Modern culture and child raising leave most people suffering from symptoms of insecure attachment: self-hatred, disembodiment, lack of grounding, ongoing insecurity and anxiety, overactive minds, inability to deeply trust, and a deep sense of inner deficiency. So most of us suffer from an extreme degree of alienation and disconnection that was unknown in earlier times—from society, community, family, older generations, nature, religion, tradition, our body, our feelings, and our humanity itself. [….]
Yet to grow into a healthy human being, we need a base of secure attachment in the positive, psychological sense, meaning: close emotional ties to other people that promote connectedness, grounded embodiment, and well-being. As John Muir the naturalist wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” Similarly, the hand cannot function unless it is attached to the arm—that’s attachment in the positive sense. We’re interconnected, interwoven, and interdependent with everything in the universe. On the human level we can’t help feeling somewhat attached to people we are close to. [….]
In the field of developmental psychology known as “attachment theory,” one form of insecure attachment is called “avoidant attachment.” The avoidant attachment style develops in children whose parents are consistently unavailable emotionally. So these children learn to take care of themselves and not need anything from others. That’s their adaptive strategy, and it’s an intelligent and useful one. Obviously if your needs aren’t going to be met, it’s too painful to keep feeling them. It’s better to turn away from them and develop a do-it-yourself, detached compensatory identity. [….]
Many of us who are drawn to Buddhism are avoidant attachment types in the first place. When we hear teachings on nonattachment it’s like: “Oh that sounds familiar. I feel really at home here.” In this way a valid dharma teaching becomes used to support our defenses.
But I want to be clear that I’m not trying to pathologize anyone. All of this is just something to understand with kindness and compassion. It’s one of the ways we try to cope with the wound of the heart. Not needing anyone allows one to survive and manage in an emotional desert. But later on, in adulthood, the avoidant attachment type has a hard time developing deep ties with others, and this can lead to a deep feeling of isolation and alienation, which is a very painful state. [….]
You don’t say what you want because you don’t want to be seen as needy. You’re trying to be nonattached. But that is like an unripe fruit trying to detach itself prematurely from the branch and hurl itself to the ground instead of gradually ripening to the point where it’s naturally ready to let go. […]
One way it blocks ripening is through making spiritual teachings into prescriptions about what you should do, how you should think, how you should speak, how you should feel. Then our spiritual practice becomes taken over by what I call “the spiritual superego”— the voice that whispers “shoulds” in our ear. This is a big obstacle to ripening, because it feeds our sense of deficiency.
One Indian teacher, Swami Prajnanpad, whose work I admire, said that “idealism is an act of violence.” Trying to live up to an ideal instead of being authentically where you are can become a form of inner violence if it splits you in two and pits one side against the other. When we use spiritual practice to “be good” and to ward off an underlying sense of deficiency or unworthiness, then it turns into a sort of crusade. [….]
From my perspective as an existential psychologist, feeling is a form of intelligence. It’s the body’s direct, holistic, intuitive way of knowing and responding. It is highly attuned and intelligent. And it takes account of many factors all at once, unlike our conceptual mind, which can only process one thing at a time. Unlike emotionality, which is a reactivity that is directed outward, feeling often helps you contact deep inner truths. Unfortunately, traditional Buddhism doesn’t make a clear distinction between feeling and emotion, so they tend to be lumped together as something samsaric to overcome. [….]
The truth is, most of us don’t get as triggered anywhere in our lives as much as in intimate relationships. So if we use spiritual bypassing to avoid facing our relational wounds, we’re missing out on a tremendous area of practice. Relational practice helps us develop compassion “in the trenches,” where our wounds are most activated.
And beyond compassion we also need to develop attunement: the ability to see and feel what another person is going through— what we could call “accurate empathy.” Attunement is essential for I-Thou connectedness, but it’s only possible if we can first of all be attuned to ourselves and track what we are going through.
I’ve developed a process I call “unconditional presence,” which involves contacting, allowing, opening to, and even surrendering to whatever we’re experiencing. This process grew out of my practice in Vajrayana and Dzogchen, as well as my psychological training. It presupposes that everything we experience, even the worst samsaric things, has its own intelligence. If we meet our experience fully and directly, we can begin to uncover that intelligence and distinguish it from distorted ways in which it manifests.
For example, if we go deeply into the experience of ego inflation, we may find a more genuine impulse at its core—that it’s a wounded way of trying to proclaim our goodness, to remind ourselves and affirm that we are basically good. Similarly, at the heart of all the darkest human feelings and experiences there is a seed of intelligence which, when revealed, can point in the direction of freedom.
