The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Monday Mindful Morsel: How to Meditate

by Lydia Anderson
March 17, 2014
Mon, 03/17/2014 - 12:30 -- landerson

This week’s morsel is from one of Wisdom’s most-read titles, How to Meditate by Kathleen McDonald. McDonald is a Western Buddhist nun with solid experience in both the practice and teaching of meditation, and How to Meditate contains a wealth of practical advice on a variety of authentic techniques, from what to do with our minds, to how to sit, to visualizations and other traditional practices. In the selection below, McDonald teaches on how to recognize and deal with attachment.


To want something and not want to be separated from it: very broadly, this is attachment, also known as desire. Attendant to it is the false assumption that having whatever it is we want will bring satisfaction: this is why attachment causes problems.

Attachment is difficult to detect and even more difficult to find fault with; we think it is the road to happiness and satisfaction. But fulfillment of desire is an illusion; desire leads to more desire, not satisfaction.

We may be able to see how attachment to alcohol, drugs, or money leads to problems rather than happiness, but we may wonder what is wrong with attachment to people. Wouldn’t life be empty and meaningless without family and friends?

This question arises because we confuse attachment with love. Attachment is concerned with my needs, my happiness, while love is an unselfish attitude, concerned with the needs and happiness of others. Most of the time our love is mixed with attachment because we do not feel adequate or secure on our own, and try to find wholeness through another. But when a relationship involves attachment, problems inevitably arise. We become dependent on the good feelings and comfort of the relationship and then suffer when it changes. Real, lasting happiness can only be found within ourselves, and we will never find it as long as we lean helplessly on others. A relationship free of unrealistic grasping is free of disappointment, conflict, jealousy, and other problems, and is fertile ground for the growth of love and wisdom.

Overcoming attachment does notmean becoming cold and indifferent. On the contrary, detachment means learning to have relaxed control over our mind through understanding the real causes of happiness and fulfillment, and this enables us to enjoy life more and suffer less.

Ways to deal with attachment

1. Contemplate the faults of attachment. Examine carefully the mind that experiences it. It is excited and full of unrealistic expectations. It glosses over the facts and deals with projected fantasies. It cannot see things clearly and is unable tomake intelligent judgments. Is this happiness?

Also, the consequences of attachment are not peace and satisfaction, but disappointment and desire formore of the same. Think of the suffering you experience when you separate from an object of attachment. We all know the pain of relationships that did not work and the grief over a loved one’s death.

Recognize that attachment is not a peaceful, clear state of mind, and that it leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. And making a habit of it leaves on ourmindstreamimprints to experience more problems in the future.

Attachment clouds the mind and prevents us from recognizing its faults. It is very important to be honest with ourselves, to penetrate attachment’s facade and analyze its real nature.

2. Recall that all things are impermanent. By their nature they change from moment to moment and will inevitably perish. The object of your attachment will not always be attractive and pleasing; visualize it as old, faded, andworn and then check if your feelings about it remain the same. And how would you feel if you lost it altogether?

The pleasure you experience is impermanent, too. For how long do you really feel pleased and satisfied with any one object?

When we recognize that external things cannot give us lasting happiness and satisfaction, our attachment to them will lessen—and we’ll probably enjoy them all the more!

3. Meditate on death. Remember the inevitability of death and that it could come at any time. Imagine how you will feel about separating forever fromyour objects of attachment: loved ones, enjoyments, possessions. Not only are they unable to help you as you die, but your attachment to them will upset yourmind and hinder a peaceful death.

4. The best remedy to attachment and all other delusions is to think about emptiness. Investigate the I that experiences the attachment. What is its nature? Try to locate this seemingly real, solid I in your body or mind.

Examine also the object of attachment. Is this person or thing inherently wonderful and pleasing? If so, why doesn’t everyone appreciate it? Can you see how your mind exaggerates and gets excited about the object?

Try to see that both the I and its object are empty of inherent existence; they do not exist in the way they appear: in and of themselves. This might sound pretty unconvincing—especially when attachment is strong—but consider it carefully. Just thinking about emptiness is useful and helps us to gradually understand what it means, and to loosen the grasp of our attachment.

5. If you feel strongly attached to an attractive body (including your own), think about it in the following way.

First, analyze just what it is you find so attractive. Then mentally penetrate the surface and examinewhat lies beneath the skin: the flesh, bones, blood vessels, and organs. Visualize the mucus, pus, blood, excrement, and urine. Imagine it all in vivid detail. What is it you find so attractive here?

Imagine the body old, bent, and wrinkled: where is the beautiful body now?

The point of this exercise is not to go to the other extreme and dislike yourself or the person you’re attracted to. Rather it is to see how attachment distorts our perception and exaggerates the qualities of a person or thing.We simply don’t see reality as it is. This analysis, therefore, brings us down to earth and helps us penetrate below the surface of our glossy fantasy image.

6. A remedy for attachment to food is to contemplate the suffering experienced by all the beings involved in its preparation. Animals are killed to provide us with meat and fish; innumerable small animals and insects are killed in the cultivation, fertilization, and spraying of the grains, fruit, and vegetables that we eat. Recall the hard work of the farmers, fishermen, fruitpickers, factory workers, truck drivers, shop assistants, and cooks.

Try to eat mindfully, with appreciation for all these beings’ kindness and sacrifice.

To read more from How to Meditate, click here.

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