The difference between ‘love’; ‘attachment’ and ‘compassion.’

Have you ever loved somebody? A spouse or partner, son or daughter, a mother or father, brother or sister, a friend? Have you ever cared for somebody so deeply that that person was as important to you as life itself? Your most precious thing, the thing you most fear to lose – as well as the greatest source of anxiety. This is love, is it not?

In most parts of the world and throughout history, this, which we usually call ‘’love’’ is the highest value, the greatest aspiration, the supreme blessing, the purest joy. 

We think it is a wonderful and important thing, this devotion and this love – perhaps even the most important thing in the world. Why is it so? Is it really wonderful?

What does it mean to love someone? What do you love in the other person so much? Is it their appearance, their qualities, their abilities?

Is attachment a good thing? 

The first thing we can easily say is that when we love somebody like this, it is entirely based on attachment. In fact, instead of talking about ‘’love’’ which is a word that can be taken to mean any number of things, we should rather speak more precisely of attachment.

Does it make us a good person to be attached to somebody else? Good, in what way? –  Does the attachment make us more generous, more patient, more compassionate or wiser?

We can easily realise that attachment to somebody is absolutely dependent on the fact of us considering someone as belonging to us. If we are afraid for the safety of our loved one, the anxiety can keep us awake all night; but will never fear for the safety of all the other hundreds or thousands of people who are in very real danger in the world at that very moment. It’s only when we consider a person as intimately linked to ourselves that we are attached to them. Our children, for instance, are often our strongest attachment, precisely because they are our blood, considered our creation, not existing without us. If we don’t see somebody as part of us, we have never the same feeling towards them, even if we greatly admire their qualities or their goodness.

Who do we really love – who is our love really for, who is it about? Is it really purely for the other? – or is it really ourselves that is the most important thing in our relationships, the thing that determines who and how we love? 

When we love something merely because it belongs to us, then the love is not really for the other person. 

Even if we have made sacrifices for them, spent much energy on them, given so much to them, all this is still stained with selfishness. It might not be always easy to see, but it shows itself nonetheless in ways subtle or not; in how we react and how we think when it comes to our attachment. 

For instance, consider a parent whose son or daughter has had quite a number of sexual relationships with different people, the relationships not lasting long and not appearing to provide any lasting satisfaction.  Although the parent might not be exactly thrilled about this, it is not generally something that will tend to cause much deep concern or disturbance, as it is considered pretty common, normal, and may well be something that the parent themselves has gone through at some point. 

However, if the son or daughter should then suddenly announce to their parent that they have decided to become a monk or nun, this will likely be a source considerable shock and consternation, particularly if it is in a different religious tradition. The parent will ask why their child is doing this, why are they not happy in their life, and might feel sad that their child will be missing out on all the pleasures of normal life. 

 Why? Is it really to do with the genuine benefit or detriment of these decisions, in terms of the child’s health, well-being and happiness?  

The reason is that when we are attached, we are not really so concerned about what is truly best for the other person. Instead, we want for them what fits with our own ideas; whichever ideas to which we are most attached. Instead of our love being rooted in compassion and the aim to work for our loved one’s good, the most important thing for us that they should continue to be ours, to belong to us, and to be and do what we expect of them. This is of course not something that we realise or that we do deliberately; it’s simply the nature of attachment.

Thus, wherever there is attachment, it means that in the eyes of the one who is attached, the loved one can never belong to themselves, and are not permitted to be genuinely free. They must forever be chained to us, and they must also show us enough affection and attention in return, or else we will end up feeling a sort of resentment over all the time and energy we spent on them. Neither should they be too affectionate towards others in the family or elsewhere, otherwise it becomes a source of jealousy – how dare to love somebody else more than us! 

How many people have killed the very people they were closest to, out of jealousy or anger? If love is something good, isn’t it strange that it gives way so quickly and easily to such horrible intentions and actions?

