Friday, June 16, 2006

Narcissus and Attachment

From Ovid's Metamorphoses (Gregory, Horace. "Book III: Echo and Narcissus," 1958.):
Again, again his arms embraced the silver
Elusive waters where his image shone;
And he burned for it while the gliding error
Betrayed his eyes. O foolish innocent!
Why try to grasp at shadows in their flight?
What he had tried to hold resided nowhere,
For had he turned away, it fell to nothing:
His love was cursed.
This excerpt comes from the well-known story of Narcissus, who was cursed by Nemesis to fall in love only with himself. Narcissus's love kept him pining away at the "pool, well-deep and silver-clear," lusting after his reflection, until his death, having wasted away, drained by his futile attachment.

How attached are we to something about ourselves? Narcissus lives within all our psyches, and not necessarily in the form of attachment to our physical appearance (although that's a common one!). Narcissus can seize anything you consider yourself to be better at than others. If you think yourself smart, this may become your curse. The test? If someone challenges your intelligence, how do you react? Are you angered by the comment? Do you repress the anger under the guise of not caring?

If your reaction is anything but unconditional compassion for the person who challenged your "trait," Narcissus has exerted his influence on you, attaching you to your trait. At this point, a (perceived) attack on your trait is a direct frontal assault on YOU!

The Buddha, in his unwaveringly optimistic way, taught us that, yes, suffering exists. But, he continued, it has a cause (many, actually), and if you remove the cause, the suffering will cease! Therefore, unlike Narcissus, we are not doomed to death consumed by our attachment. We can look deeply, discover the causes of our attachment, and remove them.

1-Minute Contemplation: What traits of yours are you attached to? What aspect of you, when challenged, seems to provoke an unnecessarily emotional response?


Ang said...

I think the cause of our attachment to certain traits/abilities/characteristics is not necessarily that we think that we are better than others in that area. Rather, I believe the cause is that our self esteem and/or self worth is often built around these often fleeting aspects of ourselves -- we judge our self worth on a few aspects of ourselves that we feel are our strengths, instead of viewing ourselves as a total package with many (often fluctuating) strengths and weaknesses. Hence a challenge to one of the characteristics/abilities we feel is our most strong is often perceived as an attack on us as an entire person thereby negating our self worth and causing us to react in such a way that is usually motivated by fear and anger.

Mike said...

Ang: Oh, our "thinking that we are better than others in an area" is not the cause of our attachment. Rather, it's a means by which we can identify things to which we are attached. Consider it one common symptom of attachment. I think you're right that we tie our self worth to our greatest strengths. It's like saying, "I'm an engineer," or "I'm an architect." Not really—your job might be that, but it is not you.

The Buddha taught that the primary (though not the only) cause of our suffering was attachment to our sense of self. This goes right along with what you stated, Ang. When we realize true emptiness, we recognize our strengths and weaknesses as such, and recognize that there is no self to which they may ascribe worth. Therefore, for this person who has realized emptiness, if someone attacks his strength, it raises none of the three poisons in his mind—anger/aversion, greed, or delusion—because he, by experiential realization, is not attached to the strength as such. Thank you for the comment!

Angela said...

However, the point I was trying to make was that I don't agree that because we are attached to a trait/characteristic that that means that we believe that we are better than others in that area. Obviously that is true in some circumstances, but not all. It may be the case that we simply believe that that trait/characteristic is the strongest part of ourselves and/or the best that we have to offer despite how we compare in that area(s) to others.

Don Iannone said...


This is great. Many folks struggle with the notion of emptiness. They fear it means nonexistence. (Ok, we could debate this one...)

This one (emptiness) took a while for me, but eventually it sunk in. When it did, it provided a wonderful foundation for me in understanding nonduality in an experiential, and intellectual, way. I have a "habit" of being in love with my thoughts. (I know: how self-centered and egotistical of me. LOL)

It's funny how we enter our understanding at one point and it carries us elsewhere. Of course, meditation helps us observe and understand how our mind works...what arises when and how and what falls away and how.

