There is nothing more self-centered, selfish, or needy than the human infant. It assumes that it is the center of the universe, and cares nothing for you, except for your ability to provide and cater to it. Supposedly, as we reach such human milestones as “toddler-hood,” puberty, and the ‘teen years,’ we gain more independence and maturity. Then, once we become adults we are to “put away childish things.” Yet, for many people, this never occurs. Instead of going from infancy to adulthood, we go from infancy to “enfantcy” (i.e., enfant terrible).
Instead of expressing maturity and independence, we simply grow older and, instead, remain just as needy but in different ways. Instead of a diaper change, a butt rub, a warm bottle or breast, or a pacifier while sitting on a shaking knee, we “need” other people’s admiration, agreement, acceptance, fear, friendship, fairness, or love. This state of “need” is called ‘craving’ or ‘clinging.’ Clinging is, in part, “all about *me,* and as stated by Ajahn Buddhadassa:
The spiritual disease of our time is the disease whose germ lies in the feeling of “we” and “ours,” “I” and “mine” that is regularly in the mind… So it follows that all unenlightened people must experience this feeling of egoism arising continually… It is the greatest danger of our time (from Essential Point of the Buddhist Teachings).
When the Buddha still walked the Earth, he was asked if it were possible for him to succinctly sum up the essence of all his teachings. He answered in the affirmative. His response was “Sabbe Dhamma Nalam Abhinivesaya.” This is the Pali for “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to.” The Buddha discovered that “clinging,” conditioned by “craving” was (and remains) the most deadly infectious disease known to humanity. And except for engaging in meditation, active mindfulness, and study, there’s no other method of “treatment.”
Now, for some examples of clinging:
To want some situation, or some person, to remain always the same is clinging. Conversely, to want some person, or some situation to change is also clinging, but to something or someone that does not presently exist but that you would prefer, or like to exist. And either way, we can never be “happy” because in the first situation, we will always have the nagging fear that our perfect situation/person will change; and in the second, we’re simply afraid that it/they will never change. The problem with both these perspectives is that everything always changes because of ‘impermanence.’ Impermanence is the “theory” (until we realize it for ourselves), that everything is ‘impermanent,’ and this is applicable even to ‘permanence.’
Subsequently, depression is clinging. Complete self-assurance is clinging. Resentment is clinging. Contentment is clinging. Arguing (to be ‘right,’ or to avoid the embarrassment of being ‘wrong’ is clinging). Happiness is clinging. Sadness is clinging. Anxiety is clinging. And anger is clinging — to name just a few examples.
Now, imagine how different life would ‘feel’ if we didn’t always need things or people to be a ‘certain way’ in order to support our self-centered, egoistic need to have things our way. Imagine if we took this a bit further, and looked at the Buddha’s statement that there is no “self” to defend, or be fearful for (yes, that’s another post), and we lived our lives in the dispassion that comes with experiencing the Truth. If we can do this, it’s called nibbana (Pali), or as it’s more commonly known, nirvana. Many people think that Nirvana is some place, or something that happens after one dies. This is not the case. Nirvana is freedom from suffering in one’s present lifetime. No informed person has ever claimed that one had to “die” to attain nirvana.
Imagine how different we would feel if we weren’t so deeply offended by such insignificant events as someone walking in our “lane” on the sidewalk (making us have to walk around them, yes,us — can you imagine?). Or imagine how differently we would feel about everyday life if we didn’t become upset or offended that that “ingrate” didn’t say “thank you” after we held the door open for them because we’re such nice people. In truth, if we were that nice, holding the door open for someone would be its own reward — and we wouldn’t need their thanks to make us feel like good people… i.e., is it our actions, other people’s recognition of our actions, or the intentions of our actions that make us “good people?” The answer to these questions being quite obvious, let us now consider the chained, imprisoning effect of always wanting and needing approval, acceptance, and recognition from everyone, even complete strangers! And this is how we go from being self-centered infants to self-centered adults.
A doctor or midwife or police officer cuts our umbilical cord — and we spend the rest of our lives trying to find someone else to whom we may reattach it.
Please note that I am in no way saying that I am there, “all that,” or anywhere near being free of “clinging disease.” Far from it. I am simply one more pilgrim on the journey to, hopefully, enlightenment. In closing, the Buddha said,
I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.
So, let us begin to end it…