The business of attachment gets a hard time in Buddhist circles and I think its a term that is in need of looking at carefully.
Actually the more I read and practice and reflect on my own life the more I come to sense that healthy attachment is really necessary for wellbeing.
As I understand it, mammals major evolutionary wirings come down to creating a safe attachment to our families, partners etc as the basis of physical, emotional and psychological health. Its the very thing that defines us mammalians a different from other species. We are so defenseless for such a long time that we totally rely on this attachment to keep us safe and protected.
What does it look and feel like? For me its around a sense that we can trust those who are caring for us/ closest to us, to be there when needed (and not just physically). This obviously changes as we get older but maybe not so much as we think. John Bowlby was the the guy as credited with defining what healthy and poor attachment was. And made the case for its wide reaching impact.
It makes sense to me that if we come to feel that early in life our caregivers are not there for us when we need them, (emotionally, physically, even I would argue spiritually), this can have very profound and potentially long lasting ramifications.
I have really struggled to create long lasting and secure attachments and I think some of this is down to how I didn’t feel securely attached to my family. I can see how some of my attraction to Buddhism may have been around how it seemed to be saying the very thing I have not really had in my life was actually a ‘bad’ thing! And I am sure there is plenty of this going on in Buddhist circles, in various forms.
Attachment theory suggests that if our connection to our caregivers was poor then we tend to take one of two paths in our lives to cope. We avoid connection (at least in any kind of depth) or we get really needy/ clingy in our connections, (anxious attachment). Actually I think it can manifest in many subtle versions of these two aspects. Often these behaviours are so part of us we can’t see them at all. (although others might).
I think it was Barry Magid (Zen Buddhist teacher, Psychoanalyst and author) who said that avoidant types might well look like ‘very good buddhists’. Not getting too attached to anyone or anything. I have often felt like a fish out of water in the buddhist world being someone who was more of the anxious attachment type.
In the world of therapy it’s considered very normal for a client to help heal their attachment wounds by creating a re-parenting environment with the therapist. With Buddhist teachers there seems to be a default position around someone who displays a needy or anxious attachment pattern, to perform some kind of emotional distancing maneuver. For some this may feel very painful. For others it may seem like ‘business as usual’ so really quite comfortable and reassuring. Either way I would argue in most cases it reinforces the childhood wound.
As Buddhism starts to integrate more with the western psychological approaches this seems to be becoming a more well understood dynamic and is slowly changing.
Buddhism asks us to look at the truth of reality. The truth that nothing is fixed; not ourselves, our desires, our relationships, our world. But in this world of animal connection and the world of human love we need to feel some sense of security and reliability to be able to really bond and form relationships that will support our communities, our wellbeing and produce healthy and happy children.
I think actually the non-attachment that buddhism talks about and the healthy attachment the John Bowlby talks about, are sort of in the same ball park. They both result in our ability to love and be vulnerable and yet not too controlling or fearful. The key word here is ‘healthy’ attachment. We need to be clear that there is such a thing (as well as unhealthy attachment). But thats not alway how its being role modeled/spoken about by buddhist teachers and in buddhist communities.