20 October 2016 Rufus Pollock
… Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.
Thich Nhat Hanh, First Mindfulness Training “Reverence for Life”1
The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate.
Bacon, 1620, Novum Organum Aphorism 46
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir”
John Maynard Keynes, Economist, (Apocryphal)
Consider that one of the greatest obstacles to our well-being is our attachment to views — our desire to believe that we are right and others are wrong. As a result, we find it hard to change our views and to hear others. This can result in dogmatism, fanaticism and violence – both physical and emotional. At a personal level, our attachment to views may be one of the greatest obstacle to our own well-being and enlightenment because of the difficulty we face relinquishing deep-rooted beliefs in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’.2
In this primer we look at three areas related to this issue. First, we look at what we mean by attachment and non-attachment to views and their relationship to engagement and detachment. We clarify that non-attachment is not de-attachment but rather un-attached engagement and open-mindedness.
Second, we present scientific evidence on attachment to views: that we resist changing our views despite strong, contraryevidence. We discuss various reasons why that might be and the impact of this materially and spiritually.
Third, we explore the deeper connections with ontology and our ideas of self in philosophy and Buddhism.
Ordinarily we think of attachment as something positive or even neutral: I’m attached to this old watch because my father gave it to me, or the boat is attached to the shore by a rope. And conversely to be unattached sounds a bit negative. For example, if you say “I’m unattached” it means you are without a romantic relationship — whereas to be attached is to have one (observe that common slang for getting married is to “get hitched” which roughly approximates to to “get attached”).
And this sense is still there when it comes to views. Not to be attached to a view is often called de-tached. Whilst this can be a positive sense of dispassionate and independent as in “the judge considered the arguments with a sense of detachment”, there is also the sense of being uninvolved and uncaring: “the man watched the dogs attack the fox with an air of detachment”.
Thus our use of attachment may be surprising. In ordinary english attachment is often used in as positive context: we are attached to places, people and things that we like and care about. Conversely, the opposite of attachment — *de*tachment — has a mildly negative sense of emotionless unconcern, anomie, lifelessness — “he kissed her with an air of detachment”, “he lived detached, absent, as if something were permanently missing”.
Our use of attachment and non-attachment derives from a Buddhist tradition. In that tradition “attachment” is the translation for key concept around the way that we “cling” to things: experiences, things, ideas, even consciousness. It can be found as a key phrase in translations of the Four Noble Truths, the core teachings of the Buddha3:
The special usage also explains why we use *non-*attachment rather than de-tachment as the contrast to attachment. Non-attachment, which is our focus here, is not detachment. It is not simply an absence, a lack of attachment. Rather it is something positive, a positive choice that makes true engagement and commitment possible.
Consider an analogy with listening. When we listen to another person we can listen in several ways. One way to listen is to do passively. It is listening just as not talking but without really engaging with what the person is saying. What they say comes in our ears but we do not really hear it or listen to it in a true sense. This is “detached” listening. On the other hand, there are times when we truly listen and listen deeply. This is an active not a passive act. We actively engage ourselves with what they are saying, opening our mind to it, positively welcoming what they are saying.
If we look around us: at newspapers, at our friends, even in our own lives, it becomes clear that misinformation is ubiquitous, and that false and erroneous beliefs are widespread and persistent.
For example, over half of all voters in Republican Primaries in 2011 were “birthers” who believed that President Obama was not born in the United States despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Other famous examples are denial of evidence for evolution and for global warming.
The famous phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, is consistent with ancient beliefs about attachment to views. Psycholigists define Cognitive Dissonance as the negative feeling of mental stress that one feels when confronted with two contradictory beliefs, or engaging in behavior that conflicts with beliefs. In a review of studies goal pursuit, a team of psychologists lead by William Hart found that the more beliefs are important for a goal (i.e. the more we are attached to them), the more we tend to experience dissonance that causes us to avoid information that contradicts these beliefs, and tend minimize or discount information that contradicts our positions, even when we cannot avoid it. In comparison, subjects show minimal avoidance of information that conflicted with beliefs that were not important for the maintenance of a goal (i.e. beliefs to which participants were not attached.) This shows that attachment to a particular goal can distort our reality, and so we should be mindful of our attachment at all times.