I have been looking at my mind's rhythm. It's erratic at times. It's becoming more poetic, which for me is actually a rhythm. It's nice because it not only leads to poetry but also a more joyous way of being.

Anyway, your post sparked all this.



Scheherazade said...

Hello Mike:

Boy, you wrote this just for me didn't you?!?;-) (sorry I couldn't resist an easy joke).

Seriously, it's uncanny how timely this lesson is--as I've been VERY distracted lately and displacing my priorities for more narcissistic endeavors. Ironically, the "priorities" are all tied to my profession and its pursuit, and I kind of see that as a source of suffering. I can't say that I'm happy at this moment or that it will make me happy.

I do struggle with the (mis)concept that "I am my job." And the narcissistic stuff is just kinda fun and brings me great joy (but no income)...perhaps it isn't even narcissistic, but mom & dad would surely see it as vain and impractical...

It's bloody terrifying thinking of letting it (profession/career/ego pain) go, especially as I am brand new to the profession and have invested much time and even more money to get here...well, I haven't even fully arrived until I pass a certain little test for my license, and thus validate my existence, and here we go with the circle of suffering...

I did read the link on "emptiness" (thanks). And I think I understand this fluid sense of identity b/c nothing is constant and everything results from change...

I'm rambling and do apologize, but I guess I'm plagued by that fear of detaching and losing the source of suffering for fear of it leading to more suffering...i guess that's where I feel I SHOULD adapt to IT, rather than just cutting IT out of my life...perhaps I'm deluded in thinking that this (adapting/changing) is what builds stronger character and discipline in the face of adverse things/circumstances...

(I hope this makes sense)

Mike said...

Hi Don: Yes, emptiness is a difficult concept to grasp; many people are highly uncomfortable with the idea altogether since it would seem to go against "common sense" ("of course *I* exist, I'm right here!"). But as we both know, once you experientially realize it to even a small degree, essentially taking a tiny bite of enlightenment, you know how wonderful and sensical it truly is. I'm glad my post could spark some good thoughts. In return, your comment did the same for me—you spoke of your mind's poetic rhythm; that's exactly what I've been working to develop in myself as of late. I notice that often, when I sit to write poetry, I get nothing upon nothing, until, through my effort, a spark ignites and I write a bunch, and then it's usually time to put the pen down for a day and come back tomorrow. It's definitely a mind rhythm.

Hi Y (I'm not sure if you want your real name posted publically or not): I'm very glad this post was helpful to you! You raise a very tough concern—"this situation is tough, but it's not THAT bad ... and if I leave it, things could get worse!" I don't think there's necessarily a right answer to that dilemma. All I can say is that, as I grow older (I'm 30 now), I become much less patient with things that I do not like or that cause me suffering. It just becomes less and less worth it to me to stay in a situation that is causing me unhappiness. It's not worth it. I think that has escalated due to my Buddhist studies, as now I feel that all suffering has causes, and it is within my power to remove those causes. It is our right to be happy.

However, that being said, I am also pretty practical. I'd never advocate leaving a job situation without having something else lined up—with the caveat that the job one would be leaving was just sooooo bad that the person needed to get out now.

Regarding your last paragraph. Get yourself into a really happy, joyful state. Maybe watch a funny movie or something. Once you're happy, play a little what-if. Imagine yourself in 5 years practicing whatever career it is that you're working in/toward right now. How do you feel? How does that career change how the rest of your life works? How do you feel about that?

What builds discipline is doing what you know you need to be doing for your, and others', well-being, and continuing to do it even when you don't feel like it. Two keys here: (1) WELL-BEING, and (2) CONTINUING WHEN YOU DON'T FEEL LIKE IT. Both are key. You technically could be disciplined doing something that was bad for you or others, but then my question is, "Why?" :)

I wish you much wisdom in coming to the right decision in your case. Just be sure you keep writing that excellent poetry! I've stopped by your Schadenfraulines site and love your work! (I'm just a bit behind on all the comments I want to make :))