As a child, I loved Star Wars. Oh, who am I kidding? I still do. I could once recite the entire script as one of the movies played. These days I just hope the new movies live up to the legend.
I recall watching the original trilogy and being taken with the philosophy of the Jedi. Like many children, I loved the honorable warrior caste, their flashy skills, and wonderful weapons. Recently, I recalled a character delivering a line that struck me as being quite poignant. It was Princess Leia who said, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”
At first the line reminded me of the Taoist sage, Lao Tzu who once wrote, “Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish.” Basically, he was saying the same thing as Leia, if you meddle too much, then you’ll spoil it.
Across the world, we are seeing this in action. People are protesting against rulers who are seen to be out of touch. I think people are sick of all the politicking, and I have a theory about its cause.
When we attach ourselves to the concept of “right” and “wrong,” we enter the world of absolutes. When we get attached to absolutes, we leave no room for negotiation and conflict ensues.
When you say, “I am right,” you are also saying someone else is wrong. Just as there cannot be hot without cold, or light without dark, there cannot be right without wrong. You are, either intentionally or unintentionally, creating an environment of conflict.
Without much effort, we can point to numerous historical episodes of conflict created by absolute positions of right and wrong. To name a few: the Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, and Operation Desert Storm. I’m not saying these conflicts could have been avoided. I am merely illustrating the point that absolutes often lead to conflict.
Right and wrong are two ends of the same continuum. When viewed from a different perspective, they have a different meaning. What is right for you is not necessarily right for someone else. Much contributes to your own views of right and wrong, and good and evil, from your upbringing to your environment to your network of friends and colleagues. Just as our experience differs, so does our perspective.
If this all seems a little obtuse, look closer to home for a more personal example. Consider the latest argument you had with your partner, sibling, or child. What caused it? What did you argue about? Was the conflict rooted in each of you being unmoveable in your positions?
In Buddhism, the term “attachment” describes these absolute positions. Attachment is considered harmful. The teachings suggest that when we attach ourselves to something, say, a point of view, a desire, or an emotion, we do not let the natural flow of things occur.
Many negative emotions result from attachment. If we expect a certain result and don’t get it, we can become frustrated. If someone behaves in a manner that does not meet our standards, we can become angry. Rarely do these emotions serve us well.
Buddhist teachers have often used colorful language to deliver their lessons. Satya Narayan Goenka, a teacher of Vipassanā meditation, once explained attachment and its results in a rather poetic manner, he said:
“Grasping at things can only yield one of two results:
Either the thing you are grasping at disappears, or you yourself disappear.
It is only a matter of which occurs first.”
Goenka points directly at the heart of the problem: there can be no victory when you are attached. If you choose to define yourself by what you do, who you think you are, or what you believe, then you will always struggle to keep hold of your position.
The trick is learning to identify your attachments, and ultimately let go of them. To be honest, the letting go part is not easy. So, whereas completely letting go of attachment might prove nigh on impossible, we can always loosen our grip even just a little.
It is my contention that when we let go of — or relax our grip on — that which we are attached to, then we become more flexible. This flexibility gives us the perspective we dearly need to see things from various perspectives thereby allowing us to better understand those around us. When we develop this understanding, not only do we benefit others, but we greatly benefit ourselves.
One of my favorite Buddhist teachers puts it another way. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Letting go gives us freedom and freedom is the only condition for happiness.”
Whether you think in terms of flexibility or freedom, the key is in understanding that clinging to absolutes will cause you stress and suffering. The world is not black and white. There are many shades of grey and we all must accept the differences around us if we hope to live in a content world.
If you struggle with feelings of frustration, anger, emptiness, or the like, then I humbly suggest you review your attachments. When we are struggling in life, it is often what we are holding on to that holds us back.
You can free yourself to elevate your emotional state, to achieve your goals, and to live your life more fully by simply letting go. Now, to bring things back full circle remember what Yoda said, “Do or do not, there is not try.”