To see how it works, let's first look at how attachment creates moments of unhappiness that are completely unnecessary. The main source of the unhappiness is the ideas we hold. Human beings get attached to ideas — ideas about who they are, what's the best way to live, ideas about what other people should be like, and so on — and our attachment to those ideas causes most of our day-to-day suffering.
I know it seems like the circumstances and reality cause your suffering, and it seems that other people really should act differently, and if they did we wouldn't suffer as much. But it is our ideas about reality that causes the suffering, not the reality itself.
When you change your ideas about something, it changes the way you feel about it.
Of course, I'm not talking about physical pain. If someone hits you, it is the punch that causes the pain. But suffering or unhappiness can be caused by your own thoughts about the person who hit you long after the pain from the punch has gone away. So the method I am about to explain may not be very effective for handling physical pain. But it does work with unhappiness and anxiety. And it works very, very well.
Buddhism has been around for a long time, but that doesn't make it worth anything. A lot of stuff that's been handed down for thousands of years is worthless nonsense. Just because something is ancient doesn't make it automatically good or bad.
But once in awhile some ancient knowledge turns out to be right on the mark, and this is one of those. If you could become non-attached to the ideas in your head, you'd be blissfully happy just sitting there doing nothing more than breathing. No kidding.
Of course that's not easy, and that's why not many of us have been able to do it. But the better you are at unattaching yourself from an idea, the happier and less stressed you will be. Gains in this area make a big difference.
Those people spending years meditating in Zen monasteries for ten hours a day are doing what? They're learning to catch themselves attaching to an idea and they are learning to detach. That's it. That's all they're doing. Do it enough and you're enlightened.
But you can practice it without sitting down and crossing your legs. You can do it anytime during the day. And the best time to do it (the time when it will make the most difference to your happiness) is when you're experiencing some form of stress.
You can also do it when you meditate. As you begin repeating your mantra or paying attention to your breath, your mind will wander. Your mind will drift to another subject, and you won't want to come back to the "boring" task of thinking a mantra. This is why meditation is good practice in non-attachment, because to do something boring, you have to become unattached to the ideas about boredom, suffering, discomfort, entertainment, what's interesting, and so on.
When you're meditating and you get lost in a little imaginary conversation with someone, and then you realize you have stopped focusing on your mantra, you don't want to stop imagining this conversation right in the middle of it. You're attached to the conversation. But you pull your attention away from it (detach) and return to your mantra. Over and over again.
You do the same thing with your beliefs every day. You are attached — you cling with intensity — to the ideas you hold. And you don't want to let go of them. And so you hang on, and you suffer.
As a matter of fact, all you have to do is pay attention when you feel stress. At the moment of stress, there is a 99.9% chance you are clinging to an idea. Ask yourself, What idea am I clinging to?
Think about it. There is one. If you are stressed, there is an idea you are holding onto.
Then ask yourself, Is it worth the stress? Is it worth the stress to hang on to the idea? About 80% of the time, it won't be, and you can let the idea go. I don't mean try to forget the idea. I mean just don't cling to it. It's just an idea.
For example, I went for a hike today. I injured both my knees a few months ago, and I have been slowly rehabilitating them. I miss running hard. I miss that great feeling afterwards. So I'm in a hurry to heal up. The problem is, healing doesn't speed up just because I'm in a hurry.
So as I was hiking, I was pushing myself out of impatience, and it hurt. But I didn't want to go slow, so I kept pushing myself. Then it occurred to me I was feeling stress. I felt impatient and frustrated.
So I asked myself the question, What idea am I clinging to? The answer was obvious: I want to heal as soon as possible.
Next question: Is it worth the stress? In this case (as in most cases) no it wasn't. I doubt if it was helping me heal faster anyway. And it was not enjoyable. Here I was walking, more mobile than I've been in a long time, and I wasn't enjoying it. I was pushing myself.
So I said to myself, Okay, that's it. Even if this did heal me up a little faster, it's not worth it. I let it go. My frustration went away. And I slowed down.
