A series about connection vs attachment.
Part 1: Is this connection or Attachment?
Part 2: Love & Jealousy: Connection or Attachment?
Part 3: Morality: Connection or Attachment?
Part 4: Possessiveness of Connection
Part 5: Fear of Connection
Part 6: What to do With Your Attachments
Author's note: I didn't write this because I think you don't know the difference between connection and attachment. I wrote this because even though we all have a sense of this, it can be difficult to grasp, make sense of, or put into words. I've taken the time to outline this topic because that kind of thing is fun and interesting to me, and I hope that this post can serve as a reference point for any one of us to turn to (I know I will), to be reminded, to support clear thinking, and to bring some structure to the mind when it becomes wound up in itself.
You know that state you get into within your mind that feels very push-and-pull? Or like spinning wheels cycling anxiously with no sign of a solution emerging?
One of the worthwhile questions I ask when I find myself caught in an inner struggle about something or someone is, "Is this connection or attachment?"
This question is clarifying because it helps us make an important distinction. In literal, physical terms, "connection" and "attachment" may be interchangeable. But in personal, emotional contexts, they are definitely distinguishable. Discerning them is an art, requiring inner listening and experience, but once we begin to make that inquiry, it's not so difficult--and we get better at it with practice.
Connection feels mutual and meaningful (even if it isn't entirely positive), and feels like an authentic exchange. On the other hand, attachment comes with feelings of resistance, fear, self-interest, and insecurity, and it tends to feel more tense and isolating. Connection happens when we relate to something or someone as they are in the moment. Attachment happens when we relate to something or someone with an idea of how we want it or them to be. Connection brings us closer, regardless of physical distance; attachment drives us apart, regardless of proximity.
You can feel a connection with a place that you have experienced a meaningful moment in. You can connect with a person over shared fears, or dreams, or humor. You can feel connected with yourself--attuned to what's taking place physically, intellectually, creatively, and emotionally. You can feel connected with songs that resonate with you, foods that remind you of loved ones, and you can connect with living beings wildly different from you, recognizing your shared ephemeral time on this planet. The possibilities for connection are diverse and probably limitless.
True connection is not threatened by other connections. For example, if you have a connection with someone, it is not diminished if many other people have a connection with them too. It is not relative. It is unique and it upholds itself. Like love.
Attachment feels narrow and tense. It comes with an anxiety about wanting things to be a certain way. Attachment triggers our neuroses, makes us feel a need to self-protect, and shuts down optimistic and trusting outlooks. It often has to do with the urge to protect our image of ourselves. And it often drives us to grasp for power, to control, and diverts us from forming a truly healthy, inspiring relationship. It is relative--it begs for comparison and hierarchy. Like jealousy.
So when I'm getting worked up about something, the question "is this connection or attachment?" usually immediately softens me, as I realize, "ah--attachment." The beauty of attachment is that it begins to dissolve when we recognize it for what it is. We realize that the cause of our suffering is not the subject we are concerned about, but rather our relationship to it. This is liberative--it means that I don't necessarily have to change my external reality or others' minds. I just have to adjust my perspective. And maybe that isn't exactly EASY, but its entirely possible. Our perspectives and relationships are always subject to change.
Connection is flexible and spacious. It allows for time and distance to grow between subjects without altering the fundamental elements that draw them together. Connection is patient; we can be apart from something, someplace, or someone for a long time, return to them very changed, and still touch into something familiar, something shared.
We can bring this concept to a great variety of contexts. When a commercial comes on selling a product to improve your body--is the seller playing into your attachments to make money off you? Or is this a sincere gesture to support your connection with yourself? When your partner asks you not to spend time with a friend of the opposite sex, is that an expression of their connection with you? Or their attachment? When you seek companionship with someone out of a craving for validation, does that affect your connection with them? I'm not suggesting an answer one way or another to any of these. Good followup questions to clarify these, are, simply: are you present? and is this interaction oriented toward mutual good and understanding?
Of course, when the question involves another person, connection is very much a two-way street. Even if you are sincere, trusting, and well-intentioned, you may make little impression on the other person. The potential bridge between you needs to be constructed from both ends.
The point is not necessarily to let go of all attachments--and don't worry if it's SUPER HARD or impossible to face up to some of them. You're human, I'm guessing. Don't be hard on yourself or take it to mean you are a bad person. But identifying our attachments can spare us a good deal of struggle and wasted energy, and free us to refocus on genuine connection. Connection with others is easier when we establish and cultivate it with ourselves. So perhaps next time you find yourself upset about something, or feel caught up in cycles of the mind, maybe ask this question, and see what happens next.
Photo: Oliver Dunkley
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