For not-so-constant readers of this blog, parts one and two of this discussion were all about Buddhism's four "noble truths". No, no, don't run off on me now; I'm not here to sell you flowers or pamphlets. This is more about looking at some common-sense advice that sounds like a greeting card, but finding the harder and wormier truth inside it.
Precept three's been phrased a number of different ways, but they mostly go like this: there's a way out of suffering, and it involves letting go of attachment. Meaning, if you want to be less miserable, you have to learn to see your attachments for what they are, be willing to see right through them and out the other side, and let them not get you steamed up.
The two things that come up most often when people hear this are predictable enough. 1) But it's so tough to do that; I don't have that kind of mind; I can't just let it go. 2) So you basically want me to be an emotionless robot, is that it? Both couldn't be more wrong, and I'll start with the second one because it's the most common source of misunderstanding.
One of the fun things about studying Buddhism from reputable sources (instead of, say, insta-gurus like the risible Deepak Chopra) is that you learn about how the terminology and thought used took shape over time and where it came from. Professor Gombrich in particular was a big help here, especially when it came to the term nirvana (yes, that word!), the meaning of which he traced back to in its use in everyday Pali speech. There, it carried the connotation of, say, a fire going out by itself because it didn't have any more fuel, of something being "spent".
When you have that definition in mind, it becomes easier to see what's really being discussed here. This isn't about smothering something or suppressing it, but not feeding it in the first place. And no, it's not about cultivating a Spock-like detachment form all emotion and passion, because all that does is put the problem behind a closet door. Rather, it's about learning which emotions to fuel and what fuel to give them in the first place.
Let me give a f'rinstance from my own life. I know there's a few specific states of mind that I can get into that afford me the chance to wallow in negativity. Why? Because that negativity is familiar, and in its own way comfortable. You can't fall out of bed if you sleep on the floor, as the saying goes. It took a lot of work to recognize that I was getting into such a state to begin with, and some more work on top of that to figure out how not to stoke that state up — how not to identify that state with something personal, let alone desirable. And more importantly, I had to learn how instead to give fuel to things that are positive, and to not let those states rest on their fruits, but rather to simply have them exist on their own. (To wit: I don't want to have TOO good a time, because if something happens, it'll all have been for nothing.)
So, no, it's not about becoming an emotionless block of ice that coasts through the world unaffected and untouched. This never happens anyway. It's about seeing and practicing how one's emotions aren't just something that happen to you.
The first comeback is tougher to answer, though, at least without seeming heartless. Sure, everything in life worth striving for is difficult; hence the striving in the first place. But the idea that one's mind is somehow not suited to it is dead wrong — if anything it's the other way around. If someone's mind were already settled, why would they need to practice this stuff in the first place? There are days when I sit there and do nothing but feel distracted for thirty minute — and that's fine too, as long as you keep coming back and exposing yourself to the experience. Eventually it stops becoming this weird thing that only other people with perfectly balanced minds do, and something that's your own domain. Eventually, distractions stop becoming an issue, both there and elsewhere.
The reason other people do it is not because they have perfectly balanced minds to begin with (if they did, why would they bother?). It's because they care enough about their mind to try and give it some more balance.
Other Lives Of The Mind