[Adapted from Tara Bennett-Goleman, Mind Whispering, 2013]

In 2004 I heard Phil Shaver present to the Dalai Lama on John Bowlby’s model of a ‘secure base’. I had an epiphany that we can each turn toward an “inner” secure base.  Bowlby, one of the most influential forces in child development, said that caretakers create a secure base for a child if they empathize, tune in to his or her needs, and let the child know they are there as a safe haven during upsets or to soothe anxiety and worry.

In today’s challenging times we can all use such a secure base.

Shaver’s research focused on how our experience of a secure base in childhood, for better or worse, shapes our closest adult relationships.  His then-newest research, done with Mario Milkunicer, looked at ways we could prime feelings of a secure base by, for example, looking at photos of loved ones. As Shaver has found, those photos of loved ones we put on our desk are momentary secure base primes, as are even just hearing works like “love” or “hug”, or seeing a foto of a mom cradling her baby.

Then there’s being with the right person.  That “right” person would be one who comes to mind when you ask yourself who you like to spend time with, whom you turn to for comfort when you’re upset, or who do you feel you can always count on. A relationship can itself be reparative if we find a loving partner or loyal friend who fulfills our childhood unmet secure base needs

One way to give ourselves that sense of a secure base, Shaver’s research shows, depends on being with the right person or a reminder.  But, I realized, there’s another way, one we can do for ourselves: spiritual and psychological practices can play a similar role.

As I reflected on what Shaver had said at that 2004 meeting, I saw how this related to the years of integrating awareness and compassion perspectives and practices I had done, inspired by and drawn from ancient Eastern wisdom traditions—as well as some Western psychotherapeutic approaches. These practices, too, I realized, were like the secure base primes Shaver described. I called the experience created by these practices an “inner secure base.”

This integration of Eastern and Western psychologies and the inner secure base model was one I started to incorporate back then into my psychotherapy practice, and still teach in workshops I give with my husband, Daniel Goleman. As I put it in my 2013 book Mind Whispering, “It can make a huge difference to have someone who cares about us when our primal needs are unmet. But if there is no such other person, it’s not too late to connect with those qualities within our own minds and hearts.”

In this sense there can be two doors to the secure base – one inner and the other outer. While we can turn to loving people to prime this mode, we can also look inward. There are many ways to nurture these inner qualities by creating the conditions for this inner safe haven to flourish.

Our distorted relationship patterns disconnect, while our inner secure base connects. Among the many paths are: connecting genuinely with others, and so connecting genuinely within ourselves; acts of kindness; clear communication; caring concern and empathic attunement. All these prime our own secure base

So does nurturing our positive qualities – like clarity and warm-heartedness, and being less swayed by outer circumstances — finding meaning in our lives, seeing things with a clear discernment (rather than through a distorted lens).

For instance, a woman described her panic disorder, including her anxious fears that buildings would fall on her if she had to leave her house.  She was introduced to mindful breathing practice, where she focused on each inbreath and outbreath and let thoughts come and go. Along with this switch in her relationship to her thoughts she learned a cognitive therapy method for challenging distorted thinking (that  buildings would fall on her).

With these two practices she was able to stop her anxiety meds – and found that focusing on her breathing created a calm inner refuge, while strengthening a discerning clarity about her fears.  It gave her inner resources that helped her trust in the power of her own awareness – she had learned how to work with her own mind and calm her exaggerated fears.

An inner connection can be nurturing, independent of outer relationships.  An inner secure base, for example, can be from bringing to mind an inspiring leader or teacher, or nurturing friends.  Tai Chi and qigong can be connections to our inner secure base, as can simply being in nature.

The more we can turn to these internal paths, the greater our confidence grows in our inner resources.  Transforming our own minds and hearts allows this life-enhancing inner secure base to surface more and more. Eventually it might become our default mode, the state we return to habitually.

As we transform our perspectives we can live less in ways where our habits of disconnection obscure that inner secure base.  Our inner secure base can feel like a safe refuge, one we always can turn to.

The benefits of finding our inner secure base parallel those of having such a safe haven in childhood. These include feeling replete on our own rather than needing someone else to prime this secure base; being more able to accept what we can’t change and work toward changing what we can; and a more balanced perspective on our lives.

