Humans are relational creatures. Our capacity for problem solving exceeds that of other animals, but it’s our ability to communicate and cooperate—for relating—that makes us a successful species. We are as accustomed to relationship as fish are to water.
We relate constantly, even with inanimate objects and—in many cases—unilaterally. Our relationship building is so promiscuous, it’s not an exaggeration to say we relate with everything. So while it’s obvious we build relationships with people and animals, we also build them with plants, neighborhoods, organizations, computers and other tools, etc.
Look around you. Choose a feature of your environment. Notice how you feel about it, whether you find it attractive, distasteful, or uninteresting. Even if the object scarcely deserves attention, you’ll likely notice some sort of reaction, which means you relate to it emotionally. If you’re at home, you probably can tell a story about this feature you’ve chosen, which adds richness to the relationship.
In these ways and many others, we build a sense of relationship with everything, though only sometimes consciously. As a consequence, we meet the Life relationally. Depending on how we experience that relationship, we may feel supported and important or threatened and insignificant.
Since early childhood, I’ve been relating to Life in a way that anticipated Mindful Biology. I felt nature’s support, but that did little to blunt my lifelong sense of danger and insignificance. Then, in 2000, visionary experiences set me on a new path. Before they began, my world had been falling apart; afterward it appeared magnificent and loving despite no improvement in my circumstances. I went from believing myself alone in an uncaring cosmos to feeling supported and adored, at one with a vast intelligence that was the universe itself. The radiant sense of meaning lasted for months but then gradually faded. I’ve been working to rekindle it ever since, and in recent years that effort has increasingly borne fruit.
Back then, my visionary experiences seemed convincing, like proof of God. Holding onto that belief felt vital for a time. Now, however, my belief system seems less important. Yes, I believe the signs point to vast intelligence in the cosmos, but I can’t characterize it as godlike, impersonal, or something else. My scientific training counsels caution. It reminds me that while my visions had a huge effect on my psyche, they are not objective proof. But there’s one fact of which I’m sure: while my visions were active and for a long time afterward, I felt a loving, vitalizing relationship with…something.
Lately, I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to identify or describe that something, and it might simply be Life itself. All that matters is I’ve found ways to feel safe and valued in the world, regardless of what others think about me, the state of my body, my material circumstances, or anything else.
Because we are so innately and fundamentally relational, our quality of life depends not on conceptual beliefs, but on felt relationships. A loving relationship with Life makes an enormous difference; how it’s conceptualized matters little. Maybe the cosmos is conscious from quark to quasar. Maybe it’s as insensitive as sand. Maybe there’s a loving deity who watches over us. But whatever the ‘truth’, when experience a loving relationship with reality, I’m happier than when I don’t.
Atheists often argue that notions of a loving intelligence larger than the self are nothing but infantile memories. The little baby was utterly dependent on a huge, loving being. So the religious adult pictures a huge, loving being (”God”) in the sky. By this view, belief in a higher power is refusal to face the hard facts of grownup life.
I used to believe this argument. After my visions shook things up, I could only defend against it by pointing to the power of my experiences: surely they were more than an infant’s memory. As I read more about mysticism, I learned what those more familiar with religious life have known all along: few serious seekers believe in a simplistic, parent-figure God.
But I now see a bigger problem with the argument. To assert that mature people give up imagined relationships is to overlook how we imagine relationships with everything, including the universe as a whole. We can’t live without relationship; all we can do is become more intentional about it.
Atheists often pride themselves on seeing life clearly, free of primitive sentimentality. In the words of Nobel laureate Jacques Monod, “man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity”. There’s no higher intelligence in Monod’s view, so he doesn’t picture himself held by a loving god. Instead, he pictures himself held by a vast cosmos that doesn’t care. This is just as relational as belief in God. The only difference is the relationship’s bleakness.
Monod sounds similar to the wounded child who shouts, “leave me alone!” If religious believers are influenced by memories of a loving parent, then believers in in an uncaring cosmos might be influenced by memories of an neglectful one.
Not all atheists emphasize meaninglessness. Many seem to feel genuine love toward nature and humanity, only objecting to the idea of intelligences that exist but can’t be proven (a reasonable objection, surely). Nor, obviously, do all religious believers emphasize love and support. Many fundamentalists believe in a harsh, punitive God.
But no matter our beliefs and feelings, each of us operates in some sort of relationship with reality.
There’s a parallel between these relationships and so-called attachment theory. Thanks to popular books and articles, it’s now widely known that people develop different relationship styles, different ways of forming attachments. Some enjoy so-called secure attachment; others don’t.
The securely attached among us form comfortable, stable bonds. By and large, they were raised by stable parents capable of emotional resonance, who responded according to a youngster’s moment-by-moment needs.
In contrast, there are two main styles of insecure attachment. The avoidant style leads to a reactive sense of not needing others. It results from neglectful parenting, where the infant learns a precocious but stressful independence, bordering on indifference. The anxious style is clingy and insecure. It reflects unreliable or intrusive parenting that triggers fearfulness and exaggerated efforts to please.
Because these attachment styles affect our human relationships, it seems likely they affect non-human relationships too. If so, then secure styles might explain the healthy forms of both religion and atheism, while insecure forms explain the rigidity and combativeness displayed by the more toxic elements in both camps.
In fact, our so-called attachment style is a generalization. Each of us is capable of both secure and insecure relating. The lucky among us spend much time using the secure style but may resort to anxious or avoidant behavior when relational stress feels overwhelming. Meanwhile, those of us whose dominant style is insecure can sometimes attach more securely.
So here’s my proposal, in brief: whether we realize it or not, we develop a sense of relationship with everything, including the world-at-large, aka reality. We may believe the reality comes from some more fundamental source, like God, or we may believe it is fundamental in itself. Either way, what matters is how we relate to it. As we move through our lives, do we feel relatively safe and valuable, or do we feel threatened, judged, abandoned, or unimportant? How comfortable we feel in Life depends on the attachment style we bring to bear on it.
This is good news, because we can work on our style once we see its importance. Just as every intimate partnership takes work, our relationship with reality does too. If we don’t attend to it, we may grow alienated from our bodies, other people, nature, and—in the worst case—the whole cosmos. But with a little effort, we can cultivate a relationship that feels more nurturing and affectionate. We can practice healthy attachment behaviors while letting go of toxic ones. Bit by bit, we can cultivate feelings of support and significance.
But how do we improve our relationship with something as vast and all-inclusive as ‘reality’? It sounds daunting, but it’s easier than improving relationships with people. The cosmos is just itself. It doesn’t display immature habits, chronic insecurities, bullying behavior, or poor impulse control. It doesn’t hold grudges (despite how our negative actions have negative consequences). The more we settle our somatic and mental systems, the safer and more supportive reality feels. To work on our relationship with it, we need only work on ourselves.
We have a range of options if we seek to mature and settle, and most of us make use of some of them. This site offers the approach of looking closely at what it means to be a mammalian organism. We look at Life and aim to meet it with more compassion, acceptance, affection, and nurturance. We increase our sense of clarity and ease in the midst of reality, no matter how chaotic it sometimes seems. Our relationship with it grows more supportive.