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The Subtle Art of Letting Go, or Detachment

Aaron M. Weis is an online journalist, web content writer, and avid blogger who specializes in spirituality, science, and technology.

The root of suffering is attachment.



Throughout this website, many references have been made to the eastern philosophy that is Buddhism. While I do not want to mix this up with spiritualism or spirituality, there is one main precept that I would like to emphasize in this discussion post in particular. It is one whose origin is at the very heart and foundation of Zen Buddhism, and that is the first noble truth that all life is suffering, but it doesn't have to be.

I find this interesting, on one level, because the teachings of this specific philosophy center around such ideologies as your thoughts or beliefs create your reality around you. We see this in such sayings as, "Watch your thoughts, they become words. In turn, your words create for your actions, which bring with them your character, and ultimately, your destiny. In likewise fashion, we get this notion of suffering breeds enlightenment. For instance, Buddha and many other ascended one's or spiritual leaders like him suffered intentionally, and became martyrs to a certain extent, in order that they may reach that state of nirvana, if only we all could. What is interesting to me about this, is if the belief is that all life is suffering, then that is the reality that will bring for said individual. If this were the belief, why not change it to all life is enlightenment? Certainly, this is not far off, since we are almost constantly learning something to one extent or another, which we sarcastically will say from time to time, enlighten me, if we are under the assumption that we already know what is about to be said to us. To quote Michaelangelo at age seventy-two, "I am still learning."

But no, I also find this interesting because it lends itself to the focal point of this entire discussion. In communications, we are taught that every statement made, is essentially an argument. For instance, you can argue for or against the previous sentence just made almost into Infinitum. And so, the argument is, all life is suffering. If this is the case, what is the reason or cause for said suffering? The Buddha meditated on this question for some time, and the answer that he came up with is what I would like to focus on. According to Siddhartha Gautama, that original of enlightened ones, it was an attachment that was at the root of all suffering, and similarly, still, acquisition is the root of stress which can be utilized interchangeably. It is this sentiment that I would like to analyze for a bit because it is so profoundly accurate on so many different levels. For all intended purposes, I will offer first a brief overview of the four noble truths found at the center of Buddhism, which I will follow up with a similar approach to describing the sort of remedy for these truths that can, in a way, be divided into two separate parts; part one being the illness of man, which is suffering, and part two being the cure as is inherently found in Buddha's eightfold path, which is a kind of guide to creating for cessation from clinging to our desires and attachments. In reading this, I find it helpful to imagine Buddha as a kind of Doctor of all Doctors, whose practice was concerned with unhappiness and dissatisfaction, the heartache, and the suffering of mankind. After this overview, we will divulge into why, now more than ever, this is so crucially important, in a societal system or framework that is so focused on consumption to an unnecessary extreme. With all the information we have at our fingertips, we have collected more data in the last decade or so, then we have in all of human history, and we are continually trapped in this cycle of consumption to an endless degree. It has been said, that avarice is the root of all evil, and it is through this lens in its societal framework that we will analyze this sentiment more closely.

The Four Noble Truths at a Glance

The truths that Buddha offered for the malady of humankind which was that of suffering from attachment are for the most part, fairly simple and straightforward. Again, to simplify his conceptualizations, it is helpful to divide the four into two separate categories, and to view Buddha as a kind of doctor, offering both a diagnosis for their illness/suffering and a remedy or cure in pursuing detachment or letting go. Here I would like to note two things both about the remedy and the pursuit of it. First, the final two Nobel truths are arguably the most significant, in that they offer the patient, that is mankind, hope that the can live without the pain. Second, it is an interesting sort of paradox that one should be cautious of pursuing detachment, because when that is the case, that in itself becomes another form of attachment. Instead of chasing a car, a house, a degree, or anything else in the material world, like a dog chasing after some other bone, we then grow attached to this notion of being without desire, and that simply takes the place of the Ferrari you wanted so badly. The point is that peace, happiness, nirvana, and bliss is not found in seeking from the external world. This distracts us from the real source, which is diving within.

