Lesson 4 - The Safe Place
Exploring Optimum Learning Relationships
A virtual class based on
Magical Parent - Magical Child
by Michael Mendizza and Joseph Chilton Pearce
Lesson 4 - The Safe Place
As adults we should have three safe places to stand at any time; the earth, our relationships, our own power of thought… Without that safe place to stand, no energy can be utilized to explore possibility, intent cannot move into content and know fulfillment, the stress of the unknown-unpredictable becomes a chronic threat. We then spend our lives trying to avoid this threat.
In the last lesson we explored play, not as an activity, but as a state of relationship, the optimum learning relationship. Before that we looked at bonding. In terms of development and in our day-to-day lives, first comes bonding, then play. No bonding, no play. Pretty simple. True development implies bonding with each, exploring and learning from each stage of life with its implied environment/relationship. The goal is to feel bonded with all of life and to play in and with every relationship, moment to moment throughout our lives. To feel bonded we must first and foremost feel safe. Fred Donaldson calls this safe place, sanctuary. Sanctuary is a state of being, a quality of relationship. Like love, we catch hold of, are infected by and become to “know” this state of sanctuary by those who have it. Ideally this is the essence of the mother-infant relationship, and from this beginning, the safe place, or sanctuary, grows and grows, encompassing everything it touches. In lesson four we will explore “the safe place.”
The Safe Place
Freedom implies safety. The greater the sense of safety, the greater the play and the more dynamic learning become. Introduce fear of any kind, and development falters. Defense strategies kick in?flight/fight, comparison, competition, striving for rewards and avoiding punishments. Learning becomes defensive. The greater the fear the greater the demand for protection, which often leaves very little energy for growth and development.
Learning and performance emerge from our interpretation of experience
Cellular biologist Bruce Lipton, reporting on new genetic research, confirms that states of perception are stronger predictors of results than actual reality. The body organizes for protection or growth depending on one’s interpretation of environmental cues. Perceived danger affects the body even if the danger is imaginary. Changes in perception, or state, affect both the context and content of any learning experience, and this translates directly into how we develop as human beings.
The research community recently confirmed that changes in the environment can modify our genes. In terms of development, the environment suddenly became more important than genes. It’s not simply the environment, but our interpretation of the environment that makes the critical difference.
The body is designed to fluctuate between growth and protection depending on how it interprets the environment. When we feel safe and loved, the switch says we’re in a growth mode. If the environmental signals are interpreted as threatening, we go into a protection mode. When the switch goes from growth to protection, growth is compromised.
In the fifties for example, people had bomb shelters for protection. But they didn’t live in the shelter. They lived and grew outside. When the sirens went off, they went down into the shelter for protection. But how long can you stay in the bomb shelter? The protection provided by the shelter was intended only for a short period. Trying to live in the protection mode compromises growth. Pretty soon you’re out of food, out of water, out of air, and then you’re dead. Every cell in our body reacts the same way....As we start to perceive the environment as being hostile, less than safe, less than loving, the system will automatically shift into protection to protect its survival. The more chronic the protection, the less growth there is.
Bruce Lipton, Ph.D.
Think back to some childhood experience where you were alone, in your own world, playing, nothing to justify or defend. Compare this to doing some activity, modeling a new dress, putting on a puppet show, for adult approval, or worse still, some activity that won adult disapproval. Describe the difference of the internal state. Note how the interpretation of the experience was different in each situation.
Children are compelled by nature to embrace and explore their world. This exploration, shaped by their early relationships with parents and the natural world, creates neural networks, or protein filters, which evolve into worldviews. Worldviews are life-long patterns that predetermine how we interpret the world and its relationships.
Wow, that was quite a paragraph. What do you think we mean by a protein a filter? Describe how early relationships create “protein filters” and how they mediate our interpretation of experience. Is a worldview of being safe, or not, a protein filter?
