How can "non-attachment" be compatible with care? We need to distinguish between caring and clinging.
(Originally published on my old blog, Hands and Cities, on January 24, 2021. Podcast version here.)
I often find myself wanting to refer to a certain dimension of emotional experience, which I’ll call “clinging.” This post tries to point at it. I also suggest that understanding this dimension can resolve a common confusion about Buddhist philosophy and other types of spiritual/therapeutic advice — namely, how “non-attachment” or “letting go” can be compatible with deep passion and care. I further suggest that clinging can help us think more clearly about patterns of concern that register, intuitively, as non-virtuous.
I. Pointing at clinging
Clinging, as I think about it, is a certain mental flavor or cluster of related flavors. It feels contracted, tight, clenched, and narrow. It has a kind of hardness, a “not OK-ness,” and a (sometimes subtle) kind of desperation. It sees scarcity. It grabs. It sees threat. It pushes away. It carries seeds of resentments and complaints. Jealousy, entitlement, pettiness, and bitterness all have a lot of clinging in them, as do greed, desire for status, and anxiety.
I’m not just listing emotions and traits often thought bad. Self-absorption, for example, need not be clingy; it can just be blind, wrapped up in its own world. Same with arrogance and disrespect, for related reasons. Emotions in the vicinity of depression, boredom, laziness, and malaise also seem non-clingy, at least at the surface. Contempt does not obviously connote clinginess, to me; nor does Voldemort’s cruelty, or the Joker’s indifference to the burning of the world.
Often, in my experience, clinging seems to hijack attention and agency. It makes it harder to think, weigh considerations, and respond. You are more likely to flail, or stumble around, or to “find yourself” doing something rather than choosing to do it. And you’re more likely, as well, to become pre-occupied by certain decisions — especially if both options involve things you’re clinging in relation to — or events. Indeed, clinging sometimes seems like it treats certain outcomes as “infinitely bad,” or at least bad enough that avoiding them is something like a hard constraint. This can cause consequent problems with reasoning about what costs to pay to avoid what risks.
Clinging is also, centrally, unpleasant. But it’s a particular type of unpleasant, which feels more like it grabs and restricts and distorts who you are than e.g. a headache.
Conversely, a shift from clinging to non-clinging involves a feeling of relief. Something unhooks, releases, expands. Your mind feels bigger, more open, more poised, more responsive. The situation you’re in may not have changed; but you are able to orient towards it with more agency, and to consider and accept your options, however imperfect, without flinching or closing down. It is, I think, a type of freedom.
II. Clinging vs. caring
Importantly, you can cease clinging in relation to something, without ceasing to care about that thing, or something in its vicinity. Compare, for example:
stinging jealousy vs. hoping that your partner doesn’t leave you;
anxious worrying that a lump might be cancer vs. acknowledging that it might be cancer, and that this would be terrible, but also that you’ve done what you can do at this point, and there are other things to attend to;
subtle bitterness towards the world for raining on your event vs. disappointment that it rained at your event;
pre-occupation with whether you’ll get a certain job vs. an aspiration to find work that you find more engaging.
Note, as well, that a number of traditionally negative, care-based emotions — for example, sadness and grief — do not connote clinging. Rather, they seem generally more open and receptive — even if also raw and painful.
The more you care about something, the harder it may be to avoid clinging in relation to it. But the two are separate dimensions, and it seems to me possible, at least in principle, to care about something any amount, with arbitrary depths of passion and investment, but without any clinging at all. Indeed, many powerful forms of care seem liberated from the tension and smallness that clinging imposes (though clearly, clinging exerts its own power in the world as well).
III. Application to certain types of advice
This difference — between clinging, on the one hand, and caring, on the other — is helpful, I think, for understanding different sorts of spiritual and therapeutic paradigms that can sometimes sound, naively, like they’re advocating that you care less about stuff.
The example most salient to me here is Buddhism. The Buddha, famously, thought that suffering originates in something like “thirst,” “greed,” “craving,” “desire,” or “attachment.” If you let go of that thing, you let go of suffering, and attain perfect peace.
