Even if we accept the Buddhist idea that attachment is the root of suffering, we might think there are some worthy exceptions to this rule, namely our attachment to virtue.
Yes, we’re in for pain if we cling too tightly to material possessions, but we know that already, right? Name any so-called “vice” and it’s pretty easy to see why we shouldn’t fasten ourselves to it. But what about virtues like honesty, integrity, and fairness — how should we look at these?
If an attachment to honesty is what stops us from lying even when lying would be convenient, if an attachment to justice is what makes us pursue justice even when the pursuit is fraught, then aren’t these attachments beneficial? Isn’t it good that we can’t let go of our ideals?
Assuming we answer yes, then virtue becomes a kind of backdoor to attachment. We might tell ourselves to care less about money and social status, but we’d never tell ourselves to care less about kindness and perseverance. Even if we choose to practice non-attachment elsewhere in our lives we might treat virtue-attachment as an exception, a special case.
I was packing for a trip the other day and I started feeling stressed even though I had plenty of time. So I wondered “What in this situation am I attached to? What am I clinging to?” Turned out I was clinging to the ideals of preparedness and efficiency.
I really wanted to attain a state where I had thought through all the details of my trip and had put everything in its proper place — where I had anticipated every eventuality and could relax in the knowledge that I was now fully prepared. And I really wanted to feel that in seeking this preparedness, I had been efficient and had not let the work consume more time than it needed.
To satisfy these ideals I would have had to perform like a star athlete in the sport of packing but the truth is I’m not great at this sport. Packing always seems to balloon into a bigger project than I’d like and still results in my carrying a bit too much of this and bit too little of that.
Easing up, even slacking a bit, might have helped me. What’s the worst that could have happened if I’d forgotten a toothbrush? A change of socks? A phone charger? In our modern world, stuff is generally available, and replaceable. But at the time, I felt justified in my frazzlement because I was trying to be a responsible person. I was reaching for virtue, not vice. Preparedness, efficiency — these are worth struggling for, are they not?
The catch is this:
My attachment to “being prepared” makes trips more stressful than they need to be. This makes me avoid them a little more than I otherwise might, which probably means that I don’t take as many opportunities to connect with friends and loved ones as I could. In some sense, my attachment to the virtue of preparedness makes me compromise on the virtues of spontaneity and friendship.
What would it mean to pack for a trip with less attachment? It would mean recognizing preparedness and efficiency as worthy goals, but postponing judgement about whether I had achieved those goals. And it would mean not being quite so scared of falling short. Maybe I’m fully prepared or maybe I’ve forgotten my dental floss; maybe I’m using my time well as I pack or maybe my whole approach is roundabout and wasteful. Can I be OK with not knowing that yet, not deciding that yet?
When we pursue any good thing — preparedness, efficiency, knowledge, fitness, charity — the goodness of the thing can blind us to the attachments we develop in the pursuit. Those attachments are justified, we think, by the nobleness of our objective.
But if we can see how to pursue ideals with less attachment, we might have more success. And in my case, I’d travel more.