Birth, being thrust out of the womb, has to be a scary experience. When an animal is born, it is typically licked all over by the mother and is always next to the mother’s warmth until weaned. But when a baby is born, it is slapped on the behind, washed by a stranger, rolled up in a blanket and given to its mother to be held and fed before being put in a basinet by itself. Not a nurturing environment.
When a child is born, he has four basic needs: food, freedom from pain, warmth/nurturing, and physical security. These are the four irreducible needs of all human beings. (See my book, The Self in No Self.) In particular, a baby’s need for nurturing, for unconditional love, is almost without limit. So from the moment of its birth, a baby finds that its needs are not met, and the first seeds of insecurity are sown.
This pattern continues during the child’s formative first years. It’s not that parents don’t love their new child and shower it with attention; it’s that the needs of the baby and toddler go beyond what most parents are able to give. Whether it’s how they were raised, the demands of work or home, or having their own problems to deal with … it’s just the way it is. And so the child’s insecurity takes root.
As an example, there’s the question of whether and how long to let a baby cry before the parent picks up the child. From a parent’s perspective, a crying child is frequently inconvenient, and so the baby cries for some period of time. Then there’s the French perspective reported several years ago in The New Yorker that it will actually help the baby to let it cry for five minutes before picking it up. But an infant’s cry is instinctive, not reasoned, and must be responded to promptly to provide the nurturing the child needs.
This may seem very minor, but such repeated experiences create a reservoir of feeling unheard, unloved. There are few things more important to the healthy development of a child’s psyche than feeling loved unconditionally. How a baby is responded to impacts that. By the way, unconditional love does not mean that a parent can’t criticize a child, but the context within which that happens and how it is delivered does matter. (See my book, Raising a Happy Child.)
As the baby becomes a young child, proceeds through adolescence, and attains adulthood, the seeds of insecurity planted at birth and during his formative years grow to become a huge tumor inside each of us. Why?
The tumor grows because it’s fed by much of what we experience in life … at home, in school, at work, and in the media. We don’t feel respected or loved. We are either told or learn that we are clearly lacking in some way. Negative labels are applied to us … bad, stupid, ugly, fat. If we want to be loved or admired, we learn that we must change something in ourselves or acquire something. Or if we are praised, we nevertheless understand how easy it is to fall from grace and so are fearful. In fact, those who become famous or successful, although they are often thought of as having huge egos and are imperious, typically have even greater insecurities than the average person because their success is a coping mechanism and they have more to lose.
Because this insecurity runs so deep and is so threatening to us, our mind … what I refer to as the ego-mind … develops a host of strategies early on to “protect” us. If it feels we have been treated badly by others, for example, it will throw up a wall of anger or disdain which gives us a feeling of self-righteousness that obscures the hurt. If it feels we need to do more to achieve success or happiness, it creates cravings and attachments that drive us to get what we need at all costs.
But these strategies do not in fact protect us; instead, they cause us suffering. Yet we take comfort in these familiar emotions/desires because we believe they do protect us or provide us with a path to achieving happiness.
And so every person, each and every one of us, ends up a prisoner of their ego-mind … of the feelings and perceptions, emotions, judgments, cravings, and attachments that are the mind’s reaction to our life experiences. Our every action and thought is controlled by our feelings and perceptions. The habit-energy is ingrained.
Insecurity thus seen is nurture, not nature. We were not born insecure, but we were raised that way. Thankfully, though, our true Buddha nature remains inside us, buried but in tact. The path provides us the way to reconnect with our true Buddha nature, to free ourselves from this insecurity and the emotions and perceptions that flow from it, and thus find the peace and happiness that is our birthright.