Making Music Together: Attunement, Ruptures and Repair


 All beings are deeply connected to all other beings; we “inter-are.”  We know this. From ancient Buddhadhamma to modern physics, deep ecology, global finances, health, politics and all fields of modern psychology, these are the teachings. Everywhere in our modern world, there are challenges to old notions of separation.

At the same time, we are individual beings, each with our own unique combination of DNA, life opportunities, relational conditioning, perceptions, sankharas, neuronal patterns, desires, behaviors, and miscellaneous quirks that are embodied in the metaphor that is “self.”  Even though wisdom clearly points towards the truth of impermanence, suffering and no self, when self and other constructs arise, we can find ourselves and/or each other lost in a self or other view. How, then, do we practice seeing things as they actually are and meeting what has arisen with compassion and kind interest?  What supports clear seeing and awakening from the everyday trance of separation?

We each can recognize the tension that arises in everyday life between our individual needs and wants and those of others. We can know errors in both directions. On the one hand, we might become too focused on our own needs and views, become dismissive or ignorant of others, and attempt – subtly or not – to coerce, ignore or threaten as a way to prevail. On the other side, we might try to suppress or give up on our own views and needs, creating a rigid split within ourselves that will manifest in unwholesome internal or external ways.  Attention to attunement – both internal and external – invites us to lean into this tension and to inquire into the causes and the healing of human suffering.


Attunement: the capacity to be aware of both one’s own and the other’s signals, to understand them correctly, to sense the experience that underlies it, to reflect, and to respond in a timely, contingent and appropriate manner.

Attunement is the self’s capacity, to communicate with other selves in ways that are collaborative and contingent.  Without attunement, the young human organism would quickly die. From earliest infancy, signals are shared; through these, we interpret what the other is thinking and, especially, sensing and feeling. These skills operate at an energetic level, often without either consciousness or language. Attunement does not mean that each individual thinks or feels the same thing. Quite the opposite, attunement is simply the ability to read another’s signals, to interpret them accurately and to respond with flexibility and fluidity to the signals sent.  In one of its earliest forms, attunement enables the parent to accurately read the newborn’s signals and to respond in a timely, accurate and contingent way.   The infant’s attunement also allows him or her to receive that care and comfort as it is offered. Even more important, quality attunement is the process in which the immature organisms’ neurons become myelinated and the growing brain becomes organized, coherent and functional. This brain coherence allows for the sequential maturation of skills to know consciously, to represent in words and to then express internal experience.  In time, it also builds the abilities to remember, to form narratives, to generate wholesome senses of self and others, to recognize and interpret (more or less) accurately the internal experience of the other, to empathize, and to act in skillful and contingent ways.

So, just as the human organism requires healthy food to develop and maintain its physical integrity, so too, does the human organism require relational attunement for effective brain development and for ongoing integrated psychological and social functioning.  Just as with poor nutrition, consistent early failures on the part of significant others to offer attuned responses to the growing child will result in impairments in both internal and external relational skill.   Attachment research has identified three predictable patterns of impairment: dismissive attachment, preoccupied attachment, or disorganized attachment. Attunement, then, is the vehicle through which diverse aspects of the human brain and psyche come into organization and coherence. Further, with skillful early attunement experiences with an important other, an individual develops both the physiological brain capacity and the practical skills that enable rewarding and productive social relationships.  This is known as a secure attachment pattern.

Through attunement, an individual develops sequentially the abilities to think about another’s thoughts, feelings, and desires, to differentiate another’s mental states from their own, and, in a purposeful way, to construct together a shared reality and then to interact on the basis of joint goals and plans. Through relational attunement, an individual “I” develops the capacity to relate as a “we.” In these integrated relationships, the wholes become quite creative and much greater than the sums of parts. All of this happens primarily nonverbally, through interpretation and coordination of context, physical gestures, facial expression, body language, vocal tone, pitch, volume, tempo and cadence and through simple energy exchange.  A simple example from childhood might be a parent’s attunement to a fussy young child at a late evening gathering.  An attuned parent might externally navigate his own internal and social discomfort while interpreting the child’s actions not as  ”bad behavior”  but as a signal that the child is overwhelmed and tired and needs to be taken home to bed. The result of attunement is internal and external relational experience that is flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable.

