One of the many paradoxes of this existence is that even though what we most essentially are is a nondual field of awareness that lacks nothing–as it is All That Is–we are also human beings who have an innate need for close emotional bonds that provide a secure sense of attachment. We need this just as much as we need food and water for our human bodies. Human beings do not thrive physically or emotionally without close bonds with other human beings. “Attachment theory regards the propensity to make intimate emotional bonds to particular individuals as a basic component of human nature, already present in germinal form in the neonate and continuing through adult life into old age.” (Bowlby, 1988 pp. 120-121). Our brains are genetically hard-wired for attachment. The brain’s attachment system directs us to seek connection and closeness from the beginning of life. This connection is needed in order to structure our brain for healthy relationships and well-being. (Badenoch, 2008)
In the field of psychology, attachment is seen as the as the foundation of our psychological life. John Bowlby (1982), the originator of attachment theory, proposed that for a child the attachment bond with a protective, loving adult figure is a primary mechanism for the maintenance and regulation of safety. The caregiver serves as a secure base (Ainsworth et al., 1978) and is crucial in promoting the child’s experience of safety and connectedness. (from Fosha, 2000). Therefore, how we attach early in life is an extremely important aspect of human development. Our attachment patterns affect us throughout all areas and phases of life. They determine how well we can be in relationship and how well we cope with stress. “The attachment system is active “from cradle to grave. . . when a person is distressed, ill or afraid.” (Bowlby, 1977, p. 203).
Many studies have shown the ways in which our early experience is correlated with physical and mental health later in life. Research has supported what we think of as common sense: “A good childhood is better than a bad one; positive parental attention is important and less stress early in life is a good thing. . .Early relationships shape the building of neural circuitry, which guides how we are able to learn, react to stress, and attach to others” (Cosolino, 2010, pp. 213, and 236). A secure attachment is a strong protective factor against the development of psychopathology as well as against being adversely affected by trauma. (Levine, 2010, van der Kolk, 1987). Secure attachment and a sense of a safe world provides the conditions which make it possible for the development of a more authentic sense of self, one that is not primarily constructed out of emotional defenses. (Winnecott, 1960). Yet, even though secure attachment is highly important to the well-being of human beings, our primary caretakers do not always provide it.
Secure attachment is not provided when the primary caretakers are not available, usually due to their own insecure attachment and/or trauma and addictions. Without therapeutic recovery, individuals who are insecurely attached are unable to provide secure attachment to their infants and children. They do not have the embodied experience of secure attachment in their nervous system. Also, people who have unresolved trauma are less likely to be able to provide secure attachment as caregivers because trauma reduces our relational capacity. “According to the polyvagal theory, being in shutdown (immobility/freezing/or collapse) or in sympathetic arousal (fight or flight) greatly diminishes a person’s capacity to receive and incorporate empathy and support. The facility for safety and goodness is nowhere to be found. To the degree that traumatized people are dominated by shutdown, they are physiologically unavailable for face-to-face contact and the calming sharing of feelings and attachment.” (Levine, 2010, p 111)
When the innate drive to connect meets with an inconsistent response, an absence of response, or a dangerous response, an insecure attachment is formed. Insecure attachment has been divided into three main categories: Anxious/ambivalent attachment; Avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment. I will briefly describe each.
The first is called ambivalent attachment. An ambivalent attachment results from having a caregiver who is inconsistently available. Their responses are sometimes appropriate and sometimes neglectful. Ambivalent attachment can also occur when the caregiver responds only to the physical needs such as feeding and changing, but ignores the infant’s need for human interaction and connection. The child is therefore unable to experience the caregiver as a secure base. A preoccupation with the caregiver’s availability is formed, seeking contact but resisting angrily when it is achieved. In this relationship the child always feels anxious because the caregiver’s availability is never consistent. Therefore, this attachment style is sometimes also called, resistant, anxious or preoccupied.
