Many of the insecurities and negative relationship patterns we struggle with stem from the degree of security and attention we experienced in our connection to our primary caregivers as infants. This idea is known in psychology as attachment theory. Psychologists view the strength of the connection between infant and early caregivers as a main predictor of adult flourishing or dysfunction. However, the attachment between a person and their view of the universe may be more primary to psychological health than biological attachment. Spiritual attachment determines schemas fundamental to success and happiness based on questions such as, “Is the world a hostile, unsafe place? Does my life matter? Is there something bigger than myself or am I all alone?”
Attachment Theory and Attachment Styles
Attachment theory has risen to prominence in mental health treatment because it is foundational to human evolutionary psychology. In nearly every species of animal, the most vital phase of emotional-psychological development is our earliest months and years (the first 5 years). During this time, our brains are building psychological navigation systems to orient us to survival and thriving in this alien new world. Humans, in particular, cannot survive long apart from their primary caregiver (usually the mother). Because this relationship is so vital, infants develop differing strategies optimized to help them get the attention they desperately need, or in dire situations where the mother is unavailable or unresponsive, to cope without it.
The relationship between mother and child becomes a basis of the child’s forming psyche. The child’s attachment to her primary caregiver leads to the development of an internal working model for understanding the world, self, and others (Bowlby, 1969). Attachment styles differ based on personality constitution and the responsiveness of the mother. If the mother is unresponsive or unreliable, the child’s survival and relationship strategies, and resulting views about the world and people become constricted and based on avoiding danger and establishing fundamental safety. These adaptions help children survive but result in unhappiness and difficulties taking the risks necessary to form healthy adult bonds and achieve goals. A child’s progressive levels of distress coping in response to a lack of emotional mirroring are protest, despair, and detachment. Over time, these result in the formation of attachment styles.
With a secure attachment style, the child comes to view itself as positive and loved, is low on avoidance and anxiety, and easily forms intimate, trusting relationships. With avoidant attachment, the child feels unloved and rejected, learning not to trust and overvaluing self-reliance. Anxious attachments result in clinginess, the need to merge and unhealthily depend on others along with a conflicting hesitance to get too close because of fear of abandonment. People can also be both anxious and avoidant, or unresolved (disorganized, traumatized, unable to tolerate emotional distress). These attachment styles result in either a healthy or dysfunctional personality configuration. They can lead to one’s adoption of worldviews, such as nihilism, responsible optimism, or survival of the fittest. Massive and far-reaching developments result just from one’s relationship to the mother (or primary caregiver).
Spiritual Transpersonal Attachment Styles
In a psychological sense, our attachment to the cosmos, nature, other people, and ourselves depends perhaps even more foundationally on our connection to our more primary “mother” of spirituality, our cosmological caregiver. (Although it must be noted that our attachments to biological and archetypal mothers are interconnected.) The universe functions like a massive living organism, with various interconnected strata of ecosystems that live, reproduce, die, and are reborn or transmuted: universes, galaxies, planets, species, individuals, cells, atoms, etc. How we come to view and internalize our living connection to the greater whole on each level matters. And our attachment style to these living realities is not as much a matter of philosophical, intellectual choice as it is an experiential connection (or lack thereof).
If your connection to the universe is only in the intellect and not in the psychospiritual body, the universe is felt as cold and unresponsive. This is often (not always) the case with scientism, or versions of atheistic materialism, where mystical-intuitive experience is flatly denied. Your mystical umbilical cord to the universe is severed; you are psychologically disconnected from reality to fend for yourself in an unresponsive, hostile, arbitrary universe. This attachment style has a basis in historical trauma. The spiritually abusive mother of autocratic religion was oppressive, unreliable, and misleading, resulting in the wholesale splitting-off of spirituality by scientific materialism. This traumatized worldview resulted in a spiritually avoidant attachment; a perspective that there is no kind of higher purpose or power, no psychological life beyond oneself. Therefore, according to this slant, one must be overly self-reliant and suspicious of intimate spiritual connections to greater realities. It is prudent to ask, is the modern epidemic of disconnection, hyper-capitalistic greed, despair, and climate “nature goddess” destruction related to such a spiritually avoidant attachment?
