Try a Little Tenderness

It’s not a luxury to feel loved and cared for—it’s what makes us emotionally secure. If it didn’t happen when we were children, says psychotherapist Tara Bennett-Goleman, meditation can help us develop a secure emotional base now.

Tara Bennett-Goleman13 July 2021
Illustration by Katherine Streeter.

When I was seventeen, a couple hired me as a mother’s helper to take care of their infant. One night the parents were out, and the baby and I both fell asleep early. A few hours later, the infant’s hysterical crying woke me. When I went into the baby’s room and lifted her into my arms, I could feel her poor tense body shaking from crying so much. Holding her close, I felt such warm empathy for this baby I loved, and I tried to comfort her with my voice. Suddenly, I felt a strong wave of tenderhearted compassion, almost like a surge of energy that seemed to flow out of my heart into her body. As soon as this happened, the baby melted in my arms. Her tiny body became heavy and limp, and she fell fast asleep.

Such moments are routine for parents caring for an infant, but as I was still a teenager, I had learned something new about compassion. That was the first time I had experienced so vividly how expressing a sincere, tenderhearted love just might help someone find security.

The very idea of the secure base comes from the model of a caring parent attuning to a child’s needs and making that child feel understood, loved, supported, and safe in the world. The people who love and care about us can prime this mode or emotional habit.

If we find partners or friends who are sensitive, responsive, and caring, having repeated secure-base experiences with them can be reparative, making us more able to be there for the other people in our lives. Our views of human nature take on a more positive outlook as our negative modes go limp.

It can make a huge difference to have someone who is interested in and 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. There are two doorways to the secure mode, 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 we can build the foundations of a secure mode on our own and become that source of nurturance for ourselves.

When a gardener tends to plantings, a host of conditions must be in place for the plants to flourish: tilling and fertilizing the soil, creating beds, seeding, watering, weeding, and protecting the seedlings. The more such tender loving care, the more the plants will bloom. The life-giving force you dedicate to caring for the plants in turn yields their growth.

Likewise, we can nurture the qualities of our secure mode by creating the conditions that let this inner safe haven flourish. Joining up in connectedness with nourishing people can be one, and so can joining up within. There are different levels of joining up. Our distorted modes are patterns that disconnect; our secure mode connects.

Acts of kindness, clear communication, caring concern, and empathic attunement all prime our own secure base. So does nurturing our positive qualities, finding meaning in our lives, seeing things with an accurate discernment (rather than through a distorted lens), and creating safe inner harbors. The more we use these internal paths, the greater our confidence grows in our inner resources.

Mode work itself frees our minds and hearts and lets the life-enhancing secure mode emerge as our default stance, the place inside that we return to over and over.

Beyond repairing our individual modes, this work is also about holding the view of interconnection; our confused modes obscure that view. As we transform our perspectives, we can more often live in ways that express that view.

Safe Haven

That epiphany with the crying baby came during the same period as when my first boyfriend gave me a copy of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha—the novel based on a spiritual seeker who encounters the Buddha—and then went off to college and broke up with me. At the time, I couldn’t imagine being without him; this was my first heartbreak, and it primed all my abandonment fears.

I dove into that novel as a profound refuge. I found solace in passages like the one where the seeker Siddhartha comes upon a river and a voice within instructs him to sit there and learn from it. He saw that “the water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there, it was always the same yet every moment it was different.”

Such insights helped me reframe my heartache within a larger dimension, one that affirmed the permanence of change, the nature of suffering, and the attachment that underlies it, which in turn helped me get over the loss of this important relationship.

Even years later, when I once again spent time with that first boyfriend, we considered getting back together. As I look back to that time when I was seventeen and recall the pain of that separation, I now see it as freeing myself from my attachment, which led to other worlds unfolding for me. If I hadn’t been willing to let go, hadn’t been open to change, I would have missed those opportunities.

Those weeks and months of emotional hardship fostered a new direction in my life; the adversity transformed into opportunity. I began to meditate for the first time. Having the guidance of these teachings, while going through this painful time, made me wholeheartedly plunge into meditation practice. I found I could connect with the inner refuge of a secure mode.

That led me to intensive meditation retreats, travel to India, my connection with wonderful meditation masters, and my eventual enrollment in a graduate program integrating Eastern and Western psychologies, which in turn led me to the work I do now. I sometimes feel like an inner tour guide, encouraging others to connect with the adventure within and free their minds and hearts.

Practice has been such an illuminating path to emotional freedom, awakening deep insights into my life, that I have particularly felt the need to share the benefits of meditation. These include redefining our limited sense of ourselves and of others and embracing an expanded, more spacious view of our world. A compelling fruit of meditation practice for most of us may be in finding a path to the inner refuge of the secure mode.

The secure-mode benefits of mind training include finding rich inner resources, such as feeling replete and self-contained or being more accepting of things we cannot change and feeling less need to control what we cannot. We get a more balanced perspective, one that gives us a larger view of events; we can see the sky behind the clouds—or at least remember it’s there.

These are all qualities we might hope our childhood caretakers had brought to us early in life. But whether or not they brought these secure-base qualities to their caretaking, these are still qualities we can nurture and develop within ourselves. In this sense, training in meditation is a form of inner re-parenting.

Among the many other qualities of the secure mode that meditation enhances, a few stand out. For one, we become less dependent on externals to determine our inner state as we anchor our attention in a larger awareness, one not defined by our outer condition. Our sense of calmness and an inner security grows stronger as we turn toward a nurturing awareness within, instead of depending on other people for this.

