A couple months ago I posted a question on awareness, non-attachment, caring, and motivation I’d been thinking about for a decade or so, unable to answer it in all that time.
I came up with an answer I like, that satisfies my curiosity, and helps me understand more.
First let me remind you of the question. It came when I was learning in college about Buddhism. I learned the story that Siddharta Gautama, the guy who we know as the Buddha, became enlightened while meditating under a tree. I don’t like fuzzy terms like “enlightened,” but I understand it means, among other things, he no longer had attachment to anything.
Contemplating the concept of non-attachment satisfied me in some ways but confused me in others. I came to agree that attachment brought problems — that if you weren’t attached to things and outcomes you wouldn’t suffer at their loss; that people couldn’t control you so well. On the other hand, if you weren’t attached, what happened to your motivation? Why would you do anything?
My question, which I haven’t found an answer that satisfied me, in short, is
If someone has no attachments, including to outcomes, why do they do anything?
He spent the rest of his life teaching people what we now call Buddhism, or at least some early version of it, now evolved into countless other forms. People have suggested answers like to help people or to spread his wisdom, but these answers don’t address his motivation. Why would he do anything if no outcome was better than any other? Did he have a concept of better-ness or worse-ness? I ask these questions both historically and within the Buddhist perspective.
I don’t see why he would do anything other than just sit there. I mean, of the infinite things he could have done, doesn’t it seem odd that the actions he chose, despite having no attachment to the outcome, fits so closely to what we consider good or right?
Something seemed too pat or perfect to me. I wanted to understand, at least within the Buddhist perspective. Even if I didn’t agree with the answer, I at least wanted something somewhat consistent with the rest of Buddhism.
I finally hit on an answer so obvious I feel silly for not having seen it. It reminds me of a statement I’ve been meaning to write up, that great insights, when expressed by someone who just learned them, tend to sound obvious and trite, and the more obvious and trite, the more meaningful the insight.
Well, the answer I realized was that Gautama did what he did because he wanted to. However obvious and silly this may sound to you, it highlights something I didn’t realize, that attachment and motivation aren’t the same.
Maybe you already distinguished these things. I have in other areas. For example, I’ve noticed that asking someone why they did something usually has two distinct meanings — what motivated them and what outcome they wanted to achieve. Those reasons can align but don’t have to.
Wanting to do something and wanting the consequences of what you do can differ. To me this distinction gives me freedom to do things just because I want to. Not because I have to or for whatever outcome I hope or expect to achieve.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees