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Is Attachment Really Such a Bad Thing?

Author Stephen Cope considers the contemplative traditions’ aversion to attachment—and penchant for non-attachment (vairagya in yoga)—and asks is attachment really so bad?

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Friends eating ice cream

For the more than 30 years I’ve been practicing meditation, I’ve been confused about the contemplative traditions’ view of attachment. Often described as an affliction, attachment is said to be one of the greatest sources of our suffering. And yet I am, in fact, deeply attached to many of the human beings in my life. And furthermore, I enjoy that attachment, depend upon it, and feel deeply sustained by it. What gives?

This fascinating conundrum didn’t seem well enough examined or parsed in the teaching of meditation and yoga. I decided to look more deeply at this issue—over the past four years.

My Four-Year Inquiry Into My Own Attachments

Over the past four years, I undertook an investigation of my own emotional attachments, which culminated with the publication of my newest book, Soul Friends: The Transforming Power of Deep Human Connection.

To start the inquiry, I sat down in my study and contemplated the following questions: 

  • Who are the individual human beings in my life to whom I have been most attached? 
  • What has been the nature of that attachment? 
  • And what have been its fruits (for good or for ill)? Was there good—of what nature? Was there ill—of what nature?

I highly encourage you to take on this fun and rewarding self-scrutiny for yourself. In the yoga tradition, we call this “self-study,” or svadhyaya. My own investigation turned up a list (surprisingly quickly) of about 14 people who have been most important—who have been transformative agents—in my life. I gathered pictures of each of these people and surrounded my writing desk with them. Then I dove in, writing short essays about each person—how I came to know them, in what particular ways I loved them (and they loved me), and in what ways they may have changed me, transformed me, helped to create who I am today.

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Along the way, I came to see that it was, in fact, in the very crucible of attachment that transformation took place. Attachment was not only OK, it was essential. (Indeed, the work of the great Bristish psychologist John Bowlby taught us that secure attachment to other human beings is a prerequisite to thrive. Bowlby even specified that suffering comes from insecure, anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment.)

Consider how your own deep attachments have transformed you. My friend Seth, for example, was my best friend in college. We met when I hired him to be a part of my house-painting business one summer. Seth was a scrappy Irish kid, practically just off the boat, and I loved him almost immediately—despite fighting like cats often through the first summer. He was feisty, smart, in-your-face, and a lover of all things Irish—particularly Irish literature, which he was studying at the University of Massachusetts just down the road from my own alma mater, Amherst College.

Seth was one of the deepest friendships of my life. From the beginning of our friendship, we were deeply interested in one another’s thoughts, aspirations, dreams for the future, and stories from the past. We spent endless hours together, not only painting houses, but later hiking the Holyoke Range and camping in the forests around rural Amherst. We got to know one another’s families and became family to one another. It’s fair to say that we had a very long bromance—one that matured into a long-lasting friendship.

Were we attached? You bet your ass. We talked every day, watched out for one another, cared about one another. When we fought, we made up quickly, although his Celtic-wildman temper occasionally interfered with that. And what was the nature of this attachment? Primarily, a profound sense of connection—down to the very roots of our souls. A continuing fascination with and need for contact with one another’s minds, and even bodies (though not sexually; rather, we wrestled, competed in sports, in hiking, in work). A sense that the world was more complete with each of us in it. A deep ardency that was one of the most profound forms of love I’d ever experienced.

So what was the problem? Was it truly an afflicted state? Was there some way in which this love was tormenting us? Well, no. And yes.

When Attachment Has Its Benefits

For the most part, our long friendship was ennobling. It engendered the four highest states of love, the Brahma Viharas, about which the contemplative traditions teach: metta (or lovingkindness); karuna (or compassion); mudita (or empathic joy); and uppekha (or equanimity). These four states are said to the “the Divine Abodes,” or the home of the Gods—in both the yogic and Buddhist traditions. The Buddha said that it is these very states that are our true home. Our true home, then, is not the afflicted and overheated states of greed, hatred, aversion, ignorance, fear, or anger.

