Safety, Satisfaction and Connection
The other day I heard an interview with Dr. Rick Hanson, in which he said that there are three central needs humans have: safety, satisfaction and connection, in that order. It struck me that the series of six questions we have been working with here address these three issues in that same order.
The first three questions address issues of safety. What is my intention here? is a question we can ask when we are about to do or say something that might make things worse. If I see that my intention is to get back at someone for something, I can recognize the unskillfulness there, and reset my intention to be present and compassionate.
What am I afraid of? allows us to see our fears and explore them in a safe way. Our minds are programmed to operate from fear, but our health suffers if we are in constant state of high alert, so some self-awareness and discernment is valuable.
Are the stories I am telling myself true? is a question that can play an essential role of keeping us safe, not escalating a potentially dangerous situation.
While a certain degree of safety planning is wise, living constantly on high alert actually puts us in more jeopardy. So these first three questions are valuable. Instead of believing everything we tell ourselves, thus defining all that arises in our experience as ‘enemy’, we learn to see with more clarity and compassion for ourselves and others. This enables us to respond skillfully rather than react in ways that activate fear in others, putting all in danger.
Once we feel safe, finding meaning and happiness in life becomes central. This can be a tricky transition when coming off the adrenaline high of fear. We may need to make sense of the trauma of a scary and perhaps scarring experience. Or we may be bored because that intense focus on survival was exhilarating. It’s easy to get stuck in this post-survival mode and not know how to proceed. Instead of succumbing to listlessness or restlessness, and all the unskillful activities and diversions that might seem like a good idea at the time, we can continue to work with those first three questions: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Are the stories I am telling myself true? to help create space in the tangle of thoughts and emotions that keep us feeling trapped.
We can also step into an active exploration of satisfaction in our lives. Instead of looking at our external situation and thinking that others are to blame for any lack of happiness or meaning, we ask our question What am I cultivating here? This question allows us to see how our thoughts, words, actions or lack of action are creating the life we are living. We can look at the various beneficial qualities that we could cultivate within us to bring about a positive difference in our lives. Beyond those universally shared qualities, we each have inherent gifts and interests that, when cultivated and engaged in make us feel more fully alive, authentic and joyful. We find satisfaction.
Once we feel safe and satisfied, we are able to make wholesome connections. This might mean finding others who share our interests and enthusiasms. The internet and apps like Meetup have made this much easier to do. But there are also local colleges, adult education programs and community centers. There is no reason for anyone to be isolated. Once we find a group, it’s skillful to develop friends within that group with whom the sense of connection goes beyond just a single shared interest. In later life sometimes we have to give up certain activities. Having friends whose connection is deeper than just a shared enjoyment of a particular activity then becomes more valuable.
Connecting with Family
Deepening existing connections or reconnecting with family members who have been estranged, can become a rich source of joy. Once we are not operating out of fear, it can be surprising how deep friendships can develop between family members. If not, too bad, but it’s definitely worth questioning outdated assumptions and giving connection a try.
Connecting with neighbors is not just convenient and enjoyable, but creates greater safety. Don’t wait for a crisis to get to know your neighbors. You may not share ideologies or interests, but you do have shared concerns about your immediate surroundings. Back in the day neighbors knew each other because there was no television, no air conditioning and people typically sat out on the front stoop or porch, or hung out at the local park or pub, creating true community. Now most of us retreat indoors, and while there are certainly pleasures there, a lot of sense of connection has been lost. The app Nextdoor has become a big boon to developing neighborly connection, but nothing beats getting together occasionally for a block party or other community gathering.
How can I help?
Connection is also finding how the qualities and talents that we have been cultivating can benefit not just us, but family, friends, community, the earth and ultimately all beings. So our final question of the series is How can I help?
Mr. Rogers is famous for saying in a crisis ‘look for the helpers.’ The helpers are not necessarily specially qualified people like police, firefighters, teachers or nurses. Helpers are simply people who understand that we are all in this together, that we are all connected.
Skin is not a boundary but a porous surface. Where is the true edge of ‘me’? The air we breathe in and out is shared by all beings alive today and throughout history. We are intrinsic fleeting expressions of ever-changing electrical impulses and chemicals combining and recombining; complex systems, networks and processes generating and regenerating — birth, growth, death, decay, and new life, arising and falling away.
