At a recent workshop a new student told me that she had come because she was looking for a different yoga experience with a like-minded community.
She’d stopped studying with her long-time teacher. He was well-known, had many years of experience, and was highly regarded and respected. She learned so much from him, but she couldn’t understand why, after such a long time, he remained frustratingly cold and distant.
She told me that she believed that yoga should make you feel friendlier, happier, and more connected to others, and so it was his persistent coldness and distance that finally motivated her to let go of the relationship.
“If the kind of yoga that he does makes you more distant, than that’s not the kind of yoga I want to keep studying,” she told me. Kudos to her for following her heart. (And, I have to say, who knows why her teacher is distant. In this #metoo era of yoga scandals, it’s rather understandable.)
But here’s the issue: human beings are hard-wired for attachment. The ventral vagal part of our nervous systems wants to engage. Attachment helps us feel safe, connected, and secure, and it is integral for our survival.
You could call the attachment system something like a “psychological immune system.” It provides a defensive coping mechanism for psychological stress in a way that parallels how the immune system fights physical stressors.
Human beings need to connect, to engage, and to feel like we are part of a community because it’s part of how our nervous systems function optimally.
But not all of us attach in the same way.
In the 1960s, an American-Canadian researcher named Mary Ainsworth designed experiments to see how young children respond to stress and how it plays out in their relationship with their caregiver. Through these experiments, she discovered that basically there are 4 different kinds of attachment styles that children exhibit which form a pattern that follows us into our adult lives (and BTW, sometimes these are named differently, but this is the theory in a nutshell):
- Secure – People who have a secure attachment style tend to have warm, positive, responsive relationships. The next three are all forms of insecure attachment.
- Avoidant – People with an avoidant attachment style tend to be dismissive of others, emotionally cold, and prefer to avoid close relationships, or intimacy in their relationships.
- Anxious – People with an anxious attachment style tend to feel unvalued in relationship and can be clingy and emotionally needy.
- Disorganized – People with disorganized attachment style have inconsistent and contradictory responses to relationships. They may dissociate, or act-out violently and sexually.
I shared this theory with my student and a light bulb went off, “Oh wow,” she said, “He’s obviously operating from an avoidant attachment style. That makes a lot of sense.”
Yes, it’s not uncommon for people who have been wired to be avoidant through their childhood experiences to encounter yoga and interpret it as a perfect way to reinforce their avoidant attachment style because there’s so much emphasis on NON-ATTACHMENT or vairagya.
Sometimes yoga becomes a perfect vehicle for doing a little spiritual bypass surgery as a way to avoiding looking at or doing anything about our painful stuff.
Patanjali says if you want to succeed in yoga, you have to practice and maintain an attitude of non-attachment. In the Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that if his mind is scattered, practice and non-attachment will calm it. He also tells him to do the right thing, but don’t get attached to the outcomes of his actions. And of course Buddha cited attachment as the root of all suffering.
Non-attachment is big in the yoga tradition.
So how do you reconcile western psychology which says that secure attachment is something healthy to strive for and yoga philosophy which says that non-attachment is the key to reducing suffering?
I don’t think these things are incompatible.
A good place to start is by accepting that we are human beings hardwired with the biological imperative of attachment. Next would be to recognize that very few of us are perfectly, securely attached and that we can use yoga practice, meditation, self-reflection, and psychotherapy to help us improve our attachment style and improve our relationships by developing better boundaries or greater empathy or trust, or whatever we could use more or less of.
Approaching the idea of yogic non-attachment differently may also prove useful.
Since we are – deep in subconscious brain systems that may or may not respond to cognitive approaches – hardwired for attachment, examining WHAT we choose to attach to is where we have some choice. In other places in the Gita and the Tantras, the tradition suggests that non-attachment is actually about attaching ourselves to that which is immutable, that which is timeless, formless, changeless and limitless – to the infinite, to the source of life. The word vairagya etymologically means “colored” so you can actually translate the practice of vairagya as letting go of all the things, all the pre-conceptions, assumptions, and projections that color our experiences.
So in relationship, a choice could be to lessen the amount of attachment we place on the superficial form of the other person, and instead allow ourselves to attach to their essence, to the limitless within them, and to the limitless within ourselves as well. The rest of it – the body, the face, the hair, the profession, the health conditions, the labels, the titles – all of that is limited and will eventually, necessarily, transform and finally evaporate.
My son is 15 and so I’m getting the lesson hard right now – the only thing I can do to connect him to that giggling, breast-feeding, bright eyed infant is remember that what I truly love and what I’m truly attached to is his essence.
The strongest attachment relationship we can cultivate is our attachment to the limitless – and the limitless is constantly presenting itself to us in the form of other people (and of course our pets).
We can let go of the paradox of secure attachment and non-attachment by committing to the practice of seeing the unity and the underlying essence of Source in all our relationships. There is an eternal essence beyond the form that looks out from our child, lover or cat’s eyes and holds us, attaches us, dearly, and fiercely, to its heart. It calls us to wake up and recognize it – over and over again.
Responding to that call is the surest way to both practice vairagya or letting go of the colors, and develop secure attachment.