When the relevant thing-to-be-let-go-of is understood as akin to desire — and hence, as akin to preference, care, investment, valuing — this can quickly lead to confusion about whether the goal here amounts to a type of blankness or indifference. A meditator sits down to meditate, starts to worry about her mother’s health, remembers that she is supposed to be “non-attached,” and then thinks: “wait, am I supposed to not care whether my mother gets sick and dies?” Similar worries arise about the Buddhist relationship to e.g. activism, love, the pursuit of enlightenment itself, and so forth — not to mention the slew of more basic preferences that underlie all choice.
Buddhist teachers in the West are often keen to emphasize that indifference isn’t what they’re going for; and the vibe, practices, role models, patterns of admiration and engagement, etc in most Buddhist contexts I’ve encountered are all consistent with this. But in my experience, some theoretical confusion sometimes persists.
Some of this may be mixed messages and different strands in the tradition. For example, I have in fact encountered Buddhist contexts that have seemed notably more anti-world and pro-detachment-from-all-worldly-things than the standard Western mindfulness fare. And different teachers are influenced to different degrees by the more monastic, renunciation-oriented, and pessimistic aspects of the texts and traditions.
But I also sometimes wonder whether it would help to distinguish more cleanly and explicitly between caring and clinging as different dimensions of experience. I, at least, have found it clarifying (who knows if it’s exegetically accurate) to think of the Buddha as centrally advocating that you let go of clinging, as understood above; and of many contemporary Buddhist practices and ideas as oriented towards this goal. That is, the aim is not, centrally, to care less about anything (though sometimes that’s appropriate too). Rather, the aim (or at least, one aim) is to care differently — without a certain kind of internal, experiential contraction. To untie a certain kind of knot; to let go of a certain type of denial/resistance towards what is or could be; and in doing so, to step more fully into the real world, and into a kind of sanity.
I find that this distinction can be helpful in other spiritual and therapeutic contexts as well. One often hears advice in the vein of “let go,” “accept,” “be at peace,” and in more social contexts, “chill out,” “relax,” and so forth. In a certain mood, one can feel like: “No! There are real stakes here!”, especially when the relevant form of relaxation/acceptance/peace is presented as a generalized ideal, and the stakes are moral. Here I think of someone I knew in undergrad, who told a group, proudly, “I am not chill.” That is, it can feel as though one is being encouraged to care less about things that matter, and it can seem like: screw that.
My suggestion is that one try interpreting advice of this kind as keyed towards clinging instead of caring. That is, people/traditions/practices are often reacting to the sense that some way of relating to the world involves clinging, and they are trying to point — sometimes hazily — at an alternative.
Part of the problem here, I think, might rest on a certain kind of basic belief-desire ontology of agency. Confronted with someone (including oneself) suffering because they are worried about X (e.g., the lump might be cancer), for example, it can be easy to conceptualize the situation as:
Belief that X is/might be true + Desire that X not be true = Suffering
If you’re hoping to alleviate some of this suffering, this sort of framework suggests a limited range of interventions. One might try to intervene on the belief (“I’m sure it’ll be fine”), but when aimed at comfort rather than truth, this is epistemically distorted (and too-quick efforts to assure a worrier that X won’t happen can also prompt a reduction in trust: e.g., to the worrier, it can feel like: “you don’t know that!”). Alternatively, one can try to intervene on the desire: maybe X isn’t so bad after all. And sometimes (e.g., a presentation going badly at work), this is appropriate; but sometimes (e.g., getting cancer), it’s really not. But what, then, is left? Distraction? Trying to ignore it? But this can be only a band-aid; the relevant thing hasn’t really unhooked.
But this ontology neglects the dimension of clinging. The degree of clinging one has in relation to getting cancer can vary, I think, without doing anything to deny or diminish cancer’s full badness. This is on display, for example, in the difference between someone anxiously googling all night, vs. making a doctor’s appointment, maybe learning a bit about the risk, then moving on, for now, to other things. But if one treats desire/preference/care/valuing as entirely one dimensional — something that varies only in strength, and/or something determined entirely by a single, over-arching ranking of different outcomes — then it can be hard to explicitly conceptualize the difference in attitude here, except as a difference in desire to avoid cancer, or in beliefs about the risk.
