Love or Attachment?

Chances are you’ve been head over heals in love.  Or perhaps you’ve had an enduring relationship where the initial fire died down, but the embers glowed brightly.

Then change descends. Maybe with lightening-like speed. Or, just a gradual crumbling.

How could a sparkling love morph into indifference, discomfort, aversion, resentment, or even hatred?  How could a remarkable connection so mysteriously transform into disconnection?

What is true love, anyway?  When a relationship ends, must the love die too?

Like a porcupine shooting out its sharp spikes or a crab retreating into its shell, shutting down or striking out seem like uncontrollable responses to a split.  A whole range of feelings are likely to occur in its wake: shock, hurt, pain, anger, rejection, indifference, and still others.

These strong emotions will emerge and reappear persistently as you process through the five stages of grief. Processing loss takes time.  It’s normal for these various emotions to arise.  Suppressing them would be unhealthy so it pays to learn to work with them skillfully.

One key to working with this sense of being emotionally hijacked is expanding your perspective on love.

Love or Attachment?

For most of us, love is intermixed with our own needs, fears, desires and attachments.

As the Dalai Lama explains,

“…in marriage, the love between husband and wife -  particularly at the beginning, when each partner still may not know the other’s deeper character very well – depends more on attachment than genuine love. Our desire can be so strong that the person to whom we are attached appears to be good, when in fact he or she is very negative. In addition, we have a tendency to exaggerate small positive qualities. Thus when one partner’s attitude changes, the other partner is often disappointed and his or her attitude changes too. This is an indication that love has been motivated more by personal need than by genuine care for the other individual.”

So what is genuine love then?  And how do you disconnect it from attachment?

Love is viewed differently from a spiritual perspective. For example, in Buddhism it has nothing to do with intense attraction, which is a form of desire or  attachment.   Attachment or desire is considered one of the Three Poisons or three principal destructive or disturbing emotions. These are emotions that disturb the mind and cause it to lose its sense of peace.  Alternatively,

“The definition of love is the wish that all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.”  -  Patrul Rinpoche, Words of My Perfect Teacher

This isn’t an exclusively Eastern view.

St. Thomas Aquinas described love as “to will the good of another.”

The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz believed love is “to be delighted by the happiness of another.”

This sense of good heart lies within all of us.  Empathy is a fundamental human capacity.  But it has to be actively cultivated to grow into genuine, unconditional love.   Often, it’s obscured by our subtle ongoing love affair with our self.  If we take a look at our own mind on any given day, chances are we are thinking mostly about our own self – our own needs, emotions, and priorities.

Is it possible to cultivate unconditional love in the midst of a separation?  Realistically, it may be extremely challenging, especially at first.  But having the aspiration and taking whatever steps you can in the direction of love, acceptance, and understanding will transform your own life and the experience of separation for the better.

It begins with changing our perspective on true love.

The End of Meeting is Separation

Our belief in living “happily ever after” is a false notion to begin with.  Everything in life is impermanent.  Our suffering actually stems from our belief in permanence and then attempting to cling onto what is actually slipping through our fingers.

“Although we are together now, we have no power to stay together forever.  We are like people mingling in a dream.  The end of meeting is separation.” ~ Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

At some point in your life, you will have to face separation from your partner.  It’s the natural order of the universe.  Separation is inescapable.

This might sound harsh, but embracing impermanence actually spurs us to appreciate every precious moment.  It can bring a greater sense of presence, enjoyment, curiosity, and freedom into your experience of life.  And, it can be an important impetus to getting your priorities straight too.

Self Love Is the First Step

A separation can trigger self-blame and fuel low self-esteem.  A dose of self-love may be in order before you are able to cultivate genuine love for an estranged partner.  Loving yourself is not the same as being ego-centered.  It’s a healthy and positive sense of self-esteem.

I’ve explained how to cultivate self-love in my two-part series that begins with:  “Are You Serious About Loving Yourself?”  A separation can actually be an opportunity to kick-start a long-needed sense of self-love and appreciation.  We are all equally deserving of love, including you.

A Simple Way to Cultivate Love

A simple way to cultivate love is by meditating on the thought of how wonderful it would be if each and every being could have all the happiness and comfort they wish. That includes all the basics like shelter, clothing, food, a good income, a warm sunny day, a good cup of tea as well the ultimate happiness of spiritual realization.

You can practice this by imaging an individual and making that wish for them.  Start with yourself.  You may need to focus on self-love for an extended period before you can move on to the other stages.  Then progressively move on – over a period of time – to a benefactor (someone who has been especially kind to you), a friend, a neutral person, an enemy, and lastly all beings.

As you feel more rooted in love, you can experiment with sending love to your former partner.  If it stirs you up too much, just go back to sending love to yourself or a close friend.  With practice, in time you will be ready to send love even to your ex.  But there’s no need or benefit in pushing yourself too fast.

Try starting with short sessions of 5 minutes and then gradually increase the amount of time you spend on the meditation.  You can also make this wish and send a beam of love to anyone your encounter during the day.

The main point of these two exercises is learning that love really already exists within you.  You can spark it on your own.  And then fan the flame.

While it’s wonderful to receive love from others, you don’t need to be dependent on anyone else for love, nor subject to the vagaries of another person’s emotional state.  You can learn to “be love”.

Equanimity

This type of love is based on equanimity, which means seeing everyone as equally deserving of our love. True love is unconditional.

You see, the idea of permanent friends and enemies is another artificial construct of the mind.  Friends and enemies are as impermanent and as changing as the wind. Someone who is a friend today may have been an enemy in the past or may become one in the future. Likewise with an enemy.  Our ordinary idea of friend and enemy is subject to change.  It depends on circumstances and is highly changeable unless we subvert it with unconditional love for everyone.

Everyone wants happiness and no one wants to suffer.  When you can see everyone else as just another “you” – with the same joys and sorrows -  your heart softens and it is easier to see that everyone is actually deserving of your love.  Negative behaviors are simply a confused way of trying to find happiness.

“True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Therefore, a truly compassionate attitude towards others does not change even if they behave negatively.” – the Dalai Lama

Genuine love then is unconditional and free from attachment.  As Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche points out:

“Genuine love is not painful. We know there is attachment mixed in when there pain in our ‘love.’”

For most of us, it’s a tall order to cultivate genuine love during a separation or when we perceive someone’s behavior as harmful to us even in small ways.  Usually, we reserve our love for those we deem “close” to us.  But if we can set our heart in the direction of true love, it will help us to navigate the inevitable changes that will occur in our relationships with more grace and ease.

Understandably, it’s very difficult to fully eradicate attachment.  But, we can start by becoming aware of the attachments we have and loosening them up a bit.  It doesn’t necessarily mean dropping your connections or becoming irresponsible.  It’s a shift in perspective.  As we diminish attachment, we will find more happiness and joy in its place.

What are your thoughts about love and attachment?

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If you enjoyed this article, please share the link with others.  With love, Sandra.

24 thoughts on “Love or Attachment?

  1. Wow, this is an amazing post and so timely with Valentine’s Day tomorrow. I’ve heard it said that if you feel that overwhelming sense of attraction to another, you should run the other way. Hard to do. I think the better task is to transform that sense of attraction into a deep, lasting love, with full knowledge of impermanence. I’m inspired by this post.

    • Thank you, Charlotte. That’s interesting advice about “running the other way” when there’s a sense of overwhelming attraction. You offer a beautiful formula as an alternative!

  2. There are many, many posts on love out there today, but this is by far one of the best. Thank you, and excuse me while I go share this everywhere….

  3. Wonderful insights…thank you!
    Mainstream tends to look at love as an emotion..a feeling…and attachment seems to show loyalty and dedication.
    My idea is a bit different: I feel attachment is the reluctance to embrace flow and love is a word of doing, of being unconditional. When we *are* love, we have simply opened our heart to the moment as it is presented and we create from this centered, peace filled place of awareness…allowing love to be expansive and easily magnified.
    And, as a mother (and a friend and a lover and any other role I may play in World) the most life enriching way I may share love is to release attachment and expectation and just be the presence of love.

  4. > Attachment or desire is considered one of the Three Poisons
    I hadn’t heard that before, but it’s an interesting perspective.

    I wonder if there’s a parallel in the software world where we try to work “better together” as well as “standalone.”

  5. Great, informative post. I love all the thoughts/quotes of the others. Perfect timing for Valentine’s Day and because I am writing a chapter in my book about a previous relationship. This gives me a whole new angle from which to think about it and write about it. Good stuff!

  6. As an Enneagram Type Nine I have always had a hard time “seeing” myself and would quickly get absorbed into the life of my partner, living his agenda rather than mine, or ours. I sought attachment because I mistook being needed for being loved. What finally made me turn things around was a relationship book that talks about the stages of grief after loss, much like what you describe above. I learned to stick up for my own beliefs and desires and to ‘find’ myself. And I finally got it – what it means to love someone else for who they are rather than for how they make me feel, i.e. wanted and loved. What I am finding though is that this is a never-ending process and I never stop learning. There are plenty of moments where I fall back into my old patterns and where fears and insecurities threaten my “be love” state. Luckily I have a husband who “sees” and loves me for who I am, even if I don’t. That helps, too!

    • Kerstin,

      This is such a beautiful description of the journey. Interesting, I never thought about connecting this tendency with personality types. You have tremendous insight and I’m touched by your story and ongoing commitment to transformation. Thanks for reflecting this potential to all of us.

  7. My husband and I were best friends for a very long time before we became intimate. Ours was not a relationship based on being swept off our feet and becoming deeply entangled in romantic love. When we decided to become intimate, we lived together for a year and a half before we committed to marriage. Unlike others, we even created a prenuptial agreement lest we ever decide to split and we entered a pre-marrige counseling course that was superb.

    We are both fiercely independent and we are each grant the other the freedom to be authentically who they are, to stretch and grow or to wither and stagnate. We are love. Love is our essence and we are equals. Even though we have different personalities we are love and the love we are is manifest in a deeply loving and fulfilling relationship founded on respect, trust, equality, communication and cooperation, freedom and complementarity, support and understanding.

    We both accept the fact that we may no longer wish to be together one day. On one hand change can provide opportunities for growth and intimacy. On the other change can also be painful. It may also mean letting go of things that have been familiar and safe. It may mean adjusting to a new way of thinking or even a new way of life. Our relationship has endured over 30 years and has never been “shaky”.

  8. timethief,

    It sounds like a brilliant partnership. I’m amazed by all the careful steps you as you moved toward you marriage even entering a pre-marital counseling course.

    I’m deeply moved by and admire the qualities that you describe in your relationship. I’m very happy for both of you.

    I agree with you that even though we accept change one one level, it can be very painful when it actually happens. There’s great learning there as in all challenges, but not for the faint of heart.

    I’m grateful that you shared this portrait of a deeply mature and loving relationship with us!

    • We were both very cautious about entering a commitment contract. We each had reason to be cautious about becoming involved with each other initmately. Our friendship was long standing and we wanted to preserve it.

      We are encouraged to expect relationships to last for a lifetime, but not every person we are close to today will be in our life in years to come. Some relationships endure and others don’t. Examining our relationships in terms of the synergies between our experience of another person and our own values is key to living a conscious life.

      Visualization is so powerful and I liked your simple way to cultivate love. It’s a progressive approach to letting go with love. I have used a similar meditation myself when letting go of a couple of friends who were once very close to me.

      I wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day because you warm my heart all year round.

      • Thank you so much for your warm wishes, time thief! May love always blossom in your heart too. I see why “relationships” are one of the themes of your blog. It’s something you’ve put a lot of thought and heart into and therefore have deep understanding about. So true this is part of living consciously, but it has been one of my areas of clarity. I’m learning a great deal from you.

  9. This post is so full of deep insight and important perspective that I find it hard to pick out just one point to comment on. So, I won’t. I will simply love you, Sandra, for your openness and ability to synthesis the key element of life in such a powerful way.

    Love and attachment: where does one stop and the other start? It takes a tremendous amount of maturity and self-awareness to separate the two as well as you have in this post.

    Today is Valentine’s Day, and my wife’s birthday. We have been happily married for almost 36 years. My love for her is at completely different level than the one that brought us together. If one is lucky, love matures into something that is as deep and fulfilling as breathing. Life without it is impossible to contemplate.

    Blessings and love to you.

    • Bob,

      I can’t tell you how touched I am by your words. I feel deeply honored. Looking at love and attachment is really such a tender investigation, isn’t it? I’m very happy for the deep and fulfilling love that you have shared with your wife for so many years. You are so fortunate indeed! I understand how it seems impossible to contemplate life without this sense of deep connection and love. Though we will have to let go of our partners at some point in our lives may whatever love we have experienced remain and continue to glow in our hearts.

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  11. Firstly,I am more than happy I found a blog like yours.I came here through Zeenat’s and hers is an awesome blog too :)

    Negative behaviors are simply a confused way of trying to find happiness.-You couldn’t explain things in a more better way! WOW! I feel so inspired. :) Thanks a ton for that :)!!

    I’m your new follower :)!! Do check my blog too. I’m just a beginner in search for “love”.Help me on this journey!! Thanks again :)xxoo

    • Jen,

      Thank you so much for your enthusiasm! I’m happy that you are inspired by what you’ve read here. I will happily check out your blog. The love is right within you so you don’t have far to go thought it may still be an interesting journey! Wishing you the best.

  12. Being a slow learner in some areas, this one in particular, I learned the hard way that I was prone to attachment over love. I have a trail of failed relationships to prove my point. Ironically, now that I think I really do understand the difference, I find myself completely uninterested in any sort of romantic relationship. Not out of bitterness or fear. The desire just isn’t there. My life is so full and satisfying, I just don’t know where a relationship would fit in.

    And yet, I look at my neighbors, a delightful older couple married now for decades. They still hold hands walking down the street. When I commented on this, the wife looked and me and said simply, “We like each other.” It would have been nice to have had that, but that was not my path in this life. That’s okay. I’m very happy with the life I have.

  13. Galen,

    This is another wonderful perspective on this question. We all have different paths and it’s so important to honor our own path rather than long for another person’s.

    I’m delighted to hear that you feel such a sense of satisfaction and fullness being on your own. That is such an inspiration for all of us!

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