For the first many years of my life I sought ways to make myself feel safe. I sought out people who were safe and avoided those who were scary. Even before I had words for “safe, safety” and “scary,” my instincts guided me.
This is true for most of us. Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, developed the “hierarchy of needs,” which states that we are motivated first by safety (physical and psychological), and only after that need is satisfied are we then motivated by love and belonging. But what happens if we don’t satisfy our need for safety and it continues to drive our behaviors? We will limit ourselves terribly. We won’t experience living with an open heart, and we will very likely hurt the people we love the most because we’ll react to them as if they are a threat.
Your first reaction might be, “Well, that’s not me. Safety isn’t what drives me in my life.” Maybe not, but I invite you to look deeper within yourself because I’m proposing that just about everyone raised in modern culture is driven by a need for safety—a false need.
Safety is our foundation
Safety is at the foundation of most psychological models. And if you look at the first six to seven years of our lives, safety is a primary concern because if others don’t care for us and protect us we’ll die. We cannot fully care for ourselves until about the age of seven. So safety plays a very large role in our primary years. But do we ever switch gears and focus on something other than safety?
Or, does our emphasis on safety become habituated? That’s what I think happens. And I believe this is why I commonly hear expressions like the following:
Are you sure you’ll be okay?
You never know what could happen.
Be careful out there.
You’re just asking for trouble.
These are scary times.
Trouble comes in threes.
Bad things happen to good people.
Take care of yourself.
These common expressions, and so many more, are driven out of our need for safety. And, yes, we may start out in life vulnerable and dependent, but why are we so focused on safety in our twenties, thirties, forties, and beyond? I think it’s because we’ve created a meme, a massive cultural context that I describe as “safety consciousness.”
Safety glasses color the way we see
When I live in safety consciousness I see the world through a particular set of filters. I see the differences I have with other people as potential threats. I worry, “If he’s right, does that mean I’m wrong?” I often perceive others as competitors. Much of the time I seek to be right more than I seek to connect. I judge others and assume they’re judging me. I feel the need to defend myself when challenged. I blame other people—for embarrassing me, hurting me, abandoning me.
Yet, being social animals we want to connect with other people and form tribes—as small as a family or as large as a nation. Being part of a group increases our sense of safety, but when viewed through safety consciousness we worry that even those close to us may hurt us, or we may experience the loss of loved ones so we feel the need to protect ourselves even from the people we think of as “family.”
And speaking of families, if we truly value safety, why do so many people end up in relationships and family dynamics in which they don’t feel safe? It’s because we mistakenly equate familiarity with safety. If a woman grows up with a father who is emotionally unavailable, when she is older she may go in search of more of the same. It’s familiar, but not safe. If a man grows up with a mother he is emotionally dependent upon, later in life finding such a woman to be his partner will feel familiar, but not necessarily safe.
Safety has its limits
Safety consciousness is pervasive and I’m not suggesting we can live without it. I’m suggesting that as long as we live primarily in safety consciousness we will limit ourselves. Safety consciousness inhibits us from having deeply intimate and loving relationships. Safety consciousness keeps us perpetually anxious. Safety consciousness keeps us from growing and reaching our full potential.
It is possible to transcend our emphasis on safety by learning how to access heart consciousness and spacious consciousness (here is some more information).
How do we do this? We begin with 2 simple steps.
First, we must become aware of our state of consciousness. Most of us are so immersed in safety consciousness that we don’t even recognize how it’s driving our behaviors. So start to ask yourself, “What state of consciousness am I in?” I’ve explained safety consciousness enough in this article that I hope you’ll be able to recognize it.
Second, ask yourself, “What state of consciousness will serve me best in this situation?” If you want to access compassion, tenderness, appreciation, and feel your heart opening—those are descriptions of heart consciousness. If you want to access equanimity and a non-verbal state that provides an experience of being, not doing, that would be spacious consciousness (Again, I’ll write more about these in the weeks to come.)
Multiple times every day I practice shifting my consciousness from safety to heart consciousness or spacious consciousness. A simple example—something happens, maybe Hannah makes a comment and I feel myself starting to react. I immediately notice that I’m reacting from safety consciousness—energetically starting to push her away—and then I ask, “What experience do I want to have?” Usually, I realize I want to connect with her—heart consciousness—and I shift to a different set of filters that allows me to see her comment as a statement about her, not me. I realize my reaction was temporary, fleeting. Maybe I experience empathy for her, or curiosity. As a result, I move toward her instead of away. I look in her eyes and remember she is my best friend.
It’s sounds simple because it is simple. The key is to practice enough so that I can immediately identify the state of consciousness I’m in and then consciously choose the state of consciousness I want to be in.
By practicing specific meditation techniques both Hannah and I have learned to quickly identify and move between the three degrees of consciousness. By asking particular questions—different questions stimulate different levels of consciousness—we move seamlessly between the different levels.
We are now teaching these meditation techniques in our retreats and will be adding more information on our website to help you identify and learn to move between the levels of consciousness.
And the following articles, including one about the 3 Degrees of Consciousness are available as downloads. Just select what you want from the list below: