Earned Secure Attachment as a Model for a Liberated Spirituality: A Review


The biological drive to maintain the connection with our caretakers/parents results in attachment “states of mind” that function as long-term adaptations and survival strategies.  In the context of early relational trauma, a function of spiritual pursuits may be to manage a dysregulated nervous system.  One adaptation to such trauma may be the phenomenon of “spiritual bypassing”, which can include attachment to particular beliefs that may promote premature foreclosure on the openness and curiosity that are the hallmarks of an emancipated spirituality.  One way of coming to a place of  “earned” secure attachment is through co-regulation work with an embodied and attuned therapist.  Such a journey may lead to freedom from continual spiritual seeking, and this paper will outline one model of therapeutic engagement that promotes the integration and healing that can serve as a platform for a grounded and free spiritual life.  Questions are raised in the overlapping areas of psychotherapy, spirituality, attachment, trauma, mindfulness, and nondual realization.

Keywords:trauma, attachment, spirituality, spiritual bypassing, psychotherapy


A shortened version of this paper titled “Earned Secure Attachment as a Model for a Liberated Spirituality” was presented at Science and Nonduality 17 Europe Gathering, Titignano Castle, Orvieto, Italy, August 9, 2017.


There is the old Zen story of the monk who had been meditating in his mountain hut for several years, and one day decided to go down to the village market.  Once in the town he immediately became angry and yelled at a man driving an ox-cart who had accidently blocked his path. The moral of the story: Is meditation enough?

Although it has been regarded as “misleading” (Duncan, 2000, p. 485), Rene Descartes is usually accorded the rather dubious distinction of having separated body and mind with his oft-cited “Cogito ergo sum”, thereby resulting in a Cartesian dualism that has persisted to the current day.  This duality is seen in most models of psychotherapy.  While traditionally viewed as the “talking cure”, there has been a more recent emphasis on somatically-based models of psychotherapy, this prompted in part by advances in the neurosciences and the field of traumatology.

It has been over 60 years since John Bowlby broke ranks with the psychoanalytic mainstream of the time and formulated “a new paradigm” based on an “attachment behavioral system” (Hall, 2007, p. 18-19) which becomes activated in the context of the infant’s relationship with his/her primary caretaker.  This innate biological necessity results in “internal working models” (IWM; Bowlby, cited in Granqvist, 2010, p. 7) that ultimately serve as templates for all future relationships.  The development of an insecure working model may, in the face of particular life stressors, result in an individual attempting to cope with the vicissitudes of life through various survival strategies (Courtois & Ford, 2013; Heller & Lapierre, 2012) or “default” patterns based on early procedural learning (Ogden, Minton, & Pain, 2006).

“Spiritual bypassing” is a term initially used in 1984 by John Welwood (Masters, 2010), and refers to engaging in spiritual pursuits as a way of “bypassing” or avoiding more basic psychological work, such as healing early attachment trauma.  This paper introduces a neuroscience perspective on this phenomenon in that for some individuals, spiritual bypassing may function as an attempt to self-regulate a dysregulated autonomic nervous system.  The paper will expand on this idea by situating the discussion in the context of attachment theory and recent neuroscience contributions to understanding trauma.  It is proposed that a somatically-based psychotherapy, with its emphasis on self- and co-regulation, is one path to arriving at a place of earned secure attachment, the latter considered as a precondition for a truly liberated spirituality.  The paper will also briefly consider the literature on the relationship between attachment processes and spirituality, including “attachment to God” (McDonald, Beck, Allison, & Norsworthy, 2005, p. 21) as well as the relationship between attachment, mindfulness, and nondual realization.

Attachment and Interpersonal Neurobiology

Researchers in attachment processes have used a variety of assessment methods, including the Strange Situation assessment strategy and the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), the latter considered “the gold standard” for assessment (Bakermans-Kranenburg & van IJzendoorn, 2009, p. 247), to understand the delineation of the basic attachment “states of mind”.  The AAI is an interview which requires transcription and classification and looks at the manner in which individuals speak about their early attachment history (Bakermans-Kranenburg & van IJzendoorn, 2009).  The well-known attachment styles are: “secure/secure-autonomous; avoidant/dismissing; ambivalent/preoccupied (anxious); disorganized/unresolved (fearful-avoidant)” (Wallin, 2014).  As indicated by Wallin, the term on the left is used to refer to infants and the one on the right to adults.  The “fearful-avoidant” style was labeled as such in work by Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991).

Attachment is a wired-in biological imperative which primarily emphasizes our tendency to seek “proximity maintenance” to safe others  (the “safe haven”) when we are threatened and also the degree of safety or autonomy to leave the proximity of the primary caretaker (the “secure base”) and explore the environment (Mikulincer, Shaver, & Berant, 2012, p. 607; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007).  In fact, Social Baseline Theory (Beckes & Coan, 2011) emphasizes in part how our brains have evolved to prioritize energy-conservation and environmental “risk distribution” (p. 978), these being best accomplished when we are surrounded by others in a social group.  Referencing Buss (1995), Granqvist and Hagekull (2001) consider the attachment paradigm as “a ‘middle-level’ evolutionary theory” (p. 527), and that it utilizes concepts from “control systems theory”, “cognitive psychology”, and “learning theory” (Granqvist & Hagekull, p. 527-528).

What constitutes “good enough mothering” or relatively “consistent” attunement?  In an interview with Bullard (2015), Schore refers to Tronick’s research and reports that “even the secure mother is only attuned about 30% of the time” (p. 16).  When the child’s nervous system becomes dysregulated as a consequence of misattunement, the secure caretaker acts “in a timely manner” to repair the disconnection (Schore, 2009, p. 117).  Individuals with secure attachment (approximately 60-70% of normative groups; Granqvist, 2010, p. 7) had caretakers who were relatively consistently attuned to meeting their needs.  Van IJzendoorn and Bakermans-Kranenburg (1996), in a meta-analysis of a sample of 584 nonclinical mothers, reported the AAI classifications to be 58% autonomous, 24% dismissing, and 18% as preoccupied (p. 18).  The results were very similar in a sample of nonclinical fathers.

