The concept of attachment is commonly found in Buddhism teachings and in the study of Stoicism (Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, most notably), both of whom have become fairly popular in the West in recent years, particularly in the coaching circles. What appears to be happening today is that modern society’s demands have reached such a point that people are looking for ways to reduce their suffering from stress and judgement by referring back to ancient texts. Most of the time, given the complexity of these works, the virtues contained in them are being digested into self-help books that seem to be overflowing our bookstores today.
Let’s start with the stress pain point. Since the creation of Web 2.0 in the early 21st century, we’ve seen advertising take a new form that expanded beyond our TV screens and newspapers, and into every moment of our daily lives. Companies like Meta, Twitter, and Google have become the largest platforms of publicity for consumerism and people simply cannot escape it anymore. It’s as if we took our TV sets and placed them in our pockets – everywhere we go, we are being bombarded with new products, services and values that shape our cultural environment in ways difficult to contain.
This new playing field has created some complicated sources of suffering for us poor primates. Consumer goods are no longer being marketed as products, but rather as a lifestyle – a lifestyle that we see desirable people living as they display their entire lives on social media. This never-ending cycle of consumerism creates a mentality of scarcity that turns the wheels of capitalism. You will always need the latest iPhone, the newest fashion articles that are trending, the finest dining experiences. People attach themselves to these status-signaling products, which effectively makes their wellbeing ever more fragile. But the very pressure to fit into all the different communities today is what spins the wheels of growth and innovation in a capitalist society. It is what has enabled our standard of living to dramatically improve over the course of the 20th century, and it is also what has shaped the way we work and the pace at which companies need to move to remain competitive. As a member of this society, chances are that you work for one of these companies, whose productivity growth has been moving at a snail’s pace as of late, forcing them – and you – to do more with less.
This brings us to our second source of suffering: judgement. Humans are inherently hierarchical creatures. We are always comparing ourselves to others and social media is the mother of all places to see how amazing everyone’s lives are. Whether that is status-signaling their travels around the world or their professional accomplishments, people are quick to attach themselves to their successes – when in fact this is the quickest path to disillusion.
Anthony de Mello in his book Awareness, described this effect in the context of personification. We wrongly identify ourselves with success or failure – “I am a lawyer”, “I am a businessman”, “I am a failure” –, when in fact we aren’t any of this. By clinging on to these shallow definitions of ourselves we end up spending our time worrying that they may fall apart. The clash between these illusions with reality inflicts a form of suffering that has become routine in modern society today.
And so, although detaching ourselves from these things will inevitably improve our wellbeing, it is extremely difficult to do so in a society that is moved by productivity, self-improvement and competitiveness. But, if there is one thing we can find solace on is that failure is, and has always been, a far better teacher than success.