Ronald W. Pies M.D.: Getting Detached from Our Unhealthy Attachments


The following is a guest blog from one of my favorite psychiatrists, Dr. Ronald W. Pies, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine.

An old eth­nic joke tells the story of the grand­mother who is walk­ing on the beach with her young grand­son. Sud­denly, she looks around and sees the boy a hun­dred feet out at sea, flail­ing his arms and tread­ing water. The woman screams for help, and a middle-aged beach­comber quickly sizes up the sit­u­a­tion, leaps into the surg­ing waves, and brings the boy safely back to his mother. The grand­mother thanks the man for his hero­ism, but looks a bit annoyed. She turns to the man and says, “I hate to men­tion it, Mis­ter, but when the boy went in, he was wear­ing a hat!”

Now, the joke is usu­ally told to illus­trate the Yid­dish con­cept of chutzpah—roughly, “nervi­ness” or gall. But the story may also be read as a para­ble of what the Bud­dhists call “attach­ment”. The Zen teacher, Ezra Bayda, defines “attach­ments” in this way:

“Attach­ments are sim­ple beliefs—fantasies, in fact—that have become solid­i­fied as “truth” in our mind. They also par­take of the energy of desire, which is based on the under­ly­ing belief that with­out some par­tic­u­lar per­son or thing, we can never be free from suf­fer­ing. Attach­ment also takes the form of avoid­ance; we believe we can’t be happy as long as a par­tic­u­lar per­son, con­di­tion, or object is in our lives. To expe­ri­ence neg­a­tive attach­ment, just think of your least favorite food or person.”*

Recently, I have started to think that nearly all our per­sonal, social, and soci­etal prob­lems are closely linked to our exces­sive and irra­tional attach­ments. Then there are those insults and brick­bats that pass for polit­i­cal dis­course in this country—don’t get me started.

To be sure: up to a point, emo­tional “attach­ment” is crucial—without it, we would never form last­ing rela­tion­ships, or under­take dif­fi­cult projects. It is its rigid­ity and inten­sity that deter­mines whether or not a par­tic­u­lar attach­ment is patho­log­i­cal. As a psy­chi­a­trist, I have seen thou­sands of patients whose suf­fer­ing is, in part, the result of their irra­tional attach­ments. Of course, severe psy­chi­atric illnesses—major depres­sion, schiz­o­phre­nia, bipo­lar dis­or­der, and others—have strong bio­log­i­cal and genetic fac­tors “dri­ving” them. It would be wrong and sim­plis­tic to explain these con­di­tions as mere instances of “exces­sive attachment.”

But even in these severe ill­nesses, inap­pro­pri­ate attach­ment rears its head. For exam­ple, the indi­vid­ual with para­noid delu­sions is exces­sively attached to the idea that he or she is being tar­geted, mon­i­tored or per­se­cuted. The per­son with obsessive-compulsive dis­or­der is exces­sively attached to the per­for­mance of some anxiety-neutralizing rit­ual, such as check­ing the gas stove fifty times a day.

And what is the solu­tion to our exces­sive attach­ments, in every-day life? The Bud­dhist mas­ter, Ajahn Chah (1918–92) finds the answer in the con­cept of anicca (or anitya). This is usu­ally trans­lated as “imper­ma­nence” or “uncer­tainty.” Ajahn Chah believed that much of our suf­fer­ing stems from our unwill­ing­ness to accept the imper­ma­nence of all things. Sure, we often hear the expres­sions, “Noth­ing lasts for­ever” or “Easy come, easy go”—but how many of us have really under­stood the impli­ca­tions of imper­ma­nence? How many of us ever pause to con­sider our own mortality?

As Ajahn Chah notes, the Bud­dha taught us “…to look in the present and see the imper­ma­nence of body and mind, of all phe­nom­ena as they appear and cease, with­out grasp­ing at any of it. If we can do this, we will expe­ri­ence peace. This peace comes because of let­ting go…” (from every­thing arises, every­thing falls away).

Just imag­ine how pol­i­tics in this coun­try might change, if par­ti­sans on all sides could “let go” of their rigid ide­olo­gies. Imag­ine how the ani­mos­ity between reli­gious groups would dimin­ish. And imag­ine how our every­day unhap­pi­ness might melt away, if we could detach our­selves from our own pre­con­cep­tions and prej­u­dices. To put it a bit more humor­ously, con­sider the advice of Rabbi Rami Shapiro: “Don’t take life so seriously—it’s only temporary!”

*Adapted from E. Bayda, At Home in the Muddy Water: A Guide to Find­ing Peace within Every­day Chaos.

Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.

Originally published on Beyond Blue at

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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