Could my life’s work also be a result of craving and clinging?
Let’s revisit that first taste of ice cream. When we try, we find that we can observe our moment-by-moment experience of sensory pleasures to catch those exact points at which a feeling of liking turns into a compulsion to have more, and the compulsion to have more turns into the necessity of securing the permanent availability of that pleasure: this process is the turn from feeling to craving to clinging, which can happen in an instant and feel completely natural and unavoidable. But when we pay attention to our experience, we discover that we can put our spoon down whenever we want, and that if we never experience this pleasure again that will be just dandy. Clinging or attachment (I use these words interchangeably to translate upadana) is basically the need to repeat, even though we know that we can never repeat anything anyway, because nothing stays the same. It is clinging that then creates the systems and structures to guarantee the repetition: the money we pay for our tub of ice cream is not just so that we may have it in our fridge, but so that it continues to be made and transported, and our favorite grocery store continues to stock it. Our clinging to sense pleasures — edibles, potables, wearables make up just a small part of them — commits us to maintaining a vast supply line of labor and production, which then holds us in cycles of securing and security that soon feel like prisons. Our attachment to the myriad benefits of petroleum, for instance, while it may begin as a liking, creates a world that is full of trouble and impossible to maintain. There is nothing wrong with liking that first spoon of ice cream, and indeed nothing wrong with what follows — just that if we move automatically from liking to clinging, we will lose the sharpness and definition of the first encounter in the increasing dullness of something like an addiction. And the attempt to secure an attachment will usually lead to conflict (as the Buddha explains in a long passage in the Mahanidana Sutta).
Craving and clinging occur not only in attraction to sense objects, but also in aversion to them. A chronic avoidance of exercise, for example, might be a craving for comfort that becomes a clinging. Fear of the pain of toothaches leads to a craving to avoid them, which then creates dental insurance and the hours of work needed to pay for that. Indeed, fear of pain, in illness or dying, generates an abundance of avoidance strategies.
Our experience of sense objects can be watched, slowed down, and analyzed with some acumen. Sometimes thinking through the consequences of clinging can be enough to make us not want to have the experience again — for instance, when we know the health effects of certain foods. But what about objects of experience that are not sensory? The Buddha mentions craving for mental objects (Mahanidana Sutta, 7) and in addition to clinging to sense pleasures, he mentions clinging to views, clinging to precepts and observances, clinging to a doctrine of self (Mahanidana, 6). These are much more difficult to notice, and just noticing them may require more disciplined training. We will go more into views and doctrines of the self in another essay, but here I would like to offer a couple of examples of craving for mental objects as the tiny first shoots of what might become a mighty, many-branched tree of investigation. Mental objects pass from feeling to craving to clinging in much the same way as a taste of ice cream does.
Here is a teenager who reads a lot. She begins the first volume of a new fantasy series, loves it, is immediately “hooked.” She has to finish the whole book. Then she has to finish the whole series. Probably she will buy it in order to have it available for re-reading, or just to know that she has it. Her buying it is the beginning of a collection, because after this first series she will have to read more complete fantasy series; and after this, all the works by the same authors. When she has read this, whenever she goes to the Amazon website or into a large bookshop, she will feel quite tangibly a craving for similar writings. Of course, the craving cannot be satisfied, because nothing will be the same as the first read, and if she seeks to replicate her formative experience she is going to feel something like a twinge of empty futility. At this point often the craving, having run out of things of the same kind to read, has to change its focus if there is to be even the semblance of satisfaction, and our young reader starts reading grown-up authors, but with the same hungry compulsiveness. The attachment is already deep — because if she were deprived of anything to read, she would be unhappy, and might even feel a terrible desperation.
However, the next stage of attachment is more interesting: the need to secure the enjoyment of reading. Because of her highly developed skills as a reader, by now she shines in certain subjects at school and has been given some encouragement. “I am going to study literature in college,” she decides — and from there it is a short step to “I am going to be a writer” or “I am going to be a scholar.” The attachment has been transformed into a sense of vocation, which may linger in this person for decades, even though they spend those decades working in a law office or a business. I am not saying this is how it works for everyone; it was like this for me, and for many people I know. The attachment can be complex, a compounding of different people’s attachments: for example, when a father’s deep clinging to a security and success that he himself never attained gets projected onto the son, who takes it as his own.
In fact usually our sense of vocation or inner attraction to a career is composite, made up of other people’s clingings of which we are barely aware. It never simply is. But as we grow older in our various occupations, and indeed become soft-wired by them to think and act in certain ways, it becomes harder to look at our relationship with them objectively. We become identified with them, and find it difficult to detach ourselves from the identification.
The same difficulty exists in cases where we identify with vocations that we have not pursued and that have lingered in the background of our lives. I once met a woman at a party who seemed miserable and close to tears. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me she had that day had a vivid realization: she had for forty years considered herself as an artist, and thought that that was what she was meant to be — but she had done no art for all that time — and so she could not possibly be an artist, could she? What she saw clearly was that the artistic identity had formed early and was honest and powerful at the time, but since then she had changed and was no longer that person — while all the time thinking of herself as that person. For some reason that she had yet to figure out, it had been important for her to think of herself as an artist. To perceive now that she was in truth not an artist but a fantasized artist was a shattering blow to her, because something fundamental to her self-image had been eradicated. She did not know who she was any more. She had seen her own clinging to a specific self-image, and her current misery came from witnessing the degree of this attachment; she felt broken. Was it a good thing to have had this realization? Most people at this point will replace the broken self-image with a new illusion, but this woman bravely preferred to sit with it.
Everything changes; we change. One day we walk out of our houses and see that there are buds on the trees: “Oh, spring’s here. My, it came suddenly.” But in fact nothing happened suddenly, it all happened moment by moment at its usual pace, and we failed to notice this: we were still living in winter while winter had already turned to spring. Just so, with ourselves: we do not notice ourselves changing, we assume that we stay still while everything else changes, and all of a sudden — often through some crisis — we discover that we have lost ourselves. We had been living in our own clinging to a static self-image that has become harder and harder to change because the rest of our lives has organized itself around preserving it.
Thus in our hurtling onto a life path we find feeling turning to craving turning to clinging. The initial love of a book did not have to lead to reading the whole series. I could have stopped there, and then decided to read something different, or not read at all. Continuing to read also did not have to lead to a life built around reading, although at the time the alternatives seemed inconceivable. I could have enjoyed reading, and then decided to build my life on something else. None of the transitions was necessary — but it all felt necessary: “I have to do this.” Seeing this clearly for what it is, namely the usual natural-feeling move from feeling to craving to clinging, we might still choose the same things we chose, but we wouldn’t feel compelled. Indeed, the absence of compulsion is nothing other than freedom.
Do the same insights apply to that other great hurtling — our love life, the hurtling of our hearts?