I’m a sucker for stories, especially the simple yet touching variety (Himalaya, for instance). Hence, I was delighted to come across a philosophy text by Joseph Raz wherein he expounds upon parts “The Little Prince.” Raz was writing about the importance of attachments for creating value in our lives. The example he uses to illustrate this is the discussion between the Little Prince and the fox (chapter 20), where the fox is asking the prince to tame him.
As the fox notes taming is about forming ties and right now, there is little connection between him and the little Prince.
“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . .”
The fox continues, explaining how attachments with others imbue our environment with meaning.
“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . .”
It’s true, especially in the early stages of attachment and connection, that one’s world suddenly becomes rich with signs of the one we value. Is that not a good, albeit inexhaustive, description of love: namely, a passionate belief in the value of another being? So much so, in fact, that at the outset do we not tend to devote long hours to the savouring of the experience that is essentially the recognition of another person’s specialness/value?
As this passage shows, moreover, part of what makes this experience so magical is the way our environment lights up and sparkles with signs of significance. Fields of wheat suddenly represent the other’s wondrous existence, a pop song we’d barely noticed before or thought trite is suddenly laden with meaning because she taught us to hear in differently, mundane places, familiar smells and even times of year make one’s heart swell because these evoke thoughts of the beloved other.
When Buddhists recommend non-attachment do they mean we ought to eschew or abstain from such experiences? I, for one, would abhor an existence that is devoid of the rich new world that unfolds into being with the formation of attachments. Hence, I simply cannot believe that this is what the Buddhists are counselling us to do. Practicing this kind of abstinence, or seeking to exercise this brand of control has a strong puritanical flavour that I have difficulties reconciling with Buddhism. Rather, what they must mean, or the interpretation that makes sense to my mind, is not to become so attached to these experiences that we end up trying to control either them, or the object of our love. For, of course, there is the darker side to love that is both omnipresent in the background, and which is likely a necessary condition for the more pleasurable aspects discussed. The reason I suggest this darker aspect is necessary is that it provides the contrast that allows us to even see, and hence appreciate, those brighter parts.
When we, like the fox, surrender ourselves and become tamed by another we do behave very much like a naive, trusting and enthusiastic dog. Effectively we roll onto our backs to expose our soft and vulnerable underbellies (and kick a leg wildly, of course, in the event that our tummies get rubbed just right). As experience has taught us, however, there is no guarantee that the other to whom we are issuing this invitation will be gentle, or even give our belly a rub at all. The ultimate effect of harsh treatment, or simply being ignored of course is that those signs that had previously been a source of euphoria now stab at us where we are the most tender.
There are two kinds of consequences that can follow from having this background knowledge and they are both caused by trying to hang on to the pleasures of forming attachments. Firstly, we sometimes aim to control the experience and in so doing, drain the world of the very meaning we are aiming to sustain because every little sign that could be causing us delight becomes a source of distrust and suspicion. Secondly, we often seek to either manipulate or control the object of our love as a means of ensuring that these experiences will persist. Again, however, this strategy is self-defeating as we can become so preoccupied with ensuring that other cares for us and will not harm us, that we haven’t even a minute to fully appreciate their value and uniqueness that we could be so richly savouring.
Representing people as a means to an end, that is, as the source of our pleasure, often means that we cannot really see that person in all her particularities. Furthermore, seeing people as means can also make some seek to dominate or control that person, behaviour that tends to strip away or quash those values that initially drew us close.
Hence, in my view, non-attachment is not really about trying to detach oneself from others, or to distance oneself from one’s own emotions. Rather, it is to accept that those experiences and persons that stand to enrich our live lie beyond our active control. Accepting this, moreover, means that we will not seek to grab at them or hold on to them so tightly that we deprive them of all life.
Moreover, even if we are not hurt by another most everyone knows that the signs that give us such delight are ephemeral. They sparkle in and out of existence and fade into the background with time. If we come too attached to these experiences, however, then we are prone to get caught in an endless pursuit of new connections due to a desperate need to keep our environments sparkly and alive with meaning. Often this involves abandoning relationships once they cease to charge up our world or when, due to constant exposure, we become accustomed to those values we were initially so excited to discover. Casting relationships aside this way, however, is to deprive oneself of the opportunity to admire and appreciate the way that old attachments seep into us, become part of who we are and saturate our lives. Sure, these lose their initial sparkle, but old friendships take on deeper richer hues, become the backbone of one’s environment and effect important changes in us, and it is only via the passage of time that this can occur. In fact, as the fox suggests, the very fact that these relationships persist through time it what makes them valuable.
As the fox notes in saying goodbye to the Prince:
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
“It is the time I have wasted for my rose–” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.
“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose . . .”
“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.