Updated: Mar 21
I am the oldest of five children. One of my earliest memories is of cuddling my mother’s belly when she was pregnant with my brother. I was a toddler, recently potty-trained and wearing nothing but my big-girl underpants on a sticky summer day in Michigan. I couldn’t quite comprehend what it would mean, for Mom to have a baby, but I was so excited.
Thirteen years later, I had the privilege of meeting my youngest brother when he was less than an hour old. I was a sophomore in high school, in pajamas because it was after 10pm; I had been lying awake in my friend’s bedroom, waiting for the call from Dad to find out of it was a girl or a boy. And now, here I was, holding the newest member of the family in my arms, his soft, warm weight tucked against my ribs. He was so new that he didn’t even have a name yet, but it was magical, how he stared at me with sleepy, world-dazzled, blue-gray eyes under a wrinkled brow.
Our sense of the divine begins before our first breath.
At this point in my career as an attachment-based psychotherapist, I know that every spiritual journey begins in the womb. In infancy, it is our caregivers who determine for us whether the universe feels safe and full of love, or harsh and unwelcoming; this connection with our caregivers begins before birth, as the unborn baby listens to the lilt and rumble of her parents’ voices, interacts with them through touch and movement, and absorbs her mother’s hormones through the placenta. The quality of these foundational attachments is formed early and endures throughout the lifespan in one way or another. (To read more about attachment, check out this post, and also this post.)
The first crisis of development, according to the developmental theorist Erik Erikson, is that of trust vs. mistrust: the infant must determine, Can I trust that my needs will be met or not? For those who learn to trust that their needs—for comfort, for loving touch, for shared delight, for emotional resonance and reciprocity—will be met, the ability to believe in a loving God or a benevolent universe is written into their neurobiology. For the rest, their very cells reject the idea that they were made for Love.
I did not grow up in a perfect family, but the most foundational fact of my life is this: I, and my four siblings after me, entered the world into loving arms. We were wanted. We were woven into the fabric of an affectionate family even before our first breaths. Our needs were not met perfectly, but they were met. In a big family, there is always someone to hold the baby. We were fed; we were cuddled; we were not left to cry alone. There was someone to celebrate our first smile, our first steps, our first words. There was joy in the air around us, often enough to be the dominant flavor of our little lives.
Because of these early experiences that pre-date explicit memory, I cannot remember a time when I did not believe that the universe is built on love and that I am and always will be enfolded in that love. This bequeathing of secure attachment is the most profound gift I have ever received.
Most of us wouldn’t think of diaper changes as spiritual experiences, but for an infant, it is spirituality in its most raw and primal state.
James Fowler, author of the book Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (1981), outlines a stage-based theory of spiritual development that begins around age three. By age three, a child has developed explicit memory (memory that can be consciously recalled), a differentiated sense of self and that self’s autonomous will, and the rudiments of language and symbolic thought. But the story of our spirituality begins long before Stage One.
Prior to Stage One, Fowler describes a “Stage Zero” that fills infancy and the first two years of life. During these years, a child’s psychological functioning is dominated by sensory-motor exploration, fully operational implicit memory but little awareness of time or consciousness, and a deep bond with the mother or primary caregiver; the child’s sense of boundaries between the self and the other are, in infancy, nonexistent and, later, blurry at best. In this Stage Zero, spiritual development occurs primarily through the presence and impact of parental figures on the developing child. An infant’s concept of “God”—while not consciously processed—begins to imprint in his body and mind based on the quality of care he receives from his parents. This is the template which will shape later conceptualizations of the Divine, even throughout adulthood. The provision of milk, through breast or bottle, whenever he is hungry; the changing of a distressingly wet or uncomfortable diaper; the sound of a lullaby sung by a familiar voice—these are miracles of grace to the infant who has no capacity to anticipate or meet his own needs. Thus, our trusting or fearing of the Great Being who holds our survival in her hands is the primal stage of faith from which everything else springs.
Take a moment to reflect on your own spirituality.
Think of your primal assumptions about the universe, outside whatever religion you practice or belief system you adhere to. Think of the fears and doubts you do not often allow yourself to acknowledge. We all have them. Perhaps you believe that the universe is a cold and unwelcoming place, hostile to fragile humanity. Perhaps you carry around a deep but wordless fear of an unpredictable higher power who may be kind one day but angry and vengeful the next. Perhaps you feel alone, an isolated speck of consciousness afloat in an infinite but empty existence; maybe you doubt that there is any meaning or goodness out there at all.
I would like to ask you to consider that perhaps some of these beliefs have more to do with your unique early experiences than with reality as it is. No matter what painful or frightening perceptions of a higher power feel real to you, there is room for something else to be true.
If you embark on the work of attachment healing, one of the best rewards is an ability to experience your higher power more directly, with less negative filters and dysfunctional relational templates in the way. Spirituality is about connection—connection with humanity, with nature, with something greater than ourselves, and with the truth of our own souls. Because of this, sometimes spirituality can be a source of profound healing, where those with insecure attachment histories can find security.
But while spiritual beliefs and religious experiences can be life-giving, the reverse is also true.
Our spiritual experiences tend to conform to the same neurological templates as every other relationship or moment of interconnectedness in our lives. The brain is, as Dr. Dan Siegel writes, an anticipation machine, preparing us for new experiences based on what we have learned from past experiences. In the best of circumstances, this allows us to respond to threats quickly and effectively and increases the chances of our survival—but the other side of the coin is that sometimes, we only see what we expect to see, and only feel what we have felt too many times before.
If you spent the earliest years of your life aching with unmet needs—especially the intangible and often undervalued needs of attachment (comfort, belonging, affectionate touch, emotional attunement, supported autonomy)—you have little reason to believe that there is anything out there to catch you if you fall. Sometimes, the opposite of faith isn’t unbelief; it’s hypervigilance—your brain working overtime, trying to keep you safe.
But some of you still tend a place, deep in your soul, where you allow yourself to hope that life can be more than what it has been, that there is more beauty, peace, and joy than you have yet tasted, that there is a great and wild force of Love flowing through the universe, that the arc of the universe bends toward a glorious homecoming. And maybe, just maybe, this hope is a whisper of the Divine. Keep listening. You never know what you might hear.
I believe that we were made for secure attachment, that we belong in intimate union with something greater than ourselves.
I believe that attachment healing is always possible, and that the allure of that intimate union is drawing all of us. Why else do we feel so whole, so truly human, in the beauty of an embrace or the exhilaration of shared joy or the warmth of a safe homecoming? It’s the fulfillment of our design. Human wholeness culminates in secure attachment with the Divine Love that animates the universe. While I unapologetically make this claim from a personal stance rooted in universalist Christian theology (both historical and progressive), I also say it as a mental health professional, based on studies of attachment science and interpersonal neurobiology as well as clinical experience.
So go ahead and hope. Dream of the most beautiful reality you can possibly imagine. Dare to believe that the limits you were born into are not ultimate. Strive toward a world where all the good things come true for everyone. Trust that there is a reason the best stories have happy endings. Trust love. Go ahead and hope, and let hope heal your hypervigilance. This is the work of spirituality. And it is desperately needed work.