The second type of insecure attachment is called avoidant attachment. An avoidant attachment results from the caregiver providing little or no response to the child’s emotional needs and distress. Such neglect is common with caregivers who are alcoholic, drug addicted, or severely depressed. The child does not experience sufficient connection, which results in either a collapse or rebellion, and results in lower self-image and self-esteem. Avoidantly attached adults minimize the importance of relationship, and remain distant and emotionally unavailable. They desire a high degree of independence and view themselves as self-sufficient and invulnerable to needing others. They may also have mixed feelings about close relationships. On the one hand, desiring them, and on the other hand, fearing them.
The third type of insecure attachment is called disorganized attachment, which is the highest degree of attachment disturbance. A disorganized attachment forms as a result of having a caregiver who is dangerous, harmful, or abusive in some way. Disorganized attachment can occur when the caregiver abuses the child physically or sexually, or when there is domestic violence in the home. This creates a powerful double bind for the child. The very person from whom the child wants to seek comfort frightens him/her. The human brain is hard-wired to seek comfort from primary caregivers when hurt or afraid, and another part of the brain is hard-wired to fight or flee when threatened. This sets up a dual response in the child or infant’s brain where there is a pull to go towards the caregiver and away from them at the same time. This type of attachment is often characterized by a dissociated response, which can look like no response at all, where the infant or child is emotionally absent. Adults with disorganized attachment may become aggressive and angry in relationships. They may be unable to open up and be vulnerable, and can be insensitive to the needs of their partners.
There have been significant advances in recent years both in research and psychotherapy, which can lead an individual with an insecure attachment to develop an “earned” secure attachment. What I would like to explore here is how insecure attachment can be transformed and healed more fully with the conscious inclusion of nonduality in the psychotherapeutic process. I will begin by defining what I mean by nonduality. On the relative plane of existence there appears to be separate beings with distinct personalities, forms, feelings, etc. Therefore, we cannot say nonduality means “not two” and still include relative reality. On the absolute plane there is only one field of conscious energy, but it has countless expressions. Therefore we cannot say nonduality means “only one.” Nonduality means that nothing is separate, in the way that my hand is both distinct and not separate from my arm. The raindrop of water exists, but it is not separate from the sea into which it falls. Everything inter-exists with all else. Therefore, we can say everything is empty of a separate, independent self.
If the nondual truth of this existence is that nothing is truly separate, how can there be insecure attachment? Insecure attachment arises out of the belief in separation. Even though there is in fact no such thing as separation, unless we have realized this, we live as though it is true. Even though a human being is part of the whole, most human beings experience themselves, their thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest. This is what Einstein called “a kind of optical delusion of consciousness” in which most human being live in. (Einstein, 1950, from Siegel, 2010, p. 255).
I see the belief in separation as the root cause of insecure attachment. And, if we do not release insecure attachment at its root, it is not fully healed or transformed. Some might argue that inadequate parenting is the root cause. However, generations of inadequate parenting have originated in the belief that we are separate from one another. And, even if the parenting is adequate, it will still fall short of true security since that cannot be found in any relationship based in separation. In this sense, any relationship that is believed to be between two individuals who are separate is inherently insecure. However, attachment can be relatively secure with good parental bonding and attachment. There is a difference between a relative secure attachment and the true security, in the deepest sense, which can only be found in the recognition of unchangeable, indestructible being that we are most essentially.
In the world of psychology, the psychotherapeutic relationship is generally seen as the healing agent for insecure attachment. The various schools of therapy each have their differences, but they all tend to agree that the therapeutic relationship itself may be the most curative agent (Cosolino, 2010). Bowlby stated that caregivers provide a secure base in early life; and if that does not happen, then the therapist provides the secure base. (Bowlby, 1988). And, as David Wallin states: “Very much as the original relationship(s) allowed the child to develop, it is ultimately the new relationship of attachment with the therapist that allows the patient to change . . .The therapist’s role here is to help the patient both to deconstruct the attachment patterns of the past and to construct new ones in the present.” (Wallin, 2007, p. 3).
In addition to the psychotherapeutic relationship, mindfulness has been shown to be effective in healing insecure attachment. Mindfulness can be described as “a deliberate, nonjudgmental attention to experience in the present moment.” (Siegel, 2007, Kabat-Zinn, 2005, Wallin, 2007). The purpose of both psychotherapy and mindfulness practice is to provide this internalized secure base. Attunement, whether it is internal in mindfulness, or interpersonal in attachment, is what leads to a sense of secure base. (Siegel, 2010).
