Buddhist philosophy teaches non-attachment, and the practice aims at attaining it. Is this any different from giving zero fucks?
Buddhism can be confusing to Americans. It’s not native to our environment, like Christianity, cheeseburgers, and The Walking Dead. It was exported from various Asian outlets, at sporadic times, to sundry locations in the U.S.
It’s been here awhile now but it remains fairly inscrutable to the outsider. It doesn’t help that vaguely Buddhist shit like meditation and mindfulness have been tossed into the mainstream where they’ve been largely misrepresented and misunderstood. Mindfulness especially has been savagely co-opted by Madison Avenue, health gurus, business moguls, and anyone else that can crank a dollar out of it. It’s currently being offered up as a panacea to all our contemporary ills. You can’t swing a dead snow leopard without smacking into an ad, documentary, book, or article that trumpets the amazeballs benefits of mindfulness.
Buddhism as a whole is a tad more complicated than mindfulness on its own. Not to mention there’s a metric dickload of schools, traditions, and approaches, all of which emphasize different aspects of the path. But some tenets are universal, regardless of denomination.
Non-attachment is one of those, which is interesting because social media is currently full of people proudly declaring their lack of fucks to give. The perfect amount seems to be zero. Folks like to be literally fuckless. Most of the internet seems to be taken up with either bacon or people giving zero fucks. Except about bacon.
Zero fucks given is hugely popular. But is this real insouciance or just a ridiculous internet fad? I think we all know the answer. So everybody just hunker down in your bacon bunker and wait this one out.
But while we’re here, is the Buddhist concept of non-attachment similar to zero fucks given? Did Buddha himself give zero fucks and encourage his followers to do the same? It can look that way. Buddhists are often portrayed as cold and aloof, practicing meditation to put distance between themselves and worldly delights, struggling to shatter all desire, eliminate all emotions, and become the kings of ZFG.
The reality is a little different. For one thing…
Peace can look a lot like apathy
Cultivating non-attachment can make a person much more peaceful. That can look an awful lot like apathy. If you don’t get riled up over the War on Christmas, or your favorite contestant getting thrown off “America’s Next Top Boomeranger,” then perhaps you don’t care. Maybe you just don’t give a single fuck.
Non-attachment isn’t apathy, however. It doesn’t mean being distant from people, or living as a coolly logical robot, empty of love and anger. It means recognizing that the thing we cling so greedily to, this idea of “me” is totally false. There is no isolated, unchanging nugget somewhere inside that makes you “you.” Buddhism rejects the idea of a personal soul, a flicker of godlight at our core that is permanent, perfect, and enduring. Instead, it points out that we’re put together just like everything else in the universe. We’re comprised of parts and no one of those parts is a singular, abiding feature. This aspect of the philosophy can get absurdly complex, so I won’t try to word-slap it into you. But what it points to, that there isn’t a mini me inside us, is very important. Freeing oneself from that notion is liberating, not painful. Mainly because it shows us that the separation we see between “me” and “everything else,” is false.
I don’t mean this in some empty-eyed, hazy-headed hippie way: “It’s all one, man. We’re just all one.” Nope. But if you have no individual self, and I have no individual self, what’s standing between us?
Buddhism strives to break the dichotomy between subject and object. Once that happens, non-attachment is a natural byproduct because there’s nothing to get attached to.
And that creates peace. Not apathy, but true peace based on understanding the nature of reality. You’re no longer struggling incessantly against the miniature tyrant that used to rule your head and heart. Instead, you abide in a calm that’s not dependent upon external circumstances. The extremes of life will still push you around. When your favorite team gets buttfucked by the refs right out of the playoffs, you’re not going to sit there chanting “Ommm.” You’ll boo and jeer along with everyone else. But the winds of that agitation are momentary and only skin deep. The peace underneath is massive.
Which can lead your devastated friends to believe your ignorant Buddhist ass can’t be bothered to give a fuck. Especially when…
Stability looks boring
Like I said, non-attachment doesn’t bring a perfect, Terminator-like disinterest. It certainly enhances a person’s peace, and deepens it to a point most of us have never experienced. It’s always there, ready to be accessed, even if there’s a minor storm on the surface.
