Attachment Disturbances for Meditators: Part One
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Wild Geese Mary Oliver
I love this poem because it speaks to the contrast between the reality that so many people experience the world and the possibility of how we can live. So many of us live with a great deal of suffering. Yet, the aim of spiritual practice, as well as the aim of attachment repair process, is to restore ease and simple joy into our lives.
The Promise of Meditation
The Buddha explicitly says that when practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness for seven days, dukkha or suffering is expected to reduce until only the most subtle forms remain or sorrow and distress are completely eliminated. [i]
Pouring myself into meditation at the age of seventeen, I was longing for freedom. In hindsight, I can see that I was hoping to use the liberation that meditation promises to deal with suffering that it isn’t designed to resolve.
Even so, meditation has been invaluable. It gave me pathways, philosophy, and a lot of tools to understand and manage the patterns I experience. I suffer less because of meditation. I have more access to loving kindness, compassion and generosity. When I get upset, I have tools that support me finding balance, tranquility and equanimity, Yet, when profound insights fade, my same core belief returns. I have learned that when our core beliefs about ourselves or the world are coming from attachment disturbances, they are not easy to shift. The resilience of attachment patterns often interferes with our efforts to break those patterns. Since practicing an attachment repair process, my core beliefs are shifting.
Attachment: Same Word Different Meaning
The definition of attachment, according to Buddhist philosophy, is an unhealthy grasping of desire, anger, or views. Grasping at sensual desire often leads to more desire, not to contentment. Grasping onto anger often leads to more anger, not peace. Grasping onto views often leads to rigid thinking and an inability to see another’s perspective. All of these kinds of attachment cause suffering, which The Buddha teaches us to reduce or eliminate on the path to freedom.
Psychological attachment however, is the bonding that forms between caregiver and child. A healthy attachment is fundamental to well-being. Without it, humans wouldn’t survive.
We want to get rid of the attachment that causes suffering, and we want to develop the attachment that comes from caregivers; not only to reduce suffering, but for health and optimal well-being. It is important that we understand that this one word has different meanings.
We know from research that particularly during the formative attachment years (ages 0-2,) exposing a child to five conditions will develop secure attachment. 1. Safety and Protection, 2 Attunement, 3 Emotional Soothing, 4. Delight in their essence 5 Encouragment to explore and develop. These five qualities lead to the child feeling, 1. Secure, 2. Seen and known 3. Soothed and comforted 4. Valued in their essence, and 5 Confident exploring the world and who they uniquely are.
When as children we received good enough caregiving, we learned to rely on our caregivers. We learned they will support us making sense out of the world. We learned what co-regulating and relaxation, balance, and safety feel like. Receiving good enough caregiving is a significant component of being securely attached. Some signs of being securely attached are that we have confidence that we will be seen, understood and there are people to make sense out of and be able to manage the inevitable challenges of life. We can be creative, imagining our future and exploring the world. We are able to discover and assert who we uniquely are. With these kinds of trust and confidence, we are not in a constant state of stress.
When we didn’t receive “good enough”[ii] care, it means that the above set of needs were not met about 20-30% of the time.[iii] Equally, not good enough means that ruptures were not acknowledged or repaired. It also could potentially mean that caregivers caused harm. When a child is reliant upon someone who is unreliable, dismisses their feelings, rejects or abandons them; when a child’s safety is dependent upon someone who harms them, they find ways to compensate. Compensation leads to insecure attachment strategies. In a child they are called anxious/avoidant attachment, anxious/ambivalant attachment or disorganized attachment. An insecure attachment strategy is a sign of attachment disturbance.
Insecure attachment styles help us make sense out of what is going on and to keep us safe. Understanding this helps us appreciate how adaptive our survival mechanisms are. Further, when we learn how our behaviors, relationships and core beliefs have so much to do with our early attachment patterns, and how resistant they are to changing, it can help us find patience.
Consequences of Attachment Disturbance
As meditators, we are reliant upon being able to perceive what is going on in the present moment. It is important to understand some of the ways that attachment disturbance changes what we are able to know. According to the work by Stephen Terrel and Kathy Kain [iv], some examples of these changes are:
1. Becoming extra alert to signals of danger and missing neutral or positive feelings.
2. Living in a faux window of tolerance, looking like we are calm, but actually we are anxious,
3. Interoception is impacted; we cannot feel and interpret correctly what is going on.
Becoming extra alert means that our system is hyper-aroused and we aren’t able to notice the neutral and positive feelings that can help us feel more calm. Actually being calm, rather than appearing calm, is important in how we are able to manage our internal state. When we cannot feel or interpret correctly what is going on, both of which are essential components of meditation, we have reduced our capacity to make meditation tools effective. Living in a faux window of tolerance means that we do not employ methods to calm ourselves because we don’t think we need them. Furthermore, our therapists and meditation teachers may not notice either. When we routinely miss neutral or positive feelings and live in a faux window of tolerance, stress compounds.