Let Go


The First Noble Truth

On the most basic level, each of the noble truths that Buddha offered to his students could be simplified down to one word in Sanskrit. We will go over each of these as we go through each of these teachings, but at the root of the first noble truth is that of Dukka. This can roughly be translated as either dissatisfaction, suffering, pain, anxiety, stress, and other synonymous words related to those mentioned above. Essentially, Buddha offers us the Sanskrit Dukka to explain that all life involves suffering in one form or another. That is it, the first noble truth is that all life is suffering.

It is important to note that while Dukka includes the obvious modalities that involve physical pain, that it also uses an overarching all-encompassing umbrella of all the pain that plagues humankind, from emotional or mental pain. That this also included all the complexities of the gamut of human emotions and the tensions of the mind, such that are created from work, or other things that we are subjected to as we navigate our way through this life. However, Dukka teaches us a great deal about the human psyche and the way that it perpetually spirals around the main source of its suffering. For in Dukka, Buddha observed that the vast majority of all of these types of suffering, that each involved craving, desire, attachment, or longing for something or another, whether it be material, or some mental construction of a perceivable future that may or may not even happen. This goes into a long discussion as to how when we are depressed, it is usually because we are focused in terms of psychological time, at some point in the past, whereas when we feel angst, it is due to the way that we are thinking about some perceivable future, but for now, we will stick to Dukka and the Four Noble Truths. At the same time, it is attachment or craving that lends itself to the second noble truth.

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The Second Noble Truth

Just as the first noble truth can be summarized in the Sanskrit word Dukka, this is also the case in the phrase Samudaya. Again, Buddha offers us a simple translation into the malady of man. In the first truth, he brings awareness that life is suffering by leveraging the Sanskrit Dukka. Now, in the second noble truth, he does the same while giving us the reason why. Samudaya basically translates into suffering and craving. There is suffering because of our intense desires, and all the craving that goes on in our day to day lives.

This brings us back to the inquiry that I raised earlier. When Buddha realized the first noble truth, it occurred to him that nothing could be done about it, unless we were consciously aware of what caused all the pain and suffering throughout the world. And so this became the main concentration of his meditations, and the answer that he came up with was Samudaya; human craving or desire. And in a way, each truth that he sort of stumbled onto, led to another mediation, another truth as if he were peeling away the condition of humankind one petal of a flower at a time, diving all the more deeper into our very nature. When discussing this point, Buddha identified the very heart of our suffering, which he noted as he stated, "the attachment to the desire to have, or craving, the attachment to the desire not to have, or aversion, and the attachment to ignorant views," was at the core of all human suffering. This too, as in the previous, lends itself to the third and fourth noble truths, which are the second part of our analogy, in which he gives us a solution or cure to this illness that we find in suffering by means of craving.

Detachment put into Practice


The Third Noble Truth

Nirodha. Following in the same manner as his previous teaching, Buddha offers but one word for the oscillatory point that is the cure to human suffering. In these sorts of mantra's, we learn volumes about the man that was originally Sidhartha Gautama. One Sidhartha Gautama attained enlightenment through seemingly menial, trivial, and simplistic means; namely that of meditation, intense focus on being rooted in the present moment, and through the tantra of deep breathing techniques which took him all of six years - all of life can be measured in a single breath. In the same way, he offers us an entire philosophy, an entire teaching, and an entire means to the end of suffering in as little as four mantra-like words. In this case, Nirodha can be taken to mean cessation. But a cessation from what? Our worldly cravings and desires. Here it is important that we all, including one Sidhartha Gautama, have our seemingly innate human desires, passions, and longings. The point here, which is also a philosophical precept, is that we do not become slaves to these passions and desires. We simply observe them, as opposed to being controlled and taken over by them. So then, this transitionary point is that Buddha offers us an end to our suffering. If you want to be free from suffering, you can. It is through the cessation of your earthly cravings. It is this cessation that we, or more specifically, Buddhist call Nirvana, or what is called Satori in Japanese. Again, this too gives rise to the final noble truth, which is only the beginning to the eightfold path. And so it should become apparent, that in each Buddhist teaching, each end, is only a new beginning.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Eightfold Path

