As we continue to meditate we see that one thing which we need to develop in order to increasingly free and happy is the capacity for investigation. Investigation means that we move to see things clearly, just as they are. First we strengthen our capacity for awareness; then we increasingly investigate the present moment. Our practice a kind of moment-to-moment noting of our ongoing experience, and our reaction to that experience, and allows the coming together of the multiple, varied and fragmented events which we have gone through in our lives and which still have an impact upon our sensations and our emotions.
This process of awareness and investigation is similar to the holding process which Winnicott said was necessary for ongoing integration. In childhood, the environment around the baby is of paramount importance, allowing growth as the baby begins to understand the differences between itself and others, and not see these differences as overwhelming threats. Thus the baby begins a process of integration which continues little by little throughout life. It occurs in the intersection between the body and the mind as the child is able to gradually allow distance to appear between itself and the caregiver, with the caregiver allowing the holding space to grow wider, as the child becomes able to function independently. It develops the ability to be alone, through the presence of others. The caregiver offers an emotional constancy which is predictable and consistent, and with the assurance he or she is someone who can be reached if needed. In this way, difficult moments can be faced without the child feeling a fear of annihilation.
We echo this in meditation. What happens is that by sitting silently, and becoming more still in our aloneness, we develop inside ourselves an increasing capacity to hold in awareness and investigate the experiences which have left their traces in our body and in our mind. We create a similar holding environment inside ourselves which allows our fears to come out safely and be healed. Meditation is not some escape from our experiences or an artificial haven to run to when times get stressed. It is, rather, a place where we hold the things that scare us, and in holding them, slowly heal them.
Was out walking this afternoon in the lovely mild sunshine. Saw the beginnings of growth after this strange short winter, and a farmer working at ploughing her field. Got me reflecting on the conditions that are needed for us to feel safe and grow. There is no such thing as a typical winter; just the winter we have had. We cannot oblige the seasons to start and end exactly when we want. And as Winnicott said, when we were young, the conditions did not have to be perfect, just “good enough”. There just had to be enough security to allow us to be, before rushing us into doing. Parents just have to do their best and then the basic good conditions that allow love to grow take over. We just have to trust that this is the case.
If we do not trust, then we doubt our fundamental goodness and begin to push too hard or not do enough. The seeds may get laid down in infancy if a parent does not have an interior space or is confused in his or her signals. This can leave the young psyches having to do too much, too early, leading to us being “caught up in a false self and a compulsive cycle of “doing” to conceal the absence of “being”. In the adult ironically this lack of trust in being can manifest as the tendency to try to do more, to be perfect, to always give more. I see that I can get caught in this believed thought, seeking my security there. Then if something goes wrong I feel that is due to the fact that I did not do enough. A lot of energy goes into this self-judgment because it is dealing with material that is laid down very early in life.
The best way to work with this is to sit in silence, to nourish “fundamental trust”. There we return to just being and find contentment with that, no matter what the inner critical voice says. We do this in meditation. But we also have to do it in our relationships with others. One does not have to be perfect in relationships, no matter how others may expect us to be. There too, being is more important than doing : one just has to be present. We should not wait for the moment to be “perfect” to reach out and do something for others. This moment is good enough. What is needed is trust in the present moment, in reality, which becomes the most important “holding environment” for us. Trust means that we accept that things just happen in certain ways and are not due to personal failings on our side. And then we work with the moment as it is. It can be imperfect, but it is where we grow, even if we would prefer it to be otherwise.
In order to communicate very openly with the world, you need to develop fundamental trust. This kind of trust is not trusting“in”something, but simply trusting. It is very much like your breath. You do not consciously hold on to your breath, or trust in your breath, yet breathing is your very nature. In the same way, to be trusting is your very nature. To be trusting means you are fundamentally free from doubt about your goodness and about the goodness of others.
Dr. Jeremy Hayward
In order for a secure sense of self to develop, caregivers need to be attuned to the child’s desires. They need to be able to set aside their own needs in order to have the space to respond to the child’s emotional and physical needs. On the one hand, this means that they address the child’s needs promptly, so that the child feels secure. Using modern means of communication as an analogy, at times they need to respond to the child as if they have received an Instant Message and not wait for an email.
However, as well as being able to respond to certain needs swiftly, they also have to be able to leave the child alone, without insisting that it be there for their needs. They have to provide a non-demanding presence during times of rest so the child can simply be and develop its sense of being, before any need to do anything or earn the parents’ attention. In this way the child learns to simply enjoy each moment, without any intrusive aims or fears.
Winnicott calls this state “going-on-being” and writes about the importance of this capacity to allow the child simply exist: The mother’s non-demanding presence makes the experience of formlessness and comfortable solitude possible, and this capacity becomes a central feature in the development of a stable and personal self. This makes it possible for the infant to experience …a state of going on being…out of which…spontaneous gestures emerge.
