There is the biological meaning: attachment is the process that bonds mothers (and to a lesser degree, fathers) to their offspring. It is necessary for the survival, development, and thriving of these newborns. Much of our physiology (and by “our” I mean mammals) is supports attachment. Neurotransmitters such as oxytocin, the opioid systems, and plenty of brain architecture are involved with these complex, myriad, and pleasant tasks.
Now we have the same word to be mean something else in the context of Buddhist psychology. We think of this as being detached, perhaps not caring, but this is not right. Attachment gives rise to suffering and to get beyond suffering, we must be non-attached. The caricature presents a non-feeling Buddha-like person. Non-attachment does not mean not feeling. In fact, if we practice mindfulness, we will feel more. Attachment hinges on how we relate to these heightened feelings.
I have a pain in in my thigh. I am not attached. Why? Because, my wellbeing does not depend on this condition. The pain can be there and that is not a problem. I have a trigger point deep in the muscle that is referring to the knee. My knee hurts but I’m pretty sure it is the trigger point. So, I dig in and massage those tender muscles. Man, it hurts. I would like to cry out but I sing loudly instead. It is intense. My wellbeing carries on unaffected.
However, at other times I am not 100 percent certain this knee pain is just referred muscle pain. As I worry about the meaning of the knee pain, that story is laced with anxiety and therefore attachment and suffering.I have an attachment to not having a knee injury.
I am liberated the first example, and bound in the second. Therefore, I’ve got some work to do letting go of my attachment to the condition of my knee. I work through this. I put it in context, provide re-assurance, and scale back the anxiety.
When I feel that tinge of anxiety, I am alerted to the presence of attachment. I am identifying with my story of woe. Fortunately, in this and most cases, it is a fantasy. It has not happened and it likely will not happen. When it does, that is, when an injury prevents me from running, the geography of now will change and I have the opportunity to adapt to it. It doesn’t have to ruin my life even though it changes my life.
We almost always handle the situations that confront us. True, I won’t be able to run if I have to get surgery but this is a temporary situation. Something else will emerge in that space. Life is always with us.
As you can see, the tendency is to move in an out of attachment all of the time. Having a mindfulness practice makes the frequency of moving out of attachment more possible, frequent, and enduring.