Calmness can grow into equanimity during life’s turbulence, which gives us a place to stand within, a nonreactive awareness, and a balanced perspective. What might otherwise have been a negative mode trigger becomes just a neutral part of life’s passing show. Then there are a range of positive feelings, such as generosity, resilience, and playfulness.

Enhancing our focus and clarity lets us access more of our minds’ true potential. We have more room to see clearly, whether our own emotional issues or deeper insights, like natural principles that govern our experiences. Sensing more strongly the impermanent nature of things helped me reframe breaking up with my boyfriend as a part of life rather than some overwhelming tragedy. This freed my spirit and opened up other possibilities for finding my own direction.

Along with a calm clarity come an understanding and a sense of compassion for the suffering caused by our own —and others’— distorted mode perceptions. We can see and acknowledge the poignancy of our shared human condition. We gain a greater capacity for inner attunement and a growing confidence that we can take charge of our internal worlds — that connecting with our true nature in order to gradually make our minds freer is a real possibility. And that same capacity for attunement translates into more genuine connections.

The Power of Love

A few days after her terrible accident, my therapy client Robin woke up in the hospital’s intensive care unit and realized her mother, Diane, was at her bedside. “It really helped that my mom was there; just having her nearby was very touching. I thought she was only going to be there for a few days, and she ended up staying the whole five weeks with me, during my time in rehab. She was always being supportive, by watching me do my physical therapy and giving me positive feedback and being my advocate, handling all the paperwork, insurance — things I couldn’t do myself.”

That intimate closeness with her mother no doubt strengthened Robin’s sense of the secure mode. The people in our lives whom we love—our families, our close friends, and even our pets—all shift us toward the secure mode.

The mode-shifting power of the mere presence of a loved one was discovered in an experiment in the brain lab of Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. Women had their brains imaged while being told they were about to get a mildly painful shock. Their apprehension was evident in the heightened activity in their amygdalas and other parts of the brain’s circuitry responsive to danger and alarm. But if a woman’s husband held her hand during the conversation, her amygdala quieted completely.

A client once told me, “Every morning when we first see each other after waking up, my husband and I give each other a warm hug. It gives me a sweet sense of connection.” She added, “But he puts it a little differently: he says our little ritual floods him with oxytocin, setting his secure base for the day.”

That hug seems the human equivalent of what researchers have found when female rodents lick and groom their offspring, which appears to set the offspring’s genes toward the secure mode. There are many ways we get this licking-and-grooming equivalent in our lives, such as cuddling with a loved one or connecting with our children or anyone else who opens our hearts. The nurturance of a close friend or confidant can give us the reassuring feeling of being accepted, supported, and loved. When we feel destabilized, just talking with someone who is caring and feeling his or her support can enhance our secure mode.

Feeling that others have an empathic attunement, with the tender support of a caring heart, can be a powerful secure-mode prime. When we see someone in need of such connection, we might do whatever we can to help her connect to her inner strengths; we become something like each other’s immune system of the heart.

Modes, like moods, are contagious. Someone who is connected to her own secure mode can be a soothing influence on us, simply through her mere presence. To send positivity takes some stability. Otherwise we are more vulnerable to receiving whatever may be emanating from those around us.

As we become more familiar with our own modes, we also naturally develop a greater awareness of modes in other people. Seeing modes more clearly in someone else gives us an opportunity to do for that person what we are learning to do to help ourselves.

Say that your friend is under the spell of the anxious mode, hooked into being upset and overreacting. You can help him simply with your mindful presence, offering him the safe container of the secure mode by paying full attention with heartfelt empathy. It’s not advisable to tell him “You’re in an anxious mode” and try to talk him out of it; while he’s caught in the mode, little will get through. That kind of response to someone’s fretting reflects cognitive empathy alone, devoid of emotional attunement.

Instead, you can yield to a sense of calm spaciousness. Just as you would let go of your own mental hooks, you can do so now by not becoming reactive in response to him but intentionally just letting things be. A kind and caring warmth can help him feel the safe haven you are offering, if only at the subliminal level of neural resonance.

No matter what you say or do for him as the encounter continues, the atmosphere of that healthy mode will have an effect. This invites him to find that same mode within himself. Connecting and sustaining an inner secure mode, so that it becomes a dependable reference point, helps relationships of all kinds, including that with our own minds.

A friend said, “Yesterday, as I stood glumly in the checkout line at the market, miserable from a cold, the cashier looked at me and asked with all sincerity, interest, and kindness, ‘How are you doing today?’ It completely changed my day, which in turn changed how I related to my family when I got home.”

The people I’ve been fortunate to meet who have come to my workshops over the years have been an inspiration to me — in their honesty, sincerity, and wholehearted openness. They start as strangers, but surprisingly soon a sincere trust reveals itself and we start to feel like a bonded community.

This connection has happened over and over with people who are sharing stories of their losses and lives, learning from each other, sharing the pain of another’s heart and the inspiration from each other’s epiphanies. It’s become so clear how we are from the same human family, sharing the same essence.

And when people are willing to be themselves, engage in honest introspection, and share their human vulnerabilities as well as their triumphs in facing adversity, we create a comforting secure mode through our common humanity. Everywhere everyone gravitates to a shared secure base.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

Tara Bennett-Goleman

Tara Bennett-Goleman is a psychotherapist and the author of the New York Times bestseller Emotional Alchemy who teaches workshops internationally with her husband, Daniel Goleman. She draws on her studies with Buddhist masters, including Sayadaw U Pandita, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, and Adeu Rinpoche, in her new book, Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom from Self-Defeating Emotional Habits, excerpted in this issue. The book weaves together Eastern and Western approaches to the mind, the science of habit change, methods from cognitive therapy, and the wisdom teachings that horses whisper to us.