FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO PRAY AND THOSE WHO CAN'T IMAGINE IT
A Thirty-Minute Online Retreat
Note in a Bottle
Consider this a note in a bottle, a message sent into the world with no known destination. If you're reading these words you are, quite obviously, the destination.
Thanks for opening.
I want to begin with the lyrics from "Satellite Call" by Sara Bareilles:
This one's for the lonely child
This was written for the one to blame
For the one who believes they are the cause of chaos in everything
You may find yourself in the dead of night
Lost somewhere out there in the great big beautiful sky
We're all just perfect little satellites
Spinning round and round this broken earthly life
This is so you know the sound
Of someone who loves you from the ground
Tonight you're not alone at all
This is me sending out my satellite call
(Hint: There is resonance in Sara's voice that the words can't fully convey.)
After 45 years of clinical practice and 30 years as a developmental researcher, I've come to several key realizations:
1. No one escapes pain,
2. From a developmental point of view, we each require resonance: intentional presence from and shared feeling with another. Our learning: "Who I am, exactly as I am, can be known and shared. I am lovable and loved."
3. Repeated experiences of resonance become tenderness-at-our-core,
4. For many of us, tenderness-within-resonance isn't well known,
5. Suffering is our experience of pain without access to tenderness-within-resonance,
6. It's never too late,
7. Many of us reading these words are still waiting for the "satellite call" of resonance, offering the path to tenderness-at-our-core.
Resonance is innate presence, as given as your next breath. This doesn't mean it's all that common. Resonance emerges from a core of confidence, the willingness to be-with another without an agenda. ("Me, exactly me, welcomes being with you, exactly you.") Resonance includes a capacity for silence and the ability to follow another's lead without seeking to change feelings or fix circumstances. Resonance isn't something we do, it's the simple, shared presence that emerges when we stop "doing."
The brief (1 minute and 39 seconds) video below offers an example of resonance through the lens of developmental research.
This mother is quietly and easily following her child's moment-to-moment lead, staying present, without effort.
A sequence near the end of the clip shows this mother's comfort with both positive and difficult feelings. The image (top left) shows the mother matching her daughter's sense of delight. A moment later (middle right) Zoe shows a brief sign of distress and her mother effortlessly meets her there. This experience of being met is soothing for Zoe and she immediately leads her mother back to shared delight (lower left).
This mother's capacity for shared presence is significantly different than a caregiver who feels pressure to "do it right." Without trust that unadorned availability is enough for a child, many parents over-regulate their children by seeking to be in charge of what they do and feel ("Don't be sad," "Smile for daddy!" "Good job!"). Zoe's mother has confidence (in both herself and her daughter), allowing her to trust Zoe's lead. The result is a child who knows the gift of resonance: "I matter to you. Where I go, you will follow. Where I go, I will be met."
As stated earlier, the level of tender presence-without-agenda just observed isn't as common as we might imagine. For many of us, there was often a sense of "no there, there," especially when we had feelings (anger, sadness, fear) that were difficult for our caregivers. Some of us are still waiting to know the simplicity and ease of Zoe's knowing. (Researchers call it an "experience of being experienced.") We then struggle, just below conscious awareness, with a sense that something essential is missing. From a developmental point of view, some of this struggle is the result of conclusions we formed concerning the availability and unavailability of simple resonance. ("Does anybody know who I really am? Can anyone meet me here.")
There is no blame here. No matter how well-intentioned our caregivers were, life happened. Daily burdens may have limited their capacity to offer a confident and available presence. Financial worries, struggles in relationships, difficult work circumstances, anxiety or depression, generational struggles, family discord, a painful past (with little or no resonance), etc. likely blunted their capacity to slow down and offer no-agenda presence. This meant that our chance to download tenderness-at-our-core was compromised or non-existent. Common negative self-beliefs followed: “This loneliness is my fault.” “Something is wrong with me.” “I’m not good enough.” “I’m not wanted.” “It’s up to me.” "I feel empty." “I’m all alone.”
