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Ask A Buddhist: Balancing romance and non-attachment

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By Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online

My partner, with whom I’m in a new relationship, is not comfortable with the idea of non-attachment within a loving relationship. I think he feels like I am not loving fully if I am not attached to him and him to me (in the kindest sense of the word — it’s a very healthy relationship). How do I make sense of this duality for myself and for him (a very scientific and rational guy)?

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131Great question dear reader, and one I had to deal with in the abstract myself long ago at the start of my marriage of 30 years. Back then, relationships seemed to be characterized by a similar idealized polarity of co-dependent versus…well, no one said, but the assumption was there must be an opposite (where is relationship in total independence?). Non-attachment reminds me of the same either/or proposition. Sometimes I assign the word, non-attachment, responsibility for Buddhism’s aloof pop face, as if it’s above the messy things in life like romantic relationships.  To my mind, non-attachment is a sterile translation of a phenomenon that cannot be abstracted into a single word; rather, the term points to a Dharma process learned over a long, long time.

I said I dealt with my own version of the issue “in the abstract” 30 years ago. If I’m remembering correctly, at the start of a relationship we find ourselves in that awkward getting to know you and can I trust you not to break my heart territory, all the while bumping about in the land of enchantment. I had this idea or ideal of not being codependent, but committed relationships are like Polaroid photos: everything takes time to come to the fore. Eventually, a lifetime’s conditioning of each person reveals quite a crowded picture — even in 20-somethings.

We come to our spiritual practice with plenty to work with as individuals, but I’ve heard the quip that a relationship multiplies the undertaking times two. Hence, more than one person has told me that he/she wasn’t ready for a relationship because he/she had to get to know him/herself better.  In my experience, the most thorough way to get to know all about oneself occurs in the unpredictable dynamics with another person. Use whatever metaphor and it likely fits a description of relationship at some point—a storm, a paradise, a dance, a mirror, etc. If you need to work harder at your spiritual fitness than you would as a hermit (but I’d wager that the life of a recluse has its challenges), perhaps that’s a great thing. Even monastics, most of who live in community, don’t escape the learning curve of relationship—concord is a central element to their lives.

The work of the Buddha’s teachings—singly, with another person, or within a community—remains the same: to free the heart from its limitations and complications, to free the heart from suffering. In the tradition I follow, the Thai Forest Tradition, the Buddha characterized his teachings as the gradual path. Non-attachment signifies a very subtle, nuanced continuum that is a natural trajectory of seeing deeper and deeper into the nature of reality. A Buddhist practitioner must discover and maintain a weird double vision by holding close the fact that we will lose everything we cherish while at the same time recognizing that life’s fragility makes each relationship ever more precious. This isn’t just a Hallmark sentiment (although that would be an interesting line of Dharma greeting cards: Sorry I’m going to lose you eventually Valentine. I truly hope it’s not for a long, long time). Like it or not, our own lives and our relationships are high stakes, life and death. 

As I’ve thought about this question, the word entanglement has come to mind over and over as a marker of unhealthy attachment and non-attachment. The word is hardly an abstraction to anyone: we know it when we see it. We know it when we sense it in our bodies. We know it when we feel an emotionally charged clinging or a wary pushing away. We know it when our heart and mind contract into petty dramas. No one wins in an entanglement. So that’s one reference point that I use—does my reaction to something feel like an entanglement, or can I step back and call forth qualities of composure, spaciousness, and caring? If we’re honest with ourselves it’s impossible to mistake the difference. This is not the simple binary choice it may sound like: I’m pointing to Buddha’s gradual path, a gradual recognition and cultivation of one over the other.

In Buddhism there’s a term, upadana, which means “clinging,” or “taking something up” as in picking up an object.  It’s a critical step on the twelve-step wheel of dependent origination, the Buddhist psychological (as well as physical) schema of how phenomena arise. Upadana is encountering something—a mental or material object—and then wanting to hold on at all costs. By clinging, we initiate suffering: if we don’t get the object of desire we suffer; if we do get the object of desire our success is temporary. The thing is, unless we’ve spent years training our minds and hearts, we can’t help but try. We’re hard-wired evolutionarily as well as culturally to possess. For a baby, to know it is to eat it.  For a toddler, to see is it is to grab it. For a teen, to want an object of love is to plunge into anguished longing. For adults—well, you know where this is headed—we’re the ones who end up in debt with houses stuffed too full. 

According to my understanding of the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings, our will towards physical possession is the smallest and perhaps most benign aspect of the upadana trajectory. The mental objects referred to above, the invisible modes of building self-identity, are less obvious and consequently more insidious and difficult to discern. These burdens of self-identity, indistinguishable from our consciousness, are what we present to the world and call me. We see ourselves as a certain type of person, who dresses a particular way, who reads only these genres of books, who thinks about these kinds of issues, who listens only to specific kinds of music, whose friends and family are a certain type and class. It’s an unending burden of I, me, mine that defines us in our self-view as well as by society.

We are programmed to defend this me against all threats, physical and psychological. Even single-cell creatures reach out in desire and draw back in protection. How could relationships not fall headlong into this same river of possession, self-interest, and self-fortification? And so we are back to the question of non-attachment in relationship: what can the idea point to in the muddy rapids of possessing, in the ubiquitous MO modeled daily, in the MO we’re hard wired with even before birth?

Above I quoted Ajahn Passano, the abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in California; it was he who said that the work of the Dharma is to free the heart from its limitations, complications and suffering. To free the heart is to purify its fierce desires of I, me, mine and to create a bigger and more spacious field. In my mind, especially in the context of relationships, the synonym for suffering is entanglement. And like I said, we know it when we feel it, even in little bursts of irritation instead of something more blatant like anger. True compassion and caring take place to the extent to which we are able to skillfully take a step away from personal agendas with goodwill and presence. But that’s not always the arena where two people find themselves in the middle of a wrangle, clash or even passion. Our course of action is the same as when we are solo and encounter any difficulty: we go back to the Dharma. We step back and meditate; we bring the precepts of non-harming to the foreground; we take time to consider wisely.

Ajahn Passano also says this: when you see the world clearly, it allows you to put down the burden of suffering. To release it or “put it down”—the opposite of upadana—might be the best way to think about the process of non-attachment. Release is not non-engagement. Release is that wise double vision spoken of earlier: accepting the realities of the human condition and/but still loving with your whole heart. Spiritual friendship, kalyanamitta in the Buddhist canon, doesn’t exclude romantic partnerships. We aren’t looking to push away the wholesome aspects of love and affection. If we are really lucky, both people in a relationship will cultivate a double vision of romantic and spiritual partnership.

Release is what we are after, the spacious mind of release, looking to let go of the heart’s suffering whenever it arises. We learn this bit by bit: perspicacity, spiritual or otherwise, draws an arc through time. There’s a deep knowing that must ripen in the bones of our experience. Truly, there’s not time for anything else.


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Sarah Conover

About Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter," to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.

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  2. Anita Mayangpuspa

    not non engagement is really hard, for it requires you to repeatedly being in the considerative state of mind. Non stop thinking and processing for finding the best middle way between yourself and the said external factor. It is especially hard when you actually feel good about being yourself. I guess I am already numb.

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