“While mindfulness is not part of the vocabulary of attachment, this construct from Buddhist Psychology seems a natural outgrowth of attachment theory and research. . . The regular exercise of mindful awareness seems to promote the same benefits—bodily and affective self-regulation, attuned communication with others, insight, empathy, and the like—that research has found to be associated with childhood histories of secure attachment. . . Although there might be other explanations for these parallel outcomes, I would suggest that they arise from the fact that mindfulness and secure attachment alike are capable of generating—though by very different routes—the same invaluable psychological resource, namely and internalized secure base.” (Siegel, 2007, Wallin, 2007, p. 5-6).
At the heart of this process, is a form of internal “tuning in” to oneself, which enables people to become their own best caretaker. And, just as our attunement to our children promotes a healthy, secure attachment, tuning in to our self also promotes a foundation for more secure attachment. In addition to the therapeutic relationship, it is important to have a direct experience of loving attunement within. (Siegel, 2010). This inner attunement can be provided through any mindfulness practice, but I believe, most powerfully through nondual mindfulness, or resting as awareness, which puts us in direct contact with the ultimate secure base of nondual awareness.
Since 1980, nearly a thousand scientific papers have documented the effectiveness of mindfulness, often studying Western trainings that are based on a Buddhist approach. Most of these studies have focused on the mindfulness of the therapist. However, Buddhist Psychology asserts that the very foundation of well-being is based in training the mindfulness of the client. (Kornfield, 2009). And none of the research, as far as I know, has been focused on mindfulness involving nondual awareness. If dualistic mindfulness is so highly affective in healing insecure attachment, as well as other conditions such as depression and anxiety, how much more effective would effortless, nondual mindfulness be?
As Tibetan Dzogchen teacher Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche states, “There are two types of mindfulness: deliberate and effortless.” (Urgyen, 2009, p. 109). Even though he says that our natural state is effortless mindfulness, most people need an intentional reminder to bring us back to this. “Because we have been carried away from the natural state by conceptual thinking since beginningless lifetimes, we will again and again be swept away by the strength of habit.” (Urgyen, 2009, p. 114). Tibetan Buddhism teaches that for most people, the mindfulness of deliberate attention is essential in the beginning. It is recommended that one practice deliberate mindfulness, even though it is subtly conceptual, and gradually progress to effortless mindfulness. However, in the direct, nondual teachings of many current nondual teachers, effortless mindfulness is pointed to directly. Either way, ultimately it is the effortless resting as nondual awareness that is pointed to. This can also be described as the difference between a dualistic practice of mindfulness, which involves a subject and an object, and a nondual practice that does not involve subject and object. Nondual mindfulness is simply resting as nondual awareness with no one resting and no separate object being observed. This can lead to the realization that all the phenomena appearing in awareness are not separate from or other than the same nondual awareness.
It is this experience of nondual mindfulness, or resting as awareness, that I would like to bring to the process of healing of insecure attachment. Nondual awareness is the only thing that is truly secure in this existence. This is true because it is the one constant that cannot be changed or destroyed. It is the ultimate secure base because it is available at all times, even if that is overlooked or not consciously known. Nondual awareness is the only thing that can never leave us or let us down in any way. Where would it go? It is the substratum of all existence! It could never reject or fail us in any way. The nondual presence of our true being is pure love. In other words, it unconditionally allows everything to fully be as it is. It would not be possible for any human relationship alone to offer the same.
As mentioned previously, all relationships, no matter how relatively secure they may be, are inherently insecure because they are based in the belief of separation. Relationships, no matter how healthy, change from day to day. Sometimes other people are available to us, and sometimes they are not. The best of mothers get tired and are sometimes not available or attuned to their infant. This is the human condition. No thing, person or experience is available at all times except the nondual ground of our being. This ground is the one constant. Since security and safety is so essential to human development, the need for this can drive us deeper into our being until we finally discover what is truly secure and safe in the deepest sense. Then there is the opportunity to rest as that secure base, whether others are there for us or not.