Who would have guessed that these conclusions about the availability of resonance would be so important?
The result: An unnamed pain (with undertones of unworthiness, emptiness, loneliness. and anxiety) that many of us carry throughout our lives. This quiet desperation was powerfully articulated in the middle of the 20th Century by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Noticing recurring themes in those he treated (falling forever, being unable to communicate, anxiety-without-words, inexplicable void, etc.) he recognized a common denominator in each of their histories: ". . . nothing happening when something needed to happen;" the experience of absence when presence was needed. He called the resulting feeling states "primitive agonies."
Many of us know them as black hole moments.
For Winnicott, this vague, yet persistent sense of internal worthlessness, emptiness, loneliness, and anxiety had to do with multiple, unintentional lapses on the part of our caregivers when we were distressed or needing easy presence. These became the never forgotten (yet unconscious) moments of "nothing happening" (non-resonance) when "something needed to happen" (resonance). Developmental researchers now recognize the central importance of emotion regulation by caregivers. It's the skill-set at the heart of secure attachment. (We're talking about the difference between a parent who says, "You're fine, don't cry" or "Don't be upset, turn that frown upside down" and a parent saying, "That must hurt, why don't you come sit with me for a while.")
Hence, our ongoing struggle: We live inside the memory of nothing happening. Winnicott went on to say that it's actually easier to recall negative events (even abuse), than to remember the empty non-event of nothing happening when we required resonance.
Something (seemingly) so small can influence us for the remainder of our lives.
How do we remember nothing? How do we consciously recall the void of non-resonance? In most cases, we don't. Typically, we feel it's pervasive undertow and then defend against it. This may explain our "stay busy, make it happen, keep improving," culture. We're constantly running from the ghost of nothing happening when simple presence was needed.
In addition, many of us carry the negative certainty that the resonance we're hardwired to know won't ever happen.
Sadly, our history begins to call the shots, defining what we imagine to be possible. We see what we expect to see: "Tenderness? There's no stinking tenderness."
Given that "nothing happening" is likely the scene of the original crime, living with expected emptiness has significant implications for anyone considering prayer.
Said bluntly: Why would you even try?
The central contention of the developmental research I've been part of for the past three decades: We live in a coherent universe. Love defines everything. We are either trusting and secure within its presence or we're insecure (and lost) because of its absence.
In terms of what I've written thus far: We're hardwired to know resonance and a resulting tenderness-our-the-core. With them we flourish. Without them . . . not so much.
So. If we grew up with limited access to resonance, does this mean all hope is lost? Is resonance, at the level we continue to need it, still possible?
As mentioned in the first chapter, it's never too late to know resonance. Our hardwiring for resonance is now our new best friend. It all but forces us to seek the resource we most require.
This naturally leads back to "the dead of night."
Who among us doesn't know inner darkness? Who hasn't experienced the futility of reaching out, hoping, yet secretly assured there would be no response?
It's precisely here that prayer is born.
How? If I'm unable to hope, why would I risk crying out for help? Why would I ask something unknown or unseen to come to my aid, especially when my history tells me that what I'm asking for won't ever happen?
Truth be told, I wouldn't. We all know people who are certain beyond any doubt that the universe is vacant and meaningless, the mirror image of the nothing happening they know all too well. They refuse to ask for help from an obvious nothingness that has surrounded them their whole lives.
Given our need to defend against the pain of additional pain, how could it be otherwise?
And yet some, faced with the same despair, choose hope beyond hopelessness. Why would they risk uttering an initial plea?
We're hardwired for tenderness-within-resonance. At our core, we can't not thirst for what we most need.
For decades, I've sought out those who've chosen to risk a prayer practice. My wondering: Is there a common denominator? What allowed them to begin praying?
Hidden-in-plain-sight within each of their lives: A simple hint of tenderness.
Somehow, regardless of how brief, these are people who knew despair and then, out of character with their past approach to life, began asking for help. As it turns out, they did so because they had experienced at least a momentary "satellite call." Somehow, someway they received a glimpse of resonance (smile from a stranger, surprise phone call, caring text, sentence in a book, affection from an animal, conversation with a friend, rhythm in a poem, unexpected note in a bottle) that, for a millisecond (or much longer), implied, "Resonance exists; tenderness is real; accessing the love I most need might just happen." They experienced just enough of the possibility of possibility to awaken hope: "I might not be lost and alone after all.
We begin coming home because we are offered the hint of home.
For many of us, the beginning of prayer began within this exact alchemy, the strange joining of desperation with a hint of tenderness. Our sense of being unmeetable was briefly joined by the direct experience of belonging. There was just enough tenderness-within-resonance, the resource we most need, to sponsor the willingness to cry out in the dead of night.
Sweetness opened the door of longing. Asking opened the door of receiving.
This vulnerability has made all the difference.
Every moment of our lives clarifies the simple coherence of the universe mentioned a few paragraphs ago: Only love matters. Either we rest within its presence or suffer because of its absence.
"I need to be sure of you" is the core developmental mantra within every child. This need never goes away. No matter who we are, no matter what our age, this deep, often desperate cry for tender and predictable presence isn't random, it's our birthright . . . a thirst that keeps calling us home to the resonant heart of the universe.
After almost 50 years of intentional prayer and meditation practice, I've come to this singular conclusion: Our need for love is a manifestation of a universe ready to meet it. Our thirst for tenderness-at-our-core is map, not aberration. Neither is it a failing or indication of something wrong with us. Our thirst for love and belonging is our most essential guide.
Original need requires Original Presence. Nothing less will do.
Our willingness to ask is the path of returning home.
At this point, the only issue is whether we’re willing to begin risking, allowing our deep need to change us. For many, the choice will be to keep longing buried and negative certainty active, locked inside lives as we’ve always known them. We can't fall out of bed if we sleep on the floor.
It’s one thing to recognize thirst for what we most need, it’s another thing altogether to make the choice to access it. As said above, this appears to require support and guidance, the angel of possibility opening us to the actuality of tender presence.
The audacity of any spiritual tradition is its claim that asking inevitably results in receiving. The implication of this audacity: This exact now is the moment to begin experiencing the hidden-in-plain-sight resource we're still waiting to know.
Through the years, this is my deepest learning: The most unbearable within me can (and must) finally come home to what is most tender. Whether this resonance is from a close companion or experienced through my daily tenderness practice, when I'm distressed I've discovered a way to return to the presence I most need.
My greatest struggles have always been the result of living my life as if I am alone.
I'm not unloved and alone after all.
Each moment offers this option: Imagine experiencing this moment as a satellite call offering Tenderness-from-the-Core.
New option: Imagine the mantra "You're not alone at all" to be a frequency that is always emanating from the heart of the universe and from deep within every cell in your body.
For the next month consider the following daily practice:
1. Listen to "Satellite Call" a minimum of once a day. (Hint: Download the song and keep it on repeat.)
2. While listening, look at the above GIF/image of Emanating Light and feel (or imagine feeling) Tenderness emanating "from the ground" (Center of the cosmos and every cell in your body). Or look at the image of the mother and child, feeling (or imagine feeling) their shared tenderness as your present experience.
3. While listening and looking . . . Breathe-With. Breath-with the Light. Breath-with the mother and child. Slowly. Tenderly. With ease. (More on breathing practice below.)
At the mystical heart of every spiritual tradition is an invitation to wake up or come home to the Original Light and Love from which we are currently estranged.
New option: That which is most frightened or vulnerable in you is actually being offered tenderness-within-resonance in this very moment.
New option: This satellite call is offering you direct, immediate access to the heart of the universe from the heart of the universe.
Now and now and now.
4. You may feel something while you're participating in this practice. You may feel nothing. Either way is fine. The goal is not to have a profound experience, rather it's to allow yourself direct access, deeper than conscious awareness, to what you most need. Consider what you're doing something of a download. Aware or not aware, what you require is inexplicably being received. If you want to look for an indication that you're not wasting your time, begin noticing subtle shifts in your state of mind about tender presence in your life. ("I give thanks for help unknown, already on the way.") After almost 50 years of practice, I can say with complete confidence, you will often be met with sweet coincidences and wonderful surprises.
