We are all, in one way or another, bound. There are many things that bind us- our relationships with others, our connections to things, and the thoughts we hold so dearly, to name a few. This is normal, and unless you’re a monk in a monastery, unavoidable- it’s just the nature of life. However, it’s very easy for our attachments to things to hold us back from doing the things we’d like to do- and that’s when it becomes time to start breaking chains.
Imagine yourself as a dot. Next, imagine every person you know as a dot as well. Add all your things as dots, too. Now, imagine a chain connecting all of these dots to you, and imagine that the more you interact with any of those dots, the thicker the chains are. You’re probably completely tied up, right? At the very least, it’s a pretty big web that you’re caught up in.
In Buddhism, this network of connections is the result of upādāna, which means “clinging,” (more commonly translated as attachment). However, you can’t cling to something you don’t have, but you can crave that thing. Before clinging, we have taṇhā (craving, more commonly translated as desire)- and this is where problems arise. Buddhism views craving and the subsequent clinging to what we crave as the cause of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, more commonly suffering). Basically, we chase after impermanent things that won’t satisfy us, and when we get them, we desperately cling to them, even though they will fade and go eventually. To top it off, these things are fundamentally unsatisfying, only giving us temporary pleasure that eventually leads to more craving. That’s pretty bleak, if you ask me.
This is where the Buddha and I diverge, however. Buddhism believes that if you want things, you end up getting reincarnated and life is inherently unsatisfying and suffering so that’s bad, and instead you should want nothing and let go of all your attachments. Fair enough, however, I’m not so much a nihilist. While it’s true that much of life is hard and cruel, I believe that the right choice is not to run from the suffering, it is to embrace it and overcome it by choosing to live despite the pains- because we are not defined by pain. However, that debate could be an article in itself- we have chains to break.
How do we do this? First, we need to analyze the nature of the chains we are bound by. The tricky bit is that every chain is different- they’re made out of your relationship to the thing on the other end of the chain, and every chain is different. Family ties, for example, are often the strongest and most complex of all chains- “blood is thicker than water.” To your parents, even as well as they know you, you are fundamentally different in their eyes (and vice versa) than you are in reality. Their concept of you is distorted between their feelings for you, their hopes, and their limited perspective of you. This is what builds the chain.
Imagine your parents wanted you to become a concert violinist, while you actually wanted to play sweet electric violin solos in a folk metal fusion band. (I can’t play violin, but if I could I would totally choose the latter.) In this instance, your freedom to choose between the two is limited to the battle between the pressures being exerted by your family combined with your desire to please your parents versus your willingness to potentially damage your relationship with your parents combined with your desire to shred some brutal e-fiddle riffs.
A great example of this is the case of Arm and Hammer heir, Armie Hammer (yes, that’s his name). He’s famous for playing the Winklevoss twins in the movie The Social Network (and also for playing the AI hotel Edgar Allen Poe on Altered Carbon, which I highly recommend.) However, when he chose to leave school to become an actor, his parents “effectively disowned” him. I, for one, have a great deal of respect for him as a result of that. How many people, when offered the choice between their passion and their family, would be able to make that decision?
As we touched on earlier, however, attachments aren’t limited to relationships with people. We are also attached to things, sometimes even more so than with people. Consider a person who stays at a job they hate because it pays well, or someone who is afraid to chase their dreams because they’ll have to give up the standard of living that they’re accustomed to. If you were offered the chance to live the life of your dreams, but it would require you to live in your car for a year, could you do it? If not, the chains that bind you to your possessions are inhibiting your freedom of movement.
We can be attached to thoughts as well (which is where ideologies come from). This, in a large part, is what ends up obscuring the chains. When we try to move and feel one of the chains hold us back, we have two choices- confront the painful choice between our conflicting desire and attachment, or justify our fear of conflict with some kind of rationalization. “I’m a nice person, I don’t like to argue.” “I always get stepped on, I never get what I want.” There are an infinite number of rationalizations, but generally they serve the purpose of simultaneously defending us from cognitive dissonance while also making us feel morally superior somehow.
In other words, we lie to ourselves to prevent us from dealing with the fact that we aren’t prepared to do what we have to do to get what we want.
This is fundamentally the issue with all attachments- they restrict us from moving and conflict with our goals. Here’s a troubling number- 37% of people have never left their hometown, and another 20% have never moved out of their current state. While there are likely many reasons for that, I’m certain that most of them can be tied back to the chains of attachment.
Are you actively chasing your dreams? Too many people make compromises and avoid the little battles that end up building a nigh-unbreakable network of chains. Then, one day, they will wake up and realize that they have wasted their lives and never saw what they could have been.
Break your chains before they break you.
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