Attachment (Pt 1): Essential to Love

Attachment. If you’re Buddhist, you know this is a baaad thing. The source of all suffering, in fact. If you’re a traditional psychotherapist, or a rabid reader of self-help books, you might identify this as the driver for codependence. Also, very baaad. And if you subscribe to the American ideal of individualism, you avoid it like the plague.

And yet, we cannot survive without attachment. It is as real as any other biological necessity, as thirst, hunger, or the longing for a healing good night’s sleep. However, despite a huge body of evidence for this, psychiatric questionnaires reduce it to an add-on, under “support systems,” far away from the more valued answers to eating and sleeping patterns. Why this continued resistance to quantifying love, and giving it preeminent value in our healthcare system?

I could go on a rant about that, but I’ll save you…for now. The point is that to a certain extent, love is quantifiable. We can measure hormonal changes that occur as the result of frequent healthy touch, chemicals that reduce inflammation and strengthen our immunity. We can observe the stunted growth of children suffering from failure-to-thrive as a result of poor bonding with primary caregivers, showing up not only in their bodies but in brain development. Stephen Porges first suggested that the vagus nerve (stick out your tongue, that’s the nerve that allows that to happen) plays an important part in satisfying social interaction with his polyvagal theory, suggesting that the area including face, throat, chest, solar plexus and upper belly activates and is exercised by not only physical affection but positive regard. So think of this next time you see someone you enjoy…does a spontaneous smile light up your face? Do you then find it easier to speak freely? Does your chest feel like it’s expanding, and your stomach relax?

You may be thinking at this point that this all is beginning to make love sound awfully mechanical. And yet, art critics can analyze what makes great art great, the use of lighting, of shape, of color, of proportion…but when we see Winged Victory, we are still in awe. Understanding the measurable components of love helps us to understand what is truly healthy, and not self-diminishing or –indulgent, but it does not detract in any way from what still feels like a miracle to me: the ability of a human being to cherish what is within, while simultaneously cherishing what empathically one is sensing of another, and rejoicing in the energetic bridge that is being formed and strengthened against the trials and tribulations of the human experience.

This is the first of a two-part exploration on the crucial science around attachment, the second will follow next week.

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