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“Safety…Is the Presence of Connection”

One time when I was working with a client, I asked how she had survived the many losses and trauma of her childhood. She smiled and said simply, “I found magic, safe places in the world: a coffee shop with sweet energy; a quiet music store where someone patiently helped me find a good guitar; a song circle; a restaurant with a kind waitress.”

As she continued to name these places, you could see her face soften and her body calm. I smiled back. I nodded.

I remembered similar places from my own teen years: pockets of magic and beauty that helped me believe in the goodness of a world in which I was without parents or money. There was a lovely woman in the wellness section of our local natural food store who was always kind and supportive, helping me find remedies for various ailments as they cropped up. There was the Ashram that provided low-cost yoga and served a sweet and warming chai at the end of class; the co-op where friendliness was never in short supply.

Such places provided refuge from the chaos and fear I regularly experienced. When I was upset, I would make a beeline for one of them. When traveling, I’d seek places that had this same feeling.

But the thing that made them truly magical was the people, their loving kindness, and the sense of connection we forged.

As Dr. Gabor Maté has so eloquently put it, “Safety is not the absence of threat…; it is the presence of connection.”

Connection Also Sustains Us

several people's hands forming a circleNearly two years into the pandemic and all it has wrought, forging and sustaining our connection to others is more important than ever. Real community – where we feel cared for and like we belong – gives respite from worry and fear. And it can sustain us even when we’re apart.

Here, I think of the story a friend shared with me not long ago. A former college English instructor, she told me about a first year composition student who had written a beautiful essay for her class, in which he described his family’s emigration from Vietnam to the small Midwestern city where her university was. I’m grateful to her for writing it down so I could share it with you here:

In all the writing courses I taught, the students would give readings at midterm and just before the final. It wasn’t for a grade. It was just to share. After all had read, the class would then vote for the essay or story or poem they felt was most deserving of honor, for any reason they chose. Its author would receive a statuette of our class writing mascot, “Shriner Bob,” and add their name to the informal statue I’d made to honor all the recipients over time.

That midterm, the vote was unanimous: The class wanted Shriner Bob to go to the young man who wrote of his immigrant experience.

At the beginning of the next class, the student came up to me and said he’d written something special for our class. “May I read it to them?” he asked.

“Absolutely!” I said.

What he’d written was a thank you. He explained that before that semester, he had felt like a total outsider. “But once you honored me with Shriner Bob, I knew that I did belong. I belong in our class, at our university, and in America,” he read. “I will keep him in my backpack always, to remind me that I belong.”

The Gold Inside You

What makes all these kinds of examples extraordinary is that they are all, at heart, quite ordinary. They involve no grand gestures or complicated actions. They are expressions of attention and loving kindness.

In fact, relationship is the essence of yoga, a word that means “union,” after all – ideally, a union of body, mind, and universe. The work we do – poses and breath – prepares us for healthy and nurturing relationships with others in the communities in which we dwell.

father looking at daughterWhen we pay attention to our relationships with curiosity, non-judgment, and love, things change for the better. It’s the power of presence. It’s a manifestation of the Hawthorne effect, where it’s sometimes not the specific intervention that matters so much as the fact that we are listening and observing with loving kindness.

I’ve seen clearly how this helps our granddaughter, who’s now just about at the stage where she finds everything we do annoying. But when I recently asked her what she liked about Jim and me, she said immediately, “How loving you are.” Perfect, I thought. She can feel it and come home to that when she needs it. And knowing that has carried us through a lot of the last year. She is doing well.

I saw it, too, during my years of work as a school counselor. As I increasingly brought yoga to the classroom, my intent was to create just such a safe place. I could always tell when the children felt it. They would say things like, “Now I can relax,” or, “I knew you would help me calm down.” They would laugh and play and open up. They also became co-creators in it. They would bring songs and stories and sparkly objects to create magic and beauty in the room.

I feel this is what we all need now – to find or create those places for ourselves, and to provide them for each other. In the words of the late John Prine,

You’ve got gold, gold inside of you.
And I’ve got some.
Gold inside me too.

Let’s find that gold and sprinkle it around the world, shall we? We all need it right now.

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