In April of this year, I participated in my first Vipassana meditation 10-day retreat. While I wouldn’t call the experience transformational, it definitely left a profound positive impact on me. Not only was it my first multi-day meditation experience, it was also the first time I got any sort of meaningful exposure to secular Buddhist philosophy.
Each day ended with a 90 minute “Dhamma Talk” which quickly became my favorite part of the day, both because it signaled the end of the day, but also because it allowed me to engage with the whole experience in the way that I felt most comfortable with — using my head.
I came to the retreat with ideas from Attachment Theory (AT) still very fresh in my head, and I was curious to see whether I’d be able to reconcile the apparent tension around the word attachment. In AT it has neutral to positive connotation, while in Buddhism it typically has a negative one. Another tension that I was working through was my initial interpretation of the Buddhist case against craving and aversion as a case for inaction, which did not sit well with my personal philosophy and experience.
The diagram at the top of this post summarizes how I went about reconciling these two tensions (and a few others) and how I ended up with the conclusion that these two points of view (AT and Buddhism) have more in common than meets the eye. It and the discussion below it not mean to meet any scientific bar of rigor. I just think it’s an interesting thought experiment to overlay some of the things that these two points of view have in common, as imprecise as it may be.
To start we need to distinguish between two important words: reaction — which I’ll use to describe impulsive behavior or action; and response — which I’ll use to describe deliberate behavior or action, following some cognitive processing and a conscious decision to act in a certain way.
I found it useful to anchor both points of view in a shared spectrum based on our Acute Stress Response, more commonly known as the Fight-or-Flight response. While this term refers to the two extreme, reactive modes of engagement with a stimulus: flight (approach) and flight (retreat), literature also often mentions the middle reactive mode — freeze. This gives us a reactive spectrum of: flight — freeze — fight.
In essence, both points of view make a case for moving from reactions to responses, or from reactive states to responsive states. They just use different labels to describe them. While Buddhism describes a flight reaction as “aversion” AT calls it “fearful avoidant” behavior. While Buddhism describes a fight reaction as “craving”, AT calls it “anxious preoccupied” behavior. The concept of freezing, reactive inaction did not come up in the parts of Buddhist philosophy that I got exposed to, but I think it maps well to AT’s “dismissive avoidant” behavior.
I’m not sure that slotting the “response” sections in between the reactive ones makes the most sense, but responses do tend to be more moderate than reactions. One thing that this doesn’t capture well is the notion of choosing not act (deliberate inaction), which is different than freezing.
In any case, this post ended up being more abstract than usual, but I hope that some of you may still find it useful.