Attunement: “I See You”

The teachings of the Buddha are about human life…about coping with our all too human lives of suffering and joy.
                        Gregory Kramer in Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom 

“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”                                               Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek 


My friend Phyllis sent me this link not so long ago.  My whole body comes into a balance of delight and ease when I witness a dance such as this, whether it is between children and their caregivers or adults with one another.

Sukawati boy and Mom 2This is the beautiful dance of relational attunement: the relationship of two beings responding “in inter-being” with one another, each reading the other’s mostly nonverbal cues and responding to these in subtle and sensitive ways.  As social animals, we humans are hard-wired by evolution for this kind of social attunement. We live and thrive in social networks. Even newborn, we need no practice or instruction for our nervous systems to begin to see, feel, hear, taste and smell our way into and through collaborative and contingent communications with both our internal sensations and our external worlds.  With a new infant, an attuned caregiver follows the baby’s lead by reading the baby’s signals, making more or less accurate sense of them, and responding over and over and over and over in timely and contingent ways.  Similarly, the infant also leads the adult by reading her  signals, making more or less accurate sense of them, and responding over and over and over and over in timely and contingent ways. Without at least a basic level of this sort of relational attunement, otherwise healthy human babies soon die.  Over time, this ongoing relational attunement is the vehicle through which the immature nervous system develops its increasing organization, sophistication and complexity. Relational attunement then becomes more and more conscious as human young learn to tolerate, regulate and communicate experience over their long growth toward maturity.

Through this process, the developing brain learns what to pay attention to, what to ignore, what it all “means,” how to navigate strong and often difficult sensations, how to balance, organize and communicate these, and which meaningful data is worth remembering to be filed for future reference.  In this way, the attunement (or lack of attunement) of important others affects not only the content of mental processes, but more importantly, the actual structure of information processing itself. Through relational attunement, young children develop what are called internal working models of how the self, how other selves and how the (apparently) external world, works. These models become implicit and mostly unconscious, guiding the human brain to construct a phenomenological sense of a personal “I,” as the brain organizes itself, the contents of sense experience and, importantly, the very representational processes through which an individual makes sense of the world and enters into relationship with all that is in it.

When attunement happens well, the young develop in an elegant relational dance in which the human nervous system is kept in – or able to return fluidly to – a balanced range of stimulation and information processing. In such a range, individuals are able to select from the infinite possible sensory data points the information that allows both enough flexibility to explore, adapt and accommodate to the new, and enough stability to remain poised and coherent through that lived and often messy engagement with life and the other beings. Such well functioning working models – called “Secure Attachment”* by developmental psychologists – enable the growing individual to attend, think, anticipate, and plan, to feel and navigate a full range of emotion, to distinguish consensual reality from fantasy, and to behave fluently in relation to their own as well as others’ minds, behaviors and experiences of self and other. This includes the mental ability to reflect – to not be lost in experience, but to be aware of it and to think about it. It also includes the skill to grasp that one’s own thinking is merely representational – e.g. not necessarily “true”  and that others’ experiences may differ significantly and still be legitimate and worthy of care. Dan Siegel describes the successful outcome of the attunement process as a brain and nervous system that can be flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable in response to the world’s infinite amounts of ever-changing, ever-confusing, and thus, ever-challenging sensory data.

Robust western research has identified three additional patterns of information processing that are likely to emerge when the attunement of primary caretakers during a child’s developing years is insufficient or damaged in some significant way.  Without relational intervention and healing, these inefficient information processing strategies are quite robust and tend to be carried into adulthood, coloring not only the contents of perception but the very strategies through which the brain perceives, organizes and relates to both internal and external experience. In one such inefficient attachment pattern, known as an “Anxious/Dismissive Attachment” pattern, children’s caretakers have been unable to respond sensitively to the child’s internal sensory experience. Children then develop in an unbalanced way, learning to disregard and/or disparage the body’s sensations and emotional signals. Such children have difficulties allowing their own human physical and emotional vulnerabilities and come to focus and rely more rigidly mainly on the conceptual mind.  As a result, there develop deficits in abilities to recognize consciously, to learn from, or to respond well to their own or others’ body and emotional states and needs. They may be high achievers in intellectual pursuits but find healthy human relationships quite difficult to manage.

A second pattern of less than optimal attunement is called an “Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment” pattern which results when caretakers’ responses to the child’s signals are significantly inconsistent, awkwardly intrusive and/or untimely.   Children learn to know their own experience but, because of caretakers’ unreliability, have great difficulty learning to modulate strong sensations or relaxing into trusting reliance in a helping relationship when others’ help is what is needed. Individuals with this relational pattern can easily become overwhelmed and paralyzed by their own – and others’ – intense and conflicting emotional storms. These individuals struggle with ambivalence between the pull of personal exploration and their need for the support of others in connections, encouragement, guidance, feedback and support.  This pattern can manifest in individuals who find it hard to identify wholesome sources of support, to ask appropriately for help from those sources, or to receive it with gratitude and ease. As a result, individuals may try to get their own dependence needs met indirectly, through criticism or control of others.  This may take the form of excessive or role inappropriate caretaking. These caretakers, at the same time, often remain fearful of both relational intimacy and of reliance on, or expression of, their own independence, experience, ideas, judgments or needs.

A third disordered pattern, an “Anxious/Disorganized Attachment” pattern, is a more extreme combination of these two. It manifests in individuals whose early caretakers were themselves severely frightening, dissociated or unstable and who then behave toward the child in threatening and chaotic ways, making attunement for the child impossible and even highly dangerous. This leaves children – and later, adults – with fragmented and overwhelmed information processing systems – vulnerable to chaos and burdened by their limited abilities to know, reflect on and cultivate wise action with either their own emotional states or their external relational experience.

The point of all of this is that relational attunement matters. lotus openingWhile it is especially crucial for children’s developing brains and sense of self, it also matters throughout the human lifespan. As adult social animals, attunement is the very vehicle through which we continue to strengthen and expand our abilities to reflect on our own and others’ experience and, through this, to maintain emotional equilibrium and behavioral skill. Attunement skill matters perhaps especially for us as psychotherapists and spiritual teachers in that we are, first of all, called to see. We are asked to be fully present with others in all of their texture and richness.  To do this, we are asked to first see ourselves: our own joys and accomplishments as well as our own confusions, overwhelm, limits and sorrows.  This, of course, requires us to be fiercely, humbly honest with ourselves so that we are both willing and able to recognize our own wholesome as well as our not-so-wholesome attunement patterns. In this way we deeply know our shared humanity and ways that our own blind spots may unintentionally be contributing to our own or others’ suffering.  This seems in keeping with the Buddha’s instruction to contemplate internally, externally, and both, not as an effort for us to solidify a sense of a personal self, but as a practice of seeing clearly what is deeply true about this apparently separate personal self as it relates to apparently separate other selves.  Willingness to engage with human life in this way is an important aspect of our own spiritual practice as we cultivate ever deeper and wider capacities to exclude nothing, internally or externally, from our wise and compassionate hearts.


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