I love to watch mothers and babies. A rosy glow seems to light up the room when they’re connected and attuned to each other. A secure baby relaxes into a mother’s arms, and you almost feel their hearts beating in rhythm.
I was shocked when I heard from famous infant researcher, Ed Tronick (a really smart, funny, and endearing guy), that secure infants and mothers are misattuned 70% of the time.
These are securely attached babies (see blogs #33 and #34.), meaning they feel secure enough to explore when they want to explore, and be connected to a safe, caring parent when they want contact or soothing. Ed Tronick’s point is that what matters most is how well mothers and babies reattune when there’s a rupture in their relationships—like baby getting hurt or Mommy getting pissed off.
I believe attunement is so central to a good life that I wrote a book about it, The Attuned Family: how to be a great parent to your kids and a great lover to your spouse. What is attunement?
With adults, attunement to ourselves is being aware with caring intent of our bodies, minds and spirits. Focusing with caring intent on someone else’s body mind, and spirit is attuning to them.
Try attuning to yourself.
Breathe deeply a couple of times and let your breath out slowly. Sense into your body. What are you physically experiencing? Are you tense or relaxed? Hot or cold? What sensations do you have in your hands and feet, arms, legs, genitals, abdomen, solar plexus, heart, throat, face, and head? Just allow them with acceptance and caring intent.
Still breathing deeply, what emotions arise with these sensations? Happy or sad? Interested or bored? Irritated or touched? Ashamed or proud? Observe and accept these fluid feelings with caring intent.
What thoughts are moving through you? Observe them without pursuing them or adding to them, with acceptance and caring intent.
What judgments do you have at this moment about yourself or others? Are you guilty about eating those donuts this morning? Do you think your husband is silly for caring about whether his football team won last night? Notice all judgments with acceptance and caring intent.
Do you hunger, yearn, or want anything? Shift your body? A sip of water? A snack? Contact with a friend or family member? Do you need to yawn or stretch? Accept that you want these things—whether they are good for you or not—with caring intent.
I try to practice attuning to myself all the time. Why not? You quickly learn to do it while you’re doing everything else, and it makes everything else better.
` To attune to others, look at someone or send him or her your attention with acceptance and caring intent. What are they sensing, feeling, thinking, judging, or wanting? Now you’re attuning to them. This is also something we can practice whenever we’re around others.
Attuned babies feel safe love in relationship with a securely attached caregiver, but there are frequent ruptures in the attuned flow between mothers and babies. Phones ring, people come over, accidents happen, life gets uncomfortable.
One-year-old Jimmy falls into the table, hurts his arm, and wants Mommy now. She’s talking to a friend in the other room, Jimmy can’t see her, and he starts to cry. Mommy hears him and gets alarmed at his urgent tone. She rushes into the living room, soothes herself (reattunes to herself) enough to be a calming presence, and picks Jimmy up, checking him quickly for injury, “Are you OK? Did you get an owie and I wasn’t there?”
Jimmy feels/hears/senses her empathic love and calms himself down in response to her influence. Even though it looks like Mom’s doing all the work, it is ultimately Jimmy’s body/mind system that has to stop pumping stress chemicals and start pumping happy/relaxed chemicals. A misattunement has been repaired back into attunement, and both feel warm and secure. Also, both have practiced self-reattunement and collaborative reattunement—making their nervous systems more likely to go there again in similar situations.
Not surprisingly, mothers who are good at attuning tend to have babies who are good at attuning, and vice versa. In attuned families you often find a shared assumption—a family value—that everybody will keep getting better at noticing misattunement and regulating back to attunement.
I invite you to consider your relationships with the people you’re closest to from the perspectives of attunement, disruption, and reattunement. We’re all easily distracted, and often quick to create negative stories when we feel bad—stories like “You did me wrong,” or “I screwed up,” that knock us off track (see Blogs #13, #14, and #20). Mostly we work to feel better in such situations, eventually finding some way back to feeling OK. We move in and out of attunement with others and ourselves all the time.
Think about being with your closest person (maybe a husband, wife, lover, or child) and attending with caring intent to what you both are sensing, feeling, thinking, judging, and wanting right now. When you do this, things go better. When both of you do this, things go way better. Since we tend to hang out with people who have similar skills to ours, getting better at attunement usually gradually translates into a more attuned social world.
Most human suffering arises from lack of attunement, and especially people’s inability to adjust from misattuned to attuned.
Attunement guides us to love and thrive. Without the capacity to reattune from anger, fear, conflict, withdrawal, and distortion back to attunement, people get lost in the negative stories and the painful emotions and defensive states that come with them—leaving them at risk to inflict and suffer emotional—sometimes physical—violence.
When you’re mad and attacking someone, and then struggle to reattune, it instantly gets much harder to be mean. Caring acceptance guides me to look at myself, forgive myself, and grow when I screw up. Caring acceptance makes easier to attune to you if I feel injured by you.
This principle is valid at every level of relationship. Empathic attunement to self and others leads us towards honest intimacy and growth.
As I discovered this and began to unpack the neurobiology and evolutionary history of human attunement, I got so excited I wrote The Attuned Family. It’s full of stories of people attuning to themselves, lovers attuning to each other, parents attuning to children, and seekers attuning to spirit. A continuing theme is the central importance of noticing when you’re misattuned and reattuning.
I suggest you try attunement practices yourself if you feel like it. Walk about your day attending with caring intent to what you sense, feel, think, judge, and want. When you encounter others, ask yourself, with caring intent, what they might be sensing, feeling, thinking, judging, and wanting. Do it with your loved ones, friends, and strangers you casually encounter throughout the day.
Especially notice when you’re misattuned—it’s often when you’re angry, frightened, ashamed, guilty, stressed, or blanked out—and then reach for attunement. Don’t try to be perfect at it, just work at getting better at it.
Practice this for a while and you will find yourself being wiser and kinder. If everyone got good at attunement, most human suffering ease, and the amount of violence in the world would plummet.
Throughout my lifetime I’ve seen greater compassion and deeper consciousness continually arise as the world becomes more awake, aware, and attuned—for example, we have less murder per capita today than at any other time in human history. More importantly, attuning to each other and ourselves accelerates everyone’s evolution towards more connected and caring.
Adjusting from misattunement to attunement is the human skill.