I didn't have to slow down much before the pain in my knees went away, and I had an enjoyable hike after that. I'm sure it did me good, and now that I've become somewhat detached from my idea about hurrying my healing, it's easier to consider the possibility that pushing myself might actually slow my healing. I don't know if that's true, but I can see now it's quite possibly true, and it isn't an idea I had been able to consider when I was attached to the "heal fast" idea.
My suffering, my frustration, had been caused by an idea. I assumed it was caused by the objective conditions. I took for granted that my frustration was caused by the injury and the damper that injury put on my mobility. But my unhappiness was actually caused by my attachment to the idea that I must heal up faster than I was healing.
Here's a verse from the Dhammapada (a book of sayings usually attributed to Buddha):
The craving of a person who lives heedlessly
Grows like a maluva creeper.
He moves from beyond to beyond,
Like a monkey, in a forest, wishing for fruit.
Whomsoever in the world
This childish entangled craving overcomes,
His sorrows grow,
Like birana grass, well rained upon.
But whosoever in the world
Overcomes this childish craving, hard to get beyond,
From him, sorrows fall away,
Like drops of water from a lotus leaf.
This is poetry, and it is obviously Eastern, but it says something important: Greed makes people unhappy. Craving makes people unhappy. Greed and craving are simply the process of holding onto ideas. And clinging to ideas causes sorrow and unhappiness. You realize, of course, that you do this, right? All of us do it.
Once in awhile something happens to some people and they get a chance to realize this great truth. Some people get it when they are diagnosed with cancer. Or a parent dies.
In the book, Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, Steven Callahan wrote with great poignancy on this truth. Callahan was sailing across the Atlantic alone when his boat struck something and sank. He was set adrift on a rubber life raft for seventy-six days of difficult struggle.
In a calm moment between storms and shark attacks, he gets the chance to drink some water, which he rations very carefully because he doesn't have very much. In these moments of peace, he wrote,
...deprivation seems a strange sort of gift. I find food in a couple hours of fishing each day, and I seek shelter in a rubber tent. How unnecessarily complicated my past life seems. For the first time, I clearly see a vast difference between human needs and human wants. Before this voyage, I always had what I needed — food, shelter, clothing, and companionship — yet I was often dissatisfied when I didn't get everything I wanted, when people didn't meet my expectations, when a goal was thwarted, or when I couldn't acquire some material goody. My plight has given me a strange kind of wealth, the most important kind. I value each moment that is not spent in pain, desperation, hunger, thirst, or loneliness.
This is wisdom. And pretty much everyone knows it. But our biology drives us to pursue acquisition anyway.
When Thor Hyradal (author of Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft) was young, he went to live with nature on an island in the South Pacific, just him and his girlfriend. On the little boat that took them to a remote island, the captain of the boat told Hyradal about the islanders and their lust for material goodies: "It's all crazy, but they want it like everybody else. I detest our own civilization; that's why I'm here. Yet I spread it from island to island. They want it, once they have a taste of it…"
The captain seemed exasperated. "Why do they want sewing-machines and tricycles," he exclaimed, "or underclothing and canned salmon? They don't need any of it…The needs increase. The expenditure. Then they have to work although they hate it. To earn money they don't need."
The native peoples had lived a kind of life many of us yearn for. They lived in beautiful surroundings. They had an abundance of natural sources of food. They had to spend very little of their time "working" for a living. And as long as the temptations of civilization weren't available, they were happy.
But then they saw things they wanted. The wanting created their unhappiness.
I told all this once to a friend of mine, Richard, and he had a question: "When I ask the second question, Is it worth the stress? and the answer is no, then what? My mind will have nowhere to go."
That's a good question because when you discover yourself clinging to an idea and you know it's causing you stress, you won't want to cling to the idea any more. So far so good, but if you try to avoid thinking about something, that thought will come up more often than if you don't try to resist thinking about it. There are a lot of experiments showing this to be the case.
The more you try to suppress a thought, the more obsessional the thought becomes. Trying to avoid it makes it impossible to get away from.
So my answer to Richard was: "Get your mind interested in something else. Your mind is in some ways like a little kid. Have you ever seen what parents do when little Johnny wants to chew on the tablecloth?"
"Yes," he said, "They hand him a toy or do something that puts his attention on something else."
