In my last post I discussed how hedonism leads to emptiness and suffering. Hedonism is a self-destructive mindset born from attachment to sensory pleasure. The antidote is the cultivation of non-attachment.
In Buddhist thought, craving (tanha) creates attachment (upadana) whose fruit is suffering (dukkha). If you fail to achieve what you desire, you experience suffering. If you do achieve what you desire, you may feel temporary happiness, before descending into suffering.
As an example, imagine an executive who feels unhappy because he can’t afford to live the high life. The latter is the craving resulting in attachment to the idea that he should live a life of luxury. To overcome his emotional distress, he decides to secure five-figure monthly income. He puts in 80-hour workweeks, sucks up to his bosses, aggressively negotiates for raises, and ruthlessly cuts out everyone who stands in his way. He achieves his target income and sinks his money into a magnificent house, expensive cars, club memberships and other pointless trinkets. To maintain his new lifestyle, he has to continue putting in 80-hour workweeks, juggle the bills, play office politics and watch for backstabbers — and in the process wrecking his health and sanity.
Our imaginary executive desired money and prestige, and willingly made himself a slave to money. Despite the outward appearance of success, he suffers immense workplace pressure and puts in crazy hours that sap his energy to maintain his lifestyle, and in the process suffering from even more money-related stress. His attachment to wealth and the appearance of success sucked him into a vicious, self-destructive cycle instead of taking him to contentment.
In Buddhist thought, there are four kinds of attachment: sensory pleasure, wrong view, rites and rituals, and self-doctrine (i.e. assuming that one has a permanent, unchanging self). Pursuing these cravings creates fuel for further suffering, since you will experience suffering either from not having what you crave or when you want more of it.
In light of this, non-attachment is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought. By eliminating craving, one removes attachment and therefore suffering. The practice of renunciation, or nekkhamma, enables a person to free himself from worldly desires and gain spiritual perfection.
Non-attachment can also be found in other philosophies and religions from around the world. The New Testament of the Bible encourages Christians to exercise non-attachment, following the example and teachings of Jesus Christ. The Stoics held material possessions lightly and refused to be controlled by their desires, instead striving to be content with their lot in life. The Dao De Jing notes that people attached to material goods will suffer much, while contented people are rarely disappointed.
The practice of non-attachment is a universal concept. Regardless of your personal view on religion, the practice of non-attachment through renunciation of harmful desires leads to inner peace and saves you from self-destruction.
Ambition and Non-Attachment
Not everyone is called to be a Buddhist monk, a hermit, or an ascetic, and that is perfectly fine. If you wish to live in the modern world then you need to abide by its norms and customs. You will need food, water, shelter, clothing, medicine, education and so many other sundry things to get by. Quite naturally, you will need wealth to live.
For lay people, material goods and wealth are not necessarily evil if they create the conditions for contentment. It is going to be extremely hard to be content if you have to hold three jobs and work for 16 hours every day of the week just to eke out a living. If you do not need to worry about current and future expenses, your mind is at ease and will more readily find a state of contentment. Thus, for lay people, it is not wrong to be ambitious or to pursue career goals and dreams, so long as they do not lead to suffering.
The key is to understand what you want and why you want it. Armed with this insight you can predict if they will lead to suffering. Thus, if you want to earn one million dollars for the sake of obtaining luxury goods and the trappings of wealth, you can be sure to experience no end of *dukkha*, since these desires cannot be permanently satiated. Conversely, if you wish simply to be able to live a smooth life without ever having to worry about bills and unexpected expenses, you will be less likely to overextend yourself, push yourself to the breaking point and ruin your health and relationships.
Pair this insight with what you truly need for a fulfilling life. This could mean adequate food and clothing, shelter, positive relationships and community, and life purpose. You will realise that few of these things are material objects. Everything else is simply nice to have; there would not be any significant impact on your well-being whether you have them or not.
When you find yourself intensely craving something, ask yourself *why* you want it. What need are you trying to fulfil? Is it necessary to your well-being, or are you simply chasing transient feelings? If it is an essential need like food or medicine or a critical tool for a job, then there is no harm in obtaining it. If you are simply using it as an emotional crutch, then the best route is to let it go.
Your thoughts become your reality. How you think about yourself changes the way you feel, perceive and act. Whatever you turn your attention to becomes so. If all your thoughts are consumed with thoughts about making more money or hoarding it, you become a money-hungry monster. If your thoughts are filled with compassion towards others, you become more compassionate. Thus, if you find yourself ensnared with desire, simply turn your thoughts to something else, or clear your mind through focused meditation. Starved of attention, desire dissipates into nothingness.
This process applies to all forms of harmful desires, be it desire for material goods or casual sex or emotional disturbances. If you find yourself obsessing over something to the point where you experience suffering from it, such as ruminating over your failures or why you can’t get something, simply turn your thoughts to more productive uses — including how to improve your life instead of remaining where you are — and act on them.
You are not an eternal and unchanging being. Your life will change over time. It is inevitable. When your circumstances change, so will your life, your wants and needs. When these change, don’t resist it. Simply take stock of what has changed, understand your new life requirements, and take appropriate action to achieve a state of well-being.
Life is to be lived well. Not in the pursuit of fleeting things or feelings, but in fulfilment and in contentment. To reach such a state, identify the desires that lead to suffering and parse them from your life. With a free spirit and a light heart, you can escape suffering and find contentment in all things.