Attachment and Non-attachment

There is a really terrific theory of psychology called attachment theory. It was developed by John Bowlby and has continued to be studied and applied in various clinical settings. Attachment theory describes how people attach to other people. Being able to make relationships–getting attached–is one of the fundamental requirements for healthy adult life. We work at our relationships, we seek relationships, and we get a great deal from them. We turn to our relationships in times of trouble and in times of joy. We want to share our experience, and we want to share in the experience of others.

In much Buddhist writing and thought, attachment is a bad thing. It is a clinging to what we wish for instead of an acceptance of what is real currently. In Buddhist thought, our unhappiness comes from our inability to accept that sometimes we cannot make our lives the way we want them to be. In some other religious thought, wanting, desire itself, is a bad thing. We should rise above our desires and live on a higher plane. Or something like that.

I was thinking about this apparent contradiction, and decided these two views are not as far apart as they seem. The idea of non-attachment is really the idea that we cannot look to people and experiences outside ourselves as a way to avoid dealing with our own real life, including our feelings, our disappointments, and our failures. Sometimes it is easier to pay attention to something else than to recognize what we are dealing with ourselves.

At the same time, our relationships can provide for us a haven and a safe refuge (terms that are used in attachment theory) even while we face the challenges that our particular lives are encountering. It would be a misunderstanding to think we are better people if we are isolated, so-called self-sufficient, or even independent in some broad sense. Our relationships can be an environment where we are accepted and encouraged, even when they cannot take away the pain we may encounter both internally and externally.

Creating deep, sustaining relationships with the people closest to us is a work of art that we perfect over a lifetime. It can be difficult, painful, and disappointing at times. If we become absorbed in our relationships as a way to avoid engaging with our own real lives, we are using them as a function. On the other hand, the activity of creating a relationship as a joint venture can be one of the projects that makes our lives both satisfying and profound.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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