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A Zen Retake on Love: Attachment is the Root of All Suffering

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Zen often offers lovely koans that make us feel good for a moment, enlightened for a nanosecond, and then drops us back into the awareness that “oh, it’s a FB meme.” Occasionally, a zen moment occurs and the meme matches our mood or state of awareness. This is one of those moments for me. Please take a deep breath and pause with me as I unravel my present moment.

The Universe Provides Everything We Need

As my life is in major flux at this very moment, I have been letting go of my attachment to any outcome. That does not mean I am not striving, I am swimming as hard as I can and running out of breath. The problem is I don’t know which shore of the lake I am aiming for. I don’t know where I am going. I know the goal in my heart, but the external realities are not matching up. I am suffering as a result of my attachment to many things, but in particular:

  • people
  • survival (housing, food, money, safety)
  • work (will I be able to create a meaningful business/career?)
  • heart
  • family

Attachment to People

In relationships (both romantic, platonic, and professional) we often get attached to the outcome. We put time into the relationship, we want results. We invest our heart and soul in a person, we hope they will return the gift. But people are funny. Regardless of what WE want, people will do exactly what they want to do. No matter how many times we ask, no matter how creative or persuasive, we may not get what we are asking for from another person. Having failed in my marriage and several relationships since, I am fully aware that my focus on the outcome, on what is going to happen rather than what is happening, is one of my blind spots.

I remember talking to a friend several years back about my divorce from the mother of my two children. As I was telling her my narrative, she said, “Oh, I see, you thought your wife loved you.” I was silenced by her statement. “Yeah? I thought that is what we were creating in our family.” This wise older woman smiled at me and said, “She was looking out for her own interests first. She was not in love with you as much as what you could provide.” She was right. When my marriage ended, it was because I had asked my then-wife to renegotiate our financial agreement. We might BOTH need to have jobs. She didn’t like what I was asking for. And ultimately she met with an attorney, got the picture of the divorce brochure, and began the process of expelling me from my own house and my own family. (I know that’s a dramatic telling and a gross oversimplification, but this story is not about her.)

My then-wife decided what she wanted to do and no amount of negotiations, no amount of housekeeper help, no amount of cash in the bank, was going to turn her away from her exit plan. She had it worked out in Excel before I even knew she had been to see an attorney. She was telling me one thing, going to couple’s therapy with me weekly, and DOING something completely different. Today, I have learned to let go of things when they are broken. To recover me and my own balance and self-worth in spite of failed relationships.

Attachment to Survival

My survival skills have been refined over the 11 years since my divorce. I’m not always on top of my game, but even when I’m suffering, I’ve learned to take care of the basics before the basics crush me and my spirit. Even still, I have had my spirit crushed a number of times since my divorce. Most of them because I was investing 100% of my attention and energy into a relationship AND not allowing the process to happen naturally. Let’s say I was trying to build a relationship with an alcoholic. Try as I might, there is a zero percent chance that I was going to be successful at navigating and maintaining a relationship with an active alcoholic. But I kept trying well beyond a healthy timeframe. I knew I could not be in a relationship with a drinking alcoholic. And though I did not try to stop her from drinking or get her into “the program” I was certain I could be a strong enough partner that she would begin drinking less and loving me more. I was wrong.

Today, as I reboot just about everything in my life, AGAIN, I am even more clear that my attachment to the outcome is causing me a lot of suffering. As I try to negotiate a failing relationship, as I give it one more try, and I try and forgive and forget, I learn, again and again, I cannot ignore the actions of the other person when those actions are continuing to cause me harm. I am going to be more aware of my own survival and my “safety alarms” when they go off. I will not roll through the red flag zone imagining I can fix everything, or be flexible enough to put up with abusive behavior.

Attachment to Work

“What do you do for a living?”

I have got to become less attached to my own answer of this question. I need work to provide for my survival. I need work to not kill or maim me. I need work that is fulfilling at a deeper level. And I’m willing to sell my hours in return for future hours of freedom.

How do I make a living? Does my work as a digital marketer define my self-worth or my value to the world? What about if I’m marketing porn? Does my work as a life coach provide value to the people I touch? I hope so. Does my work as a single dad advocate define my self-worth? Hmm…

Anyway, I’m on the cusp of being able to do my writing and coaching full-time, but… I have this current cash flow problem. Thus I continue my work as a digital marketer.

Attachment to Family

Family is everything. And my family is very small. And as my mom enters some of her golden years, I am reminded about how important my immediate family is. Not a family I want to aspire to. Not the family of a lover or future lover. My own family is the most important relationship in my life. I don’t always pay attention to this idea. The pandemic certainly made keeping in touch with my 18 yo and 20 yo kids a bit more difficult. And my mom entered an independent living facility during Covid and is suffering from isolation in a very expensive and very nice hotel for the dying.

When I lose focus on my family I lose a good part of my centering. When I attach my happiness to someone else or someone else’s family, I quickly lose my own independent happiness. Only I can make myself happy. And only through maintaining constant contact with my immediate family, can I nourish the attachment to my family and the deep love they bring to my life.

Attachment to the Heart

Ah, my love language. The language of my heart. The love language of touch. And the suffering I experience when I am alone. And alone I am. Again. And happy I am at being alone again and being given the gift of silence, peace, and rest. I have no agenda but my own. I have no demands on my time, my attention, my patience. I am alone. I am at peace. I am quiet.

My heart is learning to burn in this quiet space of aloneness. My creativity and my drive seem to gain a 250% boost when I am flying solo. It’s not where I’m happiest… Wait, let’s examine that for a second.

I would say I am happiest in a relationship. I say it all the time. AND YET, perhaps it’s in pursuit of a relationship, or in the courtship and honeymoon stages of a relationship that I am happiest. Nope. That’s not it. It’s certainly not when a relationship ends. That’s where I am now. But, I am happy. I am rested. I have hours to myself, for myself, and by myself. And I am happy alone. That’s the truth.

But my heart craves the touch and spirit of another person. My heart longs to adore and ravish another person. My heart is attached to being in a relationship. And thus I suffer from my attachment to that idea. Oh well, that’s where I am. Attached to my heartstrings, and happier even when they have been plucked and broken away from the fretboard of the guitar. I am restringing the guitar of my heart. And I am happy about the adventure and song ahead. I will find another heart to provide harmony, contrast, and challenge. In that adventure, I will also grow and learn.

Everything Falls Apart

And if you can be happy in both the falling apart and the rebuilding you will be happy a lot. I. Am. Happy. Right. Now.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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