What Would the Buddha Do?

Learn to let go of harmful attachments, those simple and oft-times wrong beliefs that become truths in our minds, says a Tufts psychiatrist

zen stones in a pile on a beach

Having grown up in a moderately religious Jewish family, I have great respect for the ethical tradition embodied in the Talmud—that compendium of rabbinical commentaries that many consider the heart and soul of Judaism. But I am appalled by some of the extremists within my faith. I will never forget how, during my childhood vacations in the Catskills, a small group of “ultra-orthodox” Jews would throw stones at our car when we violated strict rabbinical law by driving on the Sabbath. I am equally appalled by extremists of other faiths, who insist that all who oppose their orthodox views must be shunned, disparaged or killed. Not even the peaceful Amish are immune to such fanaticism: recently, some members of an Amish sect in Ohio were accused of mutilating the beards of Amish men who had not been “pure” in their beliefs.

Where do the religious animosities that fuel such hatred and violence come from? I believe the best way to understand them is through the Buddhist concept of “attachment.” The Zen teacher and author Ezra Bayda defines attachments as “simple beliefs—fantasies, in fact—that have become solidified as ‘truth’ in our mind.” Our attachments, he notes, convince us that “without some particular person or thing, we can never be free from suffering,” or, conversely, that “we can’t be happy as long as a particular person, condition or object is in our lives.” I’m beginning to think that nearly all our personal and societal problems are closely linked to excessive and irrational attachments.

In my field, psychiatry, I have seen many patients whose suffering arose from pathological forms of attachment (or “irrational, self-defeating cognitions,” as cognitive therapists call them).

I’m thinking of the financier who believes he can’t possibly be happy with a salary of less than three million a year, or the patient who believes she must be loved and admired by everybody in order to be fulfilled. And I am often struck by the attachments people have toward material goods, as evidenced by those grasping, grubbing melees on big shopping days (remember the woman who pepper-sprayed 20 people during Wal-Mart’s Black Friday sale last November?).

In its most severe form, ideological attachment can be the mother of extremism. I’m not just talking about violent movements on the other side of the globe. Examples abound in our own culture—from rants on the Internet to the dogmas that have nearly paralyzed our political system. All such extremes involve an overzealous embrace of one and only one way of thinking.

Up to a point, some form of attachment is essential, or else we would never form lasting relationships, undertake difficult projects or support worthy causes. Buddhism doesn’t teach us to traipse around in a state of apathy. It simply asks us to let go of our “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude. It is the rigidity and intensity of an attachment that determines whether it is pathological.

What is the solution to excessive attachment? The Buddhist master Ajahn Chah (1918–1992) found one answer in the concept of anicca (or anitya). This is usually translated as “impermanence” or “uncertainty.” Ajahn Chah believed that much of our suffering stems from an unwillingness to accept the impermanence of all things—including ourselves. Sure, we often hear expressions like “easy come, easy go.” But how many of us have really understood the implications of impermanence for our own existence?

In Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away, Ajahn Chah teaches us to “look in the present and see the impermanence of body and mind.” He speaks of the peace that comes from letting go of attachment—whether to the newest electronic gadget or to a rigidly held belief. Certainly, my depressed patients improve when they manage to free themselves from the snare of their psychological attachments.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to understand impermanance. Robert Frost did. Consider the wisdom of “Nothing Gold Can Stay”:

Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Or, if you prefer something more rabbinical, here’s Rabbi Rami Shapiro: “Don’t take life so seriously—it’s only temporary!”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Ronald Pies is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine. He is the author of Becoming a Mensch: Timeless Talmudic Ethics for Everyone.


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