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Meditation: “Attachment” is the Worst Failure Ever (Apologies to Republicans)

Republicans “Bombed” Google so that a top search result for worst failure ever would lead to the Obama administration site.

When it comes to translation of Buddhist terms and ideas, I can think of an even more massive fail. I have been thinking about the word attachment in relationship to Buddhist meditation and the practice of Buddhism. I think it’s just about the worst translation imaginable, and has probably turned countless people away from Buddhism. Upadana is the Sanskrit/Pali word, and I feel that the words fixation, grasping, or obsession get at the meaning much more insightfully.



Last week at the Interdependence Project, Dr. Miles Neale defined attachment as: “exaggeration of the positive qualities of the object of our mind.” This was a provocative and interesting definition to contemplate.

My main problem with the word attachment is that it refers not so much to a problematic state of mind, but the state of circumstances of our life. In psychology, attachment theory is the study of human beings and their relationship structures throughout life. To be a human is to have attachments, such as family, friends, career, school, whatever. To me, the word just reminds us of our web of circumstances. To say that the cause of our suffering is our external circumstances flies in the face of everything Buddhist practice is trying to get us to realize.


Shambhala teacher Pema Chodron has done wonderful work reframing and deepening our understanding of this key Buddhist idea using the Tibetan word for upadana (dzinpa or shenpa). She introduces the concept of “getting hooked” as an experiential way to meditate on this core cause of suffering.

What do you think? Can we detach ourselves from the word “attachment?”

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posted July 20, 2009 at 12:54 pm

In his recent teachings on ‘Parting from the Four ‘, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche suggested using something along the lines of ‘infatuation‘ as a helpful way to overcome the attachment to the word ‘attachment.
That certainly fits in with Dr. Neales’ definition

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posted July 20, 2009 at 1:10 pm

attachment, for me has always been about outcomes. when i have an idea i want played out, my suffering ramps up. i agree it is appropriate to have needs that are met by our relationships–be it to work, school, family, friends. it is being attached to the outcome that is the suffering…maybe it’s about wanting to control or infatuation.
i have always struggled with the discourse of attachment precisely because i do view it as a “web of circumstance”.
i also know plenty of people who are attached to non-attachment. they are chained to the experiential, which sounds all well & good & “in the moment”, but can also be cover for perpetual distraction and not going within.

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posted July 20, 2009 at 1:16 pm

Infatuation. I like that one. Thanks Craig (and Rinpoche).

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Dr. Neale

posted July 20, 2009 at 2:14 pm

Attachment theory from Western psychology can offer something useful to the dialog. “Attachment” in this context has to do with one’s “relationship style” either fixated or relaxed, which is developed during early childhood, between infant and caregiver, and how this style or pattern ends up coloring adult life. There are two main types of attachment, insecure and secure. Insecure is when the child becomes fearful, anxious, or confused when left on its own. The child becomes a vessel for the caregivers own insecurity or neurosis. Healthy attachment, is when the infant feels supported and comforted enough on its own to let go of the caregiver in order explore the uncertainty of the world around it. In the healthy attachment style, the caregivers own ‘ease of mind’ has been transferred to the child. Here, an allowing or letting go or basic trust in the world fosters healthy attachment. One can draw several important analogies to meditation!
Dr. Neale

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Dogo Barry Graham

posted July 20, 2009 at 3:20 pm

I think “attachment” is the best word for it. If we replace it with more obviously negative words like “infatuation” or “grasping,” it makes it easy for us to justify our egoic preferences as being okay, as being the healthy kind. There are no healthy attachments; as soon as we attach to something we want to control it. That’s what attachment is.
I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about this lately, because I find that, even with some of us (me included) who commit to letting go of all attachments (which is necessary for real compassion to arise), we tend to be willing to let go of maybe 95 percent of them – but there are still a few that we’re unwilling to give up, that we still hold on to and justify as being somehow okay.

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posted July 20, 2009 at 3:26 pm

I don’t think you quite caught the flavor of what I was trying to say. In Attachment theory, attachment just refers to a relationship or circumstance. We are not trying to get rid of our life circumstances. Plus, to me the word attachment makes the problem external rather than with the subjective mind itself. Just my semantic opinion. :~)

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Dogo Barry Graham

posted July 20, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Oh, in that context I agree with you. As Joko Beck says, we don’t make attachments or delusions go away – we just see them for what they are.

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Dogo Barry Graham

posted July 20, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Oh, in that context I agree with you. As Joko Beck says, we don’t make attachments/delusions go away – we just see them for what they are.

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posted July 20, 2009 at 7:03 pm

The relationship or circumstance in real life produced this consciousness that recognizes the self and the world that is outside the self. But that self went further and forgot how that self was generated.

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posted July 20, 2009 at 8:58 pm

holy cow, this is a good post.
Wow. I couldn’t agree more that the word attachment can be more helpfully defined as fixation, grasping, or obsession. That’s right on target. Especially like this definition of attachment: “exaggeration of the positive qualities of the object of our mind.”
damn, that’s good stuff.

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posted July 21, 2009 at 1:25 am

Yes I agree, because if we try to free ourselves of attachment we might resist fully being with our current human experience (which is aversion). But if we try to free ourselves of clinging, that can only be good! (ie reduce suffering)

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Nobo Komagata

posted September 4, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Hi. I wrote an essay on a related topic (available through the link) and would appreciate comment from interested readers. Thank you.

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