Attachment and Attachment

A yoga teacher described attachment as one of the causes of suffering and a new student expressed surprise that she was using the term attachment as something negative. From his perspective as a psychotherapist, attachment is a good thing. In Western psychology, attachment to parental figures is an essential feature of development. The absence of attachment leads to unstable emotions and extreme difficulty in relationships and self-modulation.

The exchange highlighted the difficulty we have communicating across cultures. Translators try to use familiar words to cover concepts from different languages and novel contexts, and it only works imperfectly.

An exchange overheard in a restaurant illustrates the different ways we can think of attachment. A father and his daughter were having lunch and discussing an upcoming vacation. At one point, the little girl, who may have been about 5 years old, started cranking up the emotion and in near tantrum voice exclaimed, “I WANT WENDY TO GO WITH US TO DISNEYLAND!!!” In the Western sense of attachment, she was expressing her love and connectedness to Wendy, whomever she is. We can be happy for the little girl and for Wendy that they have a bond of love between them. At the same time, she expressed the Eastern sense of attachment in her yearning, grasping, clinging to desire. She was frustrated, because Wendy was not part of her father’s vacation plan. Going to Disneyland is possibly the best thing a 5-year-old child can imagine. And to share it with a person such as Wendy would be blissful. But the frustrated desire creates suffering.

Eastern philosophy does not discount the importance of loving bonds between parent and child. In fact, its absence would be quite unexpected. In Buddhism, a way to increase compassion for others is to imagine that they were your mother in a previous existence, or you were theirs. Mother-love is assumed to be pure and unconditional. It’s not a problem. Other kinds of love can be. The word love itself is a problem, because it covers so much. In addition to love between a mother and child, the word may describe erotic love, love of things or of activities, and its nature may be less that of generosity than of craving and lust. The love of compassion, empathy, generosity and kindness is a source of happiness. The kind of love that involves craving is an affliction, a cause of suffering in that it involves a deluded idealization of the object of love and an obscuration of its true nature.

Translation becomes a problem again when we think of the remedy to attachment. Is it detachment? Some translators suggest as much. How about non-attachment? That would suggest more a state of not grasping, not craving, but it doesn’t suggest distancing or cutting one’s self off from others as the word detachment might. This time Western psychology provides the concept of therapeutic neutrality to help us think about how to not get caught in bad attachment. In therapeutic neutrality, the therapist maintains empathy for the client, but doesn’t get caught up in the emotional clinging and aversion of the client. The therapist practices maintaining objectivity and staying grounded in reality while meeting the client with compassion. The therapist’s task is to connect, but not be swept away in the delusion of transference and countertransference, to join in the emotional experience without losing the anchor of reason.


This week, attend to your own attachments. Observe yourself as you experience the attachment of craving and desire. Look for the elements of delusion present in that attachment. How are you fooling yourself in your grasping? What attractive traits are you projecting onto the object of your desire? What are you overlooking?

At the same time, pay attention to the warm connections you have with family and friends. Recognize the kind and loving nature of those relationships. Be grateful for them. Also seek to extend those feelings more broadly. As you wish for friends and family to be happy and free from suffering, practice extending those wishes to others to whom you are generally indifferent and even to those toward whom you hold some malice. Hold in your mind the wish for all, “May you be free of suffering and the sources of suffering.”

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© 2005 Tom Barrett