Recently I attended a six-day Zen meditation retreat, or sesshin in Japanese, which included the celebration of Rohatsu, December 8, said to be the day that Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, came to his great enlightenment.
As a couple therapist and student of attachment theory, I cannot deny what seems to be inherent contradictions of this spiritual path and current research on healthy dependency.
For one, Siddhartha left his home, his wife, his newborn, his parents, and his duties as a prince to go alone on a spiritual quest. Accounts also say that he left at night and did not say goodbye to his wife or see his newborn son. Secondly, in the Buddha’s last discourse he said, “Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge.” This is in contrast to attachment theory, which states that we are fundamentally dependent on others.
Attachment theory states that a significant portion of our mind and personality is shaped by what we received or didn’t receive in terms of emotional attunement from our parents (Wallin, 2007).
As Stan Tatkin (2011) writes, we only know about love by being loved by someone else, and we are not born self-loving or self-hating. We are taught these by others.
When we are securely attached to someone, we form one physiological unit and our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and levels of hormones in our blood (Levine & Heller, 2010).
Also, when we are dependent on another, our partner has the ability to regulate our emotions and manage us when we are down, as well as amplify our positive feeling when we are up (Flores, 2004; Levine & Heller, 2010; Tatkin, 2011). Ironically, being dependent on someone provides us with more confidence and ability to achieve things on our own. This has been called the “dependency paradox” because the stronger your secure attachment is with your partner, the more resources you have to explore and take risks in the world on your own (Levine & Heller, 2010).
However, the Buddha and other spiritual practitioners have been able to regulate their emotions and find peace on their own – by sitting alone in silence.
This seems to turn attachment science on its head, as the Buddha found liberation by not depending on anyone and by leaving his family. Is the Buddha right? Is the way to ultimate peace and liberation by being an island unto yourself?
If we examine his life further, we can argue that Siddhartha was not entirely an island unto himself.
His story has it that he sought after the spiritual teachers of his time soaking up and mastering anything they had to offer. He also had friends when he was a wondering ascetic. The Buddha’s enlightenment story says that they left him when he starting eating food. Thus, they must have been close friends as they all were on a shared quest – denouncing the world together in hopes of enlightenment. As the story goes, these old ascetic friends were the first people the Buddha found to teach after his enlightenment. So was the Buddha completely an island unto himself?
Even if you say yes, we can argue that the Buddha was an enigma. Although the Buddha had close friends, he was not a Buddhist to begin with and had no Buddhist teacher to help him. Buddhist monks and laypeople of today usually have intimate (non-sexual), mutually regulating relationships with their teachers and often have weekly private instruction with them. I know for myself, face-to-face interaction with my teacher during long periods of sitting in silence can be very enlivening and encouraging. Past and current Buddhist monks and laypeople also have had the sangha (community of practitioners) for support to help with the epic task of facing the ego.
Furthermore, the Buddha did not stay alone in deep samadhi after his enlightenment, but found his former friends to teach.
He taught for forty years and had close, intimate, mutually regulating relationships with his students, including his successor, Mahakasyapa. In order to have a successor, the Buddha would have had to know not only him intimately, but also his understanding of his teachings. The Buddha also formed a large sangha, which could not have continued without the help of fellow monks. So the Buddha relied on others for support before and after his enlightenment. We contemporary practitioners, too, couldn’t walk the path seriously without the support of teachers and sangha.
This contradiction highlights the fact that spirituality can be used to justify our lonely cultural ethos of self-reliance, which does not have a biological basis.
In couple therapy, I have heard one partner say to the other, “You need to be more spiritual because you are irrational!” From the recipient’s point of view, this may sound like, “You need to get better because I can’t handle you when you are like this, and I am not willing to help you!” Telling your partner they need to be more spiritual is like telling them they need to see a therapist. For some partners, this may be OK, but others may hear that they are not up to your standard and ultimately are not your problem.
Being an island unto yourself can be used to dismiss the biological need to connect with others.
It can also be used to justify passing the buck and not taking responsibility for your partner’s well-being, as you two are ultimately in each other’s care. If you are not in each other’s care, then what is the point of being together? Two islands living together? That doesn’t sound like a satisfying relationship.
Just as dependency liberates, ego attrition (spirituality) also liberates and brings you closer to your dependent, intimate partner.
As your ego settles, you have more ability and resources to focus on others, especially your partner. You become more attuned to your partner’s needs, and thus the relationship grows stronger, benefiting both partners mutually. Past relational insecurities can be alleviated with a secure base, and this base gives both partners more confidence in the world. Knowing that you are in each other’s care, this creates a positive cycle in which spiritual practice leads to deeper intimacy, which leads to deeper psychological resources, which lead to deeper spiritual practice.
As the Dalai Lama said,
“It is important to understand how much your own happiness is linked to that of others. There is no individual happiness totally independent of others”
Flores, P. J. (2004). Addiction as an Attachment Disorder. Boulder: Jason Aronson.
Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2010). Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help
You Find — and Keep — Love. New York: Penguin Group.
Tatkin, S. (2011). Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style
Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Wallin, D. J. (2007) Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.
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