Safe space and the Sentinel

Maslow started with the basics – first the physiological foundation, the primitive needs of keeping ourselves fed, watered and sheltered. Without safety our ability to function is compromised, our performance is stilted by low-level stress-rUnderneath the treeeactions that arise from insecurity. Our cognition often fogged. Our creativity dulled.

Our brains are very good at perceiving any failings in safety.

In eastern tradition the Buddha found enlightenment sitting at the foot of the Bodhi tree. In the text the tree provided a safe place, it “had his back" as neuroscientist Rick Hanson puts it. When we feel safe our brains are liberated. Knowing that we are somehow protected we can rest.

sentinelsWatching the behaviours of other social animals such as horses there is insight. The sentinels, those that watch the horizon from the periphery of the herd, they watch over their fellows as they sleep. They hold a safe space in which their fellows might rest.

Remember: we too are social animals.

Humans need their tribes like horses need their herds. Animals in community are animals that are safe. One function of community is to watch out for others. Providing comfort and support. According to psychologist Stephen Porges the primary response of a social animal to challenge is to reach out to our peers. A response that is so effective that we are often not even aware we are undertaking it.

This said the flip-side is often also true, though hardwired to stand by each other, we too often damage each other. Not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally. fMRI work has discovered that social exclusion generates exactly the same pain responses in the brain as does physical injury. It really does hurt when people are mean to us, or we lose a close-friend or relative.

It is not just about the more obvious situations of exclusion or loss, but the myriad of mini punishments that our body transmits , the sneers, the narrowing eyes, the slight turn away. A catalogue “micro cuts” that puncture our soul.

It is not just love and kindness that we share.

We are not singularities

Science increasingly recognises the importance of social connection and cooperation across the natural world. In her book "The Social Instinct" Nicola Raihini celebrates the importance of cooperation in evolutionary success. We are nature, and as such we share its attributes, deep within we are profoundly drawn to others. Yet something seems to be "lost".

In the 1970s Margaret Thatcher famously stated that there is "no such thing as society", she was espousing the economic theories of Milton Friedman, an idea that came to shape her political vision. In the late 20th century there was an increasing growth of the individual as an island, in the 80s and 90s that which bound society slowly (and largely out-of-sight) fractured. First in economic behaviour, and then in community.

It is strangely ironic that now in the 21st we are using cyber space to recreate some kind of community. But it is not the same. It is too often, primarily in practice, a celebration of the ones self.

A virtual friend in another continent cannot “have your back" like the Bodhi tree held space for the Buddha. Nor can they stand sentinel like horses in their herd. The real properties and qualities, and so benefit of community, are emergent properties of the shared interactions of our physical proximity. This co-operation pre-dates language.

Evolution has hard-wired this behaviour. Sadly Mr Friedman, under the skin, we are much more than a collective of individually acting islands.

We have a responsibility for those around us, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. How we treat others can affect both their physical and mental health. There is a need to hold space for each other, to be present for those proximate.

We are not singularities. Nor have we ever been, and emotionally we do not expect to be. There is a responsibility within our relationships. It is time to re-engage with them.

I am your safety, and you are mine.

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