This morning, while washing my favourite cup, I looked up at the other cups and mugs in the shelf and wondered “What am I doing? Why ain’t I just taking one of those?” A stray thought popped in: if I had to leave for a cabin in the woods today and I could just take one of anything, I’d know exactly what cup and bowl and glass I would take — but I wouldn’t care about what plate or teapot would be packed; and the only reasons for choosing a particular pot or knife would be purely practical. Why is that? Why are there some things — and as for that matter, some people and critters — that we are more attached to than others; and is that a bad thing?
Eastern philosophy (and some new age thought) tell us that attachment is the cause of all evil — or at least the cause of suffering. Western psychology on the other hand holds that many of our emotional and mental issues may stem from “dis-regulated” attachment in childhood — from having been attached to our parents or primary caregivers too closely or not closely enough. So some attachment is important to our mental and emotional health; but too much or too little of it gets us into (emotional) trouble?!?
A while ago a client with a long history of deep clinical depression told me that the only thing that had ever really helped him was when he felt truly and deeply connected to someone else. Although he was seeking therapy and was hoping his medication change would soon “kick in”, he acknowledged that the only thing that really helped him was an emotional connection with another human being. This same thought was reflected in a TED talk I watched yesterday: it was about addiction and it held that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety; the opposite of addiction is connection.
But is connection the same as attachment? According to their etymology, the two words originally had very different meanings. “Connect” stems from Latin roots and basically means “tied together” (assimilated form of com “together” + nectere “to bind, tie”). “Attach” on the other hand originally was a legal term used to lay claim to something, basically “putting in one’s stake” (from a- “to” + Proto-Germanic *stakon- “a stake”). It was only in the late 1700s that the word was first used to describe affection or fondness towards someone / something. In other words, to be connected to someone means to be bound to that person; ties are something we can cut ourselves. To be attached to someone means to lay claim to them or having been claimed by them; a much more active and deliberate thing which requires active release.
So, when I go through the extra work of washing my favourite cup although there are three perfectly good, clean cups sitting in the shelf, is that because I feel bound / tied to that cup or because I lay a claim on it — or maybe because it lays a claim on me?!? The latter may be a scary thought but let’s look into it for a moment.
Many of us know this: we are slightly different people depending on where we are and who is with us. Maybe we become more jovial and funny when we are out with our friends; and we behave more demure and quiet when in the presence of someone we truly admire. We feel that some people bring out the worst in us while others always make us want to be better people. This inherent multi-personality existence can get confusing and for many of us there are some outer “anchors” that we use to remember which part of us is on, so to speak. In business it is sometimes called “dress for success” and business coaches will often emphasize a certain body-posture for their clients to feel more confident. In energetic practices we sometimes use talismans to hold and carry certain energies for us: crystals are a good example for that. NLP uses certain physical gestures to remind the mind of a particular sensation. All those anchors are meant to help us connect to ourselves, our core, our truth; because when we feel connected in that way, we often find it easier to connect to others.
Unfortunately, these anchors can, at times, become unconscious stones around our necks. Instead of using the rose quartz to remember the loving energy in our own hearts we become dependent on the piece of crystal to feel anything. We believe that we can’t be successful without the special “lucky” tie or scarf. Our anchors have laid their claim on our souls and make us believe that they are the cause rather than a reminder. So, my favourite coffee mug may have changed from a thing to which I tied a certain meaning — a reminder of exhaling and getting into the flow of work — to being the meaning in itself. Instead of connecting me to the part that feels ready to go on with my day in a relaxed and active way it may be becoming the symbol of activity and readiness without which I feel I can’t get started with my day; and that is where the danger lies.
When we are truly connected to something / someone, losing that thing or person is difficult — but it is possible to survive the loss, to move on from it because we are still connected. Connection on a soul level doesn’t end because we don’t have that person in front of us anymore. Anyone who has lost of beloved friend, family member, pet or even thing will know the sense of that person etc. still being with us. Yes, it is sad to be aware that we will never hold that person in our arms again. But we still feel connected. We have our memories, our feelings for them. Our hearts still grow full when we think of them. On the other hand, if we decide to cut our emotional ties to someone we won’t feel connected to them anymore, even if they are sitting in the chair next to us every night. Many a marriage ends in that sad state.
If, however, our relationship is one of attachment only, of having laid claim to or having been claimed by the other, letting go becomes much more difficult. Laying claim is a vary active process. “I lay claim to your soul / strength / time / love / etc.” is a kind of contract we make, a contract that says: “you are mine and I am yours”. There is dependency build into that, an exclusive energy; and losing something that up to this moment has excluded all else means I now have nothing else to turn to — a difficult place to be in.
Most relationships — with people, beings or things — are hybrids of those two energies. Maybe we feel strongly connected in the beginning and over time become attached even as the feeling of connection fades. That would explain why it is so difficult for many to leave a relationship that obviously isn’t healthy anymore. Or maybe we started out being attached say by common goals and end up truly connected even long after the goals have been reached or changed. The connection part of the relationship usually is one of love. The attachment part maybe is more about necessity?!?
If our attachment is healthy or leads to suffering is a question of degree. If my favourite cup breaks I may be rather upset and distraught but I ought to get over it in relatively little time. I may in future weeks and months fondly remember that comfortable cup but life will not shift on its axis because the cup slipped out of my hands. If the world does shift for me because of the chards on the floor, that may point toward emotional imbalance that may need attention.
Our level of connection to another person, being or thing also seems to be a question of degrees: a question of how deeply we love. That means that for some of us connections generally may run deeper because of a deeper capacity to love. If those feelings of deep connection turn into deep attachment depends at least partially on our capacity to extend that love to ourselves.
The more love and compassion we can muster up for ourselves, the more we are okay with who we are and how we present in the world, the more we believe that we are worth taking care of and that we are capable of self-care, the less we need to get attached to others to hold that kind of love, compassion and power for us. Sure, we may still have a favourite cup or blanket that we pick up when we feel down. But if we are doing so as part of our self-care response, then that mug doesn’t have to hold the power to make us feel comforted and relaxed. It becomes again what it is supposed to be: an anchor, a reminder of those feelings and of our ability to hold those feelings within ourselves.