However, it is important to recognize that, if nondual realization occurs within an individual who has an insecure attachment, that alone does not necessarily eliminate the insecure attachment. The relational insecurity may not be identified with, but could still be present and interfere with relationships. Relational, therapeutic healing may still be needed in some form. As John Welwood states, “The hard truth is that spiritual realizations often do not heal our deep wounding…most modern spiritual practitioners continue to act out unconscious relational patterns developed in childhood. Often what is needed here is psychological work that allows us to bring the underlying psychodynamics that maintain these patterns in to consciousness.” (Welwood, 2003, p.161).
Therefore both nondual realization and psychotherapy that can repair insecure attachment may be needed. And, therapy that includes the presence of nondual awareness would provide the optimum healing environment for this. A more secure sense of self will provide a more stable foundation to not only recognize our nondual nature, but also to embody and stabilize as that. It is paradoxical that the sense of a self can be both a secure self and no personal self at all, only awareness. (Kornfield, 1993, Wallin, 2007).
When nondual awareness is brought into the therapeutic relationship, it provides a field of wisdom, compassion, safety, clarity and love that is the truest, most powerful healing force, and the ultimate secure base. The value of bringing this potent intelligence into the therapeutic relationship is inestimatable. As a therapist rests as nondual awareness, he/she has available all the wisdom and skillful means to provide what is needed in each moment for the client. The presence of this awareness is the most potent experience of a secure base that could ever be provided. This is available to the client whether or not they are consciously aware of it. If the therapist has a secure, or earned secure attachment, this would enhance the reparative value of his/her presence even more. It is important that the therapist knows the experience of secure attachment in order to provide that for the client. The most optimum environment would be for both the therapist and client to have direct experience with the ultimate secure base of their being. All of the conditioned fears, insecurities and defensive patterns that develop as a result of insecure attachment can arise and dissolve in such a therapeutic environment. However, even without the client’s conscious participation, the presence of the nondual field in the therapist has tremendous healing potential. This nondual field offers the most complete and lasting of all possible healings; this is far deeper than anything that would be possible through conventional psychotherapy without the conscious presence of nondual awareness and wisdom.
All other possibilities can provide only a more limited and temporary resolution of insecure attachment. However, if nondual awareness is not consciously present in the therapeutic relationship, the relationship can still be relatively safe and healing. Therapeutic training and experience can develop a capacity for warmth, safety and compassion in relationship. This is further increased if the therapist has done his or her own therapeutic work on personal attachment issues. This could provide an intimacy that would promote secure attachment. However, as Prendergast states in The Sacred Mirror, “If we wish to experience the essence of both intimacy and spaciousness, we must deepen into the source of each. Remarkably, this turns out to the same source—open, lucid awareness—the nondual ground of Being, or no self.” (Prendergast, 2007, p. 37). The conscious presence of nondual awareness in the therapeutic process provides the opportunity for resolving insecure attachment at its source. Nothing else will do this. As Jennifer Welwood states in the Sacred Mirror, “All of our suffering, relational or otherwise, is a symptom of our loss of being. In the end, nothing will work unless we realize our deeper nature.” (Welwood, 2003, p. 302). Without knowing this deeper nature, there will always be some underlying insecurity in all human beings—whether their attachment is secure or insecure.
Clinical Case Example
Throughout the years that I worked with Daniel, he gradually came to recognize the presence of nondual awareness. His openness allowed for a direct pointing to this in sessions many times, which led to his involvement with nondual teachings outside of sessions. As his conscious recognition grew, this presence was increasingly focused on in the therapy.
Daniel first came to therapy because he was unable to have a satisfying intimate relationship. He has an insecure, avoidant attachment. Both of his parents had histories of insecure attachment as well as abuse trauma. His mother had a Borderline Personality Disorder, which resulted in rejecting behavior towards Daniel as well as an inability to attune to him as an infant, or as a child. Daniel’s assertion of his own will and needs was not tolerable to his mother. She favored his brother who lost his self in order to align with the mother. This alignment included rejecting Daniel as well. She did not bond with Daniel and overly attached to his brother in an enmeshed, unhealthy way. His father was Daniel’s only attachment bond and refuge until he abruptly left the family when Daniel was an adolescent. Due to complications with the father’s relationship with the mother, Daniel rarely saw his father after that. He was again abandoned and felt utterly alone. Attachment came to be seen as something to be avoided, as it was dangerous and painful.
