What is it to be attached? At what point can a person look upon their lives and query as to their connection with things and/or people? Does attachment signify any and all relationships, including to objects, or is it better understood as only pertaining to people? Is attachment good or bad, life-giving or not? These and many other questions have been asked of me since starting writing, indeed many are questions I’ve asked of myself through the years of study, and as I’m sure attachment and how it relates to human relationships and society in general will continue to populate my writing, I decided to finally articulate just what is being meant in my continued usage of the term.
The notion of attachment has in psychology and philosophy various definitions and usages, though notably the idea is part of “attachment theory” connected with Bowlby and Siegel and previously as it is used in various forms of Buddhism. Focus will be spent on delineating these two definitions and I believe it will be found that the two are connected and mutually helpful. I want to refrain from getting too academic here but some is inevitable and I encourage any and all interested to delve into the literature available and by all means contact me with any future questions so I can address them to the best of my ability.
Attachment is, at core, concerned with the mental relation between the so-called “I” and other objects, be they people or things.
Buddhism offers as an understanding of mind that there is no “I” or central being. Instead what is offered is a combination of aggregates all of which exist in the human person as causally interconnected pieces making up a whole. These aggregates are: material form, sensations, apperceptions, volitions and consciousness. I will not at this time go into a full description of each as this isn’t the point here and I encourage everyone to read the link provided. Suffice to say, this notion of mind is connected with a theory of causation for behavior in which no single act exists in a linear fashion with anything else, rather all actions are generated from an interconnected web of variables. The connection with attachment is here, where the isolated focus upon a particular object ignores the transitory nature of all things, including the self.
At no time does Buddhism promote that a person become un-attached, as we are instantiated within particular bodies and as such are connected to all things, both physical and perceptual. Instead, the term non-attachment is used to convey the idea that at no time should it be forgotten that no single thing or person exists in a vacuum of its own essence. All are related to everything else in the non-linear web of existence. Even so-called singular objects, like a tree, are not perceived in entirety but as a construction from the perception of trunk, branches, leaves, etc. People also exist this way in our minds, at face-value as holistic or of, to use my favorite phrasing, possessing of a singular narrative. Only a few moments of reflection will indicate that this singular narrative is a conglomeration of multiple experiences, personality facets and relationships. Attachment then, for Buddhism, is to wrongly focus on something or someone in a false sense, as a singularity rather than an interconnected instantiation of nature.
Remarkably the notion of mind here articulated so far is quite similar to the growing consensus in the scientific community of what mind is and plays a central role in the articulation of attachment in how I use it in my writing, at all times noting the source and influence being principally that of Daniel Siegel (though there are others). The mind is a term used to describe a process of energy and information flow that is created through the bio-social connection with others. Like in Buddhism, the “I” is not a thing in itself but a means by which the individual relates to their particular instantiation within a general narrative. Here attachment is primarily associated with human relationships, principally that between child and caregiver, though attachment theory has, with the understanding that all relationships are attempts at answering unmet needs, has branched to include analysis of all human relationships as they pertain to the evolution of the individual.
At a deeper level, the notion of attunement is used to indicate that “the inner reflection* of mindfulness practice involves a form of internal attunement* in which an observing self attunes to an experiencing self in an open and kind way. Likewise, secure parent-child attachment is characterized by interpersonal attunement*, a form of communication that involves a parent attuning to a child in an open and kind way” (Siegel, Daniel J. (2012-04-02). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) (p. 43). Norton. Kindle Edition.). Attunement is the open and receptive means by which someone focuses on the flow of energy and information involved in relationships (Siegel). Proper and healthy attunement allows the object of attachment, the child or loved one, to be held in an open field of understanding the multiple variables of their existence and being receptive to their needs.
Not all relationships are associated with attachment, only those that are connected with caregiving and meeting the initial biological and later psychological needs of the other. The tendency of a person’s attachment relationships will form mental structures that automatically react to future relational connections, with behavior being the means the person has learned to address the anxieties bound in those structures. Attachment in this sense is inevitable and necessary. Dependency here is a central aspect of human life, the defining feature in how we form our personalities and relate to the so-called external world of form.
Combine the Buddhist and psychological definitions of attachment and there arises an amazing synchronicity. Imagine a wheel with a central hub and spokes reaching out. The hub is associated with attachment in the psychological sense, the basic and underlying principle by which all personality and behavior stem out of. Within this is biology, genetics, social influences, etc. all in an interconnected web of natural causation. The spokes are our attempts at connecting with objects, both people and things and events. The outer wheel is the totality of existence, of which the spokes are only connecting to particular instantiations. Buddhism would note here that the better perspective is to dwell on the wheel itself and see the whole as opposed to becoming “attached” to the singularity of which our connection is only momentarily pointing to. Broadening the focus will incorporate more of existence into our awareness and work on what Siegel notes is the goal of attachment theory and healthy living: integration.
I want to end on a personal reflection. In relating to ourselves and others we should keep in mind both uses of the term attachment here, in recognizing the role relationships play in the creation of our narratives and how we relate to others, and also recognizing the Buddhist understanding of the transitory nature of all things. When we become attached in the Buddhist sense, whether it be to a particular object as in possessions or in a particular facet of a person as in a supposed deficit or error, we lose sight of the reality that all singularities, whether people or objects, are part of a vast interconnected web reaching all the way down to quarks and muons and all the way up to galaxies and universes. As I pointed out in the last entry, we are all in this thing called existence together. As we broaden our minds to become aware of more and more, we begin to understand how enormous the “together” really is.
© David Teachout