NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Attachment” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome
Attachment: ‘There is no spoon’
Meditation and other mindfulness practices encourage us to focus on the present moment and to let go of clinging attachment to outcome. Toward this end, I have engaged in meditation and related practices since my early college years. But the sharpest, clearest sense of truly letting go of attachment came through science fiction.
In November, 1998, I won a medical malpractice suit against the Albany doctors who had nearly killed me five years before. The jury’s award, I thought, was more than enough for me to get back on the horse that threw me and make it, at last, to the finish line, completing my English PhD and becoming a college professor and novelist. Little did I know, however, in that triumphant courtroom moment, that my attorneys intended from the beginning to rob me.
For months following the verdict, they gave a wide and increasingly dubious variety of reasons for why I wasn’t yet paid. By March, I was more than suspicious and called a local attorney to check into their story. Through a series of fluke connections, I encountered another client whose award was also mysteriously delayed. We compared notes. A few days later I took the train to New York. After a brief, angry encounter in my attorneys’ Manhattan office, they offered to give me their share of the award if I would only wait another month or two.
Clinging to the vision of the better life the jury’s award could give me, but also tormented by the almost certain knowledge that even if my attorneys did pay me back, they would do so only by robbing someone else, I was paralyzed by indecision. Do I turn them in? Or do I believe them when they say that the only way they can repay me is by winning cases, and they can’t do that if they are behind bars?
I vacillated between one potentially bad choice and the other for three weeks. Then, one Saturday afternoon in April, I took myself to the movies.
The Matrix looked like just what I needed for a couple hours of distraction. In its dystopic future, intelligent machines who feed on human beings for their energy have taken over the planet. To keep us docile, they generate a shared dream world controlled by artificial intelligences. A small band of rebels who have awoken from this dream move freely between the real and machine-made realms, attempting to rescue humanity from its enslavement. They search for the One who will lead them, like Moses led the Israelites, to freedom.
Midway through the film, the protagonist, a hacker who calls himself Neo, visits an oracle whom he hopes can tell him if he is humanity’s liberator. He meets a boy who holds in his hand a spoon he can bend with his mind. When Neo tries to it, nothing happens. The boy tells him, “Do not try to bend the spoon; that’s impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth: There is no spoon.” Now the spoon bends and flows to Neo’s will. As the film progresses, Neo gains the strength to defeat the powerful artificial intelligences that control the Matrix. Illusion progressively gives way to reality — a gritty, terrible reality, but still better than living as fuel for the machines.
In that “there is no spoon” moment, I realized that I, too, had been living in a matrix. I understood, for the first time, that the money the jury had awarded was never mine and that the future I had imagined was a dream. But now I was awake. Like the rebels in The Matrix who preferred eating mush in the real world to dining on imaginary steak, it was better for me to be poor and free than to be enslaved to a dream.
I left the theater elated. My life was still my own, and if I could not have that future, I would have another. I did not have to remain ensnared in the mind-forged manacles of my attorneys’ promises and deceptions. I was free to take any of the almost infinite paths left to me.
With my attachment to a projection no longer holding me back, the following Monday I turned my attorneys in to the Manhattan D.A. and the state licensing board. Months later, they were disbarred and imprisoned. I was one of three victims to make a statement at their sentencing, and my words followed them through multiple attempts at early release from prison. Eventually, the state partially compensated me and the many other victims for our losses.
The Matrix still resonates. Its lesson continues to help free me from stubborn attachment in my creative work, my career, and my relationships. It constantly encourages me to recognize that when I feel something “must” go a certain way, that way is only one of many, and that whatever outcome occurs is the one that is actually – and wholly – mine.
Text and images © 2012, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
Permission required for publication. Images available for licensing.