Attachment. Two women hugging.

Attachment: Understanding What we Want

Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached.

~Simone Weil


Have you ever had a burning desire for something that you couldn’t have?

How did you handle it?

We all have desires: relationships, jobs, things. Sometimes we get what we want, and sometimes we don’t. It’s often difficult to accept when we fail. We try to figure out different ways of getting something we may never have. This is not necessarily a bad thing as long as we remain honest with ourselves about our actions and our motives.

In Mark Manson’s blog post, Fuck Yes or No (Mark’s language is a bit more “colorful” than mine), he states that, unless you get an unambiguous “fuck yes” from those you desire and about your own desire, you should interpret it as a “fuck no.” Why would I want someone who didn’t want me unambiguously? If we have to somehow convince someone to be into us, they were never that into us. This approach can help us get rid of the grey areas in our lives.

Buddha had a similar idea. Based on my (admittedly limited) understanding of Buddhist philosophy, all suffering comes from a desire for attachment. It might be attachment to a thing, a relationship, an ideal; anything you might desire. Buddhism teaches that we can rid ourselves of that suffering by letting go of our attachments (Buddha’s language was as colorful as Mark’s, but in a different way).

Buddha and Mark are on the same page here.

We all want things, whether they be connections to people, ownership of things, or the presence of certain circumstances in our lives. We should assess how realistic the possibility of our obtaining those things is. Sometimes we can’t obtain that which we desire, and desire is all we are left with. If we are honest with ourselves about four things, we can avoid, or at least lessen, the angst that comes with unfulfilled desire.

  1. What do I want? Sometimes the person or thing we desire is undefined in our minds. It is important to fully understand what we truly want: the essence of our desire.
  1. Do I really want it? The idea of something can be way more powerful than the reality. Often, the basis of our desire is a fantasy version of some ideal. Fame is a great example of this. There is a common perception that fame—being adored by the world and experiencing everyone’s desire to be around you—is a wonderful and desirable thing. It’s an amplified version of wanting to be loved. But the reality of fame—never having any time to yourself, your life not being your own—is very different from the ideal.
  1. Why do I want it? Our motivations are as important as our actions. There is always a reason behind our desires, but we may not truly understand it. We may think we do, but if we dig deep and are totally honest, we may find that our motivations are very different from what we thought they were.
  1. What will I do if I can’t get it? There will be times in our lives when we know what we want and exactly why but can’t have it right away and might never be able to. At those times, desire will be all that we have left. What should we do with that feeling?

For me, the bottom line is that desire is OK—it can make things happen for us. Without desire and passion, we would never be able to do what was necessary to get the things we want in life. But if we developed the mindset that all of our hopes and dreams relied on a specific outcome, we would often be left in a holding pattern: unable to move on. That kind of attachment could also stop us from pursuing or even recognizing other opportunities as they arise.

I have struggled with varying degrees of uncertainty about the four questions above. When I was much younger, I always thought I knew exactly what I wanted. The reality was that I actually had no idea. I often did not keep an open mind about the direction my life was taking, which led to my attachment to outcomes that I ultimately didn’t want.

Growing up, I always wanted to be a pilot and own my own plane. I took flight training as a teenager with the goal of getting my pilot license before my driver’s license. I did a couple of long solo flights as a student, but my life as a busy high schooler got in the way and I never quite met all the requirements for a license. I started back up with flight training in my 30s, and my wife (who is a pilot) and I bought a share of a plane. As a result, we had the freedom to throw our bikes in the back of the plane and to fly off at a moment’s notice to any destination we wanted. We had tons of fun.

We enjoyed the experiences, but the actual ownership of the plane was a lot of work, took a lot of money, and was ultimately a huge pain in the ass! The dream of owning a plane and the reality of owning a plane were two very different things. We eventually sold the plane when our son came along, and, frankly, I was happy to see it go. What I really wanted to do was fly—not to own a plane.

In my youth, I also struggled with the fourth question quite a bit. I would fret about specific outcomes (usually romantic) with all the passion and intensity of my youthful soul while wearing blinders that prevented me from noticing other paths and opportunities.

Even while we pursue our desires with passion and intensity, we shouldn’t get too hung up on any specific end result. This might seem contradictory. However, if we pursue our desires ardently and honestly, the experience will be fulfilling and we will usually be the richer for it.

To paraphrase Douglas Adams, we may not end up where we intended to go, but we may end up where we need to be.

If we remain attached to something that isn’t part of our reality, we will stay in a state of angst (or “fuck no” (Manson) or suffering (Buddha)).

By embracing whatever comes, we can ensure we are making the most of the present moment.

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