Silver Spring, Maryland Community Online on Thursday Evening, May 21, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all Online on Friday Evening, May 22, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Dear Still Water Friends,
I’ve been absorbed for days digesting a recently published book by Bethany Saltman: Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey into the Science of Attachment. It is a wonderfully written blend of memoir, scientific biography, and spiritual journal. The memoir tells the story of a young girl who felt distant from and maltreated by her family, acted out with sex and drugs as an adolescent, found stability and inner peace as a Zen practitioner, and was confounded by the ambivalences she felt as a mother.
In looking for answers in the parenting literature, Saltman took a deep dive into the life and writings of Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist who together with the psychiatrist John Bowlby developed a radically different way to study and understand the importance of early childhood experiences, especially the importance of a “secure attachment” during the first three years of life.
The spiritual journey recounts how Saltman’s Zen practice, her new understanding of nourishing relationships, and her evolving experience as a mother, wife, and daughter helped her to recast her understanding of her own upbringing and mothering and live her life with more ease and joy.
In addition to recommending the book, I would like to highlight several of the issues the book raised for me as a mindfulness practitioner. The book also spoke to me as someone who grew up with an emotionally remote mother, whom I now understand to have had challenges of your own and who was doing the best she could.
While Mary Ainsworth’s research focused on scientifically identifying and categorizing wholesome early childhood experiences, her insights speak to all of our relationships. What matters most is a keen sensitivity to whom we are with and our willingness to offer them what they need. As Saltman explains:
Mary’s original concept of “maternal sensitivity” is revolutionary because it does not examine behavior in “absolute terms,” as Mary put it—there’s no tallying of specific behaviors that need to occur a certain number of times per hour or day for every child, no matter his or her temperament. Instead, “the most important aspect of it, I repeat, was the mother’s ability to gear her interactions to infant behavioral cues, so that despite inevitable constitutional differences among infants who later become securely attached, all had had experiences of a good ‘mesh.’ ”
The sensitive caregiver picks the baby up “when he seems to wish it, and puts him down when he wants to explore…On the other hand, the mother who responds inappropriately tries to socialize with the infant when he is hungry, play with him when he is tired, or feed him when he is trying to initiate social interaction.” What Mary was looking for was a parent’s ability to tune in to his or her child, which led to the two of them acting—as Bowlby put it—like a unit.
(Saltman notes that Ainsworth used the term “maternal sensitivity” because she was studying mothers. Ainsworth recognized, however, that a child’s primary attachment may be to a caretaker or to a father, as was the case in Ainsworth’s own life.)
And how does one recognize a secure attachment? By noticing whether there is mutual delight.
For Mary, the word “delight” is a technical term. Delight—simply defined as “a high degree of pleasure or enjoyment”—can’t be playacted with cheery smiles and a happy voice; it has to be real. As one scholar puts it, “This delight can be tender and gentle, but is not necessarily intense. It emerges during situations and behavior specific to the baby, and should not be confused with price. Delight may be present in some mothers from the beginning but may develop in others only gradually.”
Having a secure attachment, having a “secure base” mattered. Saltman explains that for Bowlby secure attachment is to a human infant very similar to what imprinting is for a duckling:
The idea of an instinctive need to connect, attach, imprint a baby upon its caregiver helped him build a case for why those early relationships were not just some soft-focus happy place motivated by hunger, but a core aspect of the mechanics of our bodies and minds —an imperative, as critical to our way of being as following is to geese. Which would help explain why the consequences of early separation and deprivation could be so dire—it was the thwarting of a basic need.
If there is not a secure base, for the child or for the adult, we keep looking for it, knowingly or unknowingly feeling its absence. Saltman wrote about her daughter Azalea being separated from her father on a ski lift, and, in panic, jumping off:
Once we get riled up, like Azalea alone on the chairlift, the only thing that slows the caregiving and attachment systems’ primordial effort is reaching its set goal—of togetherness, of safety, of intimate connection, of what researchers so tenderly call “felt security.” And when that goal isn’t reached, we keep searching for it. Forever.
Throughout the book Saltman underscores that while our early childhood experiences condition our lives, they are not our destinies. People who have “secure attachments” in their early years may flounder in the decades that follow, due to trauma, illness, and other causes. And people who have “insecure attachments” may address their challenges and transform them, developing interpersonal sensitivity and becoming a “secure base” for others.
This Thursday we will open our Dharma sharing with reflections about interpersonal sensitivity, delight, and mindfulness. What would our world be like if more of us learned to sensitively interact with others in a joyful call-and-response, “like birds singing to each other through the trees at dusk”?
Saltman’s full-hearted epilogue is below, along with a reading from Thich Nhat Hanh about understanding our pain. A helpful overview of Secure Attachment and the Strange Situation assessment tool developed by Mary Ainsworth is available online.
You are invited to join us online this Thursday and Friday evening.
by Bethany Saltman from Strange Situation
One spring morning when Thayer and I lived at the monastery, I was sitting in the zendo during dawn zazen—that beautiful time of darkness lifting—and I heard birds, first gently pecking at the silence with their back-and-forthing whistles and chirps, then growing louder into a sky-filling song. At the end of the thirty-minute period of stillness, when Thayer and I met for breakfast downstairs, I said, “Did you hear all those birds? What the heck? They were loud!” And he, younger in years but more experienced in the dharma, looked at me, smiled, and said, “So cool. Your mind is quieting.”
Learning to speak the language of attachment has been like this. Nothing has changed; everything is new.
What I’ve discovered is that by turning the mind toward love, we love. And are loved. It’s not that it works both ways; it’s that there’s only one way.
It’s like watching the sun rise after a long night of darkness, loneliness, even despair, after maybe we have begun to make our own awkward—strange—peace with darkness. And then, with one silent twist of light, day breaks.
On the inside.
Understanding The Pain
by Thich Nhat Hanh from No Mud, No Lotus
When we are in crisis or pain, we need to first take care of the immediate need, which is that crisis. Once our mindful energy has soothed our suffering, we can begin to look more deeply into its nature and sources. Just as when we have a headache, acknowledging its existence and understanding its causes helps us find the appropriate remedy for it, so understanding eases our pain and helps us transform it into compassion.
The important mindfulness practice of cultivating understanding means first of all understanding suffering: the suffering inside us and the suffering of others. A human being without understanding is a human being without compassion, utterly alone, cut off, and isolated. To connect with others, however, we first have to be willing to look deeply into ourselves.