Thoughts on Buddhist and Western concepts of attachment

Western conceptions of attachment theory, at first glance, seem very different to Buddhist notions of attachment but, I suggest, this is partly down to interpretations and use of the word, rather than necessarily a divergence of concept. In thinking about attachment and attachment theory, I will begin by outlining a framework within which both may sit in a way that makes sense of each.

I take as a starting point the premise that we are relational beings that seek through our relationships to give meaning to our lives. These relationships maybe with other humans (primarily), and other phenomena including our physical and social environments. We seek to give our lives purpose and value in a way that makes our lives meaningful. At the same time, the being that searches for meaning is both transient and contingent. Transient in the sense that our sense of ourselves is in a constant state of change, is never still or known entirely as we may perceive an object to be known; and contingent in so far as our perceptions and choices are always, to a degree, conditional on our current context and past experience, as well as the choices of others. The being that makes meaning, therefore, is continuously in a state of change, of becoming. If our lived experience (our pre-reflective awareness of phenomena) is such that it is consistent with this sense of becoming, then it is more possible for us to feel comfortable with ourselves, to feel “authentic”. Lived experience that causes us to be in conflict with our sense of becoming, or to render this process inaccessible, thwarted or uncomfortably uncertain, causes us emotional discomfort or pain and lie at the root of the many surface pathologies that are described in the proliferating literature on psychological ‘disorders’.

I going to assume that the idea of ‘lived experience’ broadly corresponds from a Buddhist perspective to Samskara, the psychological structure through which we experience Rupa or phenomena. How we experience phenomena reflects how comfortable we are with our transient and contingent nature, with our becoming. Too great a sense of vulnerability or insecurity in the face of this uncertain world will cause us to cling to phenomena, to attempt to use them for comfort by giving ourselves a greater sense of affirmation (by self or others) and solidity, a greater sense of identity. But the uncertainty of the world seems an inevitable and impossible circumstance. This uncertainty inevitably causes us to feel a sense of existential anxiety (experience Dukkha), and our clinging, becoming attached to phenomena reinforces our defence against uncertainty, because if we can construct an identity through these attachments we feel more solid, more defended against this anxiety.

From a Buddhist perspective attachment involves holding on to things, people or other phenomena, a response that can become self-reinforcing and cumulative as the underlying anxiety is not assuaged. Attachment can be viewed, therefore, as a self-defeating form of resistance to (defence against) this underlying existential anxiety. Buddhism suggests that this deep anxiety, this suffering is a natural and inevitable part of being human, but that we can work to reduce it (or even surpass it) through, firstly, seeing through the illusions that we create as part of our defences (Avidya), seeing beyond Rupa, and, secondly, through the way we live our lives. Mindfulness, it seems (to me), is about creating the foundation for these processes.

Before looking at western ideas of attachment, I want to point towards a single aspect of suffering, our defences against anxiety, and that is our relations with others. The way we engage with ‘the other’ (rather than ‘that which is other’) is a profound influence on our sense of becoming (sense of self). The more insecure or vulnerable we feel in the face of the ‘other’, the more we seek to concretise and make solid our sense of identity, or create a self that can be defended. From the buddhist perspective, therefore, our relations with others is a significant conditioning factor of the desire to attach to phenomena.

The Western conception of attachment stems from the work of Bowlby and Ainsworth, and can be viewed as a behavioural response to the deficiencies of psychoanalytic (particularly Kleinian) perspectives on development psychology. The initial approach emphasised the significance of early relationships with ‘significant others’, arguing that patterns of response or ways of relating to others later in life could be seen as stemming from the way that early carers (most commonly mothers) interacted with the baby and infant. Certain types of behaviour on the part of the carer would elicit corresponding patterns of engagement with others on the part of the child, patterns that are carried through into adulthood. The benchmark of this perspective is the creation, by the carer, of a secure base ((Ainsworth), whereby an environment of affirmation and reassurance (unconditional love?) is adequate for the infant to experience a sense of security (uncertainty is not overwhelming), but that (a) it is not so pronounced that it mitigates against any possibility of independent navigation of the world by the infant (dependence on the carer), or (b) not so lacking that the infant can only deal with the world through erecting defences against it. In essence the theory argues that an insecure base (as describe by (a) and (b)) can lead to a number of responses to ‘others’ depending on the nature of that insecurity, responses that can be grouped under the headings of ‘anxious’ (arising from (a) with subtypes) and ‘avoidant’ (arising from (b)). A third category would be some mixture of these two.

While a variety of responses may be observed within each of the two main categories, the main thrust of the argument runs that insecure attachments at this early stage of development lead to dysfunctional ways of relating to others. These can be reduced to an attempt to reinforce a sense of self or identity through clinging to an ‘other’, to seek identity through the existence of the other, or its opposite: the desire to find identity in spite of, or apart from the other. Often, it is argued, both manifestations of insecurity may be present in the same or in different contexts for the same individual. In any case, there is a response to insecurity that seeks to construct an object (an other) in the process of fashioning an identity to adhere to.

Of course, the theory is predicated on the idea of ‘good’ secure attachment and here it would seem that most commentators are less able to be so precise or to categorise this abstraction so successfully. Winnicott, although of a different theoretical persuasion, was broadly of the same era (and genre) as Bowlby and Ainsworth and spoke of a ‘good enough’ mother or significant carer. The term suggests not a phenomenon but a continuum, and there is a sense imparted in his work that suggests that the provision of a secure base (or ‘good enough parenting’) is a precise term that attempts to describe an imprecise but acceptable level of existential anxiety. Acceptable in so far as it is a level that renders it ‘manageable’ without excessive clinging (or rejection, another form of clinging) to objects (Rupa) in order to make the world seem more meaningful.

I am not trying to suggest that western attachment theory is not useful or insightful, I am sure it is both of these things. But I believe it to be only a partial and relatively superficial vehicle for explaining human behaviour. As a particular form of attachment (to other humans) it is often a fundamental form but, I would argue, its explanatory potential is greatly enhanced if it is understood within the broader perspective of an existential or Buddhist psychology. Although the use of the term ‘attachment’ in the two traditions is superficially very different, however, the deeper and broader perspective of an existential (eastern/western) interpretation provides a perspective that allows us to move beyond the narrow specificity of what has become known as attachment theory to one where we may understand it as part of the underlying problematic of ‘identity-creation’.

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