What drives you? Why do you do the things you do? In essence, who are you? Our sense of self is shaped by many factors—family dynamics, culture, and religion to name a few.
One of my teachers, Thomas Keating (the founder of “Centering Prayer”), reminds us that our biological needs actually have a big influence on who we are—or perhaps more accurately, who we’re not.
From the moment we’re born we experience primordial needs for affection, security, and control. It’s perfectly natural. We need positive reinforcement that helps us know we are loved, safe, that there’s nothing to fear.
As infants we have an innate need to experience love—without it, we wither. If we don’t feel safe, our development is further impaired. And without some sense of control, the world is something to fear. But like Scripture teaches us, at some point it’s time to grow up. Problem is, we often don’t know how. So we cling to what Keating refers to as our “programs for happiness.”
As adults, our basic childhood needs for affection, security, and control now entrap us—we are held captive to gratifying our needs. Satisfying our needs has become a program in our minds that betrays us. We are adults, behaving like children, begging people and circumstances of life to help us know we are loved, safe, and don’t need to be afraid. And so we unconsciously take from the world around us to feed a need that God alone can satisfy. And time and again, people and circumstance fail us, disrupting our happiness. We are slaves to our programs for happiness and need to be set free—free to make a conscious choice for God, self, and others.
Take me for example. I am the only daughter, the middle child between two brothers—a classic setup to assume the role of peacemaker in the family, which I did. I tended to the needs of my immediate family as a child, then the needs of my immediate circle of friends as a teenager, and then the needs of my co-workers in my young adult years. I didn’t think twice about it. Nothing wrong with being a peacemaker. It’s a good thing. But the motivation behind it was often distorted. Unconsciously I was habitually satiating my need for affection. I needed to be needed to feel loved. A subtle form of exploitation—using someone else to gratify my need for affection and desire to feel loved.
Contemplative prayer cuts to the heart of our unconscious motivations. By yielding our mind, heart, and body to God in regular contemplative practice, these deeply ingrained programs for happiness loosen their grip, allowing us to grow up.
When we let go—through prayer—into the God who alone can meet our every need, we are freed from our compulsions to satiate our own needs. From a place of liberation, we can then give and receive freely. Being transformed through contemplative prayer, we take on the mind of Christ—we live more often from a place of knowing that we are loved, safe, and have no need to fear. We receive from the Source and from the Source we give to the world.
Who are we? We are not our needs for affection, security, and control. As Jesus so desperately tried to help us realize, we are children of God—totally loved, totally safe, without need to be afraid.