Cling less, love more
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Cling less, love more
by: Rick Hanson
As a rock climber and a parent, I know some physical kinds of clinging are
good – like to small holds or small hands!
But clinging as a psychological state has a feeling of tension in it, and
drivenness, insistence, obsession, or compulsion. As experiences flow through
the mind – seeing, hearing, planning, worrying, etc. – they have what’s called a
“hedonic tone” of being pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. It’s natural to like
what’s pleasant and to dislike what’s unpleasant: no problem so far. But then
the mind takes it a step further – usually very quickly – and tries to grab
what’s pleasant, fight or flee from what’s unpleasant, or prod what’s neutral to
get pleasant: this quality of grabbing, pushing, resisting, or pressing is the
hallmark of clinging.
Clinging is different from healthy desire, where we have wholesome values,
aims, purposes, aspiration, and commitments – without being attached to the
results. Yes, we could feel passionate about our goals and work hard for them,
and the stakes could be high (e.g., the health of child, the success of a
business, the fate of the earth’s climate), but when there’s no clinging, we are
deep down at peace with whatever happens even if the surface layers of the mind
are understandably disappointed, sad, or upset.
Watch your mind and you’ll see it cling to lots of things (remembering that
pulling toward and pushing away are each a form of clinging). These include
objects, viewpoints, routines, pleasures and pain, status, and even the sense of
self (as when we take something personally).
Recognize the costs of clinging. It’s never relaxed and always has a sense of
strain, ranging from subtly unpleasant to intensely uncomfortable. It sucks us
into chasing problematic goals, like stressing out for success, getting rigid or
argumentative with others, being hooked on food or drugs, or seeking rewards in
relationships that will never come. It clenches and contracts rather than opens.
And clinging today plants the seeds of clinging tomorrow.
Most fundamentally, clinging puts us at odds with the nature of existence,
which is always changing. The American Buddhist teacher, Joseph Goldstein,
likens the stream of consciousness to a rope running through your hands: if you
cling to any bit of it, you get rope burn.
But if you let it run free – if you let experiences come and go – you feel
peaceful and happy. Your mind and body open, and love flows freely, the natural
expression of the unclenched heart.
It’s familiar advice I’m sure, but do what you can to take care of your needs
and those of others you care for, pursue wholesome aims with energy and
diligence, and keep the needle of your personal stress meter out of the Red
Zone. Each of these steps will pull logs off the fire of clinging.
Learn about clinging
Pick something specific – like a position about how something should be – and
first really really cling to it. Insist in your mind that it MUST turn out a
certain way. Notice what clinging feels like in your body and mind.
Then really try to relax the clinging. It’s fine to wish for a certain
result. But help yourself be at peace with whatever the result is by reminding
yourself that you and others will likely still be fundamentally OK. Imagine
whatever you’ve clung to as something small in a great space, such as a single
stone in a vast plain seen from an airplane passing overhead. Disengage from
over-thinking, ruminating, or obsessing. Help your body relax and soften, open
your hands, let your mind open, and let the clinging go. Recognize the ease, the
peace and pleasure in releasing clinging, and let the sense of this sink into
you – motivating your brain to cling less in the future.
Set down your burdens
Try the practice just above with other things you’ve clung to. Start with easy
things and work up. Remember: you can be fiercely, energetically committed to
something without being attached to the result.
Wake up from the spell
Investigate your experience of things you cling to: such as pleasant sensations,
or certain sights or ideas. Isolate any aspect of this experience and look
closely at it in your mind. Ask yourself: Is there real happiness in this (this
sight or idea or sound, etc.)? I think you’ll see the answer is always No.
Stop looking for things to want
Notice how the mind continually looks for a reward to get, a problem to solve,
or a threat to avoid: in other words, something else to cling to. A little of
this is OK, but enough already! Bring your attention back to the present moment,
to this activity, this conversation, this breath. This will pull you back into
Now, the only time we are truly happy.
Open your heart
As clinging recedes, let love move in. Look for small everyday expressions, such
as a kind word here and gentle touch there. As you cling less, it’s natural to
lighten up, stay out of quarrels, have more compassion, put things in
perspective, and forgive. As you let experiences flow through you without
clinging to past or future, you’ll feel more fed by the richness inherent in the
present, which makes the heart overflow.
Love in all its forms large and small crowds out clinging, which brings more
love in a wonderfully positive cycle.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and Huffington Post, and he is the author of the best-selling Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. He writes a weekly newsletter - Just One Thing - that suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.
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