Mindfulness & Attachment Theory

You probably came to meditation because, in one way or another, life wasn’t working. Like me, you may have had the expectation that the internal work of meditation would handle all your external problems. Gee, wouldn’t that be nice?

Unfortunately, meditation will never replace the need for meaningful relationships and meaningful pursuits. It may not even provide the right tools to support you in those aspects of life! It all depends on which techniques you choose for your formal meditation time, and how well you apply mindfulness to your day-to-day experience.

To me, the best way to stay on track is to bridge classical mindfulness with a psychological model that helps to explain the way we function in the world. By far, the most relevant, robust, and well researched model is Attachment Theory.

Attachment Theory refers to a set of foundational views of self and world. For example, an “insecurely attached” individual may see themselves as unworthy of happiness and meaningful connection, or the world as a place where these things cannot be found. Different “attachment styles” have different views, but these views tend to lie so deep in the structure of one’s mind/personality that they aren’t even recognized as views. They are simply the way things are, in much the same way that a colorblind person may not know that they are misperceiving certain aspects of the visual world until this is pointed out.

If these foundational views aren’t acknowledged, a person might find deep peace in their personal meditation practice, while relationships and life circumstances continue to be draining, unsatisfying, or even frightening.

But using mindfulness in specific ways, we can become aware of our hidden attachment conditioning and, if it’s not working, begin to change it. This results in a meditation practice that is truly comprehensive: not just an escape, but an empowering force to enrich life and propel us happily through it.

If this view of meditation resonates with you, you may want to sign up for my free 7-Day Meditation Challenge. In seven 10-15 minute guided mediations, you’ll learn the basic tools in the toolkit, and begin to explore how to apply them to your life. You can sign up on the right side of this page, or using this link.

Want to read more about attachment theory? The New York Times recently did a nice long piece about it. Additionally, The WikiPedia article is great.

For a longer-term investment, psychologist Stan Tatkin has created two easy-to-digest books on the subject (Wired for Love and Wired for Dating). If you’re a clinician and you want to leverage this model in your work with clients, I strongly recommend Attachment In Psychotherapy.


When we decide that we are worthy, when we decide that we are good enough, there is no need to hide, and the world becomes safe.

Give Only What You Have

Many people carry around a preconceived notion of what is appropriately generous, in terms of time, emotional support, money, etc. We have expectations of ourselves and others that are based on our cultural and familial conditioning. These expectations can be useful, in that they provide us with some standard of social behavior around generosity. The problems start when a person gives what they believe they “should” give, even when those resources (emotional, physical, financial) are not available.

It’s simple to see in the case of money. If you were planning to donate to a charity, you’d likely calculate a reasonable amount to give so that you would still have the financial resources to cover your expenses.

In the relational world, the picture can be a bit more subtle. That small, quiet urge that says “don’t go out tonight,” even though your friends would love to see you, is an easy thing to ignore. You might want to make your friends happy. You might not want to feel the discomfort of their disappointment.

Perhaps, while listening to a companion sharing some grief, you notice a subtle accumulation of irritation. In an effort to support this person, a part of you is beginning to feel overwhelmed, neglected or maxed out.

The same sort of scenario can play out at work: it’s 5pm, you have a dinner planned, and a last-minute assignment falls on your desk leaving you feeling guilty and conflicted. You decide to stay and work late. How much of your guilt is beneficial, in the sense that it has supported you in completing a task which is genuinely your duty? How much of your guilt is afflictive, in the sense that it is built on an overblown sense of responsibility or driven by a misplaced fear of abandonment? Do you walk away from the evening resentful or burnt out? If, in an ongoing way, you can’t maintain a sustainable workload, is that a result of the objective circumstances of your work, or the the way you are holding it?

Everyone has limits. Burnout, stress and resentment are reflections of emotional tolerances that were firmed up long ago. They are partially a product of our genetic disposition, but largely a result of early-childhood conditioning. The limbic brain, the seat of emotion, doesn’t change much after age 3, so although the adult in us may feel we owe it to our friends to make an appearance or to our work to stay late, we are carrying a child with an additional, potent agenda.

Since we are adults, and social creatures, we need to find skillful ways to balance our internal needs with the needs of others. In truth, the two are not mutually exclusive. With practice, we can move away from seeing care-taking and reliability as a zero-sum game (i.e. either me or them) and toward caring for ourselves in ways that care for others.

OK, so where do we start? By trusting the body. Cultivating awareness of the emotional body makes these cues easier to detect, and easier to tend to. Through body-based emotional awareness practices like Noting Feeling States, we can clearly gather and interpret the valuable information that emotion provides, without being distorted and compelled by it.

Not only do we become more keenly aware of when we are “giving more than we have,” we also have more and more to give. With practice, we gradually raise those long-ago established emotional tolerances, deepening our ability to be in the moment, and to be with others, both in joy and in pain.

But all along, in any given moment, we can only give what we have. So the next time the notion arises that you really “should” be there for so-and-so in such-and-such a way, pay attention to how it goes. What is your body trying to tell you? Do you build up resentment? Do you feel maxed out? Or do you feel calm, steady and connected? Is it really “giving” if part of you is abandoned in the process? What might it feel like to tend to the parts of you that need attention even while giving part of your attention to another?


On a recent retreat, I made the following journal entry:

Kinder kinder kinder. Gentler gentler gentler. It’s always sweeter and less effortful than you think. You spent so many days switching techniques looking for something to lessen the efforting, but the technique doesn’t cause the effort, the identification with an efforting self does!

Any technique is the right technique, with the right relationship to it. Kind. Gentle. Curious. Allowing. Without expectations.

Being Assertive

assertive sheep

It’s unfortunate to see how often equanimity gets misunderstood to mean that one is not supposed to have needs or desires.  This mistaken notion dovetails well with the general aversion to conflict that many people feel.  It runs so deep that a friend of mine recently mentioned she had started noticing people using “I’m sorry” as a sort of greeting in the cafe where she works.

Being spiritual doesn’t mean we don’t have preferences, desires, needs.  Sometimes the action that equanimity calls for is to allow the fear of confrontation to arise, and assert yourself anyway!  My metric is this: I can say anything as long as it’s kind, timely, true, and helpful.  None of that excludes confrontation.  Sometimes being assertive is actually the kindest thing to do.