Health care providers—from nurses to physicians and therapists—report that their patients seem a lot more distressed than they did five or ten years ago. Meanwhile, the health care providers themselves, along with professionals across industries, observe that burnout is rising at a concerning rate. Personally, in the last month alone, I have filled out disability forms for three young colleagues—one working in a hospital emergency room, one treating students at a university, and one in the human resources department of a large corporation. The looming question is: How can we remain of service to our fellow humans without getting pulled under ourselves?
How do we find a sense of steadiness and balance in a world that feels like quicksand, with cultural, political, and ecological sinkholes threatening to pull us under at any moment?
A large part of the answer lies in maintaining a strong spirit, no matter what the outside world presents. To accomplish this daunting but essential task, many of us are already developing a range of strategies, which may include peer support, psychotherapy, yoga, mindfulness, rest, and relaxation. I would like to introduce another foundational practice: trust.
I first came across the importance of trust in the teachings of my late mentor, Dan Brown. Initially I was perplexed, resistant even. The idea of trust seemed sentimental and insubstantial. How, I wondered, could trust be sturdy enough to help in daily life?
Yet I remained curious. Brown had been a professor at Harvard Medical School for almost 40 years. Besides being an acclaimed psychologist, considered an expert in the theory and practice of working with attachment disorders, he was also a highly regarded teacher in the Buddhist traditions of Dzogchen (great protection) and Mahamudra (great seal), two Tibetan approaches to the experience of awake awareness.
What might attachment disorders and the experience of awake awareness have to do with trust, I wondered? Could trust impact our resilience and ability to stay happily and meaningfully engaged in life during trying times?
For the past several years, I have been exploring these questions, contemplating how the interaction between trust, childhood attachment, and awake awareness can support our ability to be with suffering—and I have come to understand the necessity of attending to trust as a basic attitude.
Take a moment to reach into your own psyche. Think about your relationship to trust over the past five years. Notice the felt sense in your body. Is it unease or worry? The more we are able to recognize in our bodies what a lack of trust—in others and in ourselves—feels like, the more we will notice a desire to belong—to experience interconnectedness. We’ll find faith that these experiences matter.
Think now about these specific qualities: belonging, interconnectedness, and faith. They tend to make us feel relaxed and calm. They reveal a deep quality of trust.
With an emerging sense of trust, we can develop a solid sense of self, confidence, and effectiveness. We can begin to see ourselves as individuals who can have an impact on our world. Without trust, we may instead experience excessive doubt about specific situations, and an overall sense of fear and anxiety about the world at large.
Recently I visited the Buddhist scholar and activist Joanna Macy, now 93 years old, and I was struck by how she seemed to radiate light from the inside out. She shared with me that as she has grown older, trust has become more and more foundational for her, too. Though Macy is acutely aware of the pain in our world, she told me her sense of trust has only grown. “I feel a sense of joy in being alive in this world at this time,” she said, adding that trusting in herself and in life allows her to trust others. “Trust is so important to create a safe world,” she said.
So how do we develop this ability to trust?
One well-known pathway is the experience of secure early childhood attachment, but this, of course, is already out of our hands. Another, possibly more enduring, route is learning to nurture our trust by cultivating the vast and peaceful experience of resting in awake awareness.
Awake awareness has been described as the “groundless ground,” or the foundation out of which all phenomena rise and dissolve back into again and again. It’s a big idea, but it can be explored in manageable pieces. Developed in Tibet more than one thousand years ago and used by advanced meditators, the practice of resting in awake awareness has recently become more widely accessible through the teachings of Brown and others. It differs from the well-known practice of mindfulness by involving a key shift in the state of awareness. The practitioner learns to release from thought and the sense of being an individual who is meditating, and learns to become part of a more subtle level of awareness that is not separate from self and that is everywhere.
Imagine the ocean. Instead of identifying with the waves on the surface, which are like our thoughts that come and go, you can cultivate a calmer mind by sinking below the waves. You can open the experience of the mind to become the ocean itself. This subtle level of awareness, known as awake awareness, is limitless and boundless. It is lucid, calm, still, and has the quality of love.
When people learn to drop into the field of awake awareness consistently, or even just periodically, their relationship to this field allows them to develop basic trust in themselves and in life, even when they did not have a childhood that helped to establish trust.
Myself, I did not have a safe early childhood nestled in a loving family. My mother was not married when I was conceived, and, fearing the harsh judgment of her Catholic family, she hid me in an orphanage after I was born. I lived there for two years until she returned to “adopt” me. My grandparents and uncles never found out that I was a blood relative of theirs.
My life turned around 42 years ago when I began meditating in a Sri Lankan monastery and I started to develop trust by tapping into awake awareness. A faith in practice itself—faith that if I kept practicing with sincerity and commitment doors would eventually open—kept me on the path. Finding trust on this level, let’s call it “Big Trust,” has helped me expand my experience of home to include the timeless, formless, nonconceptual field of awareness.
Resting in awake awareness during meditation practice, I tap into the Big Trust that life will somehow wisely arise in an interconnected and unfolding way. But I believe we can anchor this experience in our everyday conscious mind so that we can access “Big Trust” outside of formal meditation. While longer meditation practices help us to pattern a habit to recognize awake awareness deep in our psyche, we can use tools like micro-awakenings, or glimpse practices, to introduce a habit of recognizing awake awareness throughout our days.
Whether accessed through longer meditation practices or prompts in our daily lives, the transformative experience of tapping into Big Trust helps us develop into healthy, confident, and caring people. Making this experience part of who we are allows us to live as poised, generous, and loving members of our interconnected world, steady in our service to others.