"Right. And if what they divert his attention to captures his interest, he forgets all about the tablecloth. We haven't changed much since we were kids. The same thing works now."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, instead of grabbing the tablecloth out of your mouth, so to speak, and having your mind throw a fit, hand it a toy: Tag a slogan onto the end of it."
"Like what?" asked Richard, now looking pensive, "Are some better for this than others?"
"Yes. Slogans that put your mind on a purpose are best. Stay on track, for example. Or a good question: What is my goal here? Or simply state your purpose and start getting to work on it"
In other words, do not try. Do not use force. Don't try to force the idea you've been clinging to out of your mind, or try to "let it go."
Force itself is a form of clinging, and just causes more stress.
One of the things you learn when you're meditating is that the mind concentrates best when you do not try. Researchers using biofeedback equipment to train people to lower their blood pressure find that the only people who can't do it are those who try really hard.
Your mind works best relaxed. So you repeat your mantra, and you will find your mind drifts. When you notice it, you gently bring your mind back to repeating the mantra.
If you use effort, your mind will wander even more. You cannot concentrate by using strong effort.
Now bring the ability you've learned in meditation to the situation that's causing you stress.
When you have something you're clinging to and it's causing you stress, use your purpose as a kind of mantra. Keep gently bringing your mind back to your purpose. When you find it wanders, bring it back again. And again, and again. But each time without any force or effort.
It is a subtle skill, but you will learn it with practice. If you don't learn it fast enough, do not try to force yourself to learn it faster, because that'll take you further from it.
There is a phenomenon in chemistry called dilatancy. It occurs when certain kinds of fluids react to pressure. The more pressure you put on the liquid, the more it solidifies. In other words, you can easily stir it slowly, but when you try to stir it quickly, it becomes very difficult to stir at all.
Some things in life work like that. The harder you push, the less you gain. Here we have one of those. When you try not to think of something, you will think of it all the more. But when you don't worry about it and get involved in something else, your mind lets go of what it was thinking about easily.
The question always comes up: Won't the practice of non-attachment prevent you from accomplishing your goals? This is an important question. It is often pointed out by successful people that they were "driven" to succeed, that they had a burning desire, that the goal had become a necessity. They are obviously describing a solid attachment to an idea: I must succeed.
While someone can surely accomplish something with attachment, it is not necessary, and it's a rather stressful way of going about it. Listen to what Gandhi said about this. He was a man who knew something about accomplishment. He accomplished what no one thought was possible. He said,
"He who is ever brooding over the result, often loses nerve in the performance of duty. He becomes impatient and then gives vent to anger and begins to do unworthy things; he jumps from action to action, never remaining faithful to any. He who broods over results is like a man given to the objects of the senses; he is ever distracted, he says good-bye to all scruples, everything is right in his estimation and he therefore resorts to means fair and foul to attain his end."
Gandhi is saying that not only does a lack of clinging not hinder accomplishment, it actually makes you more effective! And less likely to do something you'll regret later.
Looking back at the example of my knee pain, my attachment to healing caused impatience and probably slowed down my rehabilitation efforts — thus making my efforts at healing less effective.
"Brooding over results" is a form of "clinging to the idea" (the idea that I need this to turn out well). And clinging like that causes unhappiness.
Worse still, the clinging doesn't even improve your chances of success. You can create a goal for no other reason than because having a game to play is more enjoyable than having no game, and you can pursue that goal, calmly and happily through delays and setbacks and failures.
And your calm, steadfast doggedness will help you make more progress toward your goal than intense feelings of frustration and defeatism when delays and setbacks and failures come your way.
So the answer to the question is: No, this method will not keep you from accomplishing your goals. In fact, it will make you more able to accomplish them.
Now let me summarize: When you feel stress, find out what idea you're clinging to and ask yourself if it's worth the stress. If it isn't, let the idea go. Do not force it out of your mind or try to not think about it. Instead, get your mind thinking about something else.
By becoming less stressed in this way you will be more effective in accomplishing your goals, and you will suffer less and feel good more often.
Adam Khan is the author of Self-Reliance, Translated and Principles For Personal Growth. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.