Was the Buddha the greatest psychologist of the last three thousand years, or was he over-reacting a little? Does true happiness lie in a methodical release of our attachments in order to achieve perfect liberation, or might this be a recipe for imbalance? Surely there is wisdom in learning to let go, but perhaps investing ourselves in love and finding purpose are also essential to the joyful life.
In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt writes that he considered the Buddha to be the greatest psychologist of the last three thousand years, until Haidt’s research revealed something interesting: passionate engagement with what matters to us in life is key to finding resilience, meaning and fulfillment – not a life lived in dispassionate nonattachment. Haidt, an associate professor at the University of Virginia and a leading light in the positive psychology movement, says we know now that the strongest indicators for human happiness are meaningful intimate relationships with others, along with a sense of purpose in our work and feeling like part of a community. But he doesn’t discard the dharma completely. On the contrary, The Happiness Hypothesis asserts that meditation is one of the only methods validated by research for overcoming depression and positively retraining the brain.
This got me thinking about my own journey. As a diligent meditator and yogi in my twenties, I aspired to what I thought of as a Buddha-like freedom from attachments. The ideal for me was to become a still point of centered awareness: unmoved by life, not needing anyone or anything, free from worldly ambitions – and living, I now see, at a safe distance from my emotions. For me finding balance through my thirties meant seeing that my practice was in some ways perpetuating a kind of disconnection from feeling and living fully. There was also a way it was preventing me from loving deeply. It has taken time and effort to integrate an embrace of my body and heart into what was a very mental and somewhat escapist approach to spirituality, and to realize that it is in the rest of my life that the fruits of my time on the yoga mat and meditation cushion are truly revealed.
My journey into balance includes using both yoga practice and the Buddha’s vipassana meditation as a way to dive deeply into my body and mind. I have had to relearn how to work with the natural emotions, desires and needs that are part of this human experience. What was missing in my earlier practice was compassion and self-acceptance. I came to understand that this had deep psychological roots not only in myself, but also in the common spiritual desire to transcend our vulnerable and mortal humanity. This lack of intimacy with myself was reflected in my personal relationships. Practicing in this new way began to profoundly impact my ability to love and be loved.
In discussing the importance of love relationships, Haidt draws on the research of Harry Harlow and John Bowlby that became the foundation for something called attachment theory.
In Harlow and Bowlby’s defining experiment, baby monkeys were given the choice between a wire mommy doll with a milk-giving tube and one covered in soft cloth without a feeding tube. They would routinely choose the soft mommy, demonstrating their need for soothing physical contact over and above even the need for food. Haidt writes about how our early sense of love, safety and bonding with our care-givers shapes not only how we show up in our adult romantic relationships but also how we eventually relate to our own children. All of this has to do with how we form healthy attachments, and how at both the psychological and biological levels we need to love and be loved to be healthy. The research confirms that physical affection and compassionate relating literally balance our nervous and immune systems, build resilience in response to stress, allow our brains to grow in healthy ways and give us confidence and trust in others and the world around us.
Perhaps how we use the word “attachment” in a spiritual sense may need to be more carefully nuanced. Of course it is good to practice releasing our unhealthy attachments: the ways in which we become fixated and clingy in unconscious ways. But underneath some of the grasping which the Buddha warned about so eloquently may well be a deeper need for healthy attachment; the loving closeness and connections with others that are the bedrock of what it means to be human.
One of the things I love about practice-based spirituality is that it is a living tradition: an evolving, transforming inquiry into inner and outer reality. This subtle but powerful shift in how we think of attachment can be incorporated into how we interpret spiritual practice in a modern context. We can now validate that meditative practices retrain the brain in a myriad of powerful ways. These vary from gaining access to states of consciousness in which we feel a deep timeless union with the cosmos, to deepening our capacity for compassion and moral reasoning, to helping us resolve and heal painful memories and emotions, to literally “charging up” areas of the brain that express our capacity for positive emotion. These spiritual gifts can allow us to engage in our work lives in ways that generate creative flow, and a meaningful sense of purpose. The right balance of healthy attachment and being able to let go of compulsive clinging may also affect our interpersonal ability to bond and relate intimately with others. This can only increase our capacity for joyful, connected living.