Taoists and Attachment

I was reading a book by a well-known Buddhist nun and she spoke of attachment. The general belief among Buddhists is that there is suffering in the world because of our attachment to other people, to material possessions and most of all to ourselves and our egos.

Therefore, the solution to avoid this suffering is simply to quell the attachments we feel.

In some respects, this is a brilliant idea. After all, we are far too attached to unimportant things like possessions. The average American household has 300,000 items (L.A. Times, 2014), and people are hesitant to give away or toss out even one. We are attached to them to the point that they dictate our lives and spoil our enjoyment. Possessions are stacked in basements and garages where we may not see them for years, but yet we are attached to owning them. And therefore they own us.

We also place too much emphasis on the attachment we have to our own sense of self, our ego. If we are called a name or slighted in the least, we are ready to fight. We look to be offended by those who are seemingly indifferent or just unaware of something we find important.

These are attachments I would happily be rid of.

Taoism encourages less attachment as well, telling us to seek the middle path in all facets. This means we refuse to shoulder the foolish burden of owning 300,000 things, but it also means we don’t think it necessary to possess only one robe and a begging bowl. Owning too many things is one extreme, while owning too few to cultivate ourselves as learned followers of Tao is just as foolhardy.

Taoists believe in the middle way. In moderation. Neither extreme of too much or too little is advisable if we strive to be developed individuals.

The Buddhist nun went on to speak of how her brother had died. When the news was shared with her, she did not cry, for she had severed her attachment to him as part of her development as a Buddhist. Her brother’s death was natural and expected, and she felt no suffering.

Again, we remind ourselves that the Tao tells us all things should be experienced in moderation, even grief. The middle way is the answer, not the extreme. It is inappropriate for us to react to the passing of a family member with overt, embarrassing public displays, ripping at our hair and clothes, and wailing at the top of our voices to draw attention to our pain. We must retain our dignity in even the darkest moments. However, it is equally inappropriate to avoid normal feelings of loss and grief when one’s own brother dies. This too is an extreme.

If we question how to react in these moments of loss, we only need look to nature, the perfect reflection of the Tao. There is no lack of empirical data indicating all developed species grieve. Elephants, dogs, cats, sea lions, dolphins — they are not detached. They give space to the grief they feel and then move forward on the path.

We can allow ourselves a moderate amount of attachment, especially worthwhile bonds like those we have to other people. As a Taoist you are a refined individual and you can handle some suffering.


About Leigh

Leigh is an American Taoist philosopher, exploring how modern life and its problems can best be addressed with ancient teachings. She is also a doctor of psychology.
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