There are three types of insecure attachment (about 30-40% of normative groups; Granqvist, 2010, p. 7). Individuals with an anxious-preoccupied attachment template are thought to have had a caretaker(s) who inconsistently responded to the child’s needs. In this situation, the learning that occurs is to “ramp up” or augment (“hyperactivating”; Mikulincer et al., 2012, p. 607) the attachment system in an attempt to get needs met.  In the case of avoidant attachment, the caretaker rarely met the child’s needs and hence the learning is that one cannot truly rely on others (“deactivating”: Mikulincer et al., 2012, p. 607) and only on oneself, hence an impetus to develop an inordinate degree of self-sufficiency.  Finally, the disorganized attachment style is reserved for individuals where the caregiver has been both the source of safety as well as the source of danger for the child.  It is called “disorganized” as the child does not have an organized response to attachment disruptions (Maltby & Hall, 2012).  Mallinckrodt (2000) has indicated that it may be more helpful to view Brennan, Clark, and Shaver’s “anxiety” and “avoidance” as “two orthogonal dimensions of insecure attachment” (Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998; Mallinckrodt, 2000, p. 255), rather than consider these as discrete classifications.

Bowlby indicated that the attachment system is operative “from the cradle to the grave” (cited in Granqvist, Mikulincer, & Shaver, 2010, p. 50), and these templates or internal working models serve as blueprints for our expectations around relationships and for our attitudes towards ourself.  How do we know which is our “dominant” or overarching “state of mind”?  If possible, it may be helpful to have discussions with parents and/or siblings for historical data, but the best strategy may be through observation of one’s reactions to conflict within a contemporary intimate relationship.  The capacity to reflect on this, what Fonagy (2006) has termed “mentalizing” (p. 53), is critical.  Pursuing one’s own attachment-informed psychotherapy may be essential in this regard.

Trauma and the Brain

The human brain consists of about “three pounds of tofu-like” material, with “1.1 trillion cells” and about “100 billion neurons” (Hanson & Mendius, 2009, p. 6).

Badenoch (2008), citing Chang, Hawley, Kalumuck, Katz, Piotrowski, and Rizzo, has indicated that “the brain of a 3-year-old child has about 1,000 trillion synapses” (p. 8), which reduce with age due to “pruning”.  So we have this remarkably complex organ in our skulls.  Schore’s (2005) work has demonstrated that the right hemisphere develops more quickly than the left in infancy, and that the “neurobiology of attachment, therefore, is an interpersonal neurobiology of right brain-to-right brain communications” (p. 208).  The terms “pruning” (Badenoch, 2008, p. 8) and “sculpt” (Schore, 2002, p. 20) are often used to indicate how our early interactions with our primary caretakers affects brain structure and function.  Schore (2005) additionally states, “…the cellular architecture of the cerebral cortex is sculpted by input from the social environment embedded in the early attachment relationships” (p. 205).  With early attachment failures, and particularly with abuse and neglect, such relational trauma may manifest as hyperarousal and dissociation (Perry, Pollard, Blakley, Baker, & Vigilante, 1995; Schore, 2002) which are “imprinted into the developing limbic and autonomic nervous systems of the early maturing right brain (Schore, 2002, p. 9).

The autonomic nervous system (ANS), a subdivision of the peripheral nervous system, is really where the action is. Comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions, and once thought of as only serving a homeostasis function, these are intimately involved in our fight, flight, and immobility (“freeze”) reactions to threat.  As Porges (2013) indicates, our nervous system is like a scanner at the airport, and he uses the term “neuroception” to describe a nonconscious constant process of environmental threat assessment.  Porges’ (2011) subdivision of the vagus nerve and its relation to a hierarchy of responses to the sense of threat has revolutionized our understanding of trauma.

Activation of the attachment system in the insecure states of mind, whether or not a result of more serious attachment failures, may be considered as survival-based adaptations (Courtois & Ford, 2013; Heller & LaPierre, 2012) to the early environmental contingencies.  A strategy of looking after others’ needs to the relative exclusion of one’s own, for example, may be a manifestation of insecure-preoccupied attachment and can be considered as a survival strategy (Courtois & Ford, 2013; Heller & LaPierre, 2012; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007). Severe early relational trauma may result in “kindling” (Post, Weiss, Smith, Li, & McCann, 1997; Schore, 2002) and a strong emotional “charge” in response to particular relational triggers. Such “bottom-up” (Ogden et al., 2006, p. 21)  “hijacking” (Goleman, cited in Ogden et al., p. 21) may be relatively immune from attempts at “top-down regulation” (Ogden et al., 2006, p. 21) and may well be one reason a “talk” therapy alone may have only limited efficacy.

There are various ways that individuals attempt to manage the resulting nervous system attachment-related activation.  One way may be involvement in spiritual practice, although of course not everyone with a spiritual practice has attachment activation.  This brings us to the question of the relationship between attachment and religion or spirituality, and whether religious or spiritual pursuits may be driven by attachment dysregulation.

Attachment in Religion and Spirituality

A focus in the psychology of religion has been on how attachment theory can inform about the function of an individual’s relationship with their spirituality.  The concept here is that the relationship between individuals and their religiosity or spirituality may meet the same criteria as those for an attachment relationship (Granqvist, 2010; Granqvist et al., 2010; Hall, 2007; McDonald et al., 2005), and that “…just as the child’s attachments serve the ontogenetic function of obtaining/maintaining a sense of felt security in the offspring…so too do the attachment aspects of religiosity function for the believer” (Granqvist & Hagekull, 2001, p. 528).

