From The Under 35 Project: “Something to Sit On”

Here’s the latest from The Under 35 Project by Joshua Shin, about overcoming our initial attachment to the practice itself.

Joshua Shin
26 October 2012

I had just purchased my first zafu – a black corduroy number crafted lovingly by a member of my sitting group. This was near the very beginning of my journey with Zen and zazen, so to me, it symbolized a new beginning. The weekly sitting group I attended was on campus, so I made it a point to bring my new zafu not only to it, but also to all my classes that day. Yeah, it was a bit inconvenient to carry it and my thick, yoga-style mat around with my bookbag all day, but I wanted everyone to see it. It was to serve as a conversation starter.

“Oh, this? It’s a Zen meditation cushion. Yeah, there’s a session here every week. It also doubles as a lap desk for my laptop; isn’t that neat?”

It also gave me the opportunity to share what I had learned from (but mostly, read on) Zen Buddhism, this amazing, eye-opening philosophy-practice I had just started to learn.

“You know, meditation isn’t really about “not thinking.”

“To not desire is just to desire not to desire.”

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: it hit me, too. Ironically, I had become really attached to this thing. At home, I sometimes stopped to fluff it up when I passed it. Plus, it is so useful! It makes meditation more comfortable, cushions my elbows when I am curled up with a book (on Buddhism, of course), and yes, serves to elevate my laptop to a more comfortable viewing level when I am not at my desk.

My ego went, oh no, this is bad! A spiral of negative thinking ensued, and eventually came to how I interact with other people. If attachment (or desire) is the root of all suffering, how am I supposed to relate with other people? Oh man, how am I supposed to flirt with women now without feeling bad about it?

I am fortunate to have an accessible teacher. Dr. Collins happens to be a dean at my university, so whenever my mind gets snagged on something, I can always hop over after class to see if he’s in his office and free to talk. He was, so I sat and recounted my predicament to him. First, he laughed; he always does. He explained that “attachment is bad” was an absolute precept that only obscured reality, and that nothing is always “bad” anyway.

This went completely went over my head at the time. Seeing this, he launched into an example – his love for, or attachment to, his daughter. He wanted to best for her, and did his best to care for her. However, he knew that one day, she would leave the house for college somewhere. This would be great for her! It would serve to broaden her horizons, and she would begin rigorous coursework on a subject she was passionate about (after two years of general education, anyway). But often, you see people in this situation who are distraught over their children leaving the home. Dr. Collins explained that this was due not their love for their children per se, but to the idea that their children embodied for them – maybe their own unfulfilled dreams, or having someone that relied on them. It wasn’t attachment that hindered living in the present; that was perfectly normal. Rather, it was “attachment to the attachment.”

I had one of those “Aha!” moments newcomers to Buddhism are all too familiar with, but I didn’t really understand the concept until after my mind had chewed on it for a little bit. Then, I began to see it everywhere! A revelation came after class a week or two later, when I awkwardly approached a beautiful girl for her number (and failed). I realized that my initial apprehension was due to my attachment to the ideal – of how I thought the encounter should have gone, what kind of girl I thought she was and how it compared to what I was looking for, etc. My attachment to these preconceptions just confused me, ruining what could have been a pleasant encounter with a potentially interesting person.

The concept of “attachment to attachment” has become one of the pillars of my personal Buddhist perspective. Putting things in perspective helps calm me down in stressful situations. I get lots of opportunities to put this into practice at In-N-Out Burger, the famous Southern California burger chain I work at. I often help move orders, and for the most part, customers are pleasant. But it gets busy at times, and when I’m trying to work quickly and a customer stops me to ask for extra ketchup for their fries, sometimes I feel my blood simmer. Really, you want twenty ketchup packets for just two orders of fries?

When this happens, I take a deep breath and look for the source of this irritation – the ideal I am attached to. Often, it’s efficiency. I am working; it is my duty to move these orders. Plus, if I get hung up, it might back up the whole restaurant and people will yell at me.

A glimpse of what’s really going on often shatters all my pretenses. I’m just a student working to help relieve my parents of the burden of the cost of school. My job isn’t to move these orders as fast as I can, but to serve the customer and help him have a great experience. And maybe he really likes ketchup. I smile, scrounge around for some, and wish him a nice day. Then, I continue with mine.

And my zafu? It embodied the novelty of my initial studies, as well as the great progress I had made at the time. Dwelling on this past success was keeping me from moving on to practice in the present, where the gains aren’t as obvious. Now, it reminds me of the danger of “attachment to attachment.”

I still drag it along with me to all my classes the day I sit. It’s still a potential conversation starter, but it doesn’t have to be about all about Zen.

Joshua Shin

Joshua Shin switched majors five times at three different schools before earning his associate’s degree in Psychology at Bakersfield College in 2010. He is currently attending California State University, Bakersfield, where he is working on his BA in Sociology.