Daniel played out his avoidant attachment in therapy and was very defended against any emotional dependency on me as his therapist. On one occasion, as an attachment began to form, he took a break from therapy. Overall, Daniel attended therapy inconsistently, with several long gaps in attendance. We were eventually able to talk
about our relationship and how frightening it was for him to depend on me. He was able to admit his fear of this, which opened up our connection more. I checked in with him about it regularly. Since Daniel is much younger than me, there was also a mother transference. It was healing for him to experience this in the context of a relationship that included attunement and safety.
During the course of therapy, Daniel became involved with a woman who was ambivalently attached and continually pressed him with her need for more relational engagement. He found this to be very threatening. And, as usually happens in the avoidant-ambivalent combination, the more she pushed for engagement, the more he withdrew. When this woman suddenly and unexpectedly abandoned him, Daniel was thrown into the abyss of his abandonment trauma. This was deepened by the fact that he discovered that the woman had been involved with another man for some time before she left. Daniel’s lack of attunement to her left him unaware of this. At first, he was incapacitated by the pain and terror that the breakup brought up in him. He went into a kind of a freeze and was immobilized for weeks, having to take time off work. However, it also broke him open. For the first time, Daniel was able to open up to receiving support and caring from others.
It was at this point that I was able to begin to do direct attachment repair work, which included the presence of nondual awareness. I had Daniel’s conscious cooperation with this. He began to understand the importance of relational healing, even though he knew the nondual nature of his being. For the first time, he was receptive to experiencing some attachment to me. We would often work while eye gazing. The presence of nondual awareness became very palpable by doing this. Then, while maintaining the conscious contact with awareness, we would work with what arose within that. We stayed in relationship and in the body. Since it is possible to eye gaze and fall into a strong experience of shared presence and lose a sense of relationship, I would make comments that brought the focus back to relationship, without losing the presence of awareness. This was especially important for him in that his tendency was to “get lost” in the presence of awareness as an escape from relationship, and from his feelings. Even though Daniel and I could rest as nondual awareness together and feel a secure base in that, it was important for the healing of his insecure attachment to experience this in relationship.
Many different experiences would arise such as tears of relief that someone was there for him, fear of that, concern for what was going on with me, grief over the loss of attachment throughout his life, and withdrawing from the attachment experience. We would remain present together in the nondual field as each experience arose with no need to identify with any of it and no need to fix or change it. Through this process, Daniel began to feel increasingly safe in relationship and took risks in opening up and being in intimate contact in a way that he had never experienced before. This was made possible through both the secure base of the therapeutic relationship as well as the ultimate secure base of our shared being.
We would also work consciously with attachment issues by eye gazing together and then “playing” with looking away for brief periods. I would then work somatically with the arousal this caused in his nervous system. Sometimes my looking away would cause activation because it triggered abandonment. Sometimes it would bring relief because it was a break from relating. We would work with the subtle responses in the body-mind to making contact and having contact removed, and then returning again to contact. All of this was happening within the context of the shared nondual field that is the one constant in all experience. This field is the only secure base that does not come and go. This offers a deeper safety than can be provided by the therapeutic relationship alone.
There were also times when Daniel preferred to just bask in the connection. The emphasis was on the relationship, not the nondual field. He would say, “I feel like I am five years old and just taking in what I never got—a feeling of being loved, supported and seen.” He would report that it didn’t matter what we discussed, the most important experience for him was the relationship itself, and just being with that. Daniel would wonder out loud about all the time that he was unable to open to this. Sometimes we would sit together in the grief over this loss.