Our differences are relatively recent man-made distinctions for purposes of learning and examining, grouping shared characteristics into categories and divisions like phylum, class, family, genus, and species. This is a convenience for study but an inconvenience for in-depth perception of being. The more we are able to sense that simple but powerful truth, the more we can rest in the gift of being alive in this moment, just as it is.
A sense of connection is central to our deepest feeling of safety and understanding the nature of existence. If we cling to the idea of a separate self, we feel unsafe. We defend this separate-seeming fortress of self. If we do try to help someone else, it is from a finite depletable source, and our intention is to be seen as a good person, a nice person to gain approval, love, power and safety. But that’s not the way it works, and we are left feeling more isolated and afraid. Trying to be a ‘nice person’ we give ourselves away in the process of helping. That’s not helpful! Nobody is asking for sacrifice. Instead, if everyone shared from that undepletable source, how joyously we all would live.
If you have been reading this blog or doing Buddhist practice for long, you recognize that this kind of help is based in metta, infinite loving kindness. Just as when we do metta practice, we always begin with ourselves. We say ‘May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be at peace. May I be happy.’ or other general blessings of that nature. Once we feel the infinite quality of metta rising within us, we naturally share it. We think of someone in particular need of loving kindness, or with whom we have a challenging relationship, and we say ‘May you be well.’ Because metta is infinite in nature, it grows and glows to encircle the whole planet and beyond, and we say ‘May all beings be well.’
Only when we are able to hold ourselves in loving kindness are we able to radiate it. In giving, it grows stronger with use, like a muscle. As we do this (and regular meditation practice), we grow in our ability to be present and compassionate. We don’t feel separate, so ‘we have nothing to defend, nothing to fear, nothing to prove. But we have something to give.’
If that last phrase sounds familiar, it is because I have shared it before in my teaching and in this blog. It is an insight I had on a retreat, and it became my mantra for the past many years whenever I find myself caught up in fear-based patterns. Feel free to use it if it helps you.
When we sense our intrinsic connection to all life, fear dissolves. Whether we come to our understanding through studying science — the microbial nature of being and how we are all stardust — or we feel it intuitively, it’s an understanding that makes a huge difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us. It’s not just a piece of knowledge but a way of life.
See for yourself! Notice how someone’s authentic smile or words of kindness affect your whole day. Notice how critical, angry fear-based words or harsh looks affect you. Can you recognize that your looks, words and actions are equally powerful? Without realizing it, you are impacting all lives around you because you are intrinsically connected. Just by living we make a difference. The question is what kind of difference are we making?
Coming full circle
In moments of danger, often our deep understanding of inherent oneness brings out our instinct to help. Probably you have seen at least some of the many Youtube videos of humans helping to save animals. Whenever there is a crisis, people surprise themselves with the physical strength to lift a vehicle off a trapped passenger or the stamina to stay up all night to help rescue fleeing fire victims.
These moments have a powerful sense of purpose. All of which can make us adrenaline junkies. Because we like the person we become in a moment of crisis. But we don’t need crisis to be a helper. There is always someone in need. We may not believe that is true because we compare our messy insides with others’ polished outsides and can’t imagine that they need help or that we have something of value to offer them. But we are all the same stardust after all. If we can reveal a little of our own feelings of vulnerability, then we find deeper connection and understanding.
We also can expand our idea of what helping is. In a crisis it is so clear, but once the crisis has passed, what do we have to offer? What about entertainment, inspiration, education, beauty, humor? If you have eased someone’s mind for a time by sharing an enjoyable, funny or uplifting experience in any way, that’s helping! If others have benefited from your skillful sharing of knowledge and experience, that’s helping! If you are part of a support team for the care of family members or friends, that’s helping! If you clean up litter, if you make wise environmental choices, if you turn the lights off when you leave a room, that’s helping! If you donate to caring causes, that’s helping! If you vote, that’s helping! If you take good care of your body so that you will stay healthy, that’s helping!
Chances are you are probably already helping; you just might not be seeing it that way. So much depends on your intention, which brings us back to the first question in this series: What is my intention here? Whatever way you make a living, spend your time and engage with the world, when you question your intention, you may discover that you are indeed a helper.
Where are you in exploring these six valuable life questions? Spend time with one that is meaningful for you right now. And use them all whenever you feel unsafe, unsatisfied or disconnected.
Your feedback please!
Please let me know if this series of questions has been meaningful for you. I am considering putting it into at least a PDF downloadable form, if not a book. Let me know if that would be of interest to you.