I’ve found there are many meditation practices that cultivate these qualities.  In this sense meditation – particularly awareness and compassion practices – can act as an inner reparenting, whether or not we have experienced an adequate secure base early in our life. As one woman put it, “A nurturing awareness is like a secure base that I never felt in childhood.”

Not to downplay the gravity of our current pandemic and the devastating effects it’s having throughout our world, but we are not helpless when it comes to how all that impacts our minds. The Dalai Lama said, “Of course hardships can sometimes lead to stress, and even depression.”

To prime the inner secure base in such times we may need what the Dalai Lama calls “helpful inner circumstances,” capacities we can cultivate such as adaptability, calm, equanimity, lovingkindness and insight, for example.

Meditation helps us anchor our attention in a larger awareness, one not defined by outer circumstances. Our sense of calmness and inner security grows stronger as we practice. This calmness can grow into ongoing equanimity, even in the face of life’s turbulence, as well as seeing the poignancy of our shared human condition.

Our own inner secure base can be a soothing influence on those around us. Such emotions are more contagious the more stable we are in our own compassionate awareness. And radiating this inner security outward to those we connect with is itself a form of kindhearted generosity, which can feel like a soothing balm in the face of hardship.

Having enhanced our inner secure base gives us an opportunity to help others learn to help themselves in the same way. Connecting with and sustaining our inner secure base so it becomes a steady presence inside helps relationships of all kinds. We can become someone’s secure base prime.

For instance, say a friend is having a spell of anxiety, lost in over-reaction and upset. If you simply offer your full attention, calm presence, and heartfelt empathy you are silently sharing the safe container of your secure base. Instead of saying something dismissive, like “You’re just anxious,” and then trying to talk him out of it, you can extend your sense of calm, kindness and caring. You become a safe haven for him, if only at the below-the-radar level of brain-to-brain resonance. This invites them to connect with a safe haven within themselves.

As we turn to each other, sharing stories of losses and hardships, learning from each other a sincere trust evolves and we start to feel more and more like a bonded community — from the same human family, sharing the same poignant essence. Sharing our vulnerabilities as well as our triumphs in facing adversity, we create the foundation for a shared secure base.


Our Shared Secure Base

Back in the days when a tsunami swept through the ocean shores of southeast Asia I got a call from a woman who had been trapped while on vacation with her husband in Thailand.  They were lucky enough to cling to trees as water rushed over them, and both lived.

She was a nurse, and after attending to her husband’s injuries she helped other survivors with their wounds. Months later she called me for help with the PTSD she still suffered from that catastrophe.

But as we talked, she paused to reflect in silence. Then she said, “Being able to aid others allowed me to feel less helpless in the face of this devastation.”

In the face of such a tragedy, like today’s pandemic, those who can do something may fare better afterward than do those who feel helpless. It brings to mind the heroic struggles of health care workers who put their own health at risk to help virus victims. Even thinking about such compassion helps us.

As the Dalai Lama puts it, “The space of awareness is small, so our personal distress looms large. But the moment you think of helping others, the mind expands and our own problems seem smaller.”

One way to get some sense perspective was offered by Mr.Rogers, the host of the old TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, who was himself the epitome of a secure base. Even in the days long before school shootings and 9/11, in his protectiveness he advised the toddlers who watched his show, “When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news, my mother told me, ‘Look for the helpers. You  will always find people who are helping.’”

That advice directs attention away from anxiety-provoking triggers, and toward primes for secure base. This applies to whatever those “scary things” might be. The good news is that positives are always there even if they don’t end up in our daily newsfeed.

In dealing with tragic circumstances like this global pandemic, there’s a sudden dropping away of a sense of a separate self as people rush to help in different ways. It’s as though we humans became one organism and when one part is in danger, other parts come to the rescue, like immune cells streaming to the site of an infection.

The principle of interconnection is not just some abstract principle, but real and immediate – a natural human quality that is always available to us. My sincere hope is that when the tragedy of this pandemic subsides and we return to our normal lives that we don’t just fall back into our habits of complacency, but that the sustained wake up opportunity of these unfortunate realities help us live more in alignment with a spirit of interconnection – with each other and the natural world.


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