If there is no safe place to play, children can’t trust the world they’re trying to embrace. Children will look at the world as the enemy and build a defense against it. This will reduce their sensory intake from that world dramatically. Anxiety-ridden children—those suffering psychological abandonment—have a sensory intake of 25 to 30 percent less than children who are given emotional nurturing.
Maria Montessori speaks of the child coming into the world as an absorbent mind, ready to expand and embrace the universe within, to utilize fully all their genetically inherited capacities. If the child is not given a safe space, if the child is damaged or traumatized, he or she will close into a tight defense against a world that cannot be trusted. This reduced sensory intake seriously impairs neural development and results in completely different structures of knowledge.
Optimum Learning Relationships unfold naturally when we feel safe and connected. When we feel safe, connected, bonded, we play with our world and all its relationships. If we don’t feel safe, an internal switch is flipped and we become protective, defensive. At every moment we have these two possibilities; the direction taken profoundly affects how we interpret the world, what we learn, how well we perform and our general feeling of health or dis-ease. Denied emotional nurturing or a safe space, a child’s higher intelligences will be limited, constrained, and impaired, and the capacities that are developed will be used to strengthen their defense against the world. The child who is given a safe, nurturing environment?where he or she need not defend against the world?will embrace and explore their world. For the emotionally safe child there is a constant expansion of potential, capacity, and possibility from lower intelligences into higher and higher intelligences?the intelligence of play in action.
Give one or more examples from your life of the following: “Denied emotional nurturing or a safe space, a child’s higher intelligences will be limited, constrained, and impaired, and the capacities that are developed will be used to strengthen their defense against the world.”
Basic trust implies that children and adults experience the world as being safe. A lack of basic trust means that the world and its relationships must be defended against. Feeling physically and emotionally safe with mom, dad, and other primary caregivers, during the critical early years, creates a physical and emotional foundation of basic trust. Participating in safe, nurturing relationships with adults, children learn to trust themselves in those relationships. Feeling safe, they venture into, encounter, embrace, and embody their world, which for the early child is ever new and challenging. Jean Leidloff discovered the importance of basic trust in the Amazon jungle.
It was quite an experience for a sheltered Manhattanite, hiking through the jungle, meeting snakes and scorpions, sleeping in a hammock. The people we encountered were living in the Stone Age. It was not the diamonds I came home talking about; it was the Indians and how they lived, what kind of lives they had and what the children were like.
It became clear that we have made a terrible mistake about what human nature is. We are under the misapprehension that we’re born bad, or in the official words of the Church of England, innately depraved, and that is simply not true.
I was living for more than two years with these Indians, looking straight at them and not really seeing them, because I was so blinded by preconceptions. I didn’t even notice that, amazingly, the children never fought. They played together all day unsupervised, all ages, from crawling, to walking to adolescence. Not only did they not fight, they never even argued. This is not at all what we have been taught human nature is—boys will be boys. So I thought well maybe, boys won’t be boys.
“The children never fought. They played together all day unsupervised, all ages, from crawling, to walking to adolescence. Not only did they not fight, they never even argued. This is not at all what we have been taught human nature is.” What change in adult worldview would be needed to have our children respond in this way? Is it possible, or even desirable?
One thinks, well, these are savages. They wear red paint and father loincloths, so they’re not people. But they are exactly the same species as we are, except they are behaving the way we all evolved to behave. We, on the other hand, are mistreated as infants and children, treated inappropriately for our species.
As a result, we keep re-creating an anti-social population. Nobody’s born rotten. You just don’t have bad kids. It’s not true. There is no such thing. But we can make them bad.
Just imagine the neurotic and psychopathic people that we have become. Why do we have a 50% divorce rate? Why do we have so many police? It’s not just Americans, it’s the whole of western civilization laboring under a misapprehension of what human nature truly is.
Researchers faithfully try to document what is normal. Nobody I know really wants a normal child. Just look at normal. It includes what’s called the terrible twos, which are sort of wild, bossy tantrum-prone con-men. Luckily they’re small otherwise we’d really be in trouble. And we’ve got God knows what kinds of drudgery and alienation for children and parents.