Peace and contentment become the natural state, always humming right along and providing constant stability.
Which looks boring from the outside, and a lot like the person doesn’t give a fuck. If you never seem to have a bad day, or seldom lose your temper, or look totally unvexed in the DMV line, people will assume you’re either dumber than a piñata or staggeringly vapid. Our society values drama, loud, pointless, and belligerent. If you don’t provide any, or don’t seem to enjoy others’, maybe you’re fuck-free and lifeless.
And even if you do lose it and tell someone to lick your left nut, non-attachment brings you rapidly back to your baseline. Which I think I mentioned is a pretty peaceful state. It’s not that you don’t care about whatever that guy did that prompted you to invite his tongue toward your beanbag, it’s more that you don’t identify with your rage. Let’s say you needed two weeks’ worth of TPS reports on your desk by noon and the TPS guy was out having lunch at a strip club buffet. Titties and tapas, you know. When you ask him later where the goddamn reports are, he explains, through a chilly miasma of Daiquiri fumes, that he’ll get to them when he gets to them.
Stuff like that can provoke anyone, especially since you weren’t invited to the strip club. You like boobs. You like wings. When you blow up at him, that’s what everyone expects. They’ll probably even be impressed at your mysterious specificity: Why does he only want his left nut licked?
But the explosion will probably be short-lived. After you’ve stalked back to your TPS-free desk, you start falling quickly back into calm. Even though your temper surged, the stability of your practice brings you back where you need to be.
By now, people are surreptitiously walking past your cubicle so they can watch the boring, calm guy fume at his desk. Maybe he’s pounding out a furious email while muttering under his breath about his dry right nut. Shit, he’s such a repressed, insipid weirdo, he may be slamming the magazine into an AR-15.
Instead, they find you gathering yourself to go apologize. You still need the TPS reports, of course. The other guy’s attitude and lunchtime habits still aren’t okay, but you’re not attached to the anger. If you’d held onto it, which is what we all commonly do, you’d be getting even madder and people would be backing uncomfortably into the bathrooms.
But it’s not personal. Anger comes and goes. When you realize that, you can be much happier. Which brings up the fact that…
Happiness often looks idiotic
It’s pretty sad that we’ve come to assume that dark, brooding, snarly people are interesting and smart while visibly happy people are stupid and boring. Or at least it’s sad that I do it. My own proclivities lean much more toward snarly but, like Jules in Pulp Fiction, I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard…
This country is overflowing with unhappiness. Depression, disease, poverty, divorce, Donald Trump. We’re overstressed, underpaid, hyper-stimulated distraction junkies pushing ourselves to the brink of disaster. The American Dream seems to be eating itself, and us along with it. But we keep plugging away. We put in more hours at jobs we don’t like, buying mountains of sparkly detritus we don’t need, eating and drinking filth, all while keeping one eye on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube so we don’t miss anything.
Get the job, get the car, get the spouse, the house, the kids, the debt, the promotions. Keep moving, higher, harder, faster, asshole. It’s giving us ulcers and heart disease and alcoholism and death.
And misery. Don’t forget the misery. In 2015 the U.S. was ranked the 15th happiest country, behind Mexico. Mexico. The place sending all its citizens here to burn our hospitals, rape our livestock, and eat all our Qdoba.
In the face of all this, happiness looks idiotic. It runs counter to what we’ve come to expect from life. If someone isn’t neck deep in this struggle, striving for the same things in the same way everyone else is, they look out of place. And if they’re happy? They just look like simple-minded twats.
Buddhism points out why we suffer so much. Craving, primarily. An overwhelming desire for things to be the way we want them. When things are not the way we want them, or they stop being the way we want them, it hurts. We try to fill our lives with pleasure and hold onto it tightly, but it inevitably slips away. We try our best to avoid pain and suffering, but we ceaselessly encounter them all our lives.