Attunement, then, involves the development and practice of human capacities that are the building blocks of relational success.  To summarize, these personal skills include:

  • The capacity to signal – to another and primarily nonverbally – one’s own internal states
  • Security that these signals are valued and will be read accurately and responded to contingently by an attuned other
  • Enough accurate, external response to these signals that their activation diminishes (like the down regulating  of physical appetite once needs for food are adequately met)
  • Through the other’s skillful attunement and labeling, to begin to put words to one’s own internal experience
  • The ability to read others’ (primarily nonverbal) signals and, from these, draw accurate inferences about their internal states: their thoughts, feelings and desires
  • The capacity to reflect: to think about one’s own and another’s internal states
  • The relaxed capacity to recognize that others states, experience and immediate goals may not be the same as one’s own
  • The capacity to empathize: to care about the internal states and experience of another and to allow others’ emotions, thoughts, needs and wishes to be as important as – at times more important than – one’s own
  • In a purposeful way, to connect with another’s internal states and to negotiate with another’s differences, in this way working out collaboratively, partnerships that are meaningful, goal-directed, and successful.

As adults, when we encounter familiar patterns of discontent or disconnection with others, we can begin to inquire into the nature of our deeply conditioned attunement experience throughout our own particular lifecycle.  Reflecting on our attachment patterns and our experience with attunement in relationship is a doorway to compassion and insight.  It is a means of penetrating the veil of the self construct and opening the door to different ways of being in the world.


Rupture can be defined as a continuum from minor and partial tension to a full breakdown in misattunement resulting in damage to collaborative and coherent relationship within oneself or between two or more people.

Obviously, ruptures – or relational misattunements – occur all the time.  For all humans, there are times when an attuned connection, linkage becomes damaged, even broken. Understanding alone will not keep these disconnections (ruptures) from occurring any more than understanding will keep a musical instrument from going out of tune.  Indeed, robust research has reported that even in the best, most skillful parent-child partnerships, a rupture of some sort occurs frequently.  Note, also, that a simple disagreement is not a rupture, any more than discordant or solo music is necessarily “incorrect.”  For humans, the key component of rupture is disconnection, a lapse in relational attunement of some sort and an inability or unwillingness to remain in relationship and negotiate toward a resolution.

For our purposes, then, a relational rupture can be defined as a continuum from minor and partial tension to a full breakdown in a collaborative relationship between two or more people. In a rupture, there is a lack of relational attunement, when an individual senses that his mind is no longer being held in the mind of the other. In this state, relational connection and communication become diminished. Unhealed ruptures prevent individuals or groups from combining their diverse skills and resources to work together toward shared goals.  We can compare a rupture to a musical instrument – or a whole orchestra – that has gone out of tune. The person playing the violin is no longer able to hear and/or tune into the music of the clarinet, who also may not be listening sensitively to the music of the strings or to the leadership of the conductor. In ordinary relationship, this happens internally when the different aspects of our brains fall out of coherence. It also happens externally in relationship, when self and other are no longer in tune and working together toward a common goal. Ruptures at a group level lead to disorganized and inefficient collective functioning.  Here are a few of the many types of relational disconnection that may occur for us as adults:

Types of disconnection:  (some of these are from Parenting from the inside out by Daniel Siegel)

Oscillating disconnection: there is a tension between one person’s desire for connection/collaboration/discussion/togetherness and another’s wish for autonomy/time alone.
Benign Ruptures: simple misunderstandings or mistakes in which the receiver does not understand the message being sent.

Limit-setting ruptures: when the other does something which cannot be allowed because of safety or emergency.

Contractual ruptures: when a contract (a relational commitment or agreement) is
broken and agreements are not kept as agreed to.

Dismissive Ruptures: When the importance of what is valued by one person is unilaterally dismissed or shamed as unimportant or is not responded to in a timely way.

“Hit and Run” Ruptures: when there is an overt or subtle expressed criticism,          complaint, conflict, observation or question in which the presenter then            subsequently withdraws and disengages from further inquiry, making resolution  impossible.

Power assertive ruptures: when one uses a position of authority (experience, status, class, role) to attempt to impose a view, or behavior on another.

Toxic Ruptures: When a person loses control of his or her emotions and communication is no longer calm, flexible or contingent.