We use the word normal as though it were a synonym for natural, which it is not. Normal is how we think children must be. This includes things like three-month colic, where babies are constantly vomiting. They call it spitting up so it doesn’t sound like a real illness, but it is an illness. It’s painful. This happens even when babies are drinking their mother’s milk. They’re throwing up.
How can we believe that we alone evolved over millions of years without being able to digest our own mother’s milk? Why are normal babies so stressed that they can’t keep their food down? The babies I saw in the jungle never had indigestion unless they were ill with a fever. Babies never threw up. They were not wriggling and struggling and arching and flexing and squeaking like ours do normally. So normal is adversarial. I hope people realize that what they’re doing with all the love in their hearts, and I have no doubt of that, is adversarial.
When you’re following the advice of the doctors or the experts or your mother-in-law, your mother or your sister or whomever; when you are feeding the baby on a schedule, denying it physical contact, not allowing it to sleep with you and be with you, twenty-four hours a day, not less, then you’re being adversarial.
It’s perfectly clear that the millions/billions of babies, who are crying at this very moment, want unanimously to be next to a live body. Do you really think they’re all wrong? Theirs is the voice of nature. This is the clear pure voice of nature, without intellectual interference.
Whatever children are doing—is learning. They’re learning like little sponges, all the time. But they’re told, “Stop it because this is worthless. What is important is this. Pay attention. ‘A’ is for apple.” Everything else is undermined and pronounced worthless. All your authority figures tell you that your nature, which is to explore, is worthless. If they don’t teach you, it's not learning. I’ve recently come to the startling but obvious conclusion that learning occurs naturally, but teaching isn’t natural at all. I can’t remember ever seeing any of the people I’m talking about, who live so successfully, teaching. The little ones are learning from the older children or from the adults, but nobody’s teaching. They’re learning on their own initiative, which is so powerful. You don’t have to augment it. In fact you can’t really augment it. There’s no way you can make a child learn better than he would if he or she wants to.
By the time we have our first child, we’re so conditioned not to believe our innate feelings that we have total strangers in the hospital tell us what to do and we don’t know any better. It’s tragic. We have an exquisitely evolved innate knowledge of how to do things. Mothers know that the baby should not be taken away at birth but they have been so conditioned to believe in an authority and not themselves, that they deny their own wisdom.
We’ve described normal. Let’s contrast it with examples of what you would consider natural. The baby knows what it needs, and the minute you put it down, it cries. It’s letting you know. It’s signaling you perfectly clearly, "don’t put me down!" And we have built into us equally, without a dictionary, the knowledge of what it means when the baby goes "waa, waa, waa." We know it means, "pick me up. Don’t put me down. Don’t leave me!"
Until very recently doctors routinely performed operations on babies without anesthesia. The baby screams but the trained professionals deny it feels pain! How can mothers deny their own innate wisdom? How can we have drifted so far off?
Author of The Continuum Concept
List five ways your worldview denies, limits or contradicts your innate wisdom. How does this impact your child’s world-self view?
A Lifetime of Experience in a Glance
When new experiences arise, and they always do, children glance at mom or dad to reaffirm their safe place. The adult’s return glance communicates two things: First, it reestablishes the bond and confirms a worldview of basic trust. Second, the child’s glance implies a question. What’s that? The adult’s perception of the object the child is about to encounter brings about a change in the adult. A child about to reach for a scorpion will elicit a very different response, or field affect, from the adult than if the child were reaching for a fuzzy caterpillar. The act of perception in the adult changes the meaning of their state. The adult’s personal knowledge and experience with the object resonates through the relationship. Trusting the relationship, the child responds accordingly, which builds greater trust in the relationship. This cycle repeats with every new encounter. If the child feels safe protected, each playful encounter reinforces his or her worldview of basic trust. Their world and capacity to embrace the world expands. “For he who has,” the Bible notes, “more is given.”
The glance described above is most obvious with young children. It never goes away, however. Adults glance for reassurance and approval just as much as little children. Look for this glance next time you are with children, then begin to recognize the adult form of the same glance as well. You will be amazed.
