The notion of attachment is central to Buddhist teaching. In the past I’ve glossed over the significance of defining attachment because, as a concept, it seems easy enough to relate to and understand intuitively. As a result I never gave it much thought and internalized a somewhat fuzzy notion of attachment as an idea and term that could relate to several general aspects of the human condition like wants, desire, and loss; a feature of Buddhist lingo. What I’ve recently come to realize is there are sharper lines one can draw around what is and isn’t attachment; attachment is discrete and definable. Moreover, and more significantly, I’ve realized attachment is useful beyond the Buddhist context with relevance to all people.
My realization about attachment came recently through personal experiences in which my subjective feelings and reactions to events surprised and startled me. I In Buddhism attachment is one of the core causes of suffering. It’s not the attachment itself, but the inevitable loss of all that one is attached to, as all is impermanent. This is an elegant and logical system of viewpoints which implies the basis for my definition of attachment.
An attachment, I contend, is anything which will cause you emotional pain and longing upon its loss. A minor example of an attachment might be a ratty old t-shirt you associate with some fond memories but need to get rid of to clean and organize your life because you have dozens of such articles clothing and so much space. This is an example of an attachment to an object.
As you finally toss that shirt into the Goodwill bag, you feel the minor pangs of loss and sadness. It seems strange to think that one can be attached to a shirt, but that’s attachment. I’ve felt this way about throwing away even lesser items, and I imagine that part of what sits of at the core of the hoarding pathology is a similar sentimentalism, aka attachment, taken to a troubling extreme. Other attachments to objects are less extreme.
I love cars and am very attached to my rust bucket of a 1989 BMW 535i, among others, though the irrational attachment to that one is clearly the greatest. I am very attached to two teddy bears I was given as a young child and quite attached to a stuffed lion I was given by someone important to me much later in life. I won’t let the teddy bears fly on an airplane because I’m afraid of them getting lost or damaged. I’m being completely serious. And all of this is relatively normal.
My maternal grandmother was attached to her houses and land. Normal people are attached to possessions and items of all sorts — cars, houses, jewelry, furniture, money in general — take any of these away, and people suffer greatly. We don’t like to think of these as deep attachments because we tend not to idealize materialism, but these attachments are very real. They are however perhaps, many would hope, lesser to more societally acceptable attachments.
Attachment to loved ones is accepted and expected. We expect attachments to family — parents, grandparents, siblings — to be the strongest. Then we have partners, who are maybe elevated to family if they become life partners, and close friends. Attachments are expected to drop off quickly thereafter; one shouldn’t be overly attached to their doorman. In general, I think these rankings of level of attachment hold true for emotionally healthy people, though there is certainly variation amongst people.
In clinical psychology a distinction is drawn between healthy and unhealthy attachments to people. I believe the correct terms are ‘secure’ and ‘insecure.’ Purportedly by childhood most people one or the other, with some subtypes for insecure, and even more purportedly what one becomes is an outcome of parenting style, which sounds more or less true though contemporary psychologists seem to downplay genetics and a child’s inherent personality more than they ought to. I have my own interpretation of this phenomenon, which I’ll confess is my going a bit out on a limb, which will tie in to a more significant and incontrovertible truth about attachment.
Healthy attachment amongst people is usually a two-way relationship which manifests as a mutual mirroring of feelings; a real connection between people. Just about all humans, it seems, are primed for real human connection. If someone is missing that connection, for whatever reason, be it a parent that is uninterested in or incapable of providing it or a relationships that mirrors that later in life, they must compensate somehow. When lacking what’s real we tend towards the unreal; the constructed, the imagined: stories.
I noticed in reading up on unhealthy attachment styles is that at the core of them are stories; stories of self which are not quite true, and stories of others which are also not quite true. Much of the conflict and tension people with unhealthy attachment styles comes from constant clashes of story and expectation with reality breeding anxiety and withdrawal over time. But the attachment to stories over people is not unique to those with unhealthy attachment styles; everyone is attached stories, and stories, more than people, are perhaps the deepest attachments.
An elementary discussion in philosophy is around what other people are in relation to our perceptions of them. Is anyone else even real, outside our mental model of them? To live sanely we assume, or believe, they are, but it’s fascinating to observe we attribute characteristics to people which are demonstrably false.
I see this in myself with friends, family and, most starkly and sometimes comically, romantic interests. You see this with parents who believe their children are all brilliant and beautiful. That seems fine. It’s more troubling when the parents of awful children they are kind and wonderful, enabling and failing to correct toxic behavior patterns. In all of these cases however the end result is the same.
I’ve realized we become attached not to people, but ideas about people. This same phenomenon is true with objects. It becomes not the object itself, but the story around the object. We don’t limit out attachment to stories to the external however. The most profound are those within.
Perhaps our deepest attachments are to our story of self. The story of what we are, and who we are, and what we represent. We all have some type of story. Some of are heroes. Others are villains. Many of us just aim to be good members of our community, however that may be defined. Some us define ourselves by color, or religion, or nation, or even our football team (American or otherwise). When these stories are broken it is crushing.
In my own life I’ve come to realize my own attachment to stories. I always had certain assumptions of who I would be and what I would be. As a simple example I always assumed I would have a family and many children. I would have sacrificed much to live out that story, but I’ve recently come to realize that may not actually be a good idea. That may not the best path for me, or what I end up doing. I’m not saying it’s not, or that it won’t happen, but life has made me realize that it would be difficult, in some ways impractical, and in all ways requiring great sacrifices to do in a way that would be right for me. It’s has been astounding how difficult it’s been to let go of the idea that that is my inevitable future and open to mind to other possibilities. I imagine others have similar experiences when they let go an idea that has been core to their conception of self. There is a big upshot here, though.
While people and objects are relatively fixed in their ways and nature, stories can change. While it’s hard to let go of our attachment to an old story, it is possible to create a new one. Humans have an incredible capacity for this. When one leaves, or enters a religion, that’s a new story. When a nation is defeated in war with their pride and sense of identity shattered, they can build a new one. When someone loses their land or wealth or socialism, they stand by new values. When one becomes a parent they often instinctively attach themselves to a story of a self revolving around being a parent, with being a good parent their greatest aim. When they lose that child their story is crushed. But, I have seen and heard of people coming out of this, and constructing new stories and meaning. To be clear, this is hard.
Reality breaking one’s attachment to their story of self is amongst the hardest emotional toils. But perhaps it is better to be attached to that which one’s mind ultimately controls over external factors and being that are generally outside our control.
In reflecting on attachment, I’ve found it’s actually to decipher one’s own attachments. I am not attached to as many people as I would have thought, but am very attached to a few. There is a sharp drop off with people outside the closest and longest standing friends. With objects I have too many attachments, but I’ve found that it’s easier to let go of those upon a simple acknowledgment of attachment to those things. When I consider how those objects tie to my story of self, like my fancy sports car tying to my notion of self in which I’m a cool successful person, it becomes easier to disentangle the object from the story and realize I can tweak to story a bit to let go of the object. All of this is hard, but when implemented feels like a bit of a superpower.
On the balance, I encourage others to consider their own attachments. If nothing more, realize we all have them and that attachments manifest concretely and are easy to discern. I can’t speak as to what is right or good for anyone, and I don’t necessarily contend as Buddhists do that all attachments are bad, but seems to be some potential value in acknowledging them and understanding their nature and how they influence they way we feel.