I also included AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy) in my work with Daniel. AEDP, which was developed by Diana Fosha, involves repairing attachment issues through accessing core affect while in safe relationship. In AEDP, the intention is to establish trust and facilitate a safe environment in order to promote relational safety and enhance emotional exploration. Fosha states that, “The feeling of safety …is the experiential correlate of secure attachment.” (Fosha, 2000, p. 35). This relational safety allowed Daniel to experience core affect such as unbearable aloneness and grief that would have been intolerable alone. “Core affective phenomena, when accessed, activate deep transformational processes. Accessing core emotions is a pathway to genuine transformation.” (Fosha, 2000, p 137). If we can fully allow core affect without resistance, it opens up to our essential being since that is the ground of all phenomena.
Such a transformational process occurred in one pivotal session with Daniel. He accessed a deeply hidden part of himself that he called “the orphan.” The orphan carried all of his abandonment terror and unbearable aloneness. At first he said, “It’s intolerable. I feel all alone in the world, all by myself. I can’t be with this. It’s too much.” I offered myself as support through words of encouragement, through sitting next to him, and through resting as awareness. I asked him how it was to experience this with me there right by his side. He said that it felt supportive and made it possible to stay with it. He began to sob heavily. I continued to support him verbally, energetically, as well as physically by putting my hand on his back. And, at one point I reminded him of the presence of his own being—that which is always here and has never left him. It was at that point that he dropped fully into the core affect. It opened up quickly and Daniel stopped crying. His faced changed dramatically; it became softer, with a beatific quality and more color. We sat there in silence until Daniel said, “I am deeply touched.” I encouraged him to just stay with the experience and to savor it.
As Daniel dropped into the forbidden core affect of aloneness and grief, it quickly turned into an experience of what is underneath that. The dreaded experience of the orphan became a doorway to transformation and deeper being. He was surprised and a little confused by the suddenness and power of the shift that had taken place. One minute he was with very painful feelings, and then he suddenly dropped through into a profound sense of peace and presence. As he remained with this experience, he was able to report that he could now see that he is never truly alone. He clearly saw that there is something within that will never leave in a way he had not seen before. From this new perspective, Daniel was able to see that his fear of being alone had prevented him from a more embodied experience of the nondual ground of being. It is important to note that this occurred within a safe relational context. That allowed him to face the unfaceable and move through it in a transformative and embodied way.
At the time of this writing, it has been nine months since this session occurred. The transformative power of that has not left him. Daniel continues to be free of the fear of being alone. It no longer drives his life. This, along with the secure base he has experienced in our therapeutic relationship, has allowed Daniel to begin to open up more in his personal relationships. I do believe that the level of transformation that Daniel experienced would not have been possible utilizing the therapeutic relationship alone, without direct contact with nondual being.
This shift was further enhanced by Daniel’s ability to experience nondual mindfulness, or resting as awareness, in his daily life. This continually reminds his body mind of the secure base that never leaves and can be relied on totally and completely. For Daniel, it was important to not only know this within himself, but to embody it in relationship. Due to his avoidant attachment, his tendency was to turn to nondual awareness as a way to avoid relationship. He would never find a lasting stability in awareness using it in that way, however. Our true nature is not, and cannot be, separate from relationship, and therefore much be embodied in relationship.
In summary, it is my experience and belief that conscious inclusion of nondual awareness in the therapeutic process can allow for a transformation of insecure attachment at its source—the belief in separation. Psychotherapy and mindfulness practices that are dualistic and do not include nondual awareness have some reparative value, but are inherently limited. There is no substitute for the ground of being as the most essential secure base. Resting as nondual awareness, we are being the ultimate mother and father to ourself. All other forms of secure base are only approximations of this ground. Psychotherapy informed by nondual wisdom offers the opportunity of directly knowing this absolute base and therefore providing a transformation of insecure attachment that neither psychotherapy nor spiritual awakening alone can offer. It contains the best of both worlds, and is therefore the most potent healing force.
The exploration and study of nondual awareness and the repair of insecure attachment is in its earliest stages. It will require much more investigation and research.
Nevertheless, the current evidence is encouraging and highly inspiring. Healing insecure attachment in the nondual field offers a depth of healing that has previously not been available in the field of psychology. Insecure attachment need no longer be seen as a lifelong affliction, but instead a call home to the ultimate secure base that underlies all of existence.
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