Another Look At Bonding
Almost everyone has heard the term bonding, coined years ago by John Kennel and Marshall Klause, to describe the intimate connection found between mothers and their newborn babies. The term, however, is misleading. To bond is to join, glue, tie, or connect together two separate objects. Again, O. Fred Donaldson describes this state of relationship as belonging, which means to fit in, or to be in the right place. Connecting two separate objects is much different than affirming unity. We need to bond only when there has been a separation. Belonging is more expansive, dynamic, and inclusive.
We are relationship, whether we call it bonding, belonging, connection, attachment, or communion. The meaning, or information implicit in our relationship changes moment by moment. What we call learning is discovering and exploring a particular set or pattern of relationships. The stove is hot, is a relationship. The bee stings, water is wet, aunt Molly brings presents, honey is sweet, all describe states of relationship. And that is what we learn. Bonding therefore is much more than sweet sentiment. Bonding is a channel of communication, information and shared meaning.
We may belong in a particular environment, and relate to many wonderful things, dogs and cats, brothers and sisters, turtles and toys. One relationship, however, is more important than the rest. The relationship between mother and baby, or father and baby provides the context, or reference, for all the other relationships. The adult-child bond ensures an open, constant, and dynamic channel of communication. Information is constantly flowing through this learning channel we call bonding.
This critical flow of communication between the early child and caregivers requires three things. First, the adult must be physically present. Second, the adult must be aware of what the child is experiencing. Third, the child must be aware of the adult’s changing relationship to the world they share. This physical connection and shared awareness creates a constant flow of communication that changes instant-by-instant, encounter-by-encounter, throughout the day.
Consider how the world would appear to the child whose worldview of basic trust in his or her primary adult relationships was blocked or failed to develop. Imagine how a newborn baby feels being separated from his or her mother at birth. Suddenly they find themselves in a strange new world. The familiar sounds, smells, feelings, reassurance of mom’s warmth and heartbeat, bond of basic trust, and reassuring reference to interpret new experiences are gone. Babies must face what may appear to be the nightmare of birth alone. Do they relax, embrace and play with each new sight, sound, or texture? No. They curl into a tight ball and defend themselves against an unknown and frightening world. Separation anxiety and feelings of abandonment are considered the greatest threats to the infant or early child. Imagine the confusion an infant feels being placed in a day-care facility, attended by different caretakers. The consistent reference the child needs to interpret the world, to give it order and meaning, is gone. Basic trust is replaced by uncertainty. When we break the learning channel we call bonding, development is compromised on every level.
Lack of acceptance at any moment, being judged, evaluated, compared, and/or graded are all examples of the safe place being replaced by anxiety, uncertainty. People are more afraid of public speaking than of dying. The reverse is also true. The bonded-safe person is, as they say they are, out of the box, psychologically free. First, list five or more factors that prevent children and adults from feeling psychologically safe, every day, all throughout their lives. Then, note how each of these factors are used by adults and culture to control or shape behavior.
Is bonding really all that important? The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, September 11th 2002, was a grim reminder that the twentieth century was a century of World Wars, unparalleled in human history. Little progress has been made in preventing personal and global violence. James W. Prescott’s theoretical and scientific research on the developmental origins of love and violence cuts to the core of our personal and global violence. The closer we come to the source of our pain, however, the more we tend to defend against it, a response that often blinds us to the obvious.
Human love begins in utero, is carried through pregnancy, birth and the postnatal nurturance of bonding and breast-feeding. Yet, the most critical, formative relationship? one that encodes the developing brain for a lifetime of affection or rage?the relationship between mother and infant, is not valued, nurtured or supported by our culture. Infants and young children are often not held, touched, or played with. The majority of babies are placed in institutionalized childcare. Television and computers have replaced imaginative play between adults and children Failing the early bond, which is intimately linked to direct and sustained physical contact between mother and infant, the future of later love relationships are threatened, as is society itself. Unbonded behaviors result in an alienated, aggressive emotional/social/sexual cycle that affects mother, baby, family, society and now, the world.
