For me, obligations are a heavy weight. Caring about others enmeshes me in a world of worry, frustration and anger. These seem to me to be obstacles to work. I think I would benefit from fewer attachments to the world around me.
You have described precisely the field of our work on self. Without these difficulties, which are very real, nothing would be possible in this work. Swimming in a sea of self-indulgence leads to nothing. And let us be clear. Most of what we think of as spiritual practice is really self-indulgence.
I obligate myself and I feel resentment that I cannot be at peace looking after my own preferences. I care about others and I feel anger and frustration at their pain and disappointment. This path requires that I learn to deal with these reactions, and not by avoiding them. It is not the obligation that weighs on me and it is not the caring that diminishes my potential. Rather, it is my habitual reactions that reduce the range of possible engagement to a few predictable defensive contractions.
The problem is that I am partial. I want things to be a certain way. Consequently, I do not see what is actually happening in my life and I constantly lie to myself. To be impartial is to be free of personal demands. To be impartial is to be completely honest with oneself.
This path is not one of disengagement but rather one of direct and open-ended engagement, without judgment, without blame and without self-pity.
Can you discern a boundary that divides attachment from love? I cannot. Yes, I may have wrong attachments that cater to my self-lying and self-importance, attachments that cover me from my own sight. But it seems to me that attachment is also the secret purpose of the universe.
The Buddhists teach a process called Trekcho, ‘cutting through’. The inner stage is impartially observing my reactions, not justifying them, releasing them and engaging with life from a place of freedom, a place of spontaneous presence. The state of spontaneous presence arises more often as my reactions subside.
Resentment becomes agreement, not a ‘yes’ when you really mean ‘no’ but an inner alignment with the task required of you. The action is therefore joyful.
Feeling the pain and disappointment of others could mean to suffer their circumstances while feeling love, compassion and the joy of relationship, rather than frustration and anger. This is not possible from a place of judgment. Why do we judge? Because we cannot bear the extreme contradictions of a fully human experience. The juxtaposition of opposites is both exquisite and excruciating. It is easier to divide the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’.
Cutting through is a process of self-purification which cannot be accomplished without obligation and caring. In obligation I can learn to do things for their own sake, not for reward or the final result but simply because I said that I would. This is a doorway to impartiality and the joy of service. In caring I place the feelings of others ahead of my own. This is a doorway to the joy of sacrifice. Both actions deliver small defeats to self-importance that over time can make all the difference. As the Buddhists suggest, these experiences may lead to an insight that my personal self is essentially empty, having no independent existence.
There are some schools that propose non-attachment as the goal. I propose a path of complete attachment…embracing the full catastrophe of human existence…its sorrow and its joy…attachment not limited by my personal preferences. The key is in knowing that it’s not about me. Attachment is only a problem when I make it about me.
Can I be a medium through which the universe loves itself and celebrates its attachments?