“You only lose what you cling to.” ~Buddha
I want to be famous. I want to earn lots of money. I want boxes of expensive chocolates. I want people to like me. I want you to think that this article is the most amazing thing you’ve ever read.
Enough about me. Back to the Buddha’s quote. “You only lose what you cling to.” This doesn’t make any sense, does it? Surely you only lose what you don’t cling to?
I think there are two ways of making sense of this idea.
First, what we cling to slips away from us.
Think about soap in the bath. If you grip it very tightly, it pops right out of your hand.
If we’re really desperate for something, we’re less likely to receive it. This happens in lots of different ways.
A couple of years ago I came out of a long-term relationship and started dating. I joined an online dating agency and started getting in touch with different prospective dates.
I very quickly realized how insecure I felt. As soon as I started a conversation with anyone, I was desperate for them to like me, whether or not I actually liked them!
One man in particular seemed perfect for me from his description. He was an artist, he lived in a beautiful and remote part of the world, and he had a cute dog.
I imagined all the things that we’d have in common and all the sparkling conversations we’d have. I imagined visiting him and meeting his dog. I got a little carried away.
He could hear this desperation in my emails, and he soon drifted away before we ever began a proper conversation. I wanted a date with him so badly (or I thought I wanted it badly) that I scared him off. Like soap from your too-tight grip. Whoops!
The second way of making sense of the Buddha’s quote is that we can only be deeply affected by loss when we are clinging on too tightly to something.
Think about losing a “lucky stone,” which you’ve kept in your pocket for the last three years. You haven’t really lost your luck. You’ve just lost a pebble from the beach. But if you cling to the idea that the stone was lucky, you might feel really terrible that you lost it.
When I first started writing, I had ideas about what kind of author I wanted to be. I wanted to be seen as literary. I wanted to be recognized by my high-brow literary peers. I was very attached to this idea!
When I found my first publisher, my novels were branded as “women’s fiction.” All the covers had women on them, looking a bit sappy. I felt deeply disappointed when I saw these book covers, as they didn’t represent the kind of author I thought I wanted to be.
As time went on, I grew to appreciate that these covers meant that more people were buying and reading my books. I realized that I didn’t care about being high-brow. I just cared about people enjoying my stories and getting something from them. The loss and disappointment that I’d felt when I’d seen those covers was unnecessary.
What we cling to slips away from us. And we can only be deeply affected by loss when we are clinging too tightly to something. If this is true, then how can we stop wanting money, fame, and in my case, expensive chocolate?
I don’t think we need to stop wanting these things. We just need to stop clinging to them. Clinging is holding on to something too tightly.
There is a story about a monkey who comes across a trap in the forest. He can see a coconut inside. He’s hungry and so he puts his hand through a small hole to get at it. He grips onto the coconut, which he really wants to eat, but while he’s holding the coconut he can’t pull his hand free. If he only opened his hand again, he could escape, but clinging to what he wants keeps him trapped.
So how can we can loosen our grip and escape the trap?
1. Recognize when you are clinging.
Notice whenever you feel desperate for something to turn out a particular way. Why is it so important? What are you afraid might happen if you don’t get it? Would it really be the end of the world?
2. Be open to the idea that you might get what you need, not what you want.
I thought I wanted a date with the man who had a cute dog. In retrospect, he wasn’t ideal at all. And three months later I did meet the ideal man (we’re getting married in June). We don’t always know what is best for us.
3. Take a step back.
Breathe. If you’re feeling overwhelmed because you want something too much, then do something else to distract yourself. Get involved in other things that are also important to you.
4. Get support.
If you’re obsessed with something and you can’t get it out of your mind, be kind to yourself and speak to your friends and family as much as you can. If you still can’t let go of your obsession, think about seeking professional help.
We are all human. Most of us want fame, money, and expensive chocolate. But if we can gradually stop clinging, then we won’t be so upset when we get a huge unexpected bill, or when someone eats our last expensive chocolate.
The more we can loosen our tight grip on what we expect, and what we think we need, the easier our lives will be.
We’ll be a little upset, of course. Especially about the chocolate.
Photo by Kara Allyson