We often hear spiritual teachers say that suffering is created by our attachments and that 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 1960s, my spiritual buddies dismissed the personal growth followers as relationship junkies who were missing the big picture. My psychology comrades viewed meditators as self-absorbed navel-gazers who were isolating themselves. My spiritual mentors insisted that honoring my feelings and desires would reinforce negative feelings, while the psychology crowd warned that spirituality can lead to a suppression of emotions and desires.
Fast-forward 40 years and it’s now clear that both camps held pieces of the truth. Hundreds of studies confirming the value of mindfulness-based practices have vindicated those who valued meditation. And an explosion in scientific studies confirms that our immune system thrives through healthy human relations and honoring our feelings.
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 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. 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 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.[i]
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 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. My book, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships, has been ten years in the making and is the culmination of four decades of exploration in healing the rift between the quiet depths of spiritual practice and the passion of intimate relationships. As I explain in the book:
“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. Being present with ourselves 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 another 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 powerlessness), we become more connected to our authentic experience. Our penchant to criticize or shame others may then yield to a vulnerable sharing of our authentic feelings and longings.
Whether we call it spiritual practice or psychological inquiry, being mindful of 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—empowering us to share our heart, our feelings, our longings—and even our silence—with those who are available to receive us.
© John Amodeo
1. My adaptation from the story in Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961).
Flickr image by Upaya