In a 2001 paper, Granqvist and Hagekull (citing Granqvist, 2000), discussed a “two-level correspondence hypothesis” (p. 529).  In addition to “social correspondence” (Granqvist, 2010, p. 5), a second component views religion, including “New Age” spirituality or attachment to a God figure, as serving an “emotional compensation” function for insecurely attached individuals (Granqvist & Hagekull, 2001, p. 529).  Such religion/spirituality functions largely as “affect regulation strategies” hence “thereby potentiating a sense of felt security in the insecure individual” (Granqvist & Hagekull, p. 529).  Instead of either/or however, Granqvist, Hagekull, Ivarsson, & Broberg (2007) have viewed these hypotheses as “delineating different pathways to religion as well as to different modes of being religious” (p. 591).

The compensation hypothesis appears to relate to the concept of spiritual bypass and the thesis of using spirituality to manage attachment-related nervous system dysregulation. The following is not an exhaustive review, and only a few studies bearing on the themes of this paper are described. Reviews and studies in this area may be found in Granqvist et al. (2007), McDonald et al. (2005), Hall (2007), and Hall, Fujikawa, Halcrow, Hill, and Delaney (2009).

As part of developing a scale to measure “new age” spirituality (New Age Orientation Scale), Granqvist and Hagekull (2001) hypothesized that individuals drawn to the “new age movement” (p. 529) would exhibit greater (parental) attachment insecurity than individuals not part of that group.  The hypothesis was in general supported, although there were some caveats to the study.  The authors indicated that there are several possible factors that might explain attraction to new age spiritualities and not only those that are attachment-related.  An interesting point made in this article was that “something other than the self” (p. 539), such as a strong attachment-type figure, may be necessary to see positive effects in those with insecure attachment.

In a study researching correspondence and compensation, McDonald et al. (2005) used the Attachment to God Inventory to examine the relationship between parental religiosity and undergraduate’s scores on this measure.  The findings were reported to support the correspondence view in that “spirituality in the home appeared to be related to greater reliance on and intimacy with God” (p. 24).

In the first study to examine the attachment-religion relationship using the AAI, Granqvist et al. (2007) reported support for compensation, specifically that poorer attachment experiences with parents was related to subjects’ beliefs in new age spirituality.  This study also found the attachment states of mind of the new age participants to be “overrepresented” (p. 597) by disorganized and preoccupied orientations. The authors suggested that this relationship may be mediated by a tendency towards “dissociative-absorbing states” of consciousness, although they commented on alternative possible reasons for this association and indicated that the specificity of this relationship was “unknown” (p. 598).

A further exploration of such a “mediational model” was reported by Granqvist, Fransson, and Hagekull in 2009 (p. 385).  Specifically, they assessed whether an “unresolved/disorganized” (p. 385) state of mind, as assessed by the AAI, was predictive three years later of involvement in new age spirituality, with the mediational variable being termed “absorption”.  The latter was defined as a tendency to having one’s attention become completely absorbed in either internal or external stimuli.  The authors reported “modest strength” for the mediational model in this study, and that only about 5% of the variance in the new age measure (New Age Orientation Scale) was a result of disorganization.  They indicated that a “multiple pathway understanding” of attraction to new age spirituality was warranted rather than solely “the failed resolution of trauma” (p. 396).

Hall (2007) has addressed the “mixed findings and conceptual confusion” in the area of attachment and religion by positing that “implicit relational” processes operate to influence implicit components of spirituality, but is “relatively independent” of more explicit behavioural or knowledge aspects (p. 21). The paper reports on Hall and colleague’s efforts to test an “implicit IWM correspondence” and an “explicit religious compensation” model (p. 21).

Hall et al. (2009) reported on a study of the correspondence/compensation hypotheses. Rather than considering “compensation” as a unitary construct, these authors outline three “variants” (p. 229) of compensation. What was termed “emotional compensation” (Granqvist & Hagekull, 2001) is viewed by Hall et al. as “motivational correspondence”, where “individuals’ motivation for affect regulation corresponds to their internal working models” (p. 233). Hall et al. reference Schore (2003) in indicating that “Insecure individuals tend to use their relationship with God and religiousness for interactive affect regulation” (p. 233), and discuss the roles of “implicit” and “explicit” “modes” of “relational and spiritual knowing” (p. 230) in an effort to bring the disparate findings in this area together. In their paper, Hall et al. reported on a study showing “strong support” for their model of how “correspondence operates at implicit levels of spiritual experience” (p. 227).

Spiritual Bypassing

This brings us to the issue of spiritual bypassing (Masters, 2010) or what has also been called “high level denial” (Harris, 1994, p. 78), “premature transcendence” (Cashwell, Myers, & Shurts, 2004, p. 403; Harris, 1994, P. 78), and “avoidance in holy drag” (Masters, 2010, p. 1). It has been defined as “…the use of spiritual experiences, beliefs, or practices to avoid (or bypass) psychological wounds and other personal and emotional unfinished business…” (Cashwell et al., p. 403).  It has been viewed as an “avoidant coping strategy” (Clarke, Giordano, Cashwell, & Lewis, 2013, p. 87), and as one “potential pitfall” of the pursuit of spirituality (Cashwell, Bentley, & Yarborough, 2007, p. 139).  Spiritual bypass has been likened to “trying to stand on the top rung of a ladder with broken, incomplete, and unstable lower rungs” (Clarke et al., 2013, p. 91).  Another term used in this area is “spiritual materialism” (Welwood, 2000, p. 208).

