The Road, Part 2: Noble truth number 2


I have said it before and I will reiterate for clarity (and possible trolls): I am no buddhist. I am not even, like The Sweet BF, one of the half-assed variety. But the more I read of it (which is still precious little, okay, trolls?) and the more of life I see and experience, the more I think old Gautama might have been onto something.

Take one of the (four, four, count ’em, four!) foundational principles of Buddhism, Noble Truth the Second: “Suffering is Attachment,” which, for those of you who are even less familiar than I with the Truths, follows hard on the heels of “Life is Suffering.”

Then think back on the loss of a beloved grandparent, or a romantic relationship that ended, or a job you were asked to leave before you were ready.

Or, to travel even further into the land of mundane minutae, that feeling you get after a bad cold call, or an audition that went less than spectacularly, or leaving a date that went south or a party that failed to meet your expectations.

What’s that word I snuck in there? Why, “expectations,” of course. Because in all of those smaller circumstances, you likely had some kind of expectation that things would go differently: that the call would land you a huge piece of business; the audition, a job; the date, a partner; the party, a rockin’ good time, and perhaps a brief vacation from other feeling you were currently, wait for it, attached to.

It’s a little harder to see what is attach-y about loving a person or even a position eminently worthy of love. And by “attach-y,” I mean “wrong,” right?

Not exactly.

Attachment isn’t wrong; it just is. I’m guessing if the fat man were around today and you marched up to him and said, “Listen, Bub: my gramma rocked the universe and there is nothing wrong with my missing her and I intend to go on missing her and that’s that,” he’d shrug and say the Buddhist word for whatever. It’s not his job to tell you what you’re doing right or wrong, but to get his own shit straight enough that he can show you compassion, which took even his Bub-ness a mighty long time of wandering and wondering and trying-and-failing, if the stories are to be believed. (Oh, and what I love about Buddhism? They don’t care if you believe the stories, either! Rawk!)

The BF and I listened to a lot of my favorite Joe Frank episodes on our recent trip, which meant we listened to a lot of Jack Kornfield‘s charming and wonderful lectures, as well. Really, if you like this blog and are interested in dipping your toes in the Buddhist waters, you could do a lot worse than the recorded lectures of Jack Kornfield (here are some you can hear for free!) and the lively books of “zen punk monk” Brad Warner (and he’d be fine if you bought them through those Amazon links or got ’em from the library, and so would I!). They are wonderfully soothing and stimulating at the same time, these shows, and they helped me find a bit of peace in the middle of my discomfort: an incipient Crohn’s flare which I thought had mutated to garden-variety constipation but finally reared its ugly head as an incipient Crohn’s flare WITH constipation. Which, for those of you who have never had the pleasure, feels like what I imagine the ninth month of pregnancy feels like, stupendous belly, aliens kicking around inside, waves of occasional blinding pain and nausea (sooo much fun in a car in the middle of the Mojave Desert!) and no matter what, that goddamned baby will not come out.

I’ve been in flares before and learned from them, and not learned from them. I’ve learned what I can get away with and what I can’t, and then I’ve gone ahead and done all the stupid things (bread! M&Ms! coffee!) that put me there in the first place.

Today, though, as I was skimming through the Facebook, I stumbled on a heart-rending video from a dear friend who was alternately beating herself up and feeling awful about herself because she did something many of us do all the time and most of us do at least some of the time: overcommit. This beautiful lady with her gigantic, beautiful heart, who gives and gives and gives was suffering, and in the course of her piece, she wisely pegged her sad, sad feelings as those of powerlessness and smallness.

I crack myself with how slow I am to learn things, and with how I learn things, period.

Because I can do this again and again, overcommit, and feel dreadful about the consequences, and not even come CLOSE to identifying the root of my suffering as feelings of powerlessness and sorrow because, let’s be honest, I am not 1/10th the nice of this great-hearted person, and learn nothing. And yet I saw her suffering and something clicked for me: I am attached to feeling well.

