Daily Tenderness Practice
“Underneath all his [her] preoccupations with sex, society, religion, etc. (all the staple abstractions which allow the forebrain to chatter) there is, quite simply, a person tortured beyond endurance by the lack of tenderness in the world.” – Lawrence Durrell
You are the richest person on earth, yet live as a destitute child. Please come back to your heritage. Let go of your despair.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
“All the resource you will ever need from the Universe is here. Now. – Zen Teaching
“The first step in spiritual practice is to know yourself to be lovable and allow yourself to be loved.” – John Main, O.S.B.
What if it really were this simple? What if the love and resource you’ve been waiting to experience is actually right here, already available . . . in this very breath?
I’m a developmental researcher and I’ve come to know that every child is hardwired for love. No surprise there. I’ve also come to know that in the first months of life there is no way to offer too much soothing and delight to an infant. Healthy emotional development has many additional requirements (autonomy and self-support will also be essential), but without a foundation established within soothing and delight, the next layers of development will be out of balance. Babies must first learn to trust at least one person as capable and responsive to distress (soothing) and joyous-within-togetherness (delight). Our first learning in emotional health must center on tenderness offered and tenderness received. The conclusion: “I am lovable and loved. I trust those who love me.”
I’m also a clinician and I’ve come to see that trustworthy tender presence is precisely what many of us didn’t adequately receive (and now can’t believe is possible). We may have had well-intentioned parents, but difficult circumstances, parental confusion/anxiety/depression, generational struggles, family discord, etc. got in the way. So, the stability-within-affection we needed was limited. Painful self-beliefs followed: “Something is wrong with me.” “I’m not good enough.” “It’s my fault.” “It’s up to me.” “I’m not wanted.” “I’m alone.”
Am I saying all life’s problems stem from our first year? Not a chance. Human insecurity is stunningly common and has many roots and even more branches. That said, deep trust in tender presence remains the essential first conclusion needed. To the degree this grounding-in-trust is missing, our later development (and view of life) tends to go askew.
Fortunately, from the perspective of spiritual wisdom, it’s never too late to begin again.
Every spiritual tradition invites us to “wake up” or “come home” to an original benevolence from which we are currently estranged. When Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh asks you to “come back to your heritage,” he is inviting you to return to your hidden inheritance: the experience of already being connected; always held in the lap of compassion.
Jesus of Nazareth named this same intimacy when he described the nature of God as Abba (the Aramaic word for the most tender and attentive parent imaginable). His message: At the heart of God, tenderness. Rather than being alone (or unworthy, or not good enough) we are, like an infant with the most caring of parents, continually held within tender presence.
What if that which is most fragile, most frightened, most vulnerable in you is actually being offered tenderness? What if the original generosity at the heart of all things is available now?
Here’s the tricky part: Tenderness offered isn’t necessarily tenderness received. Receptivity requires vulnerability. Vulnerability is precisely what our history of non-tenderness seeks to block. And yet, this very defense can become our guide. At the heart of all non-vulnerability is always a single message: “Only love will do.” Our need suddenly becomes map, not aberration. Rather than wishful thinking, our uncontestable hardwiring for tenderness-at-the-core clarifies our deepest nature.
This is where spiritual practice enters, saying only this: “Without tenderness we are lost.” Through the years, only in naming my original need do I finally open to the responsiveness I most require. Through the years, trust deepens into deeper trust; tender care is always welcoming me home. Thirst is, indeed, proof of water.
What is, is. What is, without tenderness, remains stuck. What is, with tenderness, transforms.
A Simple Daily Tenderness Practice
“At the heart of every atom in the cosmos is the Eternal Presence. And it is a Presence that calls us each by name.”– John Philip Newell
Each morning upon awakening: “I live in tenderness. Tenderness lives in me.”
1. At least five days a week sit for 5 – 30 minutes, tenderly breathing into your belly. You can silently repeat a single word. (“Abba,” “Amma,” “Home.” Etc.) Consider each breath a micro-download; the building of new neural pathways of trust.
2. Find a picture of someone you trust smiling in a genuine way. (This can also be a loving animal.) Place this picture where you will see it often.
3. Through the day, when you’re in difficulty/pain/struggle, or, when you notice a kind and caring event, breathe gently.
4. With this breath allow yourself a slight, almost imperceptible smile.
5. Commit to 100 days of this practice. (Consider a year; maybe two.) Regarding matters of the heart, speed is never a virtue.
6. Don’t demand immediate results. Do expect wonderful surprises. (Even now.)
7. Periodically say aloud: “This practice is about accepting love that is in no way dependent upon my doing this practice.”
8. “I breathe as the most secure child breathes. This is always my first breath.”
At the heart of all things, tenderness. Beneath every thought, tenderness. Within each tender breath, peace.
From: Hidden Holding: Procedural Memory & Sacred Practice in Everyday Life by Kent Hoffman, ©2017
Rene Descartes, the father of modern science, was once asked if he believed in magic. “I think not,” he said. And with that he ceased to exist.
OK, that never happened. What does seem accurate is that Rene Descartes, for all of his remarkable brilliance, set in motion a belief system based upon the dominance of thought creating a cultural worldview that dictates how we see "reality" to this day. At the core of his belief:
“I think therefore I am.”
Even at first glance this statement seems profoundly limited. Our thinking in no way assures our existence. For many of us, it endangers it. (There was a reason for Descartes dependence upon thought. He apparently suffered from a severe anxiety disorder. His solution was to discipline his stunning I.Q. to non-stop cognitive activity. While he doubted everything - as many with anxiety do - he wasn't able to doubt his doubting, which is to say, his thinking. Thought was provable. A life grounded in thought appears to have been the only way he was able to avoid an inner chaos that included an early childhood with multiple caregivers after the death of his mother in his first year.) We have based our understanding of "reality" upon Descartes' solution to anxiety.
While helpful in the realm of science, the all pervasive nature of this solution has severely truncated our capacity to consider how reality may extend beyond what thought can offer.
Hence the approach within these pages:
“I breathe therefore I am.”
It is in the simple process of breathing that we have another option for grounding our lives. Dropping below our Level Two anxiety, we can allow roots to grow deeper than our capacity to "know," entering this next breath as a sanctuary offering support and new possibility.
Spiritual traditions around the world have trusted and practiced this process for millennia.
This, of course, is the practical and (for many) essential importance of a daily practice.
It is rare that a new idea can vanquish and end the pain of Level One/Two thinking. For most, if not all of us, our negative certainty will never pack up and go away.
It doesn’t have to.
As long as we have direct, moment to moment access to Presence, the absence we continue to carry will not undo us.
Christians call this “the peace that passes all understanding.” Peace deeper than our mind's capacity to make sense of things.
Buddhists call it “natural great peace.”
Rest in natural great peace
This exhausted mind
Beaten helpless by karma
and neurotic thought,
Like the relentless fury
of the pounding waves
In the infinite ocean
I would still give up ten stunning new thoughts for a single, tender breath.