Spiritual bypassing may manifest (not a complete listing) as: the “ego” erecting an identity around spirituality; the compilation of a “spiritual resume” around workshops one has attended; “dharmacizing” or “using spiritual jargon” to defend against recognition of our deeper issues; amassing spiritual “initiations, empowerments, and blessings” (all from Caplan, n.d., p. 2, 3); using a higher or “absolute truth” to relegate relative or our everyday lives truth to a lower level (Welwood, 2000, p. 209; Neale, 2012) or “polarized thinking” (Poitou, 1997, p. 5); a significant gap between one’s spiritual work and level of emotional/psychological development; development of a “spiritual superego” that is critical of self for not doing “good enough” spiritual practice (the previous from Welwood, 2000, p. 212-213); unquestioned devotion to particular spiritual teachers (“gurucentrism”, Masters, n.d., p. 1); competing with other individuals in the spiritual community; “recreating childhood dynamics in the sangha” (both from Neale, 2012, p. 3); a focus “on being psychic” (Harris, 1994, p. 77); and what has been termed “compulsive goodness” (Michaelson, n.d., p. 2).

Masis (2002), referencing Rubin (1996), suggests that some spiritual seekers may be drawn “to the Buddhist notion of ‘no-self,’ and mistakenly seek doctrinal validation for their feelings of emptiness” (p. 150). Attraction to paranormal abilities (telepathy, out-of-body experiences) may as well be examples of spiritual bypassing.  The sense of security found in dogma may function as a defense against underlying attachment anxieties, and it is suggested here that for some individuals spiritual seeking may be attempts to manage (early) psychological trauma.

It seems evident that there is a relationship between the compensation hypothesis discussed above and spiritual bypassing.  As stated by Granqvist et al. (2010),  “…the developmental pathway to religion in the case of parental insensitivity and insecure attachment is one marked by attachment system activation…under conditions where a perceived relationship with God helps to regulate a believer’s distress, only to wane when the need to regulate distress subsides” (p. 54). While these authors suggest that this might be seen as a “deficiency approach” to religiosity, they also suggest that this could be “functional” if it leads to “earned security” (p. 54).

Psychotherapy and Spiritual Bypass

A spirituality that is truly liberated would be one free of the trappings of spiritual bypass and materialism, and would manifest as in part a true openness to the mysteries of life and a “humility, which is a solid foundation of an authentically spiritual, healthy, and whole human being” (Harris, 1994, p. 78).  Michaelson (n.d.) writes: “A liberated person has moved past seeing himself or herself as the innocent victim of parents and family dynamics” (p. 6).  The thesis of this paper is that one way of arriving at such a spirituality is through the depth psychological work that promotes healing of early attachment wounds, or as Cashwell et al. (2007) have put it: “The Only Way Out is Through” (p. 139).  The recommendation to doing this psychological work is not new.  For example, Kornfield (n.d.) indicates that “Such healing work is often best done in a therapeutic relationship with another person” and that “good Western therapy is on the whole much quicker and more successful than meditation” (p. 2).   Neale (2012) indicates that “spiritual work and psychological work go hand in hand” (p. 5), and Harris recommends “…therapy, body-based and psychological” (p. 78).

Cashwell et al. (2004, 2007) have discussed working therapeutically with clients who are spiritually bypassing, and the latter may well be a goal of therapeutic intervention. Helping the client to discharge the activation in the nervous system as a result of early trauma, however, might be the overarching goal with fully informed client consent.  A therapeutic approach based on contemporary understandings in neuroscience, attunement in the therapeutic relationship, and advances in our understanding of how trauma is in the nervous system and not in the event itself  (Levine, 1997) is presented.

Welwood (1984) has indicated that “…many systems share an understanding that real change happens as an energy shift in the body, not through talk or intellectual insight alone” (p. 67).  It is in this spirit that Self Regulation Therapy (Josephs & Zettl) is discussed, which is part of a class of body-oriented psychotherapies which includes Hakomi (Kurtz, 2015), Somatic Experiencing (Levine, 1997), Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (Ogden et al., 2006), and the NeuroAffective Relational Model (Heller & LaPierre, 2012).  Lumiere (2003) has presented an outline of Somatic Experiencing, and Self Regulation Therapy is similar.  While mainstream and empirically-driven psychotherapy has generally ignored the body, a current understanding of trauma emphasizes the importance of helping people to resolve the activation held in the nervous system, often as a result of truncated fight and flight responses.  Porges (2011) has showed how there exists a “hierarchical response strategy” (p. 161) in responding to threat, and that when social engagement and fight/flight are not possible, the older unmyelinated dorsal vagal branch of the vagus nerve kicks in to promote shut-down, immobility, dissociation, and hypoarousal.  This is often manifested psychologically for clients as a sense of hopeless despair.

Work in interpersonal neurobiology has advanced our understanding of the qualities characterizing an attuned therapeutic relationship (Manley, 2016).  The analogy to understanding this relationship is that of an infant’s right-hemisphere-to-right-hemisphere connection with the primary caretaker (Schore, 2005).  Advances include the discovery of the human mirror neuron system and other possible neuroscience markers of our capacity for deep empathy and understanding others’ intentions, the applications of mindfulness in psychotherapy, and development of our ability as therapists to repair the inevitable ruptures that occur in the therapeutic relationship.  These have led to a more profound way of approaching our clients, one in keeping with Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship and what Masis (2002) has termed “unconditional presence” (p. 153).

In a somatically-based psychotherapy we are “reading” the client’s nervous system in terms of activation (Josephs & Zettl) and considering this in relation to survival.  The foundational skill in this way of working is helping clients’ to track activation in their nervous system as a function of discussing, albeit in a highly titrated manner, issues of deep concern to them, including attachment and trauma.  We are privileging sensation in the autonomic nervous system and not emotion or cognitions, although these are processed with the therapist as well.  A relatively simple question such as “What are you noticing?” in the face of some activation encourages mindfulness of what is occurring in the body in the present moment.  This process also invites greater embodiment as well as a higher degree of trust in her/his “felt sense”, a process Shaver, Lavy, Saron, and Mikulincer (2007) refer to as “organismic trusting” (p. 268).  We work with a client within a “window of tolerance” (Ogden et al., 2006; Ogden & Fisher, 2015), and use the client’s story narrative to elicit activation but also to contain or limit activation (Josephs & Zettl).  Helping the client to remain within this “window” is critical, as true integration of experience is not likely to occur in the presence of hyper- or hypoarousal (Ogden et al., 2006).  Further, the therapist tends to work out of sequence such that he/she might begin a session by asking, “When did you first notice that you survived”? (Josephs & Zettl, n.d.).