Anxious transpersonal attachment styles often result from spiritual or religious abuse. Individuals were taught to outsource their power to God, church, or guru, or sold unscientific lies. They were taught to not to trust their own spiritual connection, or that they would be punished and abandoned by spirituality if they failed to conform. These people were trained to be submissive and childishly reliant, never achieving psychospiritual maturity. Moreover, the spiritual caregiver was abusive and capricious. You could never know whether you were going to get the god of love or the god of wrath. Abused adherents were taught to merge with and depend on the transpersonal self (God, higher power), but also to fear it, avoiding and rejecting any intimate mystical experience of the divine that was unsanctioned by the religious authority–even as they craved this connection. Once they leave the abusive spiritual relationship, these people often respond with avoidance or overreliance. They may take the path of materialistic atheism, deciding it is safer to avoid spirituality altogether than risk getting burned again. Alternatively, they may tend towards overreliance, losing their identity once again in another system of spiritual manipulation and anti-intellectualism (=authoritarian submission).
Unresolved transpersonal attachment styles may result from severe life traumas. The traumatized individual becomes paranoid, sadistic, or nihilistic, paranoidly viewing the universe as a hostile place. Spirituality may exist for this person, but it is a hostile, not benevolent force. Dark spiritual powers (or unseen political conspiratorial powers) lurk behind the scenes, threatening the unprotected self. Love is not fundamental; destruction is always close at hand, people will take advantage of you, death has the final word. Hatred and narcissistic self-preservation are the best strategies in such a world. Spirituality and relationships are used manipulatively, perhaps through black magic or psychological control. The spiritual mother is seen as perpetrator and the self as victim. Rebellion through rageful rejection of reality (“fuck the world!”), nihilism, dissociation from life, or even psychosis may result.
There are many potential combinations of the above spiritual attachment styles, and probably an infinite number of causes. This is an area that has not yet been researched to any significant extent. But it has grand implications for how we view ourselves and the world. If spirituality is bad or unreliable, then I cannot connect with or trust myself, for I am a spiritual being. I cannot develop faith (trust in wholeness), which will hamper my hope and ability to make changes in my own life and for the betterment of the world. I cannot trust in love, because love is an artificial construct instead of a higher inherent element of realities beyond the human mind. And if I am incapable of mystical connection to others and nature, I will not value their wellbeing.
Most people suffer from some degree of spiritual insecurity, particularly in a philosophically materialist society that discourages and shames spirituality. Moreover, we all experience disillusionment, misplaced faith, and spiritual traumas. Continual spiritual healing and growth are essential. Yet secure spiritual attachment is attainable. The securely attached are realistically optimistic, trusting in both themselves and a form of higher purpose or guidance–whether this is humanity, God, the universe, etc. They know how to connect with spirit through their chosen practice(s). When they experience ruptures or troubles, they tune into their connection for higher wisdom and reassurance. Such people are marked by overall emotional states of equanimity, joy, aliveness, and a felt trust that all is well even in the midst of chaos. They are devoted to loving service, knowing we are all connected. They operate from wholeness, understanding that present experiences of fragmentation and immaturity do not define their true identity. They cultivate gratitude instead of rejecting their painful experiences and regressing into bitterness, despair, or pessimism. They live in flow (grace), setting intentions through intuition and heartfelt desire, and achieving goals by combining effort with inspiration. They are humble and reflective, working to integrate all parts of themselves, especially the disavowed shadow aspects. These and many other characteristics flow from secure spiritual attachment.