Again, one cannot help but be taken aback by the cunning wisdom of Buddha. In his last noble truth, he gives us the answer to the cessation of craving with yet another simple singular mantra, which is that of Magga. He offers us the solution which is his eightfold path by giving us Magga. To end craving, follow my path, the path of Magga, or the eightfold path. Through this nirvana can be attained. It is truly remarkable to consider how Buddha managed a way to remedy the illness of humankind in all but four words. In as little as four words, he was able to articulate to us, The illness that plagues mankind is suffering by means of craving. The cure is cessation from craving, which can be attained thusly. The eightfold path can be summarized as follows:

  1. Samma ditthi - The first step that the Buddha referred to in what has commonly been called the middle path was that of right understanding. According to the precepts of Buddhism, the journey to the end of suffering began with an accurate understanding of the world, reality, and the way things were. Essentially, this meant accepting and surrendering to the idea that the four noble truths were exactly that; noble and true. When Buddha spoke of this, he related to his students that in his forty-plus years of practicing the middle path, that he had identified two distinct categories of understanding. The first that he mentioned he called knowing accordingly. For Buddha, this level of understanding is what we generally associate with the word. That is, the type of knowledge and understanding that one might expect in an academic setting, such as the recitation and memorization of facts. To Buddha, this was a very shallow, surface-level understanding. He referred to this as anubodha, and noted that it had no real depth to it. The second category that Buddha had for understanding, which was in direct unison with his concept of right understanding, could roughly be translated to mean penetrated. When Buddha referred to this level of understanding, it meant that the individual's mind was clear of impurities, which allowed them to see things as they really are. But what did Buddha mean by such impurities? One way of thinking about it is what we nowadays call mindfulness. Naturally, our brain wants to analyze, categorize, define, and limit the world around us. For Buddha, these are the impurities that he spoke of that prevented people from seeing things as they truly were. That is to say, that we are attached and egoically identified with the thought processes and thought-forms taking place in the backdrop of the mind. An individual that was free from said impurities had reached a place of mindfulness that could almost be regarded as no mind. So for instance, the individual with impurities of the mind would see a lake and immediately begin to label it as beautiful, or blue, or round, whereas the individual without said impurities would, with a clear mind, simply see the lake, without putting any definitive labels on the said lake. For Budha, right understanding meant acknowledging the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and reaching this state of mind, or mindfulness, free from the said impurities of the mind.
  2. Samma sankappa- The second pillar of the eightfold path is known as right thought. At this junction, it is worth observing how these first two sentiments constituted what Buddha understood true wisdom to be. It is worth noting due to the way that it is in such stark juxtaposition with how wisdom is typically regarded as. Generally speaking, when people think of wisdom, it is likened with knowledge, the memorization of facts, intellect, and with individuals with very high IQ's, who know a lot about a given topic, such as say, Albert Einstein, or Socrates, just to name a few. For Buddha, nothing was further from the truth. Again, he took this accumulation of knowledge to be the most shallow level understanding that a person could have. As far as Buddha was concerned, right thought or true wisdom was concerned with an individual's attempt to renounce said attachments or cravings, to fill their thoughts with selfless devotion, love, non-violence. Not only that, but these thoughts were meant to be lent to all things, and towards all lifeforms. In that way, like in tantra, all things are sacred. This is interesting, because not only was that his impression of wisdom, but it articulated that the individual was lacking in wisdom, in all realms of their life, in the opposite was the case, even if this took place in social or political contexts. Here, it is worth noting that in right understanding, the pupil acknowledges the truth and need for the eightfold path, and in right thought, the student consciously makes the decision to commit and dedicate themselves to the eightfold path, and to Buddha's teachings.
