Towards the end of yoga class, the teacher guided us into savasana. “Think of a safe place,” he prompted, to relax our mental and physical being.
Zing! Zang! Boom! My mind raced all over the place, scanning my history to retrieve a safe place. My childhood home? Not in a family that demonstrated love via the put-down. School? I was pudgy, bullied, and hypercompetitive. Marriage? Our mutual strength was pushing each other to excel. Parenting? Architecting? Pedaling? Each of these aspects of me provided benefits, none of which primarily ‘safe.’
I know what unsafe feels like: BMW drivers; extreme heights; police officers; Cambridge ladies; men in Roman collars. They all trigger my flight response. But as a person whose basic needs are well met, ‘unsafe’ is a transitory state: I steer clear and retreat.
I laid on my mat long after class, filtering the crannies of my existence, searching for a safe place. Nothing. And then I realized: I’ve never sought what’s traditionally considered ‘safe.’ Actually, the whole idea of being cuddled, cosseted cocooned—hygge, if you will—makes me feel smothered. I suppose I might be less anxious and neurotic if I had a mental or physical space into which I could retreat. I have no such place; have never sought one. Yet, I manage.
A few days later, the musings of my aborted meditation still needling my head, my boyfriend Dave said, apropos of nothing, “I feel safe with you.” Warmth flushed my body, I wrapped him tighter. Yet I did not parrot his words. Fortunately, our relationship is not saddled by mutual reciprocities. Dave makes me feel many, many good things. Safe is not one of them.
Contemplating a safe place—rather, my lack of it—persisted. It led to an old and cheesy image. I was thirteen when I first saw the movie-musical Oliver! Well past the age of the young urchin and his trials. Yet one scene in that movie infused me with a sense of security. One which, for over fifty years, I’ve recollected during stress. Young Oliver wakes in the mansion of his benefactor, Mr. Brownlow, and steps out onto the balcony of his London crescent mansion to the exuberant choreography of Who Will Buy?
Thinking about a safe place provided me insight as to why this scene always soothes my nerves. Oliver stands on a balcony. Security, warmth, safety has got his back, while a wild and wonderful world unfolds before him. He’s a participant, at a distance. In some ways, that’s the life I lead. I have no benefactor: I constructed my life myself. Yet my participation in the wild world, whether in Haiti or cross-country cycling, or ESOL tutoring, or advocating prison abolition; is cushioned by my physical and economic comfort. My safe place isn’t within a cocoon. It’s being out in the world, with the knowledge of certain refuge close at hand.
A movie image, no matter how consoling, is a mere surrogate for a safe place. I kept searching for a real place where I have felt safe. And finally circled full around to the start. The yoga studio. The next time the teacher prompts us to retreat to our safe place, I will meditate on Balancing Stick, a Bikram balancing pose I’ve struck hundreds of times. Once, ten or twelve years ago now, when I stood on my right leg, extended my left leg straight out behind, and my torso and arms straight in front, I came to a place of balance, stability, and calm. That was the first time I ever felt the flush of the present; overwhelmed with the euphoria of ‘being in the moment.’ I’ve experienced that state many times since, though I still cannot conjure it consciously. Perhaps it’s odd to envision a position of tension as a safe place. But it seems right for me.