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Safe, Satisfied, and Loved: Coming Home to Our True Selves


When whatever felt frightening, frustrating, or hurtful comes to an end, you’ll soon come home to the lovely green meadow that has always been there, even if it was hidden for a while by the fogs and shadows of an unsettled mind. This is who you most essentially are, which is both inspiring and a relief to know.

Rick Hanson

By the time this is published, I will be on a two-month retreat on the Gower Peninsula in southwestern Wales. About 30 of us, all members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, will live and practice together, mostly in silence. As I prepare to leave my everyday life behind, I am aware of certain recurring feelings and trains of thought. I am mostly looking forward to this opportunity to deepen my practice in the company of spiritual friends, yet there is also some mild apprehension: Will I remember to take everything with me? Might I run out of insulin or other necessities? Will my room be warm/spacious/quiet enough? How will my digestive system cope with the retreat food? Will I get on with my fellow retreatants? What kind of work will I be able to do with my current elbow injury? How will my knees cope with hours of seated meditation? Will I feel bored or lonely in the silence, or resistant to following a program? And so on. I suppose such musings may be familiar to others who are about to undertake a retreat, or embark onto any kind of journey into the unknown. Which is every moment, coming to think of it! And you may find it of interest to learn what kind of approaches and practices are making a tangible difference to me, helping me to stay focused, confident, and relaxed.

As you may remember from my previous article, I have been exploring “Taking in the Good,” loosely following the neuro-psychologist and Dharma practitioner Rick Hanson’s suggestions on how to balance the brain’s negativity bias. I have found it equally instructive to consider the three modes in which the nervous system operates: avoiding harm, approaching awards, and attaching to others. You could also call them the thread, drive, and connect systems, all relating to different areas of the brain, some ancient, some more recently evolved, and they have different sets of activating hormones and neurotransmitters. We all know the adrenalin rush of being almost run over by a car, for example, the threat system kicking in, preparing us for fight/flight/freeze. These systems can either be in a red-zone state of alarm or a green-zone state of basic wellness. It’s natural to be in a red-alert, reactive state at times, but, unlike other animals, we often dwell in it for too long and foster chronic stress. By taking in the good we encourage those modes to be more often in the green, responsive zone, which is the default setting of a healthy nervous system.

I have been curious about which of these three systems my various mental predilections relate to and how I can directly address them and nudge them back into the green zone. The first step is to recognize the signs and see them for what they are. I have noticed that, as the time of my departure comes closer, I am feeling more restless in meditation, lists of things to do repeatedly rise to the surface. There is a vibrating urgency, my legs and arms want to do things, not just sit there. This is the dopamine-fueled drive system in full swing, I tell myself, honed by millennia of my human and animal ancestors’ foraging and hunting pursuits, making and sustaining life-supporting environments, discovering medicines or creating art. It is accompanied by a feeling of eagerness and excitement, as well as some tension—these projects could be successes or failures. Rather than fighting this energy, I celebrate it for what it is—an expression of life and creativity—and allow myself to relish the tingle of anticipation about going away on a two-month retreat.

The state that this modus operandi ultimately aims for could be described as satisfaction—the state of fulfillment, completion, and contentment we feel when a project has come to fruition. I will probably feel it to some extent when I begin my journey to the retreat; everything I need packed in my suitcases, the desk cleared of any paperwork, the refrigerator cleaned, plant-watering arranged, the email vacation notice implemented, and friends hugged and notified of an emergency telephone number. But what if I allowed myself to tap into this state of fulfilment right now, while meditating? And almost instantaneously, I do feel more settled, in a rich and appreciative sort of way. Connecting with contentment as the underlying need of the drive mode works astonishingly well. It makes such a difference to treat our so-called hindrances or objections with respect, as pointers to what we really want. I feel restless—and I long for contentment, for fulfilment—of course!

“But is it wise to give up the restlessness, when things do need to get done,” an inner concerned voice pipes up. “If you are already feeling content, why do anything?” “Good point,” I would say to that part of me. “Thanks for flagging it, and I really appreciate you wanting me to be effective. Would you be willing to step aside and watch what happens after experiencing some extended period of satisfaction in meditation, whether it increases or decreases my effectiveness in preparing for the retreat? For example, did you notice that in preparation for going away I cleared that big pile of papers that has been bothering us for years?” This way of working is informed by IFS (Internal Family Systems) and it is a great way toward inner peace and integration.

Hanson suggests that what we may want to offer ourselves with respect to the approach system is encouragement. (Hanson 36) On a provisional level, meditating or going on retreat are demanding projects that benefit from encouragement, from boosting our confidence. So I sit in a posture that is expressive of confidence, tall and open-chested.

Let’s see how some of my other recurring thoughts about going on a long retreat can be understood in terms of those three operating modes. Clearly, there is a thread about safety: accommodation, food, physical health, sense of agency, or being in control. Again, such thoughts are more prominent whenever I sit down to meditate and there is some resistance to experiencing the subtle feelings of insecurity and fear that accompany them. I don’t want to feel the tension that going into the unknown entails. And again, once I investigate what is going on with some interest and curiosity, those seeming obstacles turn into a boon. Clearly, what I need, in concurrence with the very purpose of the threat system, is safety, ease, and relaxation. And so I tune into those qualities and also offer myself some reassurance.

Lastly, the apprehensions about how I will get along with a group of partly unknown others, living in close proximity for two months, is clearly a concern of the connecting system. The main question is whether there will be an atmosphere of mutual love, respect, and care. And it is obvious what I can offer myself to soothe any fears around belonging and acceptance: love and warmth, and letting that oxytocin circulate through the body. I was listening to my Spotify list of liked songs while darning a fingerless glove to take away with me, and just as my husband entered the room, the Beatles song “All You Need Is Love” came on. I put down needle and thread and we danced to the music with enthusiastic abandon. Incidentally, he is going on the same retreat, which should help a lot to keep the attachment system in the green zone.

I am finding it wonderfully effective, dipping into those three pools of positive qualities as and when needed: feeling safe, fulfilled, and loved. What makes them so immediately beneficial, particularly in combination with each other, is the fact that they touch every part of the organism, from the most primitive part of the brain to the most advanced. And we don’t have to wait to be in any special spiritual environment. They are the home state of our being; do you recognize them right now, those intersecting pools of inner calm, contentment, and love?


Hanson, Rick. 2013. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. New York City: Harmony

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