  3. Samma vaca -In Buddhist philosophy, Samma Vaca follows in the same manner as all other pillars of the eightfold path, in that it refers to right speech. On speaking on a conscious level, Buddha spoke of how there were certain doorways that had to be passed through if what was to be said constituted as right speech. What this meant that if someone had something to say, that it had to meet certain criteria in order for them to do so. First and foremost, the individual had to meditate on whether or not what they said was true, that they could not lie, and if they were not sure, it was not worth saying. At the same time, things were not to be said or spoken if they created for any sense of pain or suffering for self, or for the other. On the most basic level, right speech for Buddha meant abstaining from four different types of speech; speech free of lies, speech free from slander, or from defamation of character, abstaining from speech that is rude, malicious, or cruel, as well as speech that is free from trivial, pointless, meaningless babble that was otherwise useless. Essentially, speech was to be truthful while avoiding any sort of pain or abuse. At the same time, it was equally important to this philosophy that if whatever the individual had to say was in no way useful, or of any significance, that they should instead practice noble silence. These are the doorways to speech that are inherently part of Samma Vaca.
  4. Samma kammanta- Ralph Waldo Emerson was once quoted saying, "Your actions speak so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying," and it is this idea that speaks directly to the next approach in the eightfold path in that of right action. In the individual's path towards enlightenment, Right Action, Right Speech, and Right livelihood constitute for the ethical conduct segment behind this philosophy. As we go further into each of these practices or techniques, virtues even, it becomes all the more apparent how concerned the buddha was with love, compassion, wisdom, and ensuring that in all that we do, that it does no harm to others. When thinking of this precept in its relationship with moral conduct, I cannot help but think of what the bible has to say about how the way the father goes, so the family goes, which lends itself to the notion that we do not take on the sins of our father, but in a way, we inherit them and pay for them, causing a kind of rippling effect for as many as four generations to come. At the same time, it reminds me of the way that native tribes of the past would not come to a collective decision on an issue, unless they felt that it was what was best for the next ten generations to come, which is something that I think that we could all learn from. It reminds me as such, as we are morally and ethically responsible for moving up from our parents station in life, and in addressing these moral issue, and that is what right action is concerned with. At the heart of this discipline, is the idea of one's moral and ethical character, and behaving in a way moral, peaceful, and wholly honorable. Through the discipline of rightful action, the individual becomes thoughtful in being mindful in all of their dealings, and inso doing, teaches others how to also be honorable and peaceful in all that they do. The individual acting in accordance with right action abstains from those behaviors that are not rightful in just, such as lying, stealing, participating in promiscuous, lustful, unsanctioned, and wholly questionable sexual behaviors, fraudulent practices, and other such illicit and unholy manners of conducting oneself. In the same way, right