Developing a Secure Sense of Self 3: Attunement and how meditation can help

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.

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