“The signs that a rupture has occurred….may be subtle or extreme. In its more extreme form rupture can lead to withdrawal or aggressive reactions….Subtle forms of rupture may be revealed when the (other) looks away and avoids eye contact. There may be a shift in the tone of voice and a diminished sense of engagement, reflecting a possible state of shame within the (other) and within ourselves. In other situations, ruptured connection may cause (the participants) to become focused on only a particular aspect of the discussion and not remain open to full communication from the other. Not feeling heard, both (parties) may become more assertive in their points of view and an argument begins which leads to more disconnection. Leftover issues may contain themes of disconnection that are especially vulnerable to being reactivated during this cascade of intense emotions and then further impair communication as the (parties) rapidly enter the low road. This creates a feedback loop in which both (parties) feel ignored and less and less heard and understood by the other.”

in Parenting from the inside out by Daniel Siegel

Again, in human life, relational, ruptures happen all the time. Shame arises when relational ruptures, especially the most toxic ones, routinely arise and, most especially, when they remain unrepaired.


Repair: the ability to recognize a rupture, lean kindly into the tension, remain in patient and coherent relationship both internally with oneself and externally with others, and come back into attuned communication (not necessarily conceptual agreement.)

In a rupture, both internal and external signals get missed, ignored, misunderstood, overlooked, deferred or – more toxically – shamed, dismissed, disparaged, or violently assaulted – in ways that lead to fracture in coherent and collaborative relationship. Given the social nature of our species, relational ruptures are painful. In healthy relationships, ruptures that arise are, for the most part, relatively benign (e.g. not power assertive, dismissive, shaming or toxic). In healthy relationships, they are noticed, investigated and relentlessly repaired. So ruptures are relatively ordinary and, when repaired, can actually enrich relationship and deepen connection.    Like any open wound, however, if ruptures are unaddressed, they are likely to generate unwholesome relational patterns that become increasingly unlikely to heal by themselves.  If repeated over and over without repair, they weaken the internal and external mental, social and emotional systems and they continue to metastasize into more complex and more damaging individual and social pains. Again, it is important to remember that simple – or even deep – disagreements are not ruptures. Also remember that, from the perspective of individual and social health, what matters here with these relationship disconnections is not whether or not they occur. They will and do. What is important is whether or not individuals are able to stay in (or return to) relationship and then notice and bring kindness to repairing the rupture in a wholesome and timely way. (“Oops, I misunderstood you; tell me again.”  Or “I forgot to reply to your email. I’m sorry; here it is.” Or: “Let us agree to disagree on this matter.”) I will offer a musical metaphor again: what matters for the orchestra is not whether or not an instrument ever goes out of tune or rhythm, but rather whether individuals are able to – and willing to – notice and accept the misattunement, listen and look for where they need to be, re-establish wholesome connection with themselves, their instruments and one another, and begin again to hear each other and to play well their part of the symphony.  In healthy and mature relationships, adults are able to:

  • Read the nonverbal signals and notice disconnections, both internally and externally
  • Accept disconnection and rupture with calm awareness, curiosity and kindness (releasing shame, blame, criticism of self or other)
  • Investigate: reflect on one’s own and the other’s experience, allow for difference,
    see what’s needed
  • Engage in mutual goal-corrected behavior.

This repair process is made difficult to the extent that one or both partners has deeply conditioned and unconscious brain architecture and the resulting relational expectations and strategies of one of the three less wholesome relational attachment patterns alluded to earlier. Since for everyone, these early relational patterns tend to be implicit, they are not experienced as something learned or remembered, but rather are known subjectively as “what is true.” These patterns become what is known as “internal working models” of relationship and function simply as the way human relationships ARE and are expected to be.   With conscious attention, however, individually and collectively, relationship partners can begin to notice suffering as a clue. They can begin to sense patterns in how, when, and where suffering arises in relationship and they can become curious about the mechanisms and the simple and human causes and forms of relational suffering. In this way, they can bring unconscious patterns into the light of awareness and can begin to re-wire their learned patterns through adult practice as they find and explore relationships with more integrated individual(s) whom they have come to trust. These can be teachers, therapists, mentors, kind friends, wise colleagues and supportive spouses who provide this healing presence and attunement. This more wholesome and coherent internal and relational awareness and functioning can, in turn, be the basis for still deeper and more comprehensive forms of relational and spiritual practice.