action is very much idiosyncratic with the eastern perspective of karma, which is that of doing things in accordance with one's free will and consent, meaning that they choose to do so, whether that is conscious or subconscious. At the same time, it is important to note what morality means in the context of Buddhism and the eightfold path, which specifically refers to acting in a way that is both compassionate and understanding of others, as well living in such a way that is concordant and in harmony with all other lifeforms as well with the way things are, almost in the same way that we think of the philosophical sentiment of the great chain of beings, in that all things are essentially connected in one way or another. Think of it along the lines of treat others as you would want to be treated in all things that one does.
  5. Samma ajiva - The precept that is Samma Ajiva, or commonly known as Right Livelihood is directly related with both Right Action, and Right Speech, under the overarching umbrella of ethical and moral considerations, as has been previously noted. That being said, the technique or practice of Samma Ajiva, or Right Livelihood, is concerned with the individual's occupational endeavors, or the way that they go about making a living, as the name rightly suggests, no pun intended. Okay, maybe a little. According to the Buddha, if everyone, including the likes of politicians, made a considerable effort to practice right livelihood, this would be the premises for an ideal society. Seeing as to how one of the fundamental truths in the Buddhist tradition is that of a belief of equality for, and respect of all life, there were three main conditions for one's occupation to be considered in accordance with Right Livelihood. First and foremost, by whatever means that the individual chooses to make a living, it had to be one that was by and large idiosyncratic with the ideals of Right Action. Therefore, as one went about their work, they were still able to abstain from those behaviors that we might call wrong action. In addition, the way in which one earns their living must abstain from those professions that bring harm to, or that exploits others by any means. Not only that but said profession must be honorable, innocent, and shameless in its nature altogether. Buddha thusly provided a layman's interpretation of the five types of businesses that the individual should ultimately avoid to act in a harmonious relationship with Samma Ajiva, which was that of dealing in the business of weapons, human beings, meat, intoxicants, as well as that of poisons. Here we get a brief glance at the old idiom, as a man does one thing, so he does all things. In this case, for the Buddha, if a man's occupation carried with it disrespect towards any lifeforms, so too did he lack respect in terms of his self, and as such, this disregard towards life, whether of self or the other, acted as a tremendous impediment or obstacle in one's spiritual development. While one might easily observe that the Buddha would have been against any occupations that promoted arms trade or war, such as the work of a soldier, or those professions that dealt exclusively in the slave trade, one might be surprised to note how Buddha felt the same in this regard for those trades dealing in the arts, such as a career in acting, for it promoted for him, attachment and grand delusions projected onto society. He was also avidly against those businesses that dealt in mediumship, palm readings, fortune-telling, and psychic readings and other similar lines of work that he referred to as the contemplatives. Again, Right Livelihood, along with Right Action and Speech, were the pillars in which his moral and ethical principals were built upon. The highest aim at the heart of this moral and ethical sentiment was the promotion of the highest quality of life in terms of being happy and harmonious both in the context of on the individual level, as well as that on a societal level. The Buddha strongly believed that this moral and ethical foundation was a kind of requirement for higher levels of spiritual attainment, meaning that spiritual development could not and would not take place without some kind of moral basis to rely on.