Resonance: to Breathe-With
Prayer is actually very simple: The love and resource you’ve been waiting to experience are actually right here, already available, resonating in this next tender breath.
Resonance is prayer. Prayer is breathing-with.
What if you allowed yourself to breathe exactly as the most secure child breathes? What if you heard the most secure parent (the one you've always been hardwired to know) speaking to you in exactly the way deeply secure parents speak?
"I'm here. I love you. Breathe with me and we'll get through this together."
This breath. This Presence. This breath. This shared tender breath.
Resonance offers what words never can.
The silent video clip below offers an option for slowing your breathing to approximately 4 seconds on the out-breath and 4 seconds on the in-breath. Following the blue line, breathe into your belly. With each breath (whether you currently believe it or not) trust that tenderness-at-the-core is offered and (beyond awareness) downloaded/received.
Breathing-with, I open to affection beyond comprehension. Deeper than thought, deeper than doubt, deeper than fear . . .
Infinite Presence . . . Infinite Resonance . . .
Tenderness at my core.
WHY BUILD A DAILY PRACTICE?
Hoping to find his way through The Great Door of Belonging, a spiritual seeker became distraught when his teacher told him there was no key.
"If there is no key to unlock the Great Door, what hope is there?
"My dear student," replied his teacher, "Who made you believe it was ever locked?"
A crack in the door isn’t yet an open door. Given the tenacity of our lifelong certainty that resonance isn't available, we need direct and ongoing access to what we've been missing. Through the millennia, in spiritual traditions around the globe, gaining sure and ongoing access has always included support from community and a commitment to discipline.
To finally wake up to how we’re not alone we need to quit living as if we're alone.
Step One: We need to find a spiritual tradition offering Kindness-at-its-core. They actually exist. The audacity of such a tradition is its promise that life is good and grace exists for each of us. What’s grace? The sweetness whispering that this exact now is offering the comfort-within-Presence we’ve been waiting for.
The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu offer the message of Kindness-as-spiritual practice in The Book of Joy, the story of their ongoing dialogue about the gift of spiritual life. At the core of their friendship: Deep respect and deep affection.
Spiritual wisdom teaches us to cease bemoaning what we didn’t get and turn to the Source of all giving. We do this by finding those in our community who trust the satellite call and who can support our growing trust in hidden resonance. We can also access the many resources available (books, lectures, sermons, online talks, etc.) that can inspire our choice to continue deepening in our experience of tender resource.
Step Two: A daily practice dare not become another task. Rather, it can be seen as the sweet intention to open, again and again, to resonance already with us. Our primary problem is the belief that what we need won’t show up, a negative certainty blocking us from recognizing what's always hidden-in-plain-sight.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kent Hoffman has been a psychotherapist since 1972. He earned a doctorate in psychology and religion from the Claremont Graduate School of Theology in 1975. Kent has had a particular interest in working with marginalized/homeless adults, teen parents, and those who struggle with anxiety and depression. He has a TEDx talk titled "Every person has infinite worth."
Dr. Hoffman is also a developmental researcher and co- originator of the Circle of Security Program (www.circleofsecurity.net). His most recent book is titled "Raising a Secure Child." Kent has been a practitioner of Christian contemplative prayer and Buddhist meditation for nearly five decades. He is also a practitioner of qigong. He considers daily practice to be the heartbeat of his life.
Kent Hoffman has a website for beginning a daily practice www.hiddenholding.com. Of particular interest may be One Month of Daily Practice: http://www.hiddenholding.com/daily-practice. He also has an online memoir available (gratis) at www.eightysevenminutes.com, telling the backstory of how he came to what is being offered here.
All writing, unless otherwise attributed,
© Kent Hoffman- 2018
Consider this piece by Robert Glasper a living prayer, each piano key offering a new level of resonance, every note emerging from Original Ground.