The Pre-Trans Fallacy of Attachment
Alexis Johnson, PhD
It is a pity that the word attachment is used in two very different ways. In early childhood attachment is essential for human growth and development. It is also clear that human relationships are essential for well-being in adulthood. Yet, as part of a spiritual practice, we are often encouraged to give up all attachments, as they are equated with clinging to ego, impeding spiritual development. So these words can collide and when words collide, then worlds collide and we don’t understand ourselves or each other.
Psychotherapists and early childhood specialists agree that for the infant, attachment is life itself. We know clearly that without another to take care of the baby, that baby will not develop a sense of self, a sense of value, and in extreme cases can literally die. So in the pre-personal stage of life the good enough parent wants the baby to attach, and is deeply attached to the baby. Winnicott talked of the mother-infant dyad as the only viable way to talk of an infant. Furthermore, we also know that an infant without a mother-as-container is an infant who is unbearably anxious or one who has numbed himself into sleep and soul deadness. Such an infant may survive, but will struggle with fear and loneliness and emptiness. And the parents are equally attached. They think about the baby, they ‘worry’ about the baby. They want to look at the baby, touch the baby, be near the baby. Perhaps not 24/7 but most of the time this need for nearness is mutual.
When things go well, we say the baby is securely attached. This state of being is a huge gift to the baby. The baby can thrive from the gleam in the eye that says you are delightful in your essence. From this positive mirror of his self and his soul, he can create other positive aspects of his life. Secure attachment is the best inoculation against post traumatic stress disorder in the future. It is the best inoculation against psychosomatic disorders in adulthood. And it is the best bet for creating fulfilling relationships as an adult.
And the baby who is insecurely attached? Both experience and research show that with self-reflection, psychotherapy and/or meditation, this person can develop what is called ‘earned secure’. He or she may not have had the blessing of secure attachment with the parents, but with healing work, that can be developed and then passed on to the next generation. In the personal stage of development, the adult can learn trust and meaningful attachment patterns.
Some spiritual psychologies want to rid us of emotions and passions. And it is certainly true that the negative emotions – particularly anger and fear – cause us a lot of psychic pain. But life in the body is an emotional life. Emotions are the foundations of our thoughts, our ethics, our values. And whenever we lose some one or some thing important to us, we will grieve, we will feel very, very sad and even feel that life is not worth living without that beloved. We were attached and now we must let go and move on. Not at all easy to do. And on the other side, the positive emotions enliven us, give us joy and excitement, make life worth living. In that first attachment dance, the parents both soothed the baby and enlivened the baby, giving him the felt sense of the goodness of life, the possibilities and potentials of creating and contributing to the on-going whole of life.
In spite of all this research on the necessity of attachment, some spiritual psychologists often talk about the problems of attachment, particularly being attached to emotional states. In that view attachment is clinging, grasping, holding on to emotions, beliefs, parts of the self that keep us from knowing the big picture, knowing who we really are. From this perspective, the goal is non-attachment, the willingness to suspend knowing, to live in the void, the Mystery. From this place we can simply be present to what is, to behold the world and the other as it more truly is. Some say the goal is no hope and no fear, that is, no attachment to any inner state. Things merely arise, the breath goes in, the breath goes out. All is transitory. So from a trans-personal point of view, attachment has become a problem.
But clearly, although we are using the same word, we are talking about very different things. With secure attachment at the beginning of life, or earned secure later in life, we have a sense of self, a place of agency, of knowing what we feel and need and want. We can create our personal meanings, tell the story of what happened in a cohesive fashion with a beginning, a middle, an end, with details and flourishes depending on our personality. Only with that secure center can we create meaningful friendships and intimate relationships that nourish both us and those around us; only if we have that secure center, can we let it go, can we trust ourselves to explore the void that the spiritual teachers call non-attachment.
Wisdom and spiritual maturity certainly involve letting go of beliefs and feelings that are not life enhancing. And letting go is very difficult. We operate on the familiar neural pathways, those pathways are the very essence of both our brain and our sense of self. The spiritual teachers are certainly helpful when they encourage us to practice letting go, to practice non-attachment while calm so there is a possibility of non-attachment when we are inflamed. But let’s not confuse this practice with the necessity of attachments themselves; after all, love is a kind of attachment whether to people or life itself and all the spiritual traditions agree that loving the world is both the process and the goal.