Attachment and Love — The Buddha’s View

Edited excerpts from the public talk “Love and Cherishing Others” given by Ven. Robina Courtin at Osel Shen Phen Ling, Missoula, MT, on 14 February 2012. Transcribed by Fran McDermott.

Normally, if I say to Bob, ‘I love you,’ and then Bob says, ‘Oh, yes, and I love you,’ we usually mean that like idea for your sister or your mother or your close friend or your boyfriend or something. So, what do we mean by it, normally? If we take the Buddha’s view, the Buddha’s model of the mind and take and look at it, there are certain characteristics in our mind that the Buddha would simply call negative states, and one of those is called ‘attachment’.

There are some positive states of mind, and the negative ones are kind of fearful and needy and neurotic and kind of I-based, in a neurotic sense; and the real energy of attachment is this sort of dissatisfaction that causes us to yearn to have this or that — and we dump that onto events and people and things; truly believing that when we get it, we’ll get happy. That’s really what attachment is, and it’s kind of sneaky; because what happens is, when I say, ‘I love you’, in the beginning especially, when Bob looks so divine and so handsome and so perfect, and you can be in love with somebody, really it’s ninety percent attachment. The mind is so excited, and everything is so perfect — ‘Finally I’ve found happiness!’ — and you’ve written this entire novel that’s going to get you ‘til you’re ninety-seven’!

We have these masses of attachment; when we meet a person who fulfills that, it makes us blissful and loving and we get married and have babies or whatever you do, this is attachment getting what it wants. Now, of course, along with that does come love. And what’s love, for the Buddha? Attachment is this needy, unhappy, neurotic state of mind, which is very hard to recognize; because you don’t have it raw, on its own. You have it usually mixed with love, and so we say the word ‘love’. But when it’s needy; and then, of course, when Bob stops doing what my attachment wants, that’s when it turns into anger, and that’s when he gets jealous, and all the misery happens. 

We can’t imagine love without that. Whether it’s for our baby, or whoever, there’s always the component of this. So what is love, if that’s the case? In the Buddhist view, in the model of the mind, you’ve got the heading called ‘positive’ and that’s where you put love, in the altruistic sense. So, all the altruistic states of mind, for the Buddha, they’ve got this characteristic that when you have them, the extent to which you have any love, in this altruistic sense, is the extent to which you want others to be happy, for their sake. You delight in their happiness. So, really you can just define it as the wish that someone be happy. ‘May you be happy.’ ‘Whatever makes you happy.’ That thought with lots of affection built into it when we’ve grown it strongly, that’s what’s the meaning of love in the altruistic sense. 

Having a good feeling and looking at Bob and feeling blissful — that feels wonderful. It doesn’t — it seems cruel that we have to give up attachment, if it means feeling good. But the Buddha’s point is really more subtle. You don’t have to chuck the baby out with the bath water. You’re not chucking out your happiness; you’re actually chucking out all the junky stuff. You’re chucking out the possessiveness, you’re chucking out the expectations, you’re chucking out the manipulation. You’re chucking out all of that part. And what you end up with — it mightn’t always look so exciting; you don’t go up and down so much — but your mind is blissfully content. That’s the bonus. That’s the result of giving up attachment.

So being your own therapist means going deeper into your own thoughts, into the actual construction of these elaborate stories deep down inside us and deconstructing these stories and then reconstructing them, is really a way to say it… it’s a much more tasty, more profound way to really know your mind and how to change it. The events kind of are interesting, but they’re nowhere near as fundamental as knowing your actual own mind itself, and that comes with not only knowing the meditation skills but knowing the Buddha’s way of describing what is attachment, precisely — how is it different from love, precisely.  So it’s quite a different approach. And it’s this way we can change.