As the health scientist administrator of the developmental behavioral biology program at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, (1966-1980), James W. Prescott established research programs which documented that failed mother love in primates result in developmental brain disorders that lead to lifelong patterns of depression, violence and drug addiction. His research, and that of many others, leaves little doubt that nothing can replace the loving touch, breast-feeding, and emotional nurturing shared by mother and infant.
Violence involves two fundamental issues. One is the bonded and unbonded child. The other is full gender equality. Until women are able to control their own body, and not just reproduction, but the whole spectrum of her sexuality, it will be very difficult to achieve the first step, which is the bonded child.
Look at all the violence against women, the rapes, domestic violence, battered women, it’s epidemic, as is child abuse and neglect. What causes the anger and rage which leads to this violence? The ability to experience joy and pleasure.
With the basic trust that affectionate pleasure develops we respond more openly to life and to change. People who are rigid, highly armored, are limited in their capacity to feel empathy, compassion or adapt to change, which translates into a lack of bonding and limited capacity to nurture others.
We have a moral philosophy which says that pleasure and the body is evil and the spirit or soul is good. There is a division between the natural state of the body and our ideas about good and evil. We are at war with our own bodies and in many ways women, her body and children are the targets in this war. This repression of pleasure sets up the reservoir of rage; and our belief systems create the target. Both work together. We have to look at sexuality quite differently, that is, as an integral part of who we are.
Children are punished for touching their genitals which creates a neural-dissociative state in the brain. The sensory deprivation of pleasure results in the failure of certain neural pathways to properly develop. Sensory stimulation acts like a nutrient for brain growth and development. The richer the networks, the greater the interconnectivity and neural integration of the brain. If we do not get the sensory stimulation we equate with love, bonding and intimacy during the formative periods of brain development, we will be impaired, if not crippled in our ability to experience and express this “language of love” later in life.
Giving and receiving pleasure releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with love and bonding. The pleasure associated with placing the newborn at the breast of the mother at birth, and maintaining close physical body contact reestablishes the prenatal bond. The medical profession routinely separates the baby from the mother.
In the late ‘50s and ‘60s Harry Harlow separated infant monkeys from their mothers and housed them alone in cages. These infants protested by crying and extreme agitation. When the bond was not reestablished, the infant monkeys became profoundly depressed, engaged in chronic rocking behaviors, self-stimulation, and tactile avoidance.
By depriving intimate body contact between mother and infant, the sensory systems needed to experience pleasure, bonding and love were starved. Harlow created emotionally, socially and sexually dysfunctional animals. They became pathological as juveniles and adults.
Their reproductive systems were intact, but the emotional and social skills we associate with love and bonding destroyed. No mammal, except the human mammal separates the newborn from its mother.
Bonding creates the sensory and emotional environment that shapes how we interpret and respond to relationships life long. Break the bond at the beginning and we set the stage for cycles of depression, anger, rage, substance abuse and violence, generation after generation.
James W. Prescott, Ph.D.
Brain & Behavior Neuroscientist, Anthropologist
Not feeling safe, the absence of basic trust, in the early stages of life, with its implicit neglect and abuse, has been directly linked to permanent brain abnormalities. These abnormalities impact behavior lifelong. Some researchers have gone so far as to claim that western culture is unbounded and therefore brain damaged. What do you think? Where do we go from here?
As any botanist or biologist (or gardener) will tell you, an organism threatened continually in its early formative period tends to reproduce quickly. The child’s nature gets the message that we are not long for this world, so let’s make sure at least our species survives. Thus sexual maturation speeds up dramatically. A group of medical doctors in upstate New York found a direct correspondence between early menses, television viewing, and general stress-anxiety. Thus upwards of 24% of American female children, seven years of age, now develop breasts, begin menses at eight, and pregnancies are now epidemic at nine. The same sexual precocity takes place in boys.
The Biology of Transcendence