Two monks who were travelling on pilgrimage came to a muddy river crossing. There they saw a beautiful young woman waiting, not knowing how to cross the river. One of the monks instantly offered to pick her up and, holding her close, to carry her across. The woman gladly agreed. The two monks continued on their way. Hours later the second monk could no longer restrain himself and complained: “Surely, that’s against the rules – touching a woman is simply not allowed. How could you have done that? This is a violation of all monastic protocol.” The other monk listened patiently and finally replied: “Look, I set that girl down back at the crossing. Are you still carrying her?”
When talking about attachment, many people automatically think of things (see here). Sure, we’re attached to stuff, house, car, our nice designer sofa, or even to our expensive yoga mat – you name it. The beauty is that we can get attached to literally anything, even stuff other people would throw in the bin. And if we’re really strong, we just get rid of whatever it is we’re attached to.
But what about thoughts, like in the example above? What about ideas and opinions we cherish? Things we cannot stop thinking about? Negative thoughts we’re attached to? Attachment is normally understood as being glued to something positive. The idea is that this thing – whatever it might be – makes us feel better.
But that’s not always the case. There are many examples of people being attached to something negative (think of behaviours like smoking, wrong eating habits – the list goes on). Even if we talk of habits, essentially we’re looking at thought patterns. A desire to do something always starts with a thought. Repeatedly giving way to that desire creates a habit. That habit is fueled by our thought patterns. Our habits determine over time who we are.
So being attached to particular thoughts is a tricky thing. There’s no outwardly process (throwing out stuff) to get rid of them. Like the monk who’s attached to the thought of that woman, who dwells on it, we have a hard time getting rid of unwanted thought patterns. Essentially, we are what we think. Getting rid of thought patterns is therefore like creating a new self.
The first step would of course be to identify these unwanted patterns. That’s hard because even if something bothers us, we usually find millions of justifications why this particular thing should be the way it is. Breaking a habit the first time is tough. Breaking it several times already creates a new habit. The more we reshape the way we think, the easier it will be to follow the new habit. At one point this habit will become our new self.
Unfortunately all this is not as straightforward as packing a bag for charity or giving away some books. No wonder monks dedicate part or all of their life to the study and practice of thought control.