IV. Clinging and vice
I said above that not all canonically non-virtuous emotions involve clinging. I do think, though, that something like clinging goes a long way in explaining which emotions register as intuitively non-virtuous vs. virtuous. Hope = good, greed = bad; sadness = good (or at least, OK), bitterness = bad; and so forth. For this to be interesting, of course, clinging needs to mean something other than “intuitively non-virtuous”; but I’m hopeful that it does — e.g., that it’s a phenomenological property, a distinctive way things can feel, rather than an ethical one.
What more, my sense is that often, when people object to a certain kind of pattern of concern, what people are really objecting to is the clinging they intuitively expect this pattern to involve, rather than the object it is oriented towards — but that the two are not always explicitly distinguished. Consider, for example, the desire to avoid aging and death, and to live much longer than a standard human lifetime. Often, I think, this desire — especially when acted on in novel ways — gets classified as intuitively non-virtuous; and people are inclined to talk about the need to “accept” “let go,” “be at peace with the nature of things,” and so forth. There’s a lot to say about this sort of pattern, but one thing that I think may be going on is that people implicitly expect the relevant sort of desire to involve a lot of clinging: for it to be, as it were, a kind of greed for life, and a kind of tense, flinching, desperate aversion towards the realities of death and aging.
In some cases, this kind of clinging may in fact be present. But it is by no means necessary for the relevant pattern of concern. That is, it is entirely possible to want to live for a very long time centrally because you love life, the way someone loves playing with their daughter, or the swell of a symphony — not because you are “greedy” for it. And it is possible, as well, to face death head on, to look it in the face, the way one might a powerful enemy, without flinching or desperation; and then, even without much hope, to fight. Indeed, it even seems possible to me to “rage against the dying of the light” without clinging; though the connotations here may vary.
V. Reducing clinging?
Should one aim to get rid of clinging? I tend to operate with the heuristic that my mind, at least, is rarely clinging too little; and that opportunities to let go of clinging, without letting go of connection with what really matters, should be taken (indeed, cultivated). I wouldn’t, though, go as far as to say that clinging has no uses, especially in imperfect conditions. Indeed, before dismissing it entirely, one would presumably want an account of why it features so prominently in our mental and social lives.
I don’t have such an account, though it’s possible to speculate. For example, sometimes I think of clinging as functioning to override more agentic processes that some other part of the system sees as at risk of messing up in a high-stakes way. In this sense, it’s a bit like an instinctive flinch away from a hot stove, but it’s tied up more closely with conscious processing. I imagine some part of my mind saying: “this whole consider-your-options-and-then-choose-with-agency thing is well and good in lots of cases, but this one is too big of a deal for such theoretical luxuries; I’m taking the wheel; I’m shutting down the whole live-in-harmony-with-your-deepest-values show for now; we’re staying up all night googling, ‘rationality’ be damned.” But this doesn’t feel like it covers everything, and different flavors of clinging may warrant different explanations.
If one does wish to let go of clinging, there are lots of tools available. Indeed, I tend to see many spiritual/therapeutic/rationality/self-help-ish tools as aimed, centrally, at helping people shift from clingy to less-clingy frames and orientations, and to regain agency in the process. Consider, for example, the serenity prayer, the Litany of Gendlin, decatastrophizing, and various mindfulness-related techniques that cultivate the ability to notice/orient towards different aspects of your experience with equanimity, rather than getting caught up in them. Indeed, it is possible, I think, to build and exercise a kind of “non-clinging” mental muscle directly — a muscle that “lets go” or “releases” in some fairly direct way, returning the mind to a more spacious and centered place.
Some traditions tend to conceptualize clinging as resting on some central, often metaphysical mistake — perhaps about the self, or about separateness, or about the permanence of things — insight into which allows liberation. I’m not so sure about this, and more generally, I tend to be skeptical about looking for single epiphanies to untie tangled psychological knots once and for all. In my experience, different tools and frames can, at different times, prompt non-clinging more and less effectively (and efficacy can wane over time); and the tool most appropriate to a particular type of clinging, for a particular person, can vary. Over time, one looks for and tries many different keys, fitting many different locks; one learns to let go at different levels, in relation to different things; but the basic motion, the direction of travel, seems to me similar — and it’s not towards indifference.