It is incumbent on each of us to take inventory of our present condition and do whatever it takes to move foreword. Negative views of the universe that result from unhealthy spiritual attachments are self-fulfilling prophesies: we enact the worldviews we operate on. I do believe that different religious and spiritual perspectives, including atheistic humanism, may facilitate spiritual connection (to varying degrees). While ideologies do matter, what matters more is the openness we have to connection, new experiences, learning, and healing. The time has come to heal our spiritual wounds as individuals and as a collective. In this age, we have achieved a level of autonomy unprecedented in history from the religious and ideological control that once incapacitated spiritual freedom. Many healing spiritual practices and communal and intellectual safeguards exist to guide us in forming new, healthy attachments to the divine. Let us eat the fruit of the living tree of mystical connection that we may enjoy the eternal life that is our evolutionary connection to all existence and the love that inspired it. Our survival and flourishing depend on it.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.
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I’m Andrew Jasko, Master of Divinity (M.Div.), Masters in Counseling in Progress, and I work to help you transform your trauma into the place of your power and connect to a healthy, authentic spirituality that works for you (whether that’s as a spiritual not religious, atheist, religious, transitioning, or agnostic identifying person). I was born into a minister’s family and became a preacher and missionary to India, after studying theology at Wheaton College and Princeton Seminary. As a Christian, my relationship with God was my passion, but unhealthy religious teachings caused me an anxiety disorder, sexual repression, and spiritual disillusionment. I felt alone, traumatized, and abandoned by the divine. After an agonizing crisis of faith, I rejected religion and spirituality. Then, I reintegrated a healthy spirituality through mystical, spiritual, and mindful practices. My passion is to help you to heal and connect with your authentic spiritual wholeness.
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I thoroughly enjoyed this article, and find the concept of spiritual attachment styles to be brilliantly insightful into the human experience and our capacities for resilience, to collaborate towards our own healing and growth, to experience a felt sense of life force in ourselves and all that is around us, and to care for creation. However, as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a lifelong deep spiritual practice – and, I believe, secure spiritual attachment style, I disagree with a couple details, and would like to offer a slightly different take on one aspect of the relationship between interpersonal and spiritual attachment styles.
Andrew, I notice that you use the phrase “evolutionary psychology” to describe developmental psychology. Evolutionary psychology refers to the process of the development of human consciousness and the nature of the collective unconscious over the course of humanity’s presence on Earth.
You posit that spiritual attachment is more foundational than interpersonal (psychological) attachment. In keeping with the basic concepts of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and of mind-body-spirit integration (including heart and soul), I believe that both interpersonal and spiritual attachment are integral facets of human psychology, the spiritual being one subset of psychology in general. I believe that interpersonal attachment is more foundational than the spiritual with regard to an individual’s time in any given incarnation. On a larger spiritual scale, yes, we are spiritual beings having a human experience. With regard to attachment styles, that which develops in any given lifetime is rooted in developmental pscyhology, and is then manifest in our relationship to the Divine, creation, the Namasté with regard to other human, all of creation, and Source. On this note, I noticed that while you posit that spiritual attachment style affects interpersonal attachment styles, your descriptions of this process and these relationships actually demonstrate the development of spiritual attachment style as arising from the development of one’s interpersonal attachment style.
When considering the processes of epigenetics (currently popular in regard to the cross-generational transmission of trauma), I can see how one’s spiritual attachment style from prior lifetimes can influence the development of one’s interpersonal attachment style in a current lifetime, then having an impact on the spiritual attachment style in the current lifetime. In this sense, it makes sense that there would be a tag-teaming dynamic in the development of each.
Thanissaro Bikkhu, in his article that was published in Trycicle Magazine, titled Hold on to Your Ego,* describes the development of mature spirituality across the levels of human existence and need-fulfillment first described by Maslow: physical, emotional, mental/intellectual, spiritual, and states that healthy development of the first levels of existence are pre-requisite to the development of spiritual maturity. Without adequate need-fulfillment and development at the earlier levels, one is likely to manifest spiritual bypassing rather than actual spiritual connection and maturity. (* I forget the exact year – 2011 or 2012?)
Wonderful food for thought! Thank you.