Watts: “We seem to be like flies caught in honey. Because life is sweet we do not want to give it up, and yet the more we become involved in it, the more we are trapped, limited, and frustrated. We love it and hate it at the same time. We fall in love with people and possessions only to be tortured by anxiety for them.”
The Buddha taught that life is suffering. Of course, life can be more than suffering; it can be bliss and peace (nirvana). But the vast majority of us are stuck on the wheel of discontent, craving, worry, disappointment and regret – turning endlessly, round and round. Because it’s so predictable, this spinning wheel of suffering gratifies our sick need for some kind of permanence in life. And so we don’t want to give it up. What’s the alternative – oblivion? No, thanks.
In my practice of transformational coaching it became very clear early on that much of conventional counseling is about adjustment. Something happens that knocks a person out of balance – a set-back, a loss, a recurring problem. The therapist goes to work and constructs a case history, makes a diagnosis (preferably one that insurance will cover), and takes the client through a treatment plan designed to restore balance. It’s called recovery: getting back to the way life was prior to the crisis.
The deeper problem, as I discovered, is that the client’s life-system wasn’t in balance before this latest crisis. It’s just that his or her wheel had been spinning fast enough to avoid getting stuck in one or another of the five modes of suffering. Then a life event bumped the wheel and it began to wobble. Naturally the individual’s focus of attention and effort began fixating on “the problem,” which shifted the remaining momentum into what was “wrong,” and life got stuck there.
Discontent, craving, worry, disappointment or regret are thick and sticky, and once you get stuck there it pulls you deeper in. Since fixated attention on any of these “problems” is inherently unproductive – only refocusing on a solution is productive – the entire system gets drained of energy and the client ends up in depression (discouragement, fatigue, despair). This is when medication might be recommended, a chemical adjustment to keep the client on the wheel.
As a keen student of the human experience and early “ego psychology,” the Buddha saw that all of this suffering is a consequence of one thing: attachment. The ego is all about identity (“I”). Identity is about identifying with something or other (“I belong to it” or “It belongs to me”). That something is inherently unstable and impermanent, which means that the ego will have to change as well. But change is the opposite of identity, so the ego suffers. If only we could live without attachments; or better yet, if we could live without having to attach ourselves to anything. Why do we do it?
Watts says it’s our insecurity that motivates us to reach out and cling to what’s external. This body is immersed in the flux of biological and physical change, so if ego is to find identity it will have to be out there. But that’s changing, too. What hope do I (ego) have? None at all; hence the wisdom of insecurity (Watts’ book title). Once you realize that everything is “insecure” – without a permanent foundation or immortal identity – the invitation is to live life in full embrace of this fact.
Liberation, then, is living in a way that is free of attachment – not merely this or that attachment, but free of the “attachment impulse” altogether. But isn’t that ego, this drive to identify myself with something else and find my identity in it? Isn’t the whole point to hold on and ride the wheel, as “successfully” as possible?
Maybe I should just stop caring, since care involves attachment. Or is it possible to care without becoming attached?