The Buddha recommended five daily recollections as a catalyst for spiritual practice: “I am of the nature to grow old, sick and die; I will be separated from all that I love; my peace of mind rests dependent on the quality of my actions."
While these reflections may at first appear grim, it is important to note that they do place happiness within our control. Furthermore, it is necessary and foundational for any serious spiritual inquiry to remind us of the fragility of the human condition, as the delusion that “there’ll always be another day” needlessly delays the efforts required to develop lasting inner peace; skillful attributes such as forgiveness, gratitude or acceptance are not easy to sustain. And so day in and out we must return to the bedrock: we live in bodies without guarantees for endurance or health, and we live dependent on conditions that are constantly in flux.
Now, it is not uncommon to misinterpret this and other teachings as an instruction to detach and distance ourselves from those we love, for there will come a time of inevitable separation. Given the preponderance of this misapprehension, its worthwhile to explore how the dharma’s insights on clinging can help us understand the murky boundaries that distinguish love and skillful attachment from less agreeable qualities of delusional attachment.
￼Naturally the key to living without clinging rests on a clear understanding of what is actually meant by “clinging” (upadana in pali); after all it would be a shame to let go of something that is useful, while continuing to hold on to that which causes suffering. So, let’s review the Buddha’s four types of unskillful clinging:
1) clinging to that which only brings short term sensual pleasures
2) clinging to our subjective views and opinions as if they’re lasting and universal truths
3) clinging to habits and rituals that are not essential to lasting serenity
4) clinging to fixed views of self or identity
Note that none of the above asks us to relinquish loved ones (the spiritual journey, after all, is not limited to nuns and monks in monasteries). Additionally, the Buddha repeatedly instructed that there is nothing unskillful about constantly returning to lovingkindness, gratitude or appreciation, for such practices and states of mind are not contingent upon changing conditions nor inevitably short term if we can sustain them. Its needless to believe our relationships compromise our spiritual efforts; so long as we maintain balanced spiritual efforts, any care and affection we show to significant others, children, parents or friends, are wonderful opportunities for our practice. While its important to expand our kindness to include as many beings as possible, we have to start somewhere!
To love while maintaining insight into the Buddha’s teachings on clinging, we are, of course, asked to revise any unrealistic expectations we bring to relationships. For example, letting go of the delusion that there’ll always be time to forgive that which could be pardoned, to express care or appreciation, to offer our attention and time when it could provide consolation. Another requirement is understanding that no matter how much we want our loved ones to live without distress, there is no immunity to pain. Example: when a child grows to adult years, spiritual life asks us to develop even greater degrees of equanimity, given the insight that we cannot spare them from the inevitable frustrations that arise in life.
When our relationships are founded on clinging we find love driven not by the strength of appreciation, but the agitation of control; in this case our care often gives way to worrying; humane concern is confused with continual and unbalanced unease. Sadly, our beliefs and views about how loved ones should behave only offer us the illusion of control; acknowledging and accepting their actual behaviors is difficult, and may ask us to experience a sense powerless and unease; yet this is the price of true, sustaining relationships. Wanting our loved ones to be free of addictions will do nothing to ease their burdens.
So the truest form of love demands relinquishing as many fixed ideas as we can that limit how we want others to behave. Experience will reveal that trying to steer or push others towards smart decisions is far less efficient than providing a foundation of support or a safe shoulder to rest on. To live without clinging requires us to be clear between that which distinguishes Love and Dependency, Connection from Control.