Blind to the nature of ‘love’

How come we don’t notice all this ugliness, how come we don’t see it?  There are two main reasons. Firstly, we are usually not forced into the kinds of extreme conditions that will reveal the nature of our supposed ‘’love.’’ Secondly, and more importantly, when we are born and raised with these values, we mostly continue to buy into them completely without ever questioning them. To the extent that, even when there are clear truths that are right before our eyes and not hidden at all, we do not see them. 

For example, everyone everywhere will easily realise and acknowledge the fact that to love and be attached involves suffering.  Not only that: the more deep the attachment, the more we ‘love’; the more intense the suffering; the more we will be fearful and anxious lest the cherished one should come to any harm, the more we will be sensitive to any thing that we feel threatens them, the less we can bear even thinking about the possibility of losing them, and the greater the chance that our life will be utterly destroyed if and whenever we do.

Such is the nature of love, and we all know this.  

Yet because we completely buy into the value of what we call ‘’love,” it never occurs to us to think that it is rather strange. Why is it that something that is apparently so good, should have to continually, constantly, inevitably by its nature make us suffer at one time or another? Does this make sense?

 Instead of questioning in this way, we are blindly convinced that ‘love’ is a good thing, and so we hold onto, treasure and hold in very high regard the very suffering that the attachment brings; the suffering becomes the measure of our love. If we do not suffer on account of our ‘’love,’ then it is not considered ‘’real love’’, if somebody does not cry and grieve when their parent, child or partner dies, then they must be a sociopath, cold and uncaring without love in their hearts. That is the only way we know how to understand this.

Yet what is this crying – when we cry because a loved-one dies, who are we actually crying for? We are not crying because a being in the world has died, or we would need to spend our entire life crying non-stop. 

Are we crying because of the loss of the other person’s intelligence, the loss of their knowledge, or because of the loss of their effort in their job, or because of the loss of their body and mind to the world? If we admire them for their generosity or their kindness, do we cry in the same way when another generous or kind person dies?

No, in fact we are crying simply because we have lost something of our own. We cry because they will never comfort us again, never smile at us again, never give us a hug again; we cry because we will not hear the sound of their voice again. We cry only for ourselves.

 The practice of genuine compassion

Just as it is mistaken to measure caring by crying, it is completely mistaken to think that somebody who is unattached, who does not cry when a relative dies, is thereby cold, unfeeling and unlovely. If we think this way it is our own prejudice. In fact, it is when we let go of attachment that now we can become full of compassion, caring and love; but it will be a compassion and love that is pure, unstained by selfishness. 

Without being detached, it is not possible to practice genuine compassion. The compassion that is pure and the base of what we can genuinely call love, is not something easy and free, precisely because it is something that goes against our normal habits and attachments. It is not something that we do automatically by ourselves. Thinking happy thoughts about somebody we love, or ‘’sending our good energy to the world,’’ is not compassion.

Real compassion has to go beyond our normal tendency to care for what pleases us and despise what displeases us. For instance, we can easily have a lot of ‘’compassion’’ for somebody who is being beaten up, but not so much for the one who is doing the beating. We will have a lot of pity for the cute little lion cub that has lost its mama, but not so much for the poacher that shot the lioness. We might feel so very compassionate towards a homeless man on the street as long as he doesn’t come near us and we can look at him from afar, but if he comes and and sits next to us throughout the long train journey, talking non-stop to us with his breath and clothes that smell of alcohol and long time without a shower, then where does our compassion go? If it dissipates or it becomes harder to look on the man with good will and friendliness inside us, why is that? 

If we want to have real compassion and practice genuine good will, we have to know that it has nothing whatsoever to do with our own feelings about something or somebody. Compassion does not discriminate between those that we like and those we do not like; between our family and the rest of the world, or even between those who do wrong and those who do good. (In fact if there is anyone we should have more compassion for, it is the one who does the most wrong, because it is s/he who creates the most enormous heap of suffering for themselves.) 

