position that leads to an infinite loop is thereby shown to be nonsense, as it was commonly held by ancient philosophers.

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  • Nicely answered. I wonder if Aristotle would have seen the occasional immoderation as an example of being "moderate in moderation"? Probably not, but it's a fun topic to speculate on. (Maybe The Philosopher actually wrote about it. That would be even better.) – Jon Ericson Jun 22 '11 at 20:16
  • @JonEricson: I couldn't say. (Actually I think he would have found the question pointless: moderation is a guideline, not an absolute principle, so he might say.) I wish I could remember what he said about the subject, but I can't remember. – Cerberus Jun 22 '11 at 21:33

I'm definitely not an expert in Buddhism, but this strikes me as very similar to a "paradox" which occurs when trying to straightforwardly apply Aristotle's ethical maxim of moderation -- "Moderation in all things," but what about moderation itself? Are we supposed to seek a 'golden mean' even in our moderation, i.e., allow ourselves to act immoderately on occasion?

I might suggest there's (perhaps intentionally?) something of a 'logic-bomb' in these kinds of logical structures: not only must you detach from all worldly attachments, you would also have to detach from all spiritual attachments as well -- including the principle of non-attachment! Indeed your attachment-avoidance would eventually seem to require you avoid all principles whatsoever. Zen concerns itself with these sorts of logical extremes, though my sense is that most Buddhist practice is not as concerned with these paradoxes; we will have to wait for a Buddhism expert to set us straight here.

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    This is difficult to give a straight answer to, isn't it? I'd guess that Aristotle had an implied "except moderation" tacked to the end of his maxim. I like the idea of a "logic bomb". – Jon Ericson Jun 21 '11 at 23:37
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    Yes, the logic bomb bit was nice. Although I'm not a keen student of Buddhism, my wife is Buddhist in the Theravada tradition. It seems to me that such problems never come up in her life. There's no intellectualizing happening. Such logic bombs definitely seem to be a Zen interpretation of what the Buddha was going on about. – boehj Jun 22 '11 at 5:26
  • @boehj: Any chance she could supply an answer to this question? – Jon Ericson Jun 22 '11 at 19:56
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    @Jon: OK, I asked her now. She just laughed at me. I don't think I'll get a different answer than that. However, it would be interesting to ask a monk about this. These types of logical problems (in the Aristotelian sense) have always bothered me when thinking about Buddhism. They bother me less now (I'm not Buddhist in the slightest) and I don't know if that's intellectual laziness or whether it's coming to accept that there can be a very different logic to base one's life on. Followed to its conclusion this principle would see her leave me and her child and all her family. No-one does that. – boehj Jun 22 '11 at 22:32

Let me suggest that Western philosophy, which seems the true thrust of the site, has limited tools for dealing with this concern as it's not so much an issue in Western thought. Western thought tends toward constructing meaning rather than in finding well-being.

One source I know of that does address a similar question is from St. Paul:

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. -- Colossians 3:2-4 (ESV)

Reading the entire letter (and much of Paul's writing) suggests that he finds the process of, as you call it, "attachment avoiding" can itself become an attachment. His solution is to focus on something of great (or rather of greatest) value instead. That's what's meant by "Christ who is your life"—Paul is suggesting that when you avoid attachment, you must fill the void with something else. Obviously, the specific filler is unique to Christianity.

I'm curious to know if there is a non-Christian answer in Western thought and if it suggests an alternate filler for the void or if the void is ever seen as a greater good in Western thought. Perhaps Friedrich Nietzsche or proponents of Nihilism have useful answers here.

But as I've said, Western thought doesn't deal much with your question and we must hope someone who knows better comes along.

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    I'd say that you are almost correct. Christianity does not seek detachment or apatheia, on the contrary it actually seeks attachment to Christ. This, of course, leads to detach ourselves from transient things but not from everything not either from the most important thing, that is, God. In the Christian worldview detachment actually does not make sense because we're made and wired that way. It's just a matter of putting your focus on what's worth it. – Trinidad Jun 22 '11 at 13:49
  • @Trinidad: I agree 100%. My thoughts are probably unclear because I tried to fit Christian philosophy into spaces it doesn't easily fit. – Jon Ericson Jun 22 '11 at 16:52

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