"And what is right livelihood? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, having abandoned dishonest livelihood, keeps his life going with right livelihood: This is called right livelihood."SN 45.8

"Herein, Vyagghapajja, a householder knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income. "Just as the goldsmith, or an apprentice of his, knows, on holding up a balance, that by so much it has dipped down, by so much it has tilted up; even so a householder, knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income."AN 8.54

  1. Samma Yamama - Samma Yamama refers to what is known as right effort, and is included along with right mindfulness as well as right consciousness under Buddha's overarching umbrella of mental discipline. During the lifetime of the Buddha, the enlightened one observed and was subjected to many different alternative states of consciousness, which is one way of stating it. From this, we might get his observation that we should watch our thoughts which become our words, which in turn become our action, legacy, and ultimately our destiny, which I quoted earlier. That being said, right effort has everything to do with the thoughts that create or allow for our different states of consciousness. The direct consequence of this, of course, is that it allows us to take back control over our mental state, with our mental state directly affecting the way we feel. In a way, one could make the argument that the Buddha was one of the first psychologist and deeply understood the ways in which our mental state as well as our thoughts control our feelings, and had an astute understanding of emotional intelligence well before his time. With everything being kept into consideration, what is referred to as Samma Yamama or right effort is two-fold in its entirety. On the one hand, right effort simply asks the practitioner to prevent those thought patterns that are both evil and unwholesome, and that ultimately lead to unwanted states of mind from entering within the psyche, while at the same time asking that if there are such thoughts or state of mind already existing within the individual, to do one's due diligence to rid themselves of them. Similarly, Samma Yamama reinforces this notion by asking to bring to one's attention to those things that are wholesome and good, and that allow for uplifted states of being to the forefront of the mind. Not only that, but through the determination to cultivate, nurture, and develop those attitudes, beliefs, and thoughts that create for said state of being.
  2. Samma Sati - When contemplating the most efficient way to describe the practice that is Samma Sati, or right mindfulness, the first thing that comes to mind is that of a sentiment raised by spiritual leader Eckart Toelle, as he discusses how we are deeply identified with the thought patterns that we experience every day, and where the only solution is to be the observer in terms of thought-forms or the everyday feelings that we experience, and by further developing this capacity to be the observer, rather than reacting to the stimuli that we are subjected to daily. This kind of fly-on-the-wall attitude or disposition is the same ideal that is practiced in the technique that is Sama Sati, and as mentioned earlier, right mindfulness falls under the broad category of mental discipline along with right effort and concentration, and rightfully so. Quite simply, the Buddha asks his students to practice being mindful, articulating to them that there is a right, wholesome, and good way of doing so. Here it should be noted that mindfulness does not refer to the mind being occupied with a great many conceptualizations or meetings that need to be attended, and at what time. No, quite the opposite really. Mindfulness in this traditional sense means to reach a plateau of no mind if you will, the place where the individual has emptied their mind, and simply observes over both the internal and external world, and the sensations that it creates for. In terms of Buddhism, right mindfulness asks the individual to be painstakingly aware of all things occurring within the physical self, the mental self, as well as the emotional self at all times, as well as any thoughts, conceptualizations, ideas, or beliefs taking place in the operations of the mind, in this sort of detached, fly-on-the-wall observer sort of way; meaning that the individual does not attach or cling to any one idea or thought, or choose to deeply identify themself with any given thought pattern.
  3. Samma samadhi- The eight and final technique intrinsic to Buddhism is that of Samma Samadhi or Right Concentration, which in its totality is arguably one of the most multi-faced practices of the entire eightfold path journey. It is this Buddhist practice that most people would generally associate with meditation, and calls for a kind of concentration far greater than one would need for studying for the next midterm, or that may be required in driving one's car. Again, right concentration is deeply connected with the notion that suffering is brought on by attachment, and that the eightfold path is the means to our salvation or at least one means, and it is to this end that the Buddhist meditates upon, which in a way, is the contemplation of, at the very least, the realization of enlightenment. In this specific case, Samma Samadhi is utilized in a way that the practitioner is concentrating, be it by meditation or whatever other means, on having a wholesome and pure state of being. Again, here pure is in reference to the impurities of the mind as it endlessly categorizes, analyzes, describes and defines the world around it. At the same time, this very narrow and specific concentration focuses itself that the individual may reach the highest state of consciousness that is possible or available to them and that in turn, that they may realize enlightenment to a varying degree, and it is that in which the focus is placed upon.

The Buddha's eightfold path and the practices that are inherent to it are as relevant today as they were then, and perhaps even more so. This is so crucial for us to understand in this epoch of human history that we find ourselves part of because the very underlying cause behind suffering so to be almost synonymous with the way of the world as it were. On a day-to-day basis, it is estimated that the average individual is subjected to as many as three-thousand advertisements a day. Our capitalistic and consumeristic frameworks of society almost intentionally pry on the means of our suffering, for it is the way of the world. Every part of a person's character, their status, and their defining characteristics are almost synonymous with the house or the car the home that they own, and the person who has the greatest net worth is of course and essential personal with far greater importance don't you know. And it plays on this fact, because we much rather be readily accepted, to be part of the haves, as opposed to the have not's and to know the who's who of the world, and so it is crucial that we learn to let go, and detach from things as it were. It is as the Buddha said, you are not imprisoned by iron bars or wooden blocks, but by the jewels and precious metals of the world. By other people's sons and daughters. These are but weightless fetters really, but can you break free from them though? I implore thee, now, more than ever, it is time to break free from your weightless fetters.

Buddha's Eightfold Path


Alan Watts on the Eightfold Path

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