We can see here the importance of being before doing. If the parent is excessively working through its own needs then it can happen that he or she impinges on the child’s quiet time, and continually draws the child’s attention. One consequence is that the child has to attune too early to the needs of others, rather than having time just for itself. In later life as an adult he or she can repeat this dynamic in a number of ways. One is by repeating the parents’ pattern and continually create interruptions and dramas. So, for example, when a relationship is in danger of being reliable the person repeats the drama of the parents – because that is more familiar – thus preventing the other person getting too close. The parents’ dynamic means that only unhealthy relationships are maintained; sadly, ones that have the potential to grow are rejected. Or the adult compulsively neglects his or her own needs, looking after others in an excessive way. In both cases we can see that, in a sense, the child has never managed to leave home.
This is where meditation practice can help. As Jon Kabat Zinn stated again in a talk which I was present at recently, we are essentially human beings before we are human doings. Sitting practice recreates a period when we can just simply be, without having to acheive anything. We simply watch the mind and body without holding on to anything or pushing anything away. This has the capacity to recreate and heal our early life experiences. As Gil Fronsdal has said, mindfulness practice can act as an antidote to the hurt caused by parents who did not have the space to truly see their children. He says that by being mindful, by quietening the mind, by being simply present with our experience, we are loving and healing ourselves. We learn to sit with ourselves and our lives as they are, without having to be afraid of them and try continually to fix them.
Being comfortable with our life as it is, does not just mean that we are ok with the external elements in our life, such as our job, where we live, our relationships. It also means that we have some degree of comfort and security in our sense of self. The self can be understood as the system that organizes our experience. It consists of the sensations, feelings, thoughts, and attitudes we have toward ourself and towards the world.
Our emotional health is related to us having a cohesive, strong, balanced and joyful sense of self. When this is not so strong, and we are constantly uncertain of ourselves, we may find that we are always looking for approval and the validation of others. We can get unduly knocked down by their criticism. In other words, when we feel we are disapproved of, we feel crushed, and when we are praised, we are on cloud nine. Our sense of value comes not from within ourselves, but is dependent on others. If we have a dependent personality structure, we are incredibly quick at sensing what will please others and will do those things in order to gain security. However, because our sense of self is reactive, we can find our moods changing constantly, as if blown by the wind.
On the other hand, when we have a strong inner sense of self-cohesion we have confidence about the acceptability of our personality even when others are not around. We develop a sense of inner security, and this inner resilience calms us in times of stress. We can bounce back from the inevitable wounds which are caused by temporary failures, rejections, and disappointments. When we are young this sense of self grows through a dependence on significant others, However, this dependence on others reduces as we develop and we find a secure base inside ourselves. In other words, we can regulate our emotions inside ourselves, without too strong a need for others. We are secure with ourselves. We are able to be psychologically alone.
Winnicott spoke of the development of this capacity to be alone. He said that as we develop as a child we receive love from our parents. This allows us to begin to feel secure within ourselves and crucially we internalize the feelings of love which we receive from our parents. We incorporate the sense of security, safety and confidence into our body, mind, and psyche, so that, normally sometime around the age of four or so, we have arrived at the psychological capacity to be alone.
Winnicott used a lovely image to illustrate this secure sense of self. He said that “therapy is completed when a child can play alone”. What he means, is that the child is secure enough inside him or herself that it is content with his or her own company, by itself, regardless of the mood, actions or attentions of the parent. This is a key sign of growing confidence in the developing self but is crucial for us as adults also. We too need the contentment with ourselves that we can “play” alone, without needing to look over our shoulders to others for their validation.
Does meditation help in this? It does, but with certain cautions. It is clear that silent sitting increases our capacity to be with ourselves. As I have said before, through it we learn to be with ourselves, allowing our fears arise and pass away without giving them undue space, because we are strengthening our contentment with ourselves. We can develop our capacity to be at home in the silence. As Ajahn Sucitto wrote, in meditation it is “time to go home”, where we find our own space “bright and cheery”. Meditation helps us be with ourselves, in this moment, not always leaning forward. In the context of this reflection on our secure self, this means that we are not leaning onto other people for their presence; we are content with our own.
However, meditation can sometimes be used to run away from this work of strengthening our sense of self. As Jack Engler, a psychotherapist and meditation practitioner, said, “You have to acquire a sense of self before you can lose a sense of self.” Thus meditation practice and psychological work need to progress hand-in-hand. John Welwood* has written extensively in this area, and reminds us that sometimes we can be attracted to “teachings about selflessness and ultimate states, which seem to provide a rationale for not dealing with [our] … own psychological wounding. In this way, [we]… use Eastern teachings to cover up … incapacity in the personal and interpersonal realm”. We can use the teachings as an outside, substitute family, and this can slow down the necessary work of developing the inner secure base which will anchor us through life.