Stress increases cortisol levels, impacting blood pressure and heart rate. Our breathing becomes more rapid and shallow, causing inflammation, pain, and a myriad of health issues. Our physiology impacts our mind states. The more stress we experience, the more we are primed to look for and see danger, catastrophize, feel anxious, angry, out of control and overwhelmed. This contributes to feeling unsafe. Our mind and body then drive what we see and do in our relationships and how we feel about what is going on in the world.
When we understand the far-ranging impacts of attachment disturbances, it can motivate us to find ways to repair the disturbance and return to healthy patterns.
The Three Pillars Approach
The 3 pillars approach consists of 1. Restructuring the Internal Working Model of attachment using co-created secure imagery of Ideal Parent Figures (IPF). 2. Enhance metacognition, or the ability to use the mind to analyze the mind, and 3. Enhance collaborative abilities.
Mentalization or metacognition is learning how to differentiate between our perceived experience and what is actually happening. As an example, if we are upset and feel sad, we can shift from the thoughts and feelings to the body sensations that underpin the sad feeling. Moving to observing body sensations makes it more feasible to stay present without getting caught by a whirlwind of thoughts and associations. Following a whirlwind can lead to further states of powerlessness or feelings of despair. The sadness is what is actually happening. The despair or feelings of powerlessness come from the way we relate to sadness. In this example, getting caught in a whirlwind of thoughts about all the reasons why we feel sad can undermine our ability to respond in a wise and compassionate way to the sadness directly.
Mentalization for someone securely attached is orders of magnitude faster and more accurate than for someone who has an attachment disturbance. As mentalization increases in accuracy and speed, an individual is able to know what they are feeling and sensing and make sense out of what happens internally as well as relationally. This then leads to more capacity to soothe oneself. This also means that the greater the capacity for mentalization, the more an individual will be able to use meditation tools effectively. Furthermore, one’s mentalization capacity is directly connected to one’s capacity to know and communicate what is going on, observe what you notice in another, resolve differences of perception and repair ruptures. All of this is necessary in healthy relationships.
Statistically, a majority of children worldwide have good enough caregivers and are securely attached. If you were one of the insecurly attached children, then you can imagine an ideal parent providing you with just the right amount of attunement, and encouragement that you need. Since the mind knows no difference, this can have a profound affect on the development of the Internal Working Model of attachment. You are more able to notice when you feel unsafe and imagine what you need to soothe yourself. As you experience more safety, stress levels decrease. You have more capacity to connect with your innate basic goodness and make choices and live from there.
The Spectrum of Human Development
As a human being we are born, we grow and then eventually we die. These things are certain. What isn’t certain is in what ways we grow and how and when we will die.
When we are born we are completely unequipped to take care of ourselves. We are dependent on the care of those around us for our basic needs. Our psychological development has a lot to do with how those needs were met and how we were able to deal with interruptions of those needs. As part of our needs are physical, our psychological development can never be completely separated from our physical experience.
Spiritually, we grow in different ways. There are gradual shifts that happen on a progression of development. We can grow in our ethical capacity to live with respect and honesty and refrain from causing harm through what we say and do. We can have increasing skill in dealing with the thoughts and feelings we experience in ourselves and encounter in others. This can be the capacity to soothe ourselves, manage difficult emotions and have kindness, tolerance, and strength to deal with challenges. We can gradually shift from knowing ourselves through facts and characteristics of identity to having more access to the quality of awareness and being present with what is going on. Ironically when we aren’t looking at mind states in terms of whether they are good or bad, it gives more capacity to be present with whatever is arising. More capacity to be with what is arising often means more capacity for skillful response. Then there are spiritual qualities that we don’t have to develop over time, that radically shift our relationship with what is going on. The particulars of how meditation and attachment impact this domain is dealt with more throughly in Meditation and Attachment Part two.
No matter how valuable meditation is, it wont by itself shift our attachment pattern. Yet our attachment pattern has a lot to do with how we perceive ourselves, the world and how much of the fruits of meditation we are able to realize. As meditators, understanding the impact of attachment and changing it from being an insecure to an earned secure attachement style will be impactful on our personal life as well as our meditative life.
Read Part Two here.
If more information about attachment repair interests you, please visit our Integrated Meditation page to learn more about the healing work that Awakening Truth is offering.
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