A Healthier Kind of Attachment
From an early age I have been a practicing Buddhist. First it was simply a comforting form of spiritual discipline to which I turned when pure reason inspired an utter rejection of the three great monotheistic traditions. Later in life it became far more meaningful.
The phony nature of much Christian doctrine grated on me from the age of eight, when I received several strokes of the cane across the palm of my right hand for not being able to accurately recite the catechism. The fact that I was still able to compose church music, give organ recitals, and participate in church rituals, well into my twenties, still baffles me.
But once I was able to comprehend the essence of Buddhism as a spiritual philosophy, as opposed to just more religious dogma, my conversion was absolute.
Buddhism teaches us not to become too attached to things. Indeed, one of the four noble truths in Buddhist scriptures asserts desire and attachment to be the sources of so much dissatisfaction and suffering. I must confess that I still find this a difficult precept to live by and a dilemma I have constantly wrestled with. Most material possessions I found easy enough to discard. I never owned a property until I was 70 years old, for example, though my fondness for books, contemporary art and music scores provides me with the greatest joy imaginable.
Attachment to relationships, on the other hand, proved to be more challenging. Maybe for this reason I have few close friends. In my case I am reluctant to impose on the bond that binds us, as some might expect of true friends. Maybe, too, I would still be living with my first wife, instead of eliciting divorce proceedings when things turned sour, had I been more inclined to stay the course and work on the marriage. More surprisingly, just a few years later, I was able to let go within weeks of my second relationship crumbling for no apparent reason. This time I had convinced myself that my partner was the love of my life, and a genuine soul mate in every way. Yet that did not deter me from urging her to leave when I discovered she had fallen in love with someone else, even though the immediate pain was almost unbearable. Somehow, we were able to remain friends and I like to think our friendship is important to both of us.
While most relational attachments are easy enough to rationalise, familial detachmentis a burden most people seem unwilling to acknowledge. I sense the detachment I feel for my own children, and my grandchildren, would be incomprehensible to most people. Indeed, I harboured guilty feelings for a long time when I realised that I was quite content to have my children leave home to find their own pathways through life. Unlike my wife I felt no sense of loss. And although my paternal love and pride is quite evident to my children, of that I am sure, I am quite happy not to see my grandchildren very often.
What I have found exceedingly difficult to deal with is my attachment to memories and some highly personal artefacts from the past. Many years ago, an entire collection of my music, which had been recorded over a period of seven years, and which had been left in trust with one of my children, disappeared. There were no copies. After the initial anger had subsided, and I managed to work through the grief and sense of personal loss, I felt as though a part of me had been rubbed out, leaving only a faded, blurred daguerreotype.
More recently I discovered several hand-written letters dating back half a century, were missing from an antique Chinese chest in which I keep original scores, souvenirs and other assorted memorabilia. There was a pen and ink letter from the poet Ted Hughes, for example, talking about my setting of his poems Erosand King of Carrion, from Ted’s book Hawk in the Rain, which had received its premiere at the Edinburgh Festival. And another very brief note from my teacher Nadia Boulanger to my mother, assuring her of my talent. Such bits and pieces are irreplaceable. The sense of loss inevitably cuts deep, even when they remain intact in the memory and are assuaged through the lens of Buddhist practice.
Nothing is permanent of course. Nostalgia is a seductive liar. And attachment to objects such as these is ultimately of little consequence. But in the end the manner in which we are able to deal with our various attachments both shapes and defines us.
These days my attachment to material objects is declining in alignment with my quest for a more peaceful, hermit-like, existence. It is true that I am surrounded by my art and music. To lose these would be a great sacrifice. My MacBook, too, has become the repository of ideas, feelings and projects stretching back over two decades. I would not want to lose it. But if I did I would cope.
In terms of affiliation, the affection I feel for humanity and for this planet our home, grows stronger and more resolute each day, while a committed detachment from the deeds of greedy, powerful, individuals, and the ways in which they have designed systems for their own benefit, at least gives me the courage to do the work I do. Perhaps this is a healthier kind of attachment.