Why do We Cling to Things?


by Jayaram V

Question: We are bound to so many things. Why do we cling to them? If you are a spiritual person who is not attached to people or things, you may be attached to a god or a guru, a movement, an ideal or a higher cause. How can the mind be emptied of all these attachments?

Before I answer your question(s), let me make this confession. I am not completely free from attachments. Therefore, I am not speaking here from a high pedestal. The important point is at some point, we must earn our freedom, at least in the mind. We must take back our lives into our hands and learn to deal with our attachments, without letting them overwhelm us or interfere with our thoughts and actions.

Clinging is a mental dependence upon things that seem to give us comfort or pleasant feelings, which keep us interested in living and motivated to live. Life is filled with suffering. In this ocean of suffering, we search for islands of happiness. Sometimes we build there our own little worlds with the things we own, imagine or seek, hoping to find in them peace and happiness or respite from suffering. It is rather an imperfect solution to the problem of suffering. However, we follow it because it seems to be the correct solution, whereas the truth is attachments provide temporary relief from suffering. Therefore, our search for peace and happiness never ends.

We cling to things because we are subject to impermanence. Everything in life is uncertain and impermanent. As far as our lives and the world are concerned, it is the universal reality. No one can escape from it or from the suffering it creates. No one can accurately predict their future or their destinies. We all have to deal with impermanence and uncertainty and find solutions to feel safe and secure and achieve stability and certainty.

We do that, partly by holding on to things, cultivating habits, building relationships, developing routines, and avoiding the unknown and change. Through them, we want to reduce our suffering, fear and anxiety. We aim for safety, security and happiness in life by clinging to what has already been tested to be comforting, safe, pleasant and harmless, and avoid that which is not.

If you have lost something today, you cannot be certain that you will get it back tomorrow. Even if you have riches and an abundance of wealth, you cannot assure yourself that you can live without the fear of losing it. The fear of future, the unknown and the uncertain define our lives. It is also natural, and in a way, it is healthy because it promotes self-preservation and the continuity of the species.

Nature does not promote complacency or contentment in humans. It has designed us to secure our lives by seeking things and amassing things as a part of our survival. Therefore, do not feel guilty of your attachments. In clinging to things and people, you are following the laws of Nature and doing nothing wrong. It is how life is supposed to be lived in Nature by humans on earth.

We are made to long for life and cling to all things that promote life, sustain life and make our lives pleasant and happy. Nature has also endowed us with a natural, healing mechanism which helps us overcome difficult attachments, by erasing or weakening their memories when they are no more available or difficult to obtain. We learn to forget them, live without them or replace them with newer attachments. For example, we gradually recover from the death of a close friend or relation or the loss of a valuable possession. As past attachments fall away, we learn to adapt and adjust to the changing circumstances. Thus, we  have an innate ability to cope with our attachments and survive if the need arises.

In worldly life, if you chose to be a householder, it is not sinful to seek happiness or peace or fulfillment through things and relationships that complete you, compliment you or help you feel loved, accepted, acknowledged, recognized or appreciated. Clinging becomes a spiritual and existential problem when you become entangled and overwhelmed by too many attachments and lose your control and discretion. It becomes a moral and ethical problem when you succumb to pride, lust, greed, envy and egoism, and start hoarding things beyond reasonable need. You should therefore aim for balance, moderation and the middle path.

If you can manage to be mentally free even when you have too many possessions or problems, you will not be burdened by the problem of attachment. Hence, our tradition encourages people to cultivate indifference, detachment, sameness and equanimity for inner transformation. The idea is, if you want peace and happiness, you must be mentally free from all manners of dependence. You must be the same whether you have things or not. It means you should be neither depressed, angry or envious when you do not have them nor proud and vain when you have them.

Our scriptures are all for enjoyment. They do not advise you to suffer, but to escape from suffering, using your intelligence and discretion. You have a natural right to enjoy your life to the extent you can, without hurting and harming others, without showing off your wealth, without stealing from others and without losing your discretion, virtue or morality. Inner freedom is more important. You can wear any clothes or ornaments you want, worship anyone you like, and be associated with people and things of your choice, as long as you are in control, as long as you are not sacrificing your moral values and as long as you are not letting them ruin your freedom, peace and balance.

This is the righteous way prescribed for worldly people who take up the duties of a householder, by which you can seek love, recognition, appreciation, belongingness, the desire to be something or someone or somewhere. Without bartering your freedom and discretion and without losing your moral compass or life sustaining values, you can enjoy things that make you feel happy, comfortable, and in control of your life and destiny.

Life on earth is modeled to be in this way. It is the natural way and the right way. It is a problem only when you become selfish, self-centered and egoistic, and step on the rights of others to take from them what does not truly belong to you. You must recognize that just as you have the right to seek things and enjoy life the right way, other too have a right to do so. Freedom and the pursuit of happiness are our birthright. It is enshrined in Hinduism in the four chief aims of human life namely Dharma (moral duties), Artha (wealth), Kama (enjoyment) and Moksha (final liberation).

You are not alone, nor can you live alone, unless you choose to become a renunciant (sanyasi). You are a part of the gigantic web of relationships, called existence. It is our reality. We live inside the Net cast by God or Nature. You are connected to everything that exists here in some way, from the subatomic particles, all objects, life forms, planets, galaxies and the whole universe. You may not see all connections because they are subtle such as your feelings, sensations and emotions or your pleasant and unpleasant mental states. They may be even thoughts, beliefs and habits or worlds, which are so subtle that they are beyond your mind and senses.

One of the most powerful attachments which you form is with yourself. When you were born, you did not have the concept of Self and you did not have this attachment. It developed afterwards, as the sense of the “other” arose and your found yourself in relation to it. This “other” or the not-self or the objective reality is everything that you are not. Since you are not sure who you are, you are not sure what the other means or where exactly you stand in your relationship with it.

When you realize that “you” are an illusion, your relationship with the other becomes shaky, and you start losing interest in it. If you realize that there is another “you” or an eternal Self behind you, you surrender to it, and let the other resolve itself through divine intervention. Both the approaches are validated in our spiritual traditions. It is up to you, which path you choose according to your beliefs and inclinations.

The irony is that we seek freedom through the very connections and relationships or attachments that bind us to them. How can you seek freedom in a web of relationships and attachments, unless you free your mind from the illusion of relationships and your illusory notions of what those attachments are? We can break free from this through self-inquiry and self-awareness.

By knowing who you are and where you stand in relationship with them or how it affects you, you will also find the way to be free from their influence even while you may be still dealing with them. To be amidst the world, but to be mentally free from it, this is the ideal preached in many traditions of Hinduism which leads to liberation, peace and equanimity. Therefore, be with the world while being mentally alone, and enjoy the things without mental dependence and the desperation to have them or possess them. From mental freedom eventually arises spiritual freedom.

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