A recent New Yorker article, I don’t want to be right chronicles the attempt of a team of scientists to take psychology out of the lab and change deeply held, but wrong real-world beliefs. These scientists designed interventions to change views on “birtherism” and the belief that autism is caused by vaccines, which has its origins in a single retracted study. Their efforts to change beliefs have been largely unsuccessful, overall what they found was that “if information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong.” When beliefs that are central to a person’s self-concept or which are the basis for important decisions, such as whether to have their children immunized, are challenged they will tend to resolve to resolve the resulting discomfort by discounting or undermining the challenging information.
The lone intervention that makes a (small) difference is having participants engage in self-affirmation, recounting positive moments from their past. This increased faith in one’s self helps to buffer subjects from conflict between the threat to their self concept that comes from being told that they might “be wrong” about something.
Buddhist teachings would suggest not to be attached to being right in the first place. This non-attachemnt is cultivated through the practice of being mindful of one’s attachments. These include not only the unpleasant sensations that come from being challenged, also the emotional attachments, such as pride and righteousness, that are the ultimate source of our attachment.
Note that as mentioned above, with regards to detachment, this does not imply that one should not care about truth. We are so used to depending on attachment to pride in being smart or morally superior to justify our attempts understand the world, that we can’t imagine any other way. It is a contention of Buddhism that such a way exists. This may sound extraordinary, but it is not. Just think about the last time that you learned something new, that you had no ego involvement in. You were probably interested, but were also able to change your mind from one moment to the next. Non-attachment is simply inhabiting such a state all of the time.
This is done by simply acknowledging our feelings but not be “caught-up in them” – not giving them great importance. This helps to maintain a calm mind, essential to reasoning clearly, and changing one’s mind when the facts change. This is part of common mindfulness practice, which helps to calm emotions and a racing mind. Science in its relatively short engagement with Buddhist philosophy has not tested this notion thoroughly, but published reviews of the mindfulness literature suggest links between the extinction of attachment by mindfulness training and well-known phenomenon, such as extinction of fear by exposure conditioning 4.
An old story attributed to the historical “Buddha”, Siddhartha Gautama, communicates the Buddhist perspective elegantly (Recounted in The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh, pp.87-89.)
The Buddha tells the story of a merchant, a widower, who went away in a business trip and left his little boy at home. While he was away, bandits came and burned down the whole village. When the merchant returned, he didn’t find his house, it was just a heap of ash. There was the charred body of a child close by. He threw himself on the ground and cried and cried. He beat his chest and pulled his hair. The next day, he had the little body cremated. Because his beloved son was his only reason for existence, he sewed a beautiful velvet bag and put the ashes inside. Wherever he went, he took that bag of ashes with him. Eating, sleeping, working, he always carried it with him.
In fact, his son had been kidnapped by the bandits. Three months later, the boy escaped and returned home. When he arrived, it was two o’clock in the morning. He knocked on the door of the new house his father had built. The poor father was lying on his bed crying, holding the bag of ashes, and he asked, ‘Who is there?’ ‘It’s me, Daddy, your son.’ The father answered, ‘That’s not possible. My son is dead. I’ve cremated his body and I carry his ashes with me. You must be some naughty boy who’s trying to fool me. Go away, don’t disturb me!’ He refused to open the door, and there was no way for the little boy to come in. The boy had to go away, and the father lost his son forever.
After telling the story, the Buddha said, ‘If at some point in your lifeyou adopt an idea or a perception as the absolute truth, you close the door of your mind. This is the end of seeking the truth. And not only do you no longer seek the truth, but even if the truth comes in person and knocks on your door, you refuse to open it. Attachment to views, attachment to ideas, attachment to perceptions are the biggest obstacle to the truth.’
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