Sailboats and Moments of Transcendence

Note: The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book Dancing the Tightrope, The Gift of Pressure, Uncertainty and Failure.

Since hearing Dr. Gabor Mate describe the balancing act of Attachment and Self Expression,  I found myself using the two-part dichotomy as a self-awareness tool. Most of the time, I could see my ineffective actions as coming out of the Attachment side of the balancing act. Either I was people pleasing, or seeking approval, or fearing rejection, or wanting to be seen as good enough, or something else I would put under the big category of “survival”. Once in a while, I would find myself overusing Self Expression, putting my needs over others to everyone’s detriment.

The more I used Mate’s framework as a way of orienting around human needs, the less I liked Maslow’s pyramid. The pyramid that Maslow didn’t even draw depicted a sort of video game logic to the hierarchy. Just like in my long-ago favorite game of Super Mario Brothers, it seemed like if I made a mistake, I had to start over at the bottom to play the game up the steps to self-actualization.

When I was at my best, I could see that logic defied my actual experience.

When I was at my worst, the idea of climbing the pyramid over and over again felt a bit like pushing a stone up the mountain.

In the last twenty years, I had experienced many moments of transcendence. Frequently I had lost myself in the magic of creation in my art studio, whether painting or throwing clay. When facilitating self-awareness programs, I often found words coming out of my mouth that were not mine, yet deeply resonated, as if crafted just for the person I was speaking to. Every time I got up on a water ski, I experienced something transcendent that no words can describe. Yet these moments often happened right next to “base level” experiences of survival mode.

Scott Barry Kaufman’s book Transcend, The New Science of Self Actualization finally gave me the metaphor that aligned with my experience. A sailboat.

Now this was a metaphor for the balancing act I could work with. The boat is like the Attachment side of Mate’s needs framework. Kaufman calls that side “Security.” Just like letting the water into a boat will cause it to sink, letting the wrong things into our personal boat - or under our skin -  can cause us to sink. We need to keep the boat in good working order. On the other hand, a boat with no wind in its sails is in the doldrums. We need the sail to propel us forward. The sail represents the Self Expression side of Mate’s needs framework. Kaufman calls this side “Growth.”

The sailboat metaphor more closely represents my experience in understanding my own human needs. The survival stuff, including psychological safety, plus the fact that we humans are wired for relationship and connection make up the boat. If the boat is not solid, free of holes and in good working order, it will not sail. We need to keep our boat in good order.

We also want to go somewhere. When the conditions are right, we can unfurl our sails and catch the wind. When we feel secure, we have the internal freedom to love unconditionally. We have the innate sense of security to remain present in the moment. How we sail our own boat is unique to each of us.

The simplicity of the sailboat metaphor gave me an easy way to orient myself, whether working with horses or working with people. When I working with a horse, I can quickly assess: Does he feel safe and secure? How’s his health? Has he had enough water, food, rest? All these questions come from the idea of checking in on his “boat.”

I can also quickly assess the other side of the balancing act.  “Am I giving the horse choices?” “Is he being challenged? How much am I allowing him to own his part of this ride?” In other words, does the horse get a chance to sail? (Funny picture, right?)

When working with people, I now see that my choice of words and the energy with which I approach them can either create or destroy safety. How I ask for something different or point out mistakes matters in how they respond. When I am able to see past their defenses to the unique human they are, something magical happens.

Having this simple metaphor has helped me restore balance.

The boat and the sail each represent a side of the tightrope. Where are the two core needs of Attachment/Security/Survival and Self Expression/Growth out of balance? Which side of the tightrope do I need to work on right now? What is off, and which way do I move to make a correction towards the balance point?

Security/survival always comes first. Just like the sails are useless without a sound boat, no horse (or human) will do their best work with a leaky boat. And we often have a leaky boat.

After years of thinking of so many aspects of balance paralleling the thin line of the tightrope, Kaufman now gave me a new metaphor for finding the balance between Attachment and Self Expression. My brain easily toggled back and forth, from one to the other. The sailboat metaphor seemed to make the most sense when Safety and Survival came into play. Survival comes first, even when we think it doesn’t matter. The tightrope metaphor made a lot of sense when balancing between two competing forces that needed to be integrated, such a long and short term, emotions and logic, and power.

While Kaufman’s metaphor spoke to me, the words he used in the sail and boat did not resonate as deeply. So with all credit to Kaufman, Mate’ and Maslow, I’ve redrawn the boat to line up with my own experience.

In my picture, Love is at the top, followed closely by Presence and Creativity. The moments of both epiphany and transcendence for me on this journey have been when I allowed the armor of my expectations and my self-protection to fall off to reveal only that which is here and now. In those moments, my body feels whole and light, my mind is quiet and I feel an inner state of focused relaxation. I am able to take whatever comes with equanimity. To me, that’s the ultimate state of self-actualization. When my “boat” is in order, I’m free to truly unfurl my sails and allow the spirit of the wind to do its work.

Self-expression is possible only when the boat is cared for. Humans are wired for relationship and connection. As Maslow pointed out in his Theory of Human Motivation (1943), once the physiological needs are met, the needs for safety, love, affection and belonging emerge. Where Kaufman included self-esteem in his boat, I find self-awareness more important.

Self-awareness can be elusive. We feel sensations and yet have a warped sense of what the feeling actually means. When the feelings we feel are uncomfortable, we often numb them out with alcohol, work, drugs, shopping or myriad other distractions designed to take us away from our feelings rather than into them.

Turning into our feelings and thoughts and emotions allows us to understand and repair our boat. As Gabor Mate’ says, “When forced to make the choice between Attachment and Self Expression, Attachment will always win. Our survival depends on it.” All too often, we fail to see that our lack of connection, our fear of survival, and our need for safety are the root of our stuckness. We armor up rather than reach out. Seeing and honoring our human needs is essential to our self-awareness. We need others; we are hardwired for connection.

In that way, just as horses are herd animals, so are humans. Having relationships fueled by trust and connection provides the strong boat that allows us to unleash our unique gifts.

As is always the case, the book excerpts I share are in draft form. I would love to hear what parts of this resonated with you, confused you and made you more curious. Just hit reply to share your thoughts!