This is unavoidable. Non-attachment eases this burden by getting rid of our expectations. Instead of seeing pain as something to be avoided, we understand that it must be experienced. Rather than grasp so desperately at pleasant experiences, we see that they are all fleeting. This assuages a tremendous amount of our suffering. At the same time, it doesn’t lessen our actual happiness, but increases it. More on this later.
This felicity can make us look like Golden Retrievers. Dumb and eager to please, but oh so delighted all the time. People muddling their way through the eight-to-eight grind see happiness as something that comes later. After the next raise, the next house, the next wife, the next helicopter; always later. Sometimes they don’t even realize how unhappy they are until they see a content person, totally out of place in modern life. We may publicly state our affection and admiration for affable people like the Dalai Lama, but we’re perfectly willing to put off any kind of philosophy or practice that may lead us in his direction because, really, he seems a little simple. Which leads me to…
This is a society of strong opinions
Social media has given everyone numerous platforms to share their ideas, opinions, and views. Thankfully, most of them are well-thought-out, nuanced, and mild-mannered. Except for the fact that none of them are. This is a nation of strident voices and strong opinions, and now anyone can say anything, with no ramifications, and be assured that thousands of people will see it. Not only will they see it, but they’ll probably react to it in a way that ups the ante. If a Facebook post is just plain hateful, the response will probably be hateful and also racist. It’s social media brinksmanship and it’s gone a long way toward disproving the old adage that you need to respect the beliefs of others.
Americans love taking sides. It’s truly our national pastime. Whether it’s sports, politics, religion, sex, or whale-watching, we’ve got to take a side. And then make sure everyone knows where we stand. This is one area where it’s deadly important to give fucks. We give tons of fucks for the side we join, but we give zero fucks about the other side. They’re not even human.
Non-attachment can allow us to relax our rigid ideas and beliefs and see that pitting sides against each other never gets anything done. Well, in sports it does. But in real life, all it does is crank up the screaming, hate-boner orgy.
Don’t mistake this for giving up all your fucks. An enlightened Buddhist master wouldn’t stop fighting for gender equality because she’s not attached to the issue. Rather, her non-attachment would let her see the opposition compassionately, as suffering humans rather than “the other side.” Vilification and anger may arise but she doesn’t grab onto them, she lets them go.
She may talk passionately about gender equality and be deeply involved in groups dedicated to the cause. She may give speeches, write essays, and stage protests. But her opinion will have lost its hate and the tense, demonizing aspects that make it so aggressive.
Eliminating attachment doesn’t eliminate pleasure
It’s common for non-Buddhists to imagine that enlightenment equals the end of being human. After all, if you eliminate desire and attachments, where will all your warm fuzzies come from? Haven’t you just traded all of life’s dizzying highs and lows for boring old serenity?
That makes a certain kind of sense. Hell, it makes more sense than Prometheus. If the goal of Buddhism is to erase suffering, and suffering is caused by desire, it stands to reason if you kill desire you kill some or most of your humanity.
So what happens to worldly pleasure if you use spiritual means to get rid of your attachment to it? Typically, people seem to believe that all amusement and gratification will roll off your enlightened ass like semen off Teflon. Like you’re impervious to plain old earthly enjoyments and exist in a permanent state of supernaturally slick passivity.
But here’s the conundrum: rather than being Lord No Fuck, non-attachment makes normal pleasures so much more titillating, like all pleasure now has a tongue stud. Because you’re not spastically snatching at bliss and delectation, they’re much more powerful when they occur. And since you’re not clutching them to your heaving breast and howling for them to stay and never leave you, they’re all the more delicious while they’re present. The very fact that you’re willing to let pleasure go is what makes it so ineffably wonderful.
That’s because you’re no longer driven by the constant craving for things to be the way you want them. Pleasure was never the problem, it’s our addiction to it that thwarts our happiness. With zero fucks given, you don’t care what happens. Non-attachment means you definitely care, but your happiness isn’t rooted in the actual outcome of events. If something moderately or insanely fantastic happens, you’ll enjoy the ever-loving shit out of it while it lasts. If nothing at all cool is happening, you’ll still be happy because you’re not jonesing for rapture.