West vs East: Which philosophy is right about relationships?

Chapter 6 of the Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, is all about relationships. Do we need relationships? Are they useful? Do they bring us joy? For the most part, we’d all agree to answer “yes,” right? It almost seems outlandish to question the value of relationships here in the Western hemisphere where we’ve mastered rom-coms, marriage counseling and, a weird, possessive attachment to our pets.

Dr. Haidt’s argument is that Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha or enlightened one, had it all wrong. According to Dr. Haidt, the Buddha,—and Buddhism at large— teaches us that our worldly attachments are what cause our suffering, and for this reason, we should let go of said attachments (i.e our attachments to other people). He goes on to explain the history and current research on attachment theory and the wide-spread belief amongst psychologists of the importance of building and maintaining strong relationships.

While I don’t disagree with Dr. Haidt, and for what it’s worth, I find his insights very enlightening 😉 , I do think he missed the mark on Buddhism. Yes, the Buddha does speak on suffering and our attachment to insatiable desires, but he isn’t necessarily suggesting that we abandon our attachments to other people.

Let’s break it down

Dr. Haidt is probably refering to the 4 noble truths; the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering and, the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering. Essentially, the truths are a remedy for suffering and a way to break from it.

First Truth
Even when we are not suffering from outward causes like illness or bereavement, we are unfulfilled, unsatisfied. This is the truth of suffering.
Second Truth
The root of all suffering is desire. This comes in three forms, which are described as the Three Roots of Evil.
The three roots of evil
1.Greed and desire, represented in art by a rooster
2.Ignorance or delusion, represented by a pig
3.Hatred and destructive urges, represented by a snake
Third Truth
The way to extinguish desire, which causes suffering, is to liberate oneself from attachment. Nirvana means extinguishing. Attaining nirvana – reaching enlightenment – means extinguishing the three fires of greed, delusion and hatred. Someone who has attained enlightenment is filled with compassion for all living things.
Fourth Truth
This is a set of principles called the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is also called the Middle Way: it avoids both indulgence and severe asceticism
Source: BBC.co.uk

The four truths are intertwined, you cannot dissect one truth without understanding the others. The first truth is that there is suffering, the second says it is caused by “the three roots of evil”— none of which mention loving or forming relationships, by the way— the third suggests we detach from the three roots of evil and, the fourth gives us a roadmap for accomplishing just that.

Note, none of the truths are questioning our relationships, but rather, our desires. Ironically, this seems to be the same conclusion that Dr. Haidt comes up with in his “alternative” to the Buddha teachings; he believes people should strive for compassionate love, rather than passionate love, which fades as fast as it forms. By his definition, passionate love is similar to drug addiction, creating an intense high at first and fading over time, whereas, compassionate love is built steadily over time.

By his definition, is passionate love not fueled by desire? Delusions? Destructive urges?

By his definition, it seems he is advising to detach yourself from the the roots of evil that is passionate love and opt for the more reasonable, longterm compassionate love. Just as the third noble truth suggests, compassion is encouraged.

Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is essential to a Jedi’s life. So you might say, that we are encouraged to love.

Anakin Skywalker

Much of the confusion regarding Buddhism is in regards to its emphasis on impermanence. Very relevant to relationships, when it doesn’t work out, we mourn and we suffer, and when it does, we live “happily ever after,” right? So is it then that the Buddha is saying, don’t develop attachments to people because relationships aren’t permanent? Not quite. What the Buddha is really saying is “Don’t develop attachments to the future.”

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.

Buddha

The overarching theme in his teachings is to live in the present moment. Do not assume just because you’ve developed a relationship with someone that it will last. Instead, you should be enjoying the moments you are currently spending with those who bring you happiness and by detaching yourself to the future, you can free yourself from the pain and anxiety of maybe losing someone later on. Buddhism is not a proponent of complete detachment. As the term “Middle Way,” suggestions, it’s about avoiding the extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial. In other words, Buddhism is not so much about isolation as much as it is about understanding the temporary nature of things like “passionate love.” It’s about not allowing yourself to be consumed by things that will eventually fade or cease to exist. And most importantly, it’s about finding balance.


This post is part of the Happiness Series. View more posts from this series.

Check out Dr. Haidt’s book site: Thehappinesshypothesis.com

One thought on “West vs East: Which philosophy is right about relationships?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.