Compassion, or good-will, then, is rooted in the complete refusal to hate, resent or bear any ill-will towards anybody, even if the should treat us badly. If we have really understood and practiced good will and compassion, we will not get irritated with anybody, should they insult or speak roughly to us, or they behave in a way that is exasperating. 

However, take note of this carefully: not getting angry, not bearing one ounce of resentment, one can still give somebody a reprimand for bad behaviour, or speak in a way that is appropriate to the situation. When we talk about the quality of compassion, we are not talking about taking any physical action yet, because while we can and should have compassion and good will towards all beings without exceptions, it would not be at all appropriate to behave in the same way towards everybody. This is something that is all about what is inside: first, we must be detached and not become upset; second, compassion and good will should be there, third, the decision of how to speak or act should be taken with wisdom.  This is how compassion is applied.

The practice of ‘genuine love’

Although it is possible to have compassion for the suffering of all beings in the world, there are comparatively very few cases where we will have the possibility of doing something to help. Whenever a case arises in which it is possible and useful to take action and make efforts to ease the suffering of somebody else, then it’s here that we can talk about what we will call genuine love: the particular attention and energy one gives to help another being, out of compassion for them, without expecting anything in return. 

The best example of this is the great kindness of the Buddha in teaching the Dhamma to all. A greater benefactor cannot be imagined. The next best example is anyone who teaches Dhamma to a student out of compassion for them. Unlike the ordinary kind of love; when one offers advice or teaching to another person out of genuine love and compassion, they are, as far as the giver is concerned, absolutely free to refuse it, to leave, go their own way and act however they choose. One who teaches must be able to do so without hoping for anything in return: neither affection, servitude, recognition, or even gratitude; this is what it means to give freely without expectations. If the wisdom that is offered is not welcome or not listened-to, then there is no cause for becoming troubled, one simply lets go, since the teaching is for the benefit only of the other. We can see already that this pure love is not something that is easy or natural to everybody.

To be able to give somebody what will genuinely serve for their present and future wellbeing is also not easy in the sense that it requires wisdom. We are not talking about simply giving somebody a hug: Although it might make them feel temporarily a bit better, does nothing to ease their true suffering. For this we need wisdom; we must have the ability to consider and calculate: ‘’What can I do to elevate this person? To help them to grow, to become more independent, to free themselves, to know themselves? Can I actually help, or is it better now to let go?’’ That is why if we ourselves have no wisdom and are filled with attachments, problems and impurities, we have to first have compassion for ourselves, and work on ourselves, in order to be able to act for the true benefit of others. (Of course, this doesn’t mean we should not offer our service and generosity to others to the best of our ability in the meantime!) 

A note to conclude this subject: all this should not be taken as implying that caring for, spending time with and helping one’s friends or relatives is wrong – on the contrary all of the above is on the side of goodness, the path to heaven. It’s important also to make the distinction also between the action of doing one’s duty towards one’s parents, children and family, which is always a good thing; and the reason for which we do this, the state of mind with which we do this. If it is done out of attachment, it cannot be done with a pure heart, for it will be always stained with selfishness in some way or another. For this reason, even if it may lead one to a good destination, it is not the path to wisdom; not the path to go out of suffering. 

In the end, as with all things, all depends on whether our aim lies on the path to cause sufferings, or the path to end sufferings. The end of suffering is absolute purity, nothing else. So, when we practice on the path to end suffering, we must look for only that which is purely good, that which has no suffering within it and causes no suffering. It is therefore only pure love and compassion, free from attachment, that we can accept. 

Truly, if you’re sinking down in the mud you can’t pull out someone else who is also sinking down in the mud. But if you’re not sinking down in the mud you can pull out someone else who is sinking down in the mud. Truly, if you’re not tamed, trained, and purified, you can’t tame, train, and purify someone else. But if you’re tamed, trained, and purified you can tame, train, and extinguish someone else.

The Buddha, MN 8

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