Attachment, for the buddhist, is the root of all suffering. Attachment, for everyone, is an inevitable manifestation of relational dynamics. Thankfully these two statements are not mutually exclusive, however much they may appear to be so at face-value. Consider attachment as both a structure for guiding behavior and as a narrow means of viewing human potential, with the latter being what the buddhist is warning about. We cannot stop structuring our lives through the lens of attachment or relationship, but no single connection or form it manifests as can or should hold the entirety of our selves. A web of relational interconnection provides avenues for growth, expression and the near-infinite variety of emotional experiences. A singular focus on any one of them leads to obsession, shallowness of expression and suffering.
Unfortunately in the self-help literature concerning attachment, it is often used only in the context of a romantic connection. Two things about this are problematic. One, romantic connections are only one form of relational attachment and are not demonstrative of the whole of a person’s life. Indeed, attachment research is based largely on the original child/parent connection, making the focus on a romantic form peculiar to say the least. Second, there is no time in our lives when we are not in a relationship of some kind, whether we actively pursue the extent of it or not. Think of all the people not yet having been met, combined with the near infinite potential contexts that such meetings could begin and develop through. Think of that friendship or partnership that, through changing circumstances, allowed insight into facets of the other person that otherwise had never been seen.
When broadly considered, attachment takes on the quality of a kaleidoscopic lens, shifting into new visions with each turn of the perspective. With this sense of attachment in mind, we can frame all human relationships to be either passive or active. The former, passive, is the vast majority of casual and incidental connections of everyday social living, from those we meet walking the street and riding public transport to many work connections and even telemarketers. A lack of intentional awareness is typical of these connections, where mere moments later we have often forgotten they even occurred. The latter, or active, is what is often meant by “relationship,” where there exists a conscious intentional stance to pursue the extent to which that form is capable of being fulfilled.
Regardless of passive or active, all relationships are part of the human interactional reality, providing the space to manifest behavior and the energy/information flow for empathic activity. “Empathy as a cognitive process never stops, it simply ebbs and flows based on the extent of the forms available via imagination to connect with another person.” That inability to stop, to avoid connection, is why a narrow focus on the active relationships of our lives provides so much space for surprise and room for shame/doubt. Our reactions to events and other people can sometimes seem to jump up and bite us, like lashing out at a loved one or co-worker, being unaware of what normally would be seen as warning signs. This is because the structure of our lives is not determined merely by the connections we’re currently aware of, but all of them that exist.
Picture a brick wall, covered in ivy, with the roots of vines so intertwined within the bricks that any semblance of it being a merely human-made structure has long been lost. The bricks are the connections we’re aware of, the vines all the one’s we typically are not focused upon. Sure they provide some interesting patterns and can be beautiful to look at, but our minds are easily convinced that it is the bricks that are holding up the entire edifice. Now imagine ripping out the vines, with pockmarks showing in the bricks, others becoming loose and even a few falling out altogether. This is the story of our lives. No person stands alone, no action occurs in the absence of the warp and weft of our interwoven existence.
When considering potential avenues for action, whether it be projecting forward for ourselves or looking at another, the passive connections are just as important as the active. We may easily succumb to the lure of being hyper-vigilant upon a partner or friend, but just as they exist in a reciprocal relationship of change with us, so then do they exist in other such connections with hundreds more, each shifting, to varying degrees, the potential of behavior. The kind word from grandmother, the snide comment from a co-worker, the disruption of dinner from a telemarketer, a surprise kindness from a stranger, the viewing of a funny video on social media from someone never met; these and a thousand more are all variables in the construction of our personal stories.
A sense of attachment is the empathic union with our connections. “We are not engineers, we are co-conspirators in the creation of our personal mythologies, what otherwise is referred to as our personal narratives or sense of self.” The degree of reflective consideration we give to this ordered-chaos will determine to no small degree both the quality of our emotional lives and the extent to which we fulfill the potential for our relationships. Seeing more is to be more.
© David Teachout