Dhamma: Exploring defilements that may interfere with recognition, acceptance or resolution of relational ruptures

Even with wholesome brain functioning and skilled relational practice, however, like any pain, presence and repair can be challenging. Further refinements to understanding and navigating ruptures can be found in Buddhist teachings on the arising of what are known as mental defilements of greed, aversion and delusion. As with response to any kind of pain, the presence of each of the three defilements in one’s mind may generate a particular flavor of response to the pains of disconnection in relational ruptures.  The following is adapted from the book, Everything is Workable by Zen teacher Diane Musho Hamilton.

The presence of greed might take a form of too facile an accommodation: “making nice.” When greed for the pleasant is present, an individual may find it hard to acknowledge internally the tension of a rupture, to own his or her responsibility, or to speak up about it. S/he may tend to try to diffuse the rupture by being pleasant, by changing the subject to more pleasant things, and by working hard to distract others into happiness or a topic that ignores or bypasses the rupture. 

The presence of aversion in response to the pain of a rupture might lead to a quickness to fight, criticize, blame or draw boundaries. Aversion may lead one to find it hard to pause, listen, read internal and external cues, be empathetic and be open to mutually agreeable resolution. Someone in the throes of aversion may be slow to forgive and may nurse old wounds and judgments. 

The present of delusion may lead one to ignore a rupture, to not even allow it into consciousness or to   ignore or dismiss its importance.  While it may be valuable at times to let things resolve on their own, someone in the throes of delusion will be guided not by wisdom, but by a strategy of avoidance. S/he will suppress his or her own energy and insight and may go “spacey,” withdraw energy and attention from the present. S/he may move into “spiritual things” and away from relationship – or at least from the issue of rupture – just when his or her presence and clarity are most needed. 

As adults, we don’t need to change our fundamental style in response to ruptures; indeed, each has its wholesome qualities. Rather, it is helpful to become conscious of it. When we see our own reflexive style clearly, we simultaneously can become aware of the styles of our friends, colleagues, and groups. We can begin to take an interest in what else might be possible.  Defending our ego – and what we implicitly “know” to be “true” can become far less interesting than working creatively with the challenges that arise.

Diane Musho Hamilton continues (adapted): 

When we free ourselves of the anxiety of greed, trying to secure happiness through acquiring people and things, we let go and become truly generous and giving, without needing anything in return. We are open to others (able to tolerate the unpleasantness of)… difficulty and difference. We cultivate diversity and we create beauty and intimacy in our relationships. 

The wisdom of aversion is penetrating clarity and power. We are self-possessed and trustworthy; we know what we think and feel, and we communicate that clearly. We are capable of asserting our preferences and of defending the differences of others, but without the need to dominate or prevail. When we transform the energy of aversion, we bring integrity, rigor, and discipline to the resolution of our disputes. 

When the energy of ignorance is liberated from the ego in need of protection, we can let things go, feel spacious, and accept how things are. We do not sweat the small stuff or fight losing battles. No longer concerned with self-protection, we can stay present instead of disappearing. This profound presence to what is frees us of our need to change or manipulate anything.

In summary, working with ruptures is not about charm school, homogenizing differences, being politically correct, “making nice” or resting in and reinforcing the constructed.  Rather, skill with relationship and with relational ruptures is a prerequisite for insight and for ease in the interrelatedness of all beings.  In modern times, abundant research has documented these skills as necessary for the development of mindful presence with self and other and for the ability to release exclusive self identification.  In ordinary life, there is much evidence that groups function more effectively toward common goals when these skills are practiced well. This is true even – maybe especially – when groups have strong hierarchies and clear central authority (like airplane crews and surgical teams or teachers with students or psychotherapists with clients). In these cases, skills with relationship and managing ruptures have been well documented to enable complex teams to work together, to share their different perspectives, skills and resources and to happily, fluidly, safely and effectively accomplish common goals even, in some cases, under extreme stress.

Skills in wholesome attunement can enable all of us in relationship to be better able to release the content of stories and to rest, in relationship, in direct experience.  Through wise and kind presence with both internal and external ruptures, we can cultivate better abilities to calm nervous system activation and behavioral reactivity in ourselves and others and enable release of the intra- and inter-personal suffering and disconnection that can live on beyond events and beyond stories. We can, together, cultivate a deeper respect for the pains of this human life, without our insistence that it be otherwise. We can become more respectful,  curious and resilient: more able to find enough patience, calm and energy to be fully available in relationship and to be wise and kind as we inquire ever more deeply together into relational suffering and the end of relational suffering.















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