Q: I am a novice on the dharma path. One of the concepts I am having trouble understanding is the seeming prohibition of attachment to other people. Is it "wrong" to have special friends or a monogamous love relationship? Please explain what is meant by "learning to be free of attachments" with respect to human relationships.

A: First of all, it's important to look at what the Buddha was talking about when he used the terms we have translated as "attachment." In Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts, there's a term, tanha, which is the word to describe thirst, craving, desire. It has also been translated as "attachment."

Thanha carries with it the sense of craving or grasping after something in a way that's always out of harmony with the way things are, a sense of trying to keep something or someone from changing, or to control them. From a Buddhist perspective, thanha is a morally unwholesome or unskillful state of mind. It can only cause suffering, because it is out of balance with the truth.

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Another term the Buddha used is chandha, which means a strong desire to do something. Chandha is morally neutral and takes on the characteristic of qualities arising alongside it. You can have a strong desire to do something out of love or compassion, or out of greed or hatred. So a powerful intention to carrying out something can be skillful or unskillful, depending on what motivates it.

I observed the "thanha" aspect of my mind when I first began to meditate. I found it very hard to be with just one breath. In the midst of being with this breath I was wanting to know what the next one would feel like; I wanted it to be right. I was already leaning into the future, trying to make something happen in a particular way. In order to bring my practice into balance, I had to be with the breath that was. My first lesson in practice was about letting go of the desire to control the next breath.

People often mistake the idea of non-attachment, or the cessation of desire, for passivity, withdrawing from life. In fact, nearly all of us are already leaning so far forward into the future that by settling back into the moment, we're first bringing ourselves into balance. That leaning forward is very uncomfortable. In fact, the way we often learn about letting go of desire is by feeling the pain of it. In the case of my meditation, I could feel the pain and tension of my attachment to the next breath, of making it come out a certain way. When I would come into the moment, that tension would abate. Letting go was tremendously liberating.

One of my favorite things about meditation is that the big lessons often come in small packages. Learning not to lean forward into the future was a big life lesson. Settling into the moment wasn't about being passive but about being genuinely connected.

In the Buddhist lexicon, attachment isn't about not having committed, engaged relationships but rather has to do with our effort to defy change.

Another thing we learn in meditation is to see how incredibly transitory everything is.

All our experience, all our relationships, everything we are "attached" to, is fleeting. Change is not just at the end of our lives--when we die--but every moment. That realization doesn't lead to our not caring about people or things but to seeing things as they are and not trying to control what we can't control. So in the Buddhist lexicon, attachment isn't about not having committed, engaged relationships but rather has to do with our effort to defy change.

Apart from breath meditation, there are other life practices, such as generosity and metta, or lovingkindness, that help us let go of attachment that causes us suffering. In both of these, our minds may be like tight fists opening up. The energetic movement of attachment is holding on to something, while the energetic movement of generosity and lovingkindness is the opposite. It's learning how to give, of being less in a holding mode than a giving mode.