Two major events that took place this past month – the reelection of Barack Obama as president of the United States and the visitation of Hurricane Sandy upon the shoreline areas of New York and New Jersey – have had me contemplating the merits and mysteries of the attribute of nonattachment.
Let’s start with the presidential election. Like so many on both sides of the polarized U.S. electorate, I felt that I had a major stake in the outcome of the contest. In fact, so strong was my commitment, that I made monthly financial contributions to the Obama campaign, and in the final weeks before the election I participated in several phone banking drives, calling supporters in critical “battleground” states urging them to get out and vote.
And when he emerged victorious on election night, I was both elated and relieved. I had received the outcome I had wished for and worked for. For me – and undoubtedly for many other Obama supporters across the country – that evening and the next few days were marked by a pervasive and decidedly pleasant feeling of “good times”.
Since political preference per se is not within the scope of this blog, I will be commenting not on the reasons for my support of Mr. Obama, but rather on the attachment that I invested in that support. From this perspective, what follows in the next few paragraphs would be no different had I been supporting the challenger, Mr. Romney – and he had won.
So the question I am faced with is, how do I square my political engagement – and the undeniable attachment to achieving a particular outcome that is inherent in any political activity – with the principle of nonattachment to outcome that is such a crucial element in my Buddhist-inspired practice of mindfulness?
The first thought that arises is that I can’t reconcile these two opposing tendencies. And in this case, the effort itself seems moot – I was attached to having a particular outcome occur, that particular outcome actually did occur, and with its occurrence my need for any further attachment simply dissipated.
But would that have been the case had Mr. Romney won the election? My attachment to having Mr. Obama win would certainly not have dissipated. My best guess is that it would have transformed into anxiety – perhaps even fear – about the future course of the country under a president whose positions I so strongly disagree with.
In other words, my initial attachment would have morphed into an even stronger form of attachment – namely, aversion. And at that point, I would have needed to find my way back to a stance of nonattachment, from which I could – perhaps – start to reconcile myself to an outcome I had not wanted.
With the phenomenon of aversion just introduced into these considerations, let’s turn now to the other major event that gave rise to this post – Hurricane Sandy. All along the northeastern United States shore, in some cases only a few miles from where I reside, lives were lost, homes were damaged or even totally destroyed, towns and villages were flooded, vital civic services were interrupted – so much unimaginable suffering for thousands of people in hundreds of impacted communities. Very bad times – and for those most severely affected, an unbelievably long and difficult road back to a semblance of normalcy.
Is it even possible to consider nonattachment as a viable response to such extremely dire circumstances? I won’t presume to speak for any of the countless numbers of individuals who continue to suffer in the aftermath of the storm’s ravages. It is they who have something to teach me, and not the other way around.
But from my perspective as a non-suffering observer on the periphery of this event, I keep wondering about a fundamental teaching of Buddhism regarding suffering and its root cause – the clinging to pleasures and the aversion to pain. It is from this core principle that the concept of nonattachment arises as a means to ending suffering.
In the case of people who have lost so much, if not everything, of what is essential to their lives and their livelihood, what can these principles offer them by way of consolation and encouragement?
I really don’t have an answer to this question.
But I do have a newfound sense of just how rigorous are the demands that the principle of nonattachment places upon any of us who choose to embrace it. In the past, I’ve been a bit too casual, treating it as a useful means of coping with the ups and downs of everyday life – keep a modest sense of nonattachment about everything, the good and the bad, and you’ll be better able to enjoy successes and to bear disappointments.
As a skill for living effectively on a day-to-day basis, this interpretation of nonattachment is good enough, I suppose.
But when we consider such history-making events as presidential elections and natural disasters, nonattachment – if it is to be of any use at all – must be so much more. It must encompass a radical understanding of the absolute impermanence of the reality in which we exist. To practice nonattachment in its truest sense would be to recognize with absolute clarity that there is nothing to which we can permanently attach ourselves to, because there is nothing at all that is permanent.
An unsettling notion to grasp and hold on to. But a necessary one, I think.
With that recognition, the habits of clinging and aversion might begin to dissipate, and even the illusory notions of “good times” and “bad times” might begin to disappear.
And perhaps, if we were to take on this kind of radical nonattachment, everything that happens in our life – especially an event of huge proportions such as we’ve been considering here – could be experienced as it actually is, and not how we’ve attached ourselves to the way we want it to be or not be.
I wonder what that would be like.
I’d like to find out.