Resourcing the client involves helping him or her to switch, in the face of activation, to a different psychobiological state, one which promotes calming, settling of the nervous system, and perhaps ultimately discharge of the held activation (Josephs & Zettl, n.d.; Lumiere, 2003).  Therapy essentially consists of alternating between trauma-related activation and a resource-based state, allowing in a very titrated way for the activation to be progressively discharged (Josephs & Zettl).  Discharge may manifest through client laughter, tears, yawning, tingling, or other physiological responses.  The therapist is also working to help the client complete truncated fight or flight responses, in part through developing awareness of somatically-based “action tendencies” (Ogden et al., 2006, p. xxvi), and through “stimulating up” (Josephs & Zettl, n.d.), that is, resourcing the client to facilitate their emergence from “freeze” or immobility.

On the Path to Earned Secure Attachment

Feinberg (2015) references George, Kaplan, and Main’s (1985) ideas of  “continuous-secure” attachment and “earned-secure attachment”, the latter a result of arriving at a secure place at a later time in life (p. 1).  Feinberg reports work showing earned-secure to be 15-55% of adults and continuous-secure to be 22-36% (p. 12).  The issue is how best to accomplish a shift from insecure to earned-secure.  Granqvist et al. (2007) discuss an “earned security hypothesis” that suggests that elements of religiosity or spirituality might facilitate “some degree of earned security” (p. 599), but that research is needed into this “possible new area”.  Hall (2007) suggests that the religious person’s “relationship with God” may be “theAttachment Relationship, which is the source, in some ontological and experiential sense, for all emotional security, even if indirectly” (p. 22).  Wallin (2014) has suggested that the therapeutic relationship “provides a second chance for the client”.  Given the neurobiological underpinnings of early attachment and co-regulation, it is suggested here that human relationships hold the greatest promise for promoting this shift in attachment from insecure to secure.

Feinberg (2015) has looked at the question of what types of relationship might promote earned security.  Shaver, Hazan, and Bradshaw (as cited in Feinberg, 2015, p. 12) indicated that “an insecure person becomes increasingly secure, probably by participating in relationships that disconfirm negative features of experience-based mental models and/or gaining insight into the workings of one’s mental models…”. This is what is often termed a “corrective” experience (Maltby & Hall, 2012, p. 307; Mikulincer, et al., 2012, p. 608) regarding the person’s internal working model, and requires the other person in the relationship to function as a “secure base”, this allowing for exploratory behaviour (Mikulincer, et al., 2012, p. 608).  This manifests in therapy as the necessary safety to explore sensation and emotionality in the context of attachment experience.   “Good enough” attuned psychotherapy fulfills these functions, and can “initiate and sustain a broaden-and-build cycle of attachment security” (Mikulincer et al., p. 608, referencing Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007).

There may also be elements implicit in this type of therapeutic relationship that function in a manner similar to subliminal attachment priming.  The latter refers to research (Shaver et al., 2007) presenting subjects with subliminal attachment primes. Granqvist (2010) reported that religious participants experienced an increase in wanting to be “close to God” (p. 12) as a result of priming.  The capacity for a therapist to provide the scaffolding necessary for the client to move towards earned secure attachment may depend in part on the therapist’s attachment state of mind and how that interacts with the attachment style of the client (Mikulincer et al., 2012; Wallin, 2007).

Attachment, Mindfulness, and Nondual Realization

Mindfulness is currently very fashionable in psychotherapy, but is it a sufficient or necessary condition for healing attachment trauma and transforming insecure attachment to an earned-secure base?  It has been reported that mindfulness impacts areas of the brain known to be involved in secure attachment or has similar underlying neural “correlates” (Hanson & Mendius, 2009; Shaver et al., 2007, p. 264).  Mindfulness is the portal through which we work with a client in a somatically-based therapy.  Ogden and Fisher’s (2015) concept of “embedded relational mindfulness” (p. 41) includes the moment-by-moment tracking of the client’s nervous system, and the attuned therapist can track his/her own arousal level at the same time.

In an effort to situate mindfulness within the framework of attachment theory, Shaver et al. (2007) discuss the degree of association between security and mindfulness, and suggest that the greater the degree of attachment security the greater that person’s ability to be mindful.  In an article querying the integrative capacity of attachment theory, Ryan, Brown, and Creswell (2007) also discuss the possible relationship between mindfulness and “felt security” (p. 180).  For example, in addition to reiterating Shaver et al.’s point above, these authors suggest that the relationship may be “bidirectional” and that both processes contribute favourably to a range of “positive outcomes” (p. 180).

Nondual Psychotherapy

There are nondual approaches to psychotherapy, as referenced by at least two books on the topic (Prendergast, Fenner, & Krystal, 2003; Prendergast & Bradford, 2007), and a comprehensive overview may be found in Fenner (2007).  Lumiere (2012) has suggested that nondual realization, if embodied, may be “the ultimate secure base” (p. 5) and that a more powerful healing may occur if the former is included as part of the psychotherapy.  This view considers insecure attachment to be based in duality, although she acknowledges that “relational, therapeutic healing may still be needed in some form” (p. 5).  In an earlier publication, Lumiere (2003) discusses the relationship between an embodied psychotherapy and nonduality, and she presents a case example illustrating this approach.  As discussed above, in a somatically-based psychotherapy a “resource” may be considered as a psychobiological state that allows the nervous system to settle or discharge in the presence of activation.   Lumiere (2003) considers that “Once the awareness in which all experiences arise and subside is consciously recognized, it becomes the primary resource” (p. 257, emphasis added).