So psychological work needs to proceed alongside spiritual work. What steps can we take to strengthen our sense of self? How can we develop this secure base? I will give some ideas in the next related post but just to start here with the first step, awareness. When young, we form mental representations or “Internal Working Models” (i.e., expectations, beliefs, “rules” or “scripts” for behaving and thinking) regarding relationships, based on our early caregiving experience. Getting to know those models by gently reflecting on our relationship patterns is a key to moving on, and to stop repeating patterns which just serve to strengthen our insecure self. In other words, understand your childhood insecurity and the force it still contains. Identify the pattern and the pain which manifests in the way you approach relationships now.
In the next post of this series I will look at other ways we can work on our inner securuity.
*John Welwood, “Embodying your realization: Psychological work in the service of Spiritual Development” www.johnwelwood.com/articles/Embodying.pdf
I frequently say to people I work with that one of the key things is how we deal with disappointment. It is a necessary skill, because it is a frequent and inevitable occurance in an imperfect world. Each one of us has our own way of working with the discomfort coming from disappointments in our plans or in other people. These ways are often based on how well our parents helped us deal with early shocks and disappointments, or whether they tried to shield us from the ups and downs of reality. Sometimes a parent can think that the best way to raise their child is to shower them with protection and insulate them from moments when they or the world are less than perfectly loving. However, the child has to learn to live in the real world, and the real world isn’t perfect. In other words, it is right - and leads to the development of a healthy psyche – that the child is gently disappointed and comes to understand that it is not always possible to have people around them who understand and respond perfectly to their every wish. Even from an early age we have to learn to share, take our turn in games, postpone our own gratification and acknowledge that other people have needs, moods and different agendas.
Rather than a parent having to being perfect all the time, English Psychotherapist Winnicott said that they just had to be “good enough”. This means that the parent provides enough support - or “holding” – to support the child without going to the extremes of stifling it or of abandoning it. The skill of the “good-enough parent” is to give the child a sense of loosening when faced with new situations rather than the shock and subsequent fear of being ‘dropped’. This allows the child develop resources, maintain a sense of control and stops them from feeling that the world is unsafe all the time.
If this happens successfully, the challanges of life do not frighten because the child builds up interior resources. It means that relationships does not threaten because, paradoxically, a smothering early closeness can trigger fears of engulfment in later life. And it means that the adult has a healthier structure for dealing with disappointment because as a child he or she has learned that life and people can not be perfect all the time. Often our disappointments do not arise so much from what actually happened, but more from how we compare what happened to our expectations, our inner patterns or our fixed version of reality. Disappointment show us that life - like the good enough parent - is not always available to us in the fixed way we want or whenever we demand it, but is still good despite that.
For this reason disappointments are good teachers. They allow us to see that there is more to us than our conscious thoughts and desires. They reveal how we can be attached to a specific version of how things should be, or of what life owes us. This does not mean they are easy because trying to avoid what disappoints is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. However, we grow more quickly if we are open to working with disappointments rather than avoiding them. Rather than being negative, they can become positive moments of growth, leading us away from the suffering which is based on our lack of understanding of the deep reality of change.
Our culture has evolved into one that is pleasure-based and ego-identified, and that emphasizes immediate gratification. It also began to define success as your ability to control outcomes. Today, we teach our children that if you are an effective person, you can control your life. You can get and do what you want. If you do, you win in life. This modern image portrays “winners” as people who have it all together. You are not supposed to have internal conflicts, stress, or anxiety—that means you are incompetent. …… But this perspective flattens life. It denies the possibility of finding a deeper meaning to your experience. If you measure your self-worth and effectiveness according to these superficial cultural standards, then each time you suffer you are forced to interpret suffering as humiliation. Why would you choose to acknowledge suffering if it only stands for failure?
Phillip Moffitt, How Suffering got a Bad Name
Sometimes it is healthier to be alone. There are times in life when it is right to choose it – to move from the fear of being alone, to the ability to savour it. Mastering this ability is all about living a life in which we can feel whole and happy inside ourselves, and can take care of ourselves emotionally.
This capacity to be alone is one of the most important signs of maturity in emotional development. In Winnicott’s theory of the development of the self, our ability to be alone is formed through the awareness of a stable loving presence. When we are secure in the knowledge of being cared for, we develop the capacity to be by ourselves. If that knowledge was not formed fully when we were little, we can sometimes throw ourselves into relationships and activities in later life because we do not like being with ourselves. Being able to be alone is the best preparation for healthy relationships because it is founded on a security deep inside and we are not using the relationship to run away from our insecurities.
Therefore, the best model for later life is the child playing contently by itself. Maybe this is why sitting practice is so effective; through it we learn to sit with ourselves, allowing our fears and anxiety arise and pass away without giving them undue space. We can develop strong roots, content in ourselves, at home in the silence, not running, planted firmly.
Therapy is completed when a child can play alone