When we practise lovingkindness we wish for ourselves and others to be safe. Often in everyday life we would like ourselves and our nearest and dearest to be safe also. But what does it really mean? Depending on the answer, our wish to be safe might be a trigger for our most destructive impulses, or for our most compassionate behaviour.
Paul Gilbert, founder of compassion focused therapy, writes about the difference between safety and safeness. He suggests that an image of safety might be akin to being hidden in a bunker underground, safe from the dangers of the outside world. In contrast safeness would require nowhere to hide. A safeness image might be a beautiful meadow, garden or forest, or some other place of peace. This concept of safeness does not include the need to hide, or to be separate from the world in any way. In a truly safe world there would be no need. It is this sense of safeness that we wish for, for ourselves and others.
Of course none of us is ever really safe. We will all die in the end, some of us in our own beds. We will all suffer in our lives. Nobody can stop this. It is a fact of life itself. As humans though, we have some pretty strong instincts which evolved to keep us safe.
For safety, we have an inbuilt tendency to be suspicious of the unknown and of outsiders. We evolved to live in small groups or tribes which we would defend against invasion by strangers. It is built into us to make a distinction between 'us' and 'not us', and to fear difference. This is where our sense of 'safety' can come from. If we can defend our boundaries against our enemies, if we can keep out the unknown, then we can feel safe. This sense of safety comes from our threat-based emotional system. Threat-driven wishes for safety may drive some of us to want to build walls and to close ranks against those who we feel are different from ourselves. This may have served us well in the past when we lived in small groups, tribes and villages. It is not a tenable solution in our diverse, globalised world however, and, as can be seen in many countries throughout the world, separation and attack, strategies intended to make us safer, will usually have the opposite effect by creating enemies who could have been friends.
When we wish to be safe, what we really need is safeness. While safety is driven by our threat-based emotional system, safeness comes from our capacity to make loving connections with others. It is the reason why a scared child can be quickly soothed by a loving relative and the reason that we can dare to be brave in challenging circumstances. While our chosen image of safeness may involve solitude, we can also create a feeling of safeness by caring for ourselves and others. At their best, institutions such as the NHS, police, fire and social services and benefits system can contribute towards the safeness of our society, working as a safety net that we hope we will not need. Our own behaviour and attitude towards others also make a contribution.
When we are faced with someone who we feel is 'not like us', maybe because of a different ethnicity or because of their facing circumstances that we would not like to acknowledge could also happen to us, we are faced also with a positive choice. Are we going to try to separate ourselves from them, by excluding them or denying the truth of their experience? Are we going to look for the safety of strong walls and harsh policies? Or are we going to see that they are human, just like us, and do what we can to help, knowing that in doing so we are helping ourselves also? The second option takes courage of course. It also builds the foundation of a society based on safeness and one which is less likely to ignore our needs or those of our loved ones should we fall on unfortunate times.