Summary and Conclusions

”To own one’s own shadow is to prepare the ground for spiritual experience” (Johnson, 1991, p. 91).

This paper has discussed the relationships between attachment theory, trauma, and spiritual bypassing.  The latter can manifest in myriad ways and is considered to be “a very persistent shadow of spirituality” (Masters, n.d., p. 1).  We earlier considered research in the psychology of religion, as the compensation hypothesis from that area underscores how attachment to a God-like figure can serve an affect regulating function (Granqvist & Hagekull, 2001).  While a nervous system can be dysregulated for many reasons, such as the result of a car accident or medical/dental trauma, the focus here has been on the role of early relational/attachment trauma in motivating individuals to seek out spirituality in an effort to manage dysregulation.  The thesis is that coming to a place of earned secure attachment may free one to embrace spirituality from a position of liberation.

It is evident that an earned secure attachment can be gained in the context of psychotherapy with an attuned and resonant therapist.  A somatically-based and nonduality-informed psychotherapy might be best suited to this, in part as it allows the client’s corrective relational experiences to be embodied.  Such embodiment is a significant theme that has emerged in psychotherapy, partly as a result of advances in the neuroscience underpinnings of human change and trauma.  For example, Hanson and Mendius (2009) have discussed that we need to be able to “turn positive facts into positive experiences” (p. 68) as a way to develop new synaptic pathways, a concept related to “self-directed neuroplasticity” (Mental Health Daily, n.d., p. 1).  If we cannot mindfully attend to the experience in the here and now there will likely be a limit to neuroplastic change.  Caplan (2007) has discussed an “embodied spirituality” (p. 184) and Lumiere (2003) indicates how “It is easy for spiritual experience to occur only “above the neck” and not be embodied” (p. 262).  Heller (2012) suggests therapists find “an oasis of secure attachment” with the client and develop his/her capacity to embody this and “soak it up like a sponge”.

The topics addressed in this paper raise several important questions.   For example, to what degree can spirituality and psychotherapy be pursued contemporaneously, or will one’s spirituality be limited to the extent that one has not yet come to a place of earned security?  In considering what they term “implicit relational processes”, Hall et al. (2009) indicate that it is not possible “to separate “psychological” and “spiritual” domains of functioning” (p. 233).

A consideration is whether dealing with one’s early attachment issues frees us to embrace nonduality and is a realization of nonduality contingent on healing these early wounds?  In an online response to Lumiere (2012), Peal (2013) indicates that “There is a strong tendency to believe either that recognition of our nondual nature is beyond our grasp until we can “work through” our insecure attachment relationally, or to lean into spiritual bypass in the hope of avoiding the relational mess altogether” (p. 11). Lumiere (2003) has suggested that “being awake” is not necessarily the same as self regulation (p. 258), and Masis (2002) states that “Enlightenment is seeing through the illusion of self, but is not necessarily a way to heal a wounded self. In fact, wounds may continue to be there, hidden from consciousness, and operating in much the same way as they did before enlightenment” (p. 158).  Caplan (2007) has discussed a concept of “enlightened duality” that seems to allow for another option, that is, where “the context of enlightened duality is nondual awareness, while its contentis duality” (p. 192).  Such a possibility is deserving of further consideration.

It is important to realize that nonduality itself is also subject to spiritual bypassing (Caplan, 2007; Masters, 2010).  In other words, the adoption of nondualistic views is not immune to being utilized in the service of the ego or “I-process”.  It may be one thing to have a realization of nonduality and another to truly integrate the experience, especially into Caplan’s “embodied spirituality” (p. 184).  As Caplan puts it succinctly, “Access to spiritual truth, when not integrated, is a very dangerous weapon” (p. 189).

There is also the issue of self-regulation versus co-regulation.  Badenoch (2017) has suggested that perhaps the notion of self-regulation is a “myth” as is the idea that co-regulation is only a step on the path towards self-regulation, with the latter viewed as the most desirable endpoint of development.  As she points out, the neurocircuits underlying the regulation of affect are initially developed in conjunction with another nervous system, that is, in relationship.  Similarly, the later development of an earned secure attachment may take place relationally in the context of good psychotherapy.

As pointed out by several writers, it may be misleading assume that spiritual practices from the East will be efficacious in the same manner when they are adopted in the West, likely a very different cultural context (Harris, 1994; Welwood, 2000).  Spiritual practices are embedded within a context of belief and expectation, which are culturally situated.  Such practices and techniques may have great attraction, but they may not “work” in the same way in a different cultural setting. As Caplan (2007) has suggested, such practices “simply were not designed” (p. 186) to heal early relational trauma.  It has been suggested that in today’s world the loss of a sense of community and the extended family renders “the neurosis of the nuclear family…inevitably magnified” (Masis, 2002, p. 159; Welwood, 1984).

Finally, what is the precise nature of the relationship between attachment and mindfulness, and between the latter and nonduality?  As raised by Shaver et al. (2007), to what degree can mindfulness practice as an adult assist one’s move towards an earned secure attachment?  As these authors point out, “attachment security” (p. 264) may well have ramifications broader in scope than those related to mindfulness per se.  Additionally, while mindfulness is the entry point to a moment-to-moment somatic exploration of trauma in psychotherapy, it may not in itself lead to discharge of activation from the client’s nervous system.

