Attachment, non-attachment, and spiritual awakening

In the past several decades, four major influences have been radically transforming the field of psychotherapy. Mindfulness, drawn from the Buddhist tradition, has become an essential tool that therapists can both use themselves to attune to their clients and teach directly to their clients to help them find peace and clarity in the midst of challenging thoughts and emotions. Cognitive neuroscience has mapped the brain’s role in both emotional suffering and subjective well-being, showing which brain centers are activated in particular situations and allowing researchers to measure the effects of particular therapeutic interventions, including mindfulness.

Fueled by both mindfulness research and neuroscience, the field of positive psychology has shifted the emphasis for many therapists from curing mental illness to encouraging the cultivation of positive resources and traits that contribute to overall well-being. Finally, and most relevant for this discussion, attachment theory, which explores how the bonding of infants and their parental caregivers affects mature adult relationships, has once again highlighted the healing power of the therapeutic relationship, in particular, the loving connection between therapist and client.

Recently, I began wondering about the connection between attachment theory and the Buddhist principle of nonattachment. At first I lamented the use of “attachment” and mused that “bonding” would be a much better word to describe what happens between infant and caregiver. In early infancy, of course, babies are often attached to their mothers, but as they mature through the rapprochement phase and beyond, they learn in an age-appropriate way to be more autonomous, deeply bonded but no longer attached.

But then these thoughts led to a deeper exploration of the concept of “attachment” and how it relates with “nonattachment.” Studies have indicated that there are four levels or styles of attachment. Children who have generally been neglected or abandoned tend to develop avoidant attachment, that is, they avoid close relationships and try to be as self-sufficient as possible. Those who have received inconsistent parenting tend to be ambivalent, oscillating between holding on and pushing away. And children whose parents have been abusive or threatening learn to fear the person they’re attached to, a style known as disorganized attachment. By contrast to these three forms of insecure attachment, children whose parents provide consistent love, care, and connection learn to trust the people who love them and feel little or no fear, avoidance, or ambivalence in relationships—in other words, they feel secure in their attachments.

In practice, adults with insecure attachment—estimated at 50% of the US population—find intimate relationships troubling, difficult, painful, or problematic to a greater or lesser degree. No wonder that so many homicides in the US occur between romantic partners! Relationship ruptures can unleash powerful, uncontrollable emotions.

But insecure attachment affects more than our relationships to other people, it affects our overall experience of life itself. In essence, we relate to the world, to everyday problems and life situations, as we do to our core attachment figures. If we attached insecurely to our caregivers, then we’re going to feel insecure in the world, leading to a constant struggle to alleviate our insecurity. For example, we may limit our involvements in the world of work and career because we don’t trust other people and prefer to make do on our own as much as we can (avoidant); we may wax hot and cold about our responsibilities and involvements, enthusiastic about work one week, then discouraged the next (ambivalent); or we may find ourselves constantly anxious about our ability to survive in a world that seems fragmented and out of control (disorganized).

In other words, much of the suffering and dissatisfaction we experience (what the Buddhists call dukkha) is actually caused by our sense of insecurity—feeling separate, alone, isolated, and unsupported in a hostile or withholding world. From this perspective, suffering is caused not by attachment, as the Buddhists suggest, but by insecure attachment. People who are securely attached tend to transfer this attachment to life itself and feel more secure, content, and peaceful–and experience less dukkha.

As long as we’re insecurely attached, we’re more likely to be attached to getting reality and other people to be different from the way they are, which is what attachment means in the Buddhist tradition. When we’re securely attached, we tend to feel more safe and sufficient, let go of trying to control every moment, and open more easily to the uncertainty of things as they are. As the Buddha said, happiness is wanting what you have and not wanting what you don’t have.

If we tend toward insecure attachment, we may be driven to find a deeper source of security and satisfaction in that which cannot abandon, reject, disappoint, or abuse us—God, Spirit, Buddha nature, True Self. As some people have discovered, awakening may be the ultimate cure for insecure attachment because it occasions a profound, unshakable, experiential recognition of our inseparability from the ground of Being—the matrix (from the Latin for mother) out of which the manifest world arises. The great mother of the matrix can never abandon, confuse, or abuse us—it’s ever present everywhere as the essence of existence itself. By attaching to the spiritual ground—from which, of course, we have never been separate in reality, though it may have seemed so experientially–we can heal the wounds of insecure attachment, just as a strong and healthy adult relationship can.

This is not to say that those of us who are securely attached don’t suffer for other reasons or are less inclined to seek spiritual illumination. Suffering is endemic to the human condition, and the search for release from suffering is a timeless human endeavor. Besides, people seek enlightenment for a variety of reasons. However, the securely attached aren’t looking to Spirit to resolve core attachment issues—and so will likely be less attached to the absolute realm and therefore less inclined to bypass the relative realm of ordinary, difficult human emotions.

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