We often hear spiritual teachers say that suffering is created by our attachments and that the path toward awakening means transcending desires. But might the opposite be true? Is suffering generated by a lack of healthy human attachments and our subsequent isolation?
During my college years in the late 1960’s I was introduced to meditation and spiritual practices. At the same time I joined a “sensitivity group,” which focused on honoring our feelings. I found both practices to be invaluable. But finding few people interested in the interface of these two paths, I felt rather lonely.
My spiritual buddies dismissed the personal growth people as relationship junkies who were missing the big picture. My psychology comrades viewed meditators as self-absorbed navel-gazers who were isolating themselves.
Compounding my confusion, my spiritual mentors insisted that honoring my feelings and desires would reinforce negative feelings and be a hindrance to spiritual development. The feelings group warned that a spiritual path leads to a suppression of emotions that will come back to bite us; we needed to honor our desires and work with them wisely, not transcend our humanity.
Fast-forward forty years and it’s now clear that both camps held pieces of the truth… and had blind spots as well. Abundant studies confirming the value of mindfulness-based practices has vindicated those who valued meditation. At the same time, there has also been an explosion in scientific studies affirming that our immune system thrives through healthy attachments.
It is now clearer to me that we move toward greater freedom and happiness as we integrate spiritual practice with sound psychology. My recent book, Dancing with Fire, has been the culmination of four decades of exploration in healing the rift between the quiet depths of spiritual practice and the fierce passion of intimate relationships.
Is Suffering Caused by Attachment or Non-Attachment?
Whether suffering is generated by attachment or non-attachment depends on how we understand the word “attachment.” A popular Chinese Zen story might help illuminate the matter.
For twenty years an old woman supported a monk in his spiritual practice. Every day she brought food to the hut she built for him. Wondering about his progress, she devised a test for him. She sent a beautiful woman “rich in desire” to visit him and instructed her to embrace him and report back his response.
Upon greeting the monk, the seductress began caressing him and then asked, “How do you feel?” Standing stiff and lifeless, he responded that he felt “Like a withering tree on a rock in winter, totally without warmth.”
When the old woman heard about his cold, heartless response, she was quite upset. Concluding that he was a fake, she evicted him and burned down his hut.
Well…. zen stories are very dramatic. But here’s the point I gather from it. The monk’s chilly response was consistent with his intention to eradicate desire — and to no longer even experience it! But the old woman wasn’t buying it. She wisely recognized that he had merely replaced one desire with another. He was now clinging so tightly to meditative absorption that he dissociated from his body and human feelings.
The story is perhaps a metaphor. If we try to extinguish or transcend human desires and passions, they simmer underground, where they grow into a firestorm that destroys us. This doesn’t mean we should act upon every desire, but rather to acknowledge them and engage with them in a skillful way.
The healthy alternative to pursuing a spiritual practice that bypasses our humanity is to welcome our feelings and longings as part of our spiritual path. As explained in Dancing with Fire:
“Spiritual awakening is not synonymous with the cessation of desire, emotional shutdown, or icy withdrawal. We deny our need for bonded relationships at our own peril….There is no escaping life and the longings that are hinged to it. Life invites us to give desire its proper due and engage with it in ways that nourish us rather than sabotage us.”
Meditation As Self-Intimacy
Meditation and mindfulness might be seen as paths toward self-intimacy. We allow ourselves to experience whatever is present without self-judgment or pushing anything away, including our feelings and desires. Being present with ourselves just as we are can lead to deeper intimacy with others.
Whether attachments lead to suffering or salvation depends on how we understand the word “attachment.” If we understand it to mean “connection,” then we find common ground between psychology and spirituality. A healthy and vibrant spirituality means connecting with ourselves, others, and life itself.
Yet, there’s a sense in which attachments constrict us. Putting it simply, our unhelpful attachments to some things undermine our connection with other things, namely people and life.
For example, if we’re attached to being right or cling to trying to fix our partner, we foster defensiveness and disconnection. As we cultivate a spacious intimacy with the feelings that underlie our desire to control people (perhaps sadness or helplessness), we become more connected to our authentic experience. Our penchant to criticize or shame others may then yield to a vulnerable sharing of our genuine feelings and longings.
Inquiring into what we’re experiencing creates a climate for intimacy with ourselves and others. Spirituality is about being open and available. It’s about connecting with the vibrant life that exists beyond our limited sense of self.
A spirituality that embraces feelings rather than bypasses them allows us to feel more whole. Rather than struggle to be perfect, we relax into what psychologist and meditation teacher, Tara Brach, calls radical acceptance. We embrace whatever arises from moment to moment, which empowers us to share our heart, our feelings, our longings—and even our silence — with those who are available to receive us.
1. This story is my adaptation from the story in Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961).
Flickr photo by Upaya