I am attached to the idea that I will always have limitless youth and energy and power to draw upon for getting done the outrageous list of things I must do. Under that, I am attached to the idea that I am in control, and that I have the ability to call my own shots as I see fit. And of course, under all that, I am highly, highly attached to the idea that I have limitless time. Which is sort of a laugh because the last time I looked, I was turning 10 and in four months, I’ll turn 48.

What would happen if I let go of the idea that I must always be happy? Or well? Or successful or rich or right on down the line to the smallest of the small: if I let go of the idea that a favorite wool sweater would always be there for me, so that when it accidentally took a spin through the washer and dryer, I did nothing more than chuckle as I pulled out my new, doll-sized pullover?

What would happen if I never got another parking space or that Magic E-Mail or taste of McDonald’s fries? Well, if it were the latter of the three, I might be more firmly on the road to some kind of wellness, since there ain’t no kind of fries on my diet. But really, I think I might have some peace, which might free up some room, which might mean a bit more compassion and a bit less angst.

I would never, ever in a million years suggest that it’s silly or wrong to feel lousy because you’ve overcommitted. I hope I always feel lousy when I do, because it’s no fun for anyone.

But I hope even more that I can learn to examine the lousy and pull apart the feelings and actions that got me to it, so that (a) I don’t have to feel lousy and (b) I can be more useful to people who are feeling that way.

What I hope the most right now, though, is that my friend, who is grace herself, finds some of the peace she has inadvertently given me.

Which may be the beginnings of compassion. Which, though it clearly shows my attachment to the feeling, would be awfully nice, I think…


Image by Jayel Aheram via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. You are not alone in this. Lots of smart, talented, driven people make their way to the Buddha. My brother, Harvard grad, Ph.D., head of sections of associations, he’s a Buddhist too. It’s good to find humility where ever you can.

  2. I’m smiling, reading this. I have a tendency towards making esoteric possibly non-existent connections with things, but this seems so closely tied with the preceding post about “strong opinions”.

    I hopped on the Buddhist train many years ago, in some post-adolescent rebellion of Catholic upbringing, and I’ve never really left it, as it will never provide any offensive stuff to allow me to leave in a huff. Now I’m still riding the train, but maybe sometimes as the hobo defacing it at the same time… super bad metaphor, but well, I have tendency to that as well.

    Beginning to read about Buddhism, it came as total shock to me that the idea of attachment did not just mean to material stuff and “suffering” and all that. I could totally get behind that at the time, and Stick It to the Man, etc. But, It also means attachment to ideas and concepts, and self image and all that. For some reason I was and still am floored by how I cling to my big ideas and opinions, and how it really can hold me back. Such a simple but alien concept. Why do we think that our opinions on every little thing define who we are?

    The book by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron called I think ” Start Where You Are” was a real eye opener for me.

    sorry for wordy post.
    Nice writing, Im kinda hooked on reading this blog.

  3. My quest, to find moments of respite from BAD feelings and yes even have some GOOD feelings about my SELF, started with buddhist like thoughts. Being the sort of gal that does this – I thought myself to the absolute conclusion and ended up with – “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” I now label myself – “ethical nihilist” with an absolute/resolute sigh. My advice to you – don’t go there, remain engaged in your life as it is right now without trying to think yourself out of the spots that make you feel BAD about your self letting them pass and keep on keeping on.

  4. Thanks all, for the support.

    Mayura, I think I get what you’re trying to say. My goal is not at all to disengage, nor to stop feeling the feelings, but to have the feelings stop ruling me.

    As my wise, first shrink-slash-astrologer once said, “Change? You should be so lucky!” I don’t think we change our essential selves, and we can’t wipe out years of learning and training and being. But from my years of therapy, I think we can learn to recognize when we’re stuck in patterns, and to move more quickly off of them.

    When I do start meditating—and it’s looking inevitable at this point—I will be sure to find a good teacher. Brad Warner, the punk dude who became a zen monk, whom I’ve written about a few times, teaches meditation out here in Los Angeles. I’m pretty sure I’ll start with him, and see about what’s next.

    But yes yes yes (or no no no, depending), the point is never to disengage. I don’t think that people who are doing the path “right” (haha…”right” and “buddism”) are disengaged. I think they’re just living, with perhaps a little different (and, I hope, better) perspective.

    We shall see.

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