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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Examining non-attachment

Destroying the mandala is a reminder of
non-attachment. (CC) zencat7,
Whether it's the economy, marriage problems, career, self image, or friendships, anyone can have distress over something. How can non-attachment help?

Life isn't always as we wish it was. In fact, it seldom is – and that's even considering that myself and most of my readers are among the luckiest of beings to have creeped and crawled upon the earth over it's 4.5 billion years of life-bearing history. Considering how huge masses of people live today in less fortunate areas of the globe, and how human beings have managed to survive throughout thousands of years of human history, life seems even more harsh and divergent from what we'd wish it to be. Let's call this, the dilemma.

The Humanist Manifesto III states that Humanists ground values in human welfare. This implies we each should seek that which is beneficial (truly beneficial) for others and ourselves. The manifesto also states that knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Even before the advent of modern science, ancient philosophers were observing and rationally analyzing how to cope with the dilemma in order to live well. What many of them have found is that balancing compassion and wisdom are essential to that. In 'Thoughts on compassion' I said, "Compassion must be balanced with wisdom, and by wisdom I mean specifically the wisdom of non-attachment."

Our usual tendency is to have what Eastern philosophy would call a 'small mind', meaning the scope of our perspective is very narrow. We often think in very first-person terms. However, reality is not first-person.

Non-attachment isn't a nihilistic sort of uncaring, but rather the ability to have a bird's eye view of your situation and an awareness of your own feelings (a third-person point of view, or 'big mind'). Rather than being blindly caught up in your passions and led by them, it is the ability to inject your conscious judgment and decision between an external event (or your condition) and your emotional reaction to it.

Now, it's all fine and good to say that - easier said than done - but in order to be good at this it takes practice, and we must know what we are to practice exactly. Buddhism of the East, and Stoicism of the West, are two different yet similar approaches to addressing the dilemma.

We can begin by looking at the core arguments for each of the two philosophies: what is their central argument which outlines their main purpose and function? Essentially, what each boils down to is this:

We people harbor a lot of misunderstandings and misperceptions about ourselves, our worlds, and our condition (delusions). If we had greater understanding, we wouldn't get so worked up or upset about 'the dilemma' (the fact that life often doesn't go as we'd wish). Those who work to understand this deeply and engage in certain practices to transform themselves accordingly, will tend to have happier, more contented lives.

So the wisdom of non-attachment is achieved by truly and deeply understanding the nature of our delusion. What is the delusion from which we all suffer? Investigating that is where I came upon the central crux upon which, it seems to me, the most significant distinction between Buddhism and Stoicism rests.

More to follow soon :)

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