The feeling of safety may be the most important component of spiritual and contemplative practices. Most attention goes often to how these practices define their ultimate goal (awakening, liberation, realization, you have it). But this goal is pointless if there is no path to get there, and the path itself is useless if there is no way to start walking on it. Hence, from a pedagogical perspective, the real question is not ‘what is awakening?’ (or anything similar), but ‘how do you start walking?’ The simple and quick answer is: ‘by feeling safe’.
You can picture safety as the absence of immediate dangers around, or as a certain degree of control on internal or external conditions. But if one remains at this level of understanding, safety is rarely achieved and the quest for it may become itself a source of frustration and unsafety. I won’t explain why here. Ask the Buddhists, or take a look at the Tragedy of the Self, or the Introduction to Friendliness. What is more urgent is to find a deeper understanding of safety.
At a more profound level, safety is a sense of ungrounded-groundedness, the ability to be anywhere, stay with everything, because one is not chained to any place, nor forced to be anything in particular. It does not reject what is there (whatever it is), and yet it does not take it to be all that there is. In this sense, safety entails a sense of full acceptance (both in the sense of being fully accepted by the surroundings, and of fully accepting them).
Yet, there is more to it. This sense of ungrounded-groundedness can arise only by tapping into and recovering an intuitive and original experience of connectedness with what is. To put it in other terms, unsafety always presupposes a form of dualistic opposition, a polarization, a ‘me-vs-you’ structure, hence a fracture in the space of experience. But as any of these dualities can only be derivative on a more unified and inclusive experience (which includes differences within a larger unity, see discussion in Sri Aurobindo), the access to a sense of connectedness and nonduality must be more fundamental, even if too often forgotten or blurred.
But how to feel safe when we are always liable to sickness and death (AN 5.57)? Safety does not necessarily mean not to experience certain states. Safety itself it is not a state, but an attitude. Even sickness and death are ultimately ways of connecting and being connected with the natural cycle of Life. They are often unpleasant, sorrowful, lacerating, yet that’s also the nature of Life (ask Nietzsche about this). Feeling safe in sickness does not mean not feeling pain, nor ignoring possible ways of healing, if available. It means following along in the process of sickness, playing one’s own role in it (which hopefully is that of the one who tries to get better and overcome the sickness, if that’s an option), without othering, hypostatizing, alienating sickness itself as something external that should not be there. One can still fight, if this is needed, but more as in a play, rather than on a doomed war-trench. The same applies to death, and even more so to all mentally-produced forms of unsafety (from terrorism to the fear of spiders). To feel safe means to be able to play with the conditions that are currently given, knowing that we are not playing against them, but with them. This is a seemingly little nuance, yet full of consequences.
Granted this, even if just for the sake of the argument, how do you cultivate this sense of safety? By deconstructing the reasons for unsafety in the main domains in which they can arise. If dualism is derivative with respect to nondualism, then nondualism is reached by deconstructing dualities. And if nondualism is more fundamental, that means that fundamentally there is nothing to be done. However, superficially some cleaning can be very helpful.
What is then the domain where this cleaning has to be performed? A full matrix (3x2) to cover it would include mental, emotional, and physical dimensions, both in relation to oneself and in relation to others. But since these dimensions are all interconnected, tackling them one by one might not be the most efficient approach. Rather, we need to swing from one to the other: start from acknowledging that we can be safe at least with certain other human beings around, that we all know some experience of love and being loved, of care, of warmth. This creates a first oasis, a bubble, a buffer zone to look more closely at our own psychophysical condition, and explore there a sense of embodied safety (a sense of being able to ground oneself enough to open up, finding an agreeable compromise between our current limitations and what we can still reach for). We teach the body the freedom of letting go of what it has become accustomed to hold, and rather learn how to hold space for the flow of experience to unfold. The point is not how much this changes the external details of our bodily shapes. The point, again, is the attitude that we encode in our living tissues, the habit of taking everything in and yet remain stuck nowhere. Then, we can come back to the intersubjective domain, look again at our lives as they run amidst the currents of others’ lives, all contributing to the same grand fresco. We can express through our motions and actions how the rhythms of life call us to meet others, we can see them not as strangers or prays, judges or enemies, but as dance partners. We might not know them, but deep down we actually know each other since ever. All of the sudden, we feel safe, but this safety quickly scales up and takes a cosmic twist. We feel at home in the world, with all its tragedies and glories, its beauty and dread. We feel safe being insignificant little arrogant creatures on a speck of matter somewhere in the immense Vastness, and safe in being the hero of our own epopee.
This is not the end; this is indeed the beginning of all the rest. Nourished by safety, surrender flourishes. With surrender, we learn how to listen more deeply. As we learn how to listen, we can express better ourselves, and through us everything else is voiced. Everything then flourishes naturally, spontaneously, without much need for effort or explanation. The first step is the decisive step, the only step indeed. Square one is the only square where we need to be.
These considerations have been inspired by tasting and testing what I shall call ‘Spinoza’s meditation’ (to know more about it, wait for the upcoming book Spinoza’s Yoga), and especially by pondering the experience and role of what he calls hilaritas. This might indeed be one of the most valuable insights to share in teaching, and this is also what the Hilaritas workshops are for (stay tuned!).