Are we further ahead in our understanding of how to heal attachment wounds and moving to a place of earned security?  The answer has to be an unqualified “yes” and the good news includes somatically-based psychotherapies, self-directed neuroplasticity, the human mirror neuron and resonance system, realizations of nonduality, and the evolving capacity to integrate psychological and spiritual domains and relative and absolute truth.  This coming together, or what has been termed “consilience” (Schore & Siegel, 2008), may well herald a new phase of “psychospiritual integration” (Caplan, 2007, p. 191).  As Caplan further indicates, “…such integration marks the evolution of spiritual culture that awaits us” (p. 191).



Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a brain-wise therapist:A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. N.Y. (U.S.): W.W. Norton & Company.

Badenoch, B. (2017, January 18). The Myth of Self-Regulation[Webinar]. www.soundstrue.com

Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J., & van IJzendoorn, M.H. (2009). The first 10,000 Adult Attachment Interviews: distributions of adult attachment representations in clinical and non-clinical groups. Attachment & Human Development, 11(3), 223-263.

Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L.M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(2), 226-244.

Beckes, L., & Coan, J.A. (2011). Social baseline theory: The role of social proximity in emotion and economy of action. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5/12, 976-988.

Bullard, D. (2015, October). Allan Schore on the science of the art of psychotherapy. 1-19. Retrieved from https://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/allan-schore-neuroscience-psychotherapy

Caplan, M. (2007). The principles and practices of embodied spirituality. In J.J. Prendergast, & G.K. Bradford. (Eds.). Listening from the heart of silence: Nondual wisdom & psychotherapy. Volume 2 (pp. 181-196). St. Paul, U.S.: Paragon House.

Caplan, M. (n.d.). When spirituality becomes a mask. 1-6. Retrieved from www.huffingtonpost.com/mariana-caplan-phd/spiritual-materialism-the_b_989517.html

Cashwell, C.S., Bentley, D.P., & Yarborough, P. (2007). The only way out is through: The peril of spiritual bypass. Counseling and Values, 51, 139-148.

Cashwell, C.S., Myers, J.E., & Shurts, W. M. (2004). Using the Developmental Counseling and Therapy Model to work with a client in spiritual bypass: Some preliminary considerations. Journal of Counseling and Development, 82, 403-409.

Clarke, P.B., Giordano, A.L., Cashwell, C.S., & Lewis, T.F. (2013). The straight path to healing: Using motivational interviewing to address spiritual bypass. Journal of Counseling and Development, 91, 87-94.

Courtois, C. A., & Ford, J. D. (2013). Treatment of complex trauma: A sequenced,relationship-based approach. N.Y. (U.S.):The Guilford Press.

Duncan, G. (2000). Mind-body dualism and the biopsychosocial model of pain: What did Descartes really say? Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 25(4), 485-513.

Feinberg, A. E. (2015). Relationships that appear to contribute to the development of an earned-secure attachment (Masters thesis, Smith College). Theses, Dissertations, and Projects. Paper 707. i-65. Retrieved from http://scholarworks.smith.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1784&context=theses

Fenner, P. (2003). Nonduality and therapy: Awakening the unconditioned mind. In J.J. Prendergast, P. Fenner, & S. Krystal (Eds.), The sacred mirror: Nondual wisdom and psychotherapy(pp. 23-56). St. Paul, U.S.: Paragon House.

Fonagy, P. (2006). The mentalization-focused approach to social development. In J.G. Allen, & P. Fonagy (Eds.), Handbook of mentalization-based treatment. (pp. 53-99). The Atrium, Southern Gate, Chichester, West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Granqvist, P. (2010). Religion as attachment: The Godin Award Lecture. Archive for the Psychology of Religion, 32, 5-24.

Granqvist, P., Fransson, M., & Hagekull, B. (2009). Disorganized attachment, absorption, and new age spirituality: a meditational model. Attachment & Human Development, 11(4), 385-403.

Granqvist, P., & Hagekull, B. (2001). Seeking security in the new age: On attachment and emotional compensation. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40(3), 527-545.

Granqvist. P., Hagekull, B., Ivarsson, T., & Broberg, A.G. (2007). Examining relations among attachment, religiosity, and new age spirituality using the Adult Attachment Interview. Developmental Psychology, 43(3), 590-601.

Granqvist, P., Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P.R. (2010). Religion as attachment: Normative processes and individual differences. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 49-59.

Hall, T. W. (2007). Psychoanalysis, attachment, and spirituality Part 1: The emergence of two relational traditions. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 35(1), 14-28.

Hall, T.W., Fujikawa, A., Halcrow, S.R., Hill, P.C., & Delaney, H. (2009). Attachment to God and implicit spirituality: Clarifying correspondence and compensation models. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 37(4), 227-242.

Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Harris, B. (1994). Kundalini and healing in the west. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 13(2), 75-79.

Heller, D. (2012, October 26). Presencing secure attachment [Webinar]. Psychotherapy Networker “Attachment Theory in Action”. https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org

Heller, L., & LaPierre, A. (2012). Healing developmental trauma: How early trauma affects self-regulation, self-image, and the capacity for relationship. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Johnson, R.A. (1991). Owning your own shadow: Understanding the dark side of the psyche. N.Y., U.S.: HarperCollins Publishers.

Josephs, E., & Zettl, L. Canadian Foundation for Trauma Research & Education (CFTRE): Self Regulation Therapy practitioner trainings. http://www.cftre.com

Kornfield, J. (n.d.). Even the best meditators have old wounds to heal. 1-3. Retrieved from http://www.buddhanet/psymed1.htm

Kurtz, R. (2015). Body-centered psychotherapy: The Hakomi method. Mendocino, CA: LifeRhythm.

Levine, P.A. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Lumiere, L.M. (2003). Healing trauma in the eternal now. In J.J. Prendergast, P. Fenner, & S. Krystal (Eds.), The sacred mirror: Nondual wisdom and psychotherapy(pp. 249-267). St. Paul, U.S.: Paragon House, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Lumiere, L.M. (2012). The ultimate secure base: Healing insecure attachment in the nondual field. Undivided: The Online Journal of Nonduality and Psychology. 1-16. Retrieved from  http://undividedjournal.com/2012/11/29/the-ultimate-secure-base-healing-insecure-attachment-in-the-nondual-field/

Mallinckrodt, B. (2000). Attachment, social competencies, social support, and interpersonal process in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy Research, 10(3), 239-266.

