"It was hard to accept that level of awareness and intention in something that did not look in any way human. A sense washed over me that this orca was just as aware of living as I was: that he could perceive all the details that I perceive, the feeling of atmosphere and sea, the texture of emotions... and what makes us feel safe." Michael Parfit talking about Luna, a killer whale in British Columbia's Nootka Sound
from Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, by Carl Safina.
The Safety System, a system of extremes - of speed, of stealth, and of slowness. It quickly alerts us to danger, preparing us for running away or for staying really still. And our safety system also enables us to recover to rest and digest when danger has passed. This system readies us for exploration and playfulness, as well as stretching out and showing our soft underbelly to the world when we're in a place when we feel really safe and we've been fed.
The safety system deals with threats and responds to danger when there are problems in the world, when there are threats around us. Flee or flight is a key question when faced with these challenges - working out in a matter of milliseconds if we can get out of a situation quickly or if it is too dangerous to flee - so we freeze. These mechanisms have kept our ancestors safe for millions and millions of years.
Named the FEAR system by Jaak Panksepp, it is Beatriz and Terry Sheldon who recognised how important it is and more powerful for us all, if we consider the full continuum of this system. A more holistic perspective - the system so brilliantly researched by Panksepp and many others, is about safety - with fear being just one end of the continuum. Humans and animals do not just avoid fearful situations - they seek out safety. The approach aspect of this system (moving towards, approaching 'SAFE'!) is what can be so often missed when as individuals, mental health systems, societies we are consumed, with a focus on fear and anxiety. It is part of the mechanism within us that this focus is the dominant one, but the conscious, purposeful and often constant focus on it, is damaging to individuals, communities and the world. How do we prioritise safety in the world? Is a very different question to how to we avoid danger or threat? Especially when we consider the former question with a long term view and we see how the latter question can encourage a short term focus.
The other side of the safety system is about being in touch with safety and freedom. It's an innate drive we have within us to find safety where our world will be largely predictable and our basic needs will be met. If you are safe right now in this moment, take a moment now to just breathe a little deeper, turn your face upwards and create a little more space in your torso. Allow your safety system to pay careful and caring attention to moments of actual safety, build these neural networks, so you have more clarity and capacity for differentiating the moments of danger.
The most recent episode of the podcast (released 29th March) focuses on the safety system. During our next episode, out on 12th April, I talk with Charley Lee about the safety system and we naturally turn to the importance of connection for safety. Connection with ourselves, connections with others and connection with our world. Back to Luna to highlight this.
"More than anything Luna's story is that of a lost child needing friendship and guidance home, encountering a species too at odds with itself to extend the essential gesture.
"All he needed was somebody to be with him until he could come back home," Says Ken, the man who himself had been guided home by killer whales."
Carl Safina. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.