Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Ronald W. Pies M.D.: Getting Detached from Our Unhealthy Attachments

The following is a guest blog from one of my favorite psychiatrists, Dr. Ronald W. Pies, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine.

An old eth­nic joke tells the story of the grand­mother who is walk­ing on the beach with her young grand­son. Sud­denly, she looks around and sees the boy a hun­dred feet out at sea, flail­ing his arms and tread­ing water. The woman screams for help, and a middle-aged beach­comber quickly sizes up the sit­u­a­tion, leaps into the surg­ing waves, and brings the boy safely back to his mother. The grand­mother thanks the man for his hero­ism, but looks a bit annoyed. She turns to the man and says, “I hate to men­tion it, Mis­ter, but when the boy went in, he was wear­ing a hat!”


Now, the joke is usu­ally told to illus­trate the Yid­dish con­cept of chutzpah—roughly, “nervi­ness” or gall. But the story may also be read as a para­ble of what the Bud­dhists call “attach­ment”. The Zen teacher, Ezra Bayda, defines “attach­ments” in this way:

“Attach­ments are sim­ple beliefs—fantasies, in fact—that have become solid­i­fied as “truth” in our mind. They also par­take of the energy of desire, which is based on the under­ly­ing belief that with­out some par­tic­u­lar per­son or thing, we can never be free from suf­fer­ing. Attach­ment also takes the form of avoid­ance; we believe we can’t be happy as long as a par­tic­u­lar per­son, con­di­tion, or object is in our lives. To expe­ri­ence neg­a­tive attach­ment, just think of your least favorite food or person.”*


Recently, I have started to think that nearly all our per­sonal, social, and soci­etal prob­lems are closely linked to our exces­sive and irra­tional attach­ments. Then there are those insults and brick­bats that pass for polit­i­cal dis­course in this country—don’t get me started.

To be sure: up to a point, emo­tional “attach­ment” is crucial—without it, we would never form last­ing rela­tion­ships, or under­take dif­fi­cult projects. It is its rigid­ity and inten­sity that deter­mines whether or not a par­tic­u­lar attach­ment is patho­log­i­cal. As a psy­chi­a­trist, I have seen thou­sands of patients whose suf­fer­ing is, in part, the result of their irra­tional attach­ments. Of course, severe psy­chi­atric illnesses—major depres­sion, schiz­o­phre­nia, bipo­lar dis­or­der, and others—have strong bio­log­i­cal and genetic fac­tors “dri­ving” them. It would be wrong and sim­plis­tic to explain these con­di­tions as mere instances of “exces­sive attachment.”


But even in these severe ill­nesses, inap­pro­pri­ate attach­ment rears its head. For exam­ple, the indi­vid­ual with para­noid delu­sions is exces­sively attached to the idea that he or she is being tar­geted, mon­i­tored or per­se­cuted. The per­son with obsessive-compulsive dis­or­der is exces­sively attached to the per­for­mance of some anxiety-neutralizing rit­ual, such as check­ing the gas stove fifty times a day.

And what is the solu­tion to our exces­sive attach­ments, in every-day life? The Bud­dhist mas­ter, Ajahn Chah (1918–92) finds the answer in the con­cept of anicca (or anitya). This is usu­ally trans­lated as “imper­ma­nence” or “uncer­tainty.” Ajahn Chah believed that much of our suf­fer­ing stems from our unwill­ing­ness to accept the imper­ma­nence of all things. Sure, we often hear the expres­sions, “Noth­ing lasts for­ever” or “Easy come, easy go”—but how many of us have really under­stood the impli­ca­tions of imper­ma­nence? How many of us ever pause to con­sider our own mortality?


As Ajahn Chah notes, the Bud­dha taught us “…to look in the present and see the imper­ma­nence of body and mind, of all phe­nom­ena as they appear and cease, with­out grasp­ing at any of it. If we can do this, we will expe­ri­ence peace. This peace comes because of let­ting go…” (from every­thing arises, every­thing falls away).

Just imag­ine how pol­i­tics in this coun­try might change, if par­ti­sans on all sides could “let go” of their rigid ide­olo­gies. Imag­ine how the ani­mos­ity between reli­gious groups would dimin­ish. And imag­ine how our every­day unhap­pi­ness might melt away, if we could detach our­selves from our own pre­con­cep­tions and prej­u­dices. To put it a bit more humor­ously, con­sider the advice of Rabbi Rami Shapiro: “Don’t take life so seriously—it’s only temporary!”

*Adapted from E. Bayda, At Home in the Muddy Water: A Guide to Find­ing Peace within Every­day Chaos.

Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.

  • Amy Karon

    Terrific post — I’m excited to see you write about attachment from Ajahn Chah’s perspective. Mindfulness meditation has helped me see my attachments and their role in unhappiness much more clearly. I’ll sit and watch a thought arise, such as, “I want my work to be recognized,” then feel my body contract in response. Then I’ll let the thought go and watch my body relax.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Tony

    Wonderful post. Dr. Pies always has insightful things to say. Thanks for posting this.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Ronald Pies MD

    I’d like to thank Therese Borchard for hosting my blog, as well as for her kind encouragement (and great writing!) over the years. Thanks, as well, to Donna Baier Stein and the Tiferet website, for their hosting of this essay. –Best regards, Ron Pies

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Ronald Pies MD

    P.S. While I have a standing internet policy of replying only to fully signed comments, I do feel obliged to thank both Tony and Amy Karon for their kind notes! And, I appreciate Amy’s observation on mindfulness meditation and letting go of attachments. –Ron Pies

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jami

    Wow. Just now seeing this post and it is a keeper. It is so easy to stay in my little attachment world and this so well describes how much it limits our own lives.
    A tall order, but a recommitment to myself to gauge my attachment behaviors:-)
    Thanks a bunch, Therese

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment AY

    I think attachment has more meaning in the context of survival. For those in survival mode attachments become a liability or the only key to survive. For those in self actualization, they can ponder and choose what to hang to and what to let go of.

    Attachment can’t be applied to equally to every situation.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Ronald Pies MD

    I hope those who found this post interesting might take a look at my recent book, “The Three-Petalled Rose”. In this work, I weave together strands from Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism, with much more to say about “attachment.” Thanks again to Therese for the call-out!

    Best regards,
    Ron Pies MD

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