Maltby, L.E., & Hall, T.W. (2012). Trauma, attachment, and spirituality: A case study. Journal of Psychology & Theology, 40(4), 302-312.

Manley, R. (2016). Attachment, trauma, and the therapeutic relationship. BC Psychologist, Summer, 10-12.

Masis, K.V. (2002). American Zen and psychotherapy. In P. Young-Eisendrath, & S. Muramoto, (Eds.), Awakening and insight:Zen Buddhism and psychotherapy(pp. 147-167). N.Y., U.S.: Brunner-Routledge.

Masters, R.A. (2010). Spiritual bypassing: When spirituality disconnects us from what really matters. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Masters, R.A. (n.d.). Spiritual bypassing: Avoidance in holy drag. 1-3. Retrieved from http://robertmasters.com/writings/spiritual-bypassing/

McDonald, A., Beck, R., Allison, S., & Norsworthy, L. (2005). Attachment to God and parents: Testing the correspondence vs. compensation hypotheses. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 24(1), 21-28.

Mental Health Daily, Mental Health Blog (n.d.). Self-directed neuroplasticity: Consciously changing your brain function. 1-9. Retrieved fromhttp://mentalhealthdaily.com/2015/02/20/self-directed-neuroplasticity-consciously-changing-your-brain-function/

Michaelson, S. (n.d.). Why we suffer: The spiritual bypass-and other articles. 1-10. Retrieved from http://petermichaelson.blogspot.ca/p/spiritual-bypass.html

Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P.R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York (U.S.): The Guilford Press.

Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P.R., & Berant, E. (2012). An attachment perspective on therapeutic processes and outcomes. Journal of Personality, 81(6), 606-616.

Neale, M. (2012). Spiritual bypassing: When practice becomes escape. Presented at Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science, Sponsored by Go Yoga, Brooklyn, April 29. 1-5. Retrieved from www.milesneale.com/wp-content/uploads/…/Spiritual-Bypassing.Neale_.Notes_.pdf

Ogden, P., & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor psychotherapy: Interventions for trauma and attachment. N.Y., U.S.: W.W. Norton & Company.

Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy.  N.Y., U.S.: W.W. Norton & Company.

Peal, J. (2013, January 20). 20 responses to the ultimate secure base: Healing insecure attachment in the nondual field. [Blog post].  Retrieved from http://undividedjournal.com/2012/11/29/the-ultimate-secure-base-healing-insecure-attachment-in-the-nondual-field/

Perry, B.D., Pollard, R.A., Blakley, T.L., Baker, W.L., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits”.  Infant Mental Health Journal, Winter, 16(4), 271-291.

Poitou, N. (1997). The spiritual emergence process: A clinical approach. 1-8. Retrieved from http://www.nancypoitou.com/TheSpiritualEmergenceProcess.en.html

Porges, S.W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. N.Y., U.S.: W.W. Norton & Company.

Porges, S. W. (2013, May 1). Beyond the brain: How the vagal system holds the secret to treating trauma [Webinar]. National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM). https://www.nicabm.com/

Post, R.M., Weiss, S.R.B., Smith, M., Li, H., & McCann, U. (1997). Kindling versus quenching: Implications for the evolution and treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,821, 285-295.

Prendergast, J.J., & Bradford, G.K. (Eds.). (2007). Listening from the heart of silence: Nondual wisdom and psychotherapy. Volume 2. St. Paul, U.S.: Paragon House.

Prendergast, J.J., Fenner, P., & Krystal, S. (Eds.). (2003). The sacred mirror: Nondual wisdom and psychotherapy. St. Paul, U.S.: Paragon House.

Ryan, R.M., Brown, K.W., & Creswell, J.D. (2007). How integrative is attachment theory? Unpacking the meaning and significance of felt security. Psychological Inquiry, 18(3), 177-182.

Schore, A.N. (2002). Dysregulation of the right brain: a fundamental mechanism of traumatic attachment and the psychopathogenesis of posttraumatic stress disorder. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 36(1), 9-30.

Schore, A.N. (2005). Back to basics: Affect regulation, and the developing right brain: Linking developmental neuroscience to pediatrics. Pediatrics in Review, 6(26), 204-217.

Schore, A.N. (2009). Right-brain affect regulation: An essential mechanism of development, trauma, dissociation, and psychotherapy. In D. Fosha, D.J. Siegel, & M. Solomon (Eds.), The healing power of emotion: Affective neuroscience, development, and clinical practice(pp. 112-144). New York, U.S.: W.W. Norton & Company.

Schore, A.N., & Siegel, D.J. (2008). The Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology. Frontispiece to Badenoch, B. Being a brain-wise therapist: A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology, N.Y., U.S.: W.W. Norton & Company.

Shaver, P.R., Lavy, S., Saron, C.D., & Mikulincer, M. (2007). Social foundations of the capacity for mindfulness: An attachment perspective. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 264-271.

van IJzendoorn, M.H., & Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. (1996). Attachment representations in mothers, fathers, adolescents, and clinical groups: A meta-analytic search for normative data. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(1), 8-21.

Wallin, D. (2007). Attachment in psychotherapy. N.Y., U.S.: Guilford Press.

Wallin, D. (2014). We are the tools of our trade: How the therapist’s own attachment patterns shape therapy. Workshop, May 17, San Francisco, CA.

Welwood, J. (1984). Principles of inner work: Psychological and spiritual. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology,16(1), 63-73.

Welwood, J. (2000). Toward a psychology of awakening: Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the path of personal and spiritual transformation. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.