I help people inquire deeply into their felt experience and let it gradually reveal itself and unfold, step by step. I call this “tracking and unpacking”: You track the process of present experiencing, following it closely and seeing where it leads. And you unpack the beliefs, identities, and feelings that are subconscious or implicit in what you’re experiencing. When we bring awareness to our experience in this way, it’s like unraveling a tangled ball of yarn: different knots are gradually revealed and untangled one by one.
As a result, we find that we’re able to be present in places where we’ve been absent or disconnected from our experience. Through reaching out to parts of ourselves that need our help, we develop an intimate, grounded kind of inner attunement with ourselves, which can help us more easily relate to others where they are stuck as well.
I’ve found that when people engage in both psychological and meditative practice, the two can complement each other in mutually beneficial, synergistic ways. Together they provide a journey that includes both healing and awakening. Sometimes one way of working is more appropriate for dealing with a given situation in our lives, sometimes the other is.
I take some encouragement in this approach from the words of the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, who has made a point of saying that we need to draw on any teaching or method that can be of help to sentient beings, be it secular or religious, buddhist or nonbuddhist. He even goes so far as to suggest that if you fail to engage in methods that are appropriate just because they do not conform to Buddhist philosophy, you are actually being derelict in your bodhisattva duty. [….]
That’s the sign that you’re getting close to bodhicitta. That rawness is also quite humbling. Even if we’ve been doing spiritual practice for decades, we still find these big, raw, messy feelings coming up — maybe a deep reservoir of sorrow or helplessness. But if we can acknowledge these feelings, and open ourselves nakedly to them, we’re moving toward greater openness, in a way that is grounded in our humanness. We ripen into a genuine person through learning to make room for the full range of experiences we go through. [….]
Yes, the relative freedom of, “ I’m willing to feel whatever I’m feeling. I’m willing to experience whatever I’m experiencing.” I sometimes call this “applied presence”— applying the presence we’ve discovered through meditation to our felt experience. [….]
For instance, if I’m not able to own my own needs, then I will tend to dismiss others’ needs and see them as a threat because their neediness subconsciously reminds me of my own denied needs. And I will judge others and use some kind of “dharma logic” to make them wrong or make myself superior. [….]
In conjunction with their spiritual practice. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find psychotherapists who work with present experiencing in a body-based way, rather than conceptually. Maybe we need to develop some simple ways in Western dharma communities to help people work with their personal material. […]
I see relationship as the leading edge of human evolution at this time in history. Although humanity discovered enlightenment thousands of years ago, we still haven’t brought that illumination very fully into the area of interpersonal relationships. Group dynamics are especially difficult because they inevitably trigger people’s relational wounds and reactivity. Honestly recognizing this might help us work more skillfully with communication difficulties in the sangha. [….]
Being aware that we inevitably project our unconscious material on other group members would be a good start. We also need to learn how to speak with each other personally and honestly, from our present experience instead of parroting teachings about what we think we should be experiencing. And there needs to be what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “deep listening,” based on learning to listen to our own experience. Listening is a sacred activity— a form of surrendering, receiving, letting in. We need to recognize this as part of our spiritual work. [….]
In terms of human evolution, nonattachment is an advanced teaching. I’m suggesting that we need to be able to form satisfying human attachments before genuine nonattachment is possible. Otherwise, someone suffering from insecure attachment is likely to confuse nonattachment with avoidant attachment behavior. For avoidant types, attachment is actually threatening and scary. So healing for avoidant types would involve becoming willing and able to feel their need for human connectedness, instead of spiritually bypassing it. Once that happens, then nonattachment starts to make more sense.
The late Dzogchen master Chagdud Tulku made a powerful statement about the relationship between attachment and nonattachment. He said, “People often ask me do Lamas have attachments? I don’t know how other Lamas might answer this, but I must say yes. I recognize that my students, my family, my country have no inherent reality… [Here he’s speaking absolute truth.} Yet, I remain deeply attached to them. [Here he’s speaking relative truth.] I recognize that my attachment has no inherent reality. [absolute truth]. Yet I cannot deny the experience of it” [relative truth].
And he ends by saying, “Still, knowing the empty nature of attachment, I know my motivation to benefit sentient beings must supersede it.”
I find this a beautiful articulation of nonattached attachment and the both/and approach. It joins absolute and relative truth while situating it all in the largest possible context. Everything’s included.
This is what is often missing in dharma communities: acknowledging and embracing our humanness alongside our aspiration to go beyond ourselves. Bringing these two together can be tremendously powerful.
From an excellent interview with John Welwood in Tricycle, Human Nature, Buddha Nature.