Exploring the Connection Between Awakening, Attachment and Non-attachment

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 non-attachment. 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 “non-attachment.” 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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About Stephan Bodian

Stephan Bodian is a teacher in the nondual wisdom tradition of Zen and Advaita Vedanta and the founder and director of the annual eight-month School for Awakening. Stephan trained for 10 years as a Buddhist monk and spent an additional 10 years studying Advaita Vedanta with Jean Klein. In 2001 he received Dharma transmission from Adyashanti. A licensed psychotherapist as well as a teacher, he offers spiritual counseling to clients worldwide. His books include Wake Up Now: A Guide to the Journey of Spiritual Awakening and Meditation for Dummies. For more information, visit stephanbodian.org.


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6 Responses to Exploring the Connection Between Awakening, Attachment and Non-attachment

  1. william callahan says:

    Well that doesn’t bode well for me does it. I grew up in an orphanage and state homes and I have been doing self investigation for a few years now. Actually I think you may not have the whole picture. I have been doing well with Ramana Maharishis process and am secure enough in the process to tell you that either I am an exception or ….. I learned a long time ago you can be the victim or you can rise above. But then again who is there to do any of that?
    Mindfulness is the way to go. Cognitive neuroscience is…. well who knows what it is? We really know nothing. Except we know that we know nothing. Without thoughts there is no mind. Good luck with your learning curve.
    Bill Callahan

  2. william callahan says:

    Wow that was a neurotic and certainly a knee jerk reaction to the first paragraph. After calming down and reading the whole piece I must apologize for jumping on the article so hastily. I will need to read it again and assimilate it but it began to resonate with my gut experience. I wasn’t just an orphan and a foster child. I also at age 13 was placed back with my birth mother and she had some issues with drugs and prostitution and wasn’t exactly able to provide a healthy or secure environment. So I run the spectrum of your insecure disorders (smile here).
    Anyway forgive the first comment and feel free to delete it or whatever.
    Bill from Boston

  3. Mark says:

    Can we call it awakening if it involves attachment, even if it’s to the spiritual ground? It seems more appropriate to consider the nurturing of the matrix as a way of going to sleep.

    • Stephan says:

      Thanks for the question, Mark. As I suggest in the essay, healthy psychological attachment is completely different from the attachment that’s eschewed in spiritual practice as a source of suffering. Perhaps a better word would be “bonding” or “grounding”–or, even better, “trust.” It’s a sense of being an inextricable part of something greater than oneself, which is first experienced in the secure arms of a loving parent figure, carries over into one’s relationship with life and other people, and then naturally reaches fruition in one’s connection–and ultimate identification–with Consciousness or True Nature. Paradoxically, you could say that we awaken out of attachment to form and awaken to our attachment to, or rather our inseparability from, the empty, groundless ground of being. Nothing is more nourishing at every level–emotional, psychological, energetic, spiritual–than this profound realization.

  4. I find your article “spot on.” I have been a seeker for what seems most of my 71 years and find myself in the arms of, in your words, the great mother of the matrix. It is in her arms that I remember the spiritually connected and free spirited girl who was pure love. My attachment issues arose at my birth during WWII and my mother’s “hysterical illness” that they felt might be typhus. She didn’t hold me until I was two weeks old. Weeks after my birth, my father was on the front in battle in the Philippines. He had a near miss under mortar fire and was only one out of three who survived by jumping into a fox hole. I would meet him when I was nine months old. I was fortunate that he returned.

    My attachment issues were minor, compared to some, but I have been attracted to two husbands with varied attachment issues and am writing and doing clinical work around spiritual grounding for the release of trauma, attachment being one of these.

    Thank you for this fine article. Kathleen Hendrickson

  5. Beth says:

    Hi Stephan,

    I really enjoyed this article and would like to read more on the subject of child development from the perspective advaita vedanta/buddist teachings. The emerging self as individual, “in a divide” so to speak is a fascinating area. The development of the “ego mind” – and cross cultural differences etc. I work with children under five and observe how we often encourage separation and support it by the way we work with and parent children.

    Im currently on a course to learn how children learn to communicate and then use language and its so striking that the language itself supports the notion of the separate world from separate self from the offset. How did this come to be?

    I notice avoidance and ambivalence in my thoughts and the resulting emotions can be rough seas born out of early established attachment responses. They are felt to be strong currents that sweep the perceived self far into the feelings of deep sadness, loss and confusion.

    I know the cause of my suffering comes from mind and I find developing a capacity to notice the mind can be experienced as an additional layer of suffering and self torture. I was recently diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 54 which I can tell you has thrown up even more thoughts about my selfless self. It often feels like I am looking for nothing in haystack when the haystack has long since blown away. But I have hope Im a seeker! Mmmm

    If you can recommend any books on this area i’d be grateful and thanks again for the article.

    With thanks

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