Sunday, September 11, 2011

Attachment vs Enlightenment

Cym over at Effortless Flow wrote a post just recently about how it seems wrong to her, all this Eastern religion and its insistence on detachment from the world, on being dispassionate and finding the non-dual. I don't have an answer, just some musings.

My whole family is fanatical about college football. My dad, mom, my sister, her husband, and most of my uncles are all crazy about University of Michigan. My dad and sister especially, I'm pretty sure, would bleed maize and blue if cut. They are totally into it, watching interviews of the coaches and players as the week goes on, reading all the articles and hype, finally Saturday comes and there's the pregame show, and at last, kickoff! Afterwards there are replays, analysis, and the beginning of hype for the next game. Somehow, I missed the boat; I'm at best a very tepid fan, but am more generally ambivalent about it, and rarely watch the games.

It's interesting to think about, though. On the one hand, I can sit back and watch the madness, and note how silly it all is. None of my family even went to the damn school; my parents knew some people who did; my mom went to high school with a former quarterback (Johnny Wangler), and my dad knew some other players from back then as well. So there's that. But in a way it's just arbitrary, a line drawn that lets them say "we won" and somehow include themselves in it. I really don't get it.

Yet they do seem to have a lot of fun. There's a lot of excitement and energy and pleasure in the game and the trappings of being a fan: the stats, the strategies and plays, the new draft picks, the t-shirts, the team flag out on the porch, the fight song, the little rituals every fan has... Of course, there's also the anxiety of the uncertain outcome, the anger over the missed tackle, the dropped pass, the bad call by a dumbfuck ref; and of course, the agony of the losses. Anyone who knows my family knows not to call after Michigan loses a game. Seriously. The let-down, the depression is very real and fills the house; we lose when the team loses. That arbitrary line works both ways.

So there seems to be a choice involved. Either you are involved deeply in the world, in its ups and downs, wins and losses, or else you aren't. You are either a fan of Michigan, or of Ohio State, but to say you are a fan of both is to say you are no fan at all-- you aren't involved in the game. To be above such dualities is to not care ("he who stands for everything stands for nothing"), and to not care means not to have compassion. Compassion meaning "to suffer with."

But I wonder if there really is a choice. The Buddha says that to end suffering, we must end desire, no longer be attached to outcomes, because attachment to outcomes creates karma, and good or bad, karma glues us to the wheel of joy and sorrow, life and death. I'm speaking near the edge of my understanding, because I don't know what it would mean to be free of such attachment. I'm not convinced it means compassion must cease. If, after all, the axiom thou art that is true, then even to be enlightened and serene in mind and spirit, pain anywhere is pain to you, and thus, you'd naturally care and suffer with those who suffer, love with those who love, in a word, be at one with the passions of the world, yet somehow not owned by them.

But I have to say I do agree with Cym in one respect at least. If what I said in the above paragraph is false, that to be enlightened or one with the Tao is to not have compassion, then fuck being enlightened. I wouldn't wish my family to not have the fun of fandom, I know their lives would be in some way diminished without that. Sure, it's just football, we all know that, but it's fun. If the enlightened life is a flatline of emotion somehow, it's not anything we want. But I really doubt that is the truth of the matter, it doesn't feel right. If anything, such a state might be the mystic's ecstacy, but is not a truly enlightened state, it's not all the way there.


  1. I don't think that enlightenment is even possible without compassion. The moment you close your heart, you extinguish the light of wisdom.

    Also, do keep in mind that although I expressed a sort ambivalence towards Eastern religion, I wouldn't say that it's wrong, but just that it's not right for me at this time. I still may read and be inspired by Buddhist and Taoist texts, but it's not my primary road map I use for understanding the world. In other words, I'm not a Taoist or a Buddhist, I'm just me, someone seeking clarity and understanding, and minimizing sources of confusion and misinformation in my life.

  2. The most enlightened Taoist I have ever met, my beloved Wudang hermit, said the most important thing is to have "ai xin", a loving heart. There are Taoists who seem dispassionate, but I tend to focus on my hermit, not these rigid western tai chi teachers who move more like marionettes than water. For me, Taoism is taking a very long view of things; who wins a football game is very trivial. 9/11 is very trivial, even.

  3. I hear ya Cym, I was just musing. Perhaps I misread your post, too, as regards compassion and enlightenment, I read it as you saying that it seems to you that the eastern religions encourage retreat and non-participation, and only give lip service to compassion. I guess on second reading, it seems you're against how those religions are often used, rather than their true intent? Because as you say, compassion obviously goes with enlightenment.

    Baroness, it seems all things are trivial, when you take the eternal view. That's what I was getting at with my musing: how can one really care about things if it's all trivial? Why care about the outcome of a game, or about Darfur or 9/11, if in the end, all is one and such? Where does compassion fit in?

  4. My point is there is always someone fighting someone, one conspiracy against another, teams, governments, parties, condo association board members,very little ever gets resolved. The compassion comes in the little things we can do, kindneses we can offer to people. I can do little to alleviate the suffering in ravaged Africa (not that I don't contribute to some charities) but I can help my out-of-work friend or slip a few bucks to a guy on the street. I listen to friends with problems that I cannot solve. I try not to indulge in things that cause suffering although it is very difficult, perhaps impossible not to have some impact on other people. It's the condition of living is the "post-heaven" world (a Taoist concept.)

    I think being enlightened is not so much a "flatline of emotion" (use that in a poem somewhere) but rather to not be a hostage to those emotions (fears and desires). I am neither a fan of Michigan or Ohio, nor even the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. I have no interest in those things and I feel a little about spectator sports the way people feel about evangelical religion. They are mechanisms for putting yourself on a winning side, as you suggested, a way to give meaning to a life that might not have much. As I get older, I am finding that the turning inward to find meaning is stronger, becoming a little less engaged with the noise and activity. My paintbrushes and ancient Chinese soap operas are where my energy goes. (Although I did go boogie boarding last week...not totally over the hill!)

  5. Let me wade in after the fact now that my computer issues are less vexing.

    I think what the Taoist sages were trying to share about attachments is not to be concerned with outcomes. I realize, on the surface, that sounds dispassionate, but I don't think it is at all.

    Chuang Tzu talks a lot about mastering skills. Once a person becomes proficient in life, then you can work at giving the most and best of what you have to offer. One of the foundations of giving is compassion.

    However, once we give what we can give, the outcome typically is out of our hands. There are so many other variables involved. So, the suggestion goes, give what you give can with the understanding the chips will fall where they will.

    In addition, when what we give is tied directly to outcomes, it changes the impetus of the giving. We end up giving based on selfish motivations and, to guard against a failed outcome, we hold something back to protect our self-image.

  6. RT, but if I don't care about outcomes, how can one enjoy games and the like? I can sit and root for both teams, or just enjoy the plays and such, but something's lacking. One has to admit, a lot of the interest of life comes from being passionate about something, and not in a false way, like just picking one team over another, just to have picked one.

    Passion is Drama, the ups, and the downs, of life. Of course, that means pain and suffering, but... I don't know, must we give up the highs to get rid of the lows? What's the point? I'm all for having perspective, in the Taoist sense of detachment, but there's gotta be a balance, or a way of having it both ways. Otherwise, I'd sit around serene all day, but serenity has a way of being a bit... boring.

  7. I like Brandon's answer. That's pretty much the point that I was aiming for in my post, but it didn't quite come out as I clear as I would have liked it to.