What is the essential nature of these mental and emotional states? At the very root of the Brahma Viharas is a kind of “friendliness toward all beings,” a state of goodwill, wishing well, toward others and an ability to celebrate and share the joy of life together. As it turns out, true friendship cultivates these expansive states, and at their best our friendships evoke these states—call them forth, sustain them, and affirm them. It is well known that friendships call forth the very best human qualities. We know, for example, that men and women on the battlefields of the world are motivated to their highest acts of selfless courage precisely by the love-of-comrades. Not by ideas and ideologies or flags or tribal loyalties. But by the love of individual, real flesh-and-blood friends. What do soliders carry next to their hearts? Not the American flag, or the French flag, but a picture of the most important loved one.

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When Attachment Can Be an Affliction

OK, then, what is the “yes” part of the answer? What part of these attachments actually are (or may be) afflicted in some way? What part of these states may cause suffering and engender illwill?

Alas, it is not attachment per se that is the demon. It is the grasping, clinging, craving, holding on—to our ideas about how the other person should be; to aspects of the connection that will inevitably change, flow, or even end; to a control of what is never really within our control. It is the willful ignorance of the reality—the certainty—of change. It is the attempt to create a quid pro quo within the relationship—or to operate the friendship as some kind of business (I’ll love you only as much as you love me).

Any one of us who has been in a deep friendship has experienced these afflictive states within the relationship. The moment when the open hand closes up. The moment when the open hand changes into a fist—tight, closed, aggressive, full of illwill—then something new has entered in. It is not attachment; it is the perversion of true attachment. True attachment seeks the the truest form of thriving for Self and for other. Indeed, when the open hand changes to a fist, we feel split from our true nature, don’t we? Split from our Self, ill at ease, unhappy, isolated.

These afflicted states naturally arise. But as the Buddha said, they are not our true home. They are only visitors to the mind, and we can work very skillfully with them to assure that they do not damage the essential trust and goodwill and friendliness that is at the heart of true friendship.

My Conclusion About the “Problem” of Attachment

At the end of my four-year investigation into friendship, I came to a conclusion about the “problem” of attachment. What we have is mostly just a confusion about words. Attachment, in its highest sense, does not in any way imply the afflictive aspects of grasping, clinging, and craving. But in order to thrive in our attachments, it’s very helpful to name these difficult mind-states when they do, inevitably, arise, and to work with them effectively and skillfully. And, as the Buddha points out over and over again, to create conditions, in fact, in which they do not continue to arise.

What are these conditions? Meditation. Mindfulness. Self-study. Yoga. The systematic cultivation of the Brahma Viharas. The systematic cultivation of goodwill toward Self and other.

Ananda was the Buddha’s best friend. Have you heard the wonderful stories of their friendship? At one point, after they had been friends for a long time, Ananda asked the Buddha, “Lord, is it true to say that good company, good companionship is half of the spiritual life?”

The Buddha answered, “No, Ananda, that is not true. In fact, good company, good companionship is the whole of the spiritual life.”

Go ahead, then. Enjoy your attachments. Savor them. Hold them close. Give whatever passion you can to them. Bring everything you’ve got to them—just as Ananda brought his very finest to his friendship with the Buddha. And know that these friendships are the source of the chief happiness in life.

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About Our Expert
Stephen Cope is a Senior Scholar-in-Residence and a Kripalu Ambassador. He is a Western-trained psychotherapist who writes and teaches about the relationship between Western psychological paradigms and the Eastern contemplative traditions. Stephen holds degrees from Amherst College and Boston College. He completed graduate and postgraduate training in psychoanalytic psychotherapy in the Boston area, where he practiced for many years before joining the staff at Kripalu. In its 25th anniversary edition, Yoga Journal named him one of the most important innovators in the developing field of American yoga.