Where’s your spine? You’re spineless. Have some backbone. Phrases like these tend to be uttered by the mean and misguided to point out another’s fear or hesitancy. Horrible, hurtful … and, it turns out, inaccurate.

Of course, as with most concepts in our language that have become warped and contorted, it has some basis in the truth. Our spine is indeed the source of our strength, our courage, our autonomy, our attunement, and lots else.

Our spine, called the backbone because the vertebrae can be felt and sometimes seen through the skin on our back, actually runs right through the center of our torso. It’s a kind of tent pole, if you will, that holds our bodies up. It’s the core of our energetic field. Keeping our attention on our spine keeps us attuned to ourselves, our truth, our needs, our edges, our experience.

Some of us do this naturally. Many do not (*raises hand*). Instead, we reference the world outside of ourselves. (By “reference” I mean put our attention on; make central; use to determine how, where and who we are in a given moment.)

This particular pattern of attention references anything but self. It instead goes through life asking, usually unconsciously, “what is the situation here and how can I blend into it so I’ll be accepted? What is this person up to, and how can I give them more of what they want, or be like them, so that they’ll love me?” Someone who does this pattern can be charming, nurturing, generous. Emotional. Loving. They can also be overly social, scattered or chatty, seeking feedback through protracted eye contact or touch, and not especially adept on third plane without others doing things for them.

Having never gotten enough—food, nurturance, attention—as a little one, we are always reaching for more love. More approval. We’ll contort ourselves however we can to get it. We’ll abandon self—not by leaving our bodies, but by liquefying our field to merge with others’. (Which, if the other person isn’t accustomed to behaving the same way, they might feel invaded or ‘slimed.’)

The physical phenomenon beneath this pattern of attention is that we’re not aware of our own core. We’re so accustomed to referencing others that we forget (or actually, never knew) the same resources are available within, and that we are capable of holding ourselves up. We’re looking everywhere but at our own center, our own spine—hence, spineless. But not cowardly. How can someone unaware of their own capability willingly reject it? Would you do this on purpose? Of course not. As with all survival strategies, we can’t know what we never learned. Can’t do what we were never shown.

The great news about any habit that has its roots in our physicality is that we can address it there. We don’t have to spend years analyzing it or unearthing its initial causes. (I mean, sure, we can do that for kicks, too, if we want. It’s just that emotional wounding—any wounding—results in a warped energy field. I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity of going directly there.)

There are lots of other ways to take this up. Any martial art, where you’ve got to know where you are before you have any hope of interacting successfully with another, is a failsafe way to build core. (I didn’t realize this was what I was doing when I started Aikido, but I know that it’s helped me reference core to the point that my mergey tendencies are almost undetectable now.) Same is true of partner dancing. Pilates is the most obvious one as it goes right there: its stated purpose is core strength. There are also balancing exercises and meditations where we visualize our core going through our body and extending into the earth and up into the heavens.

With our attention on our spine more consistently through one of these practices, we can then start to notice where our edges are, when we might be invading someone else with our needs—and when that is happening to us.

We can help our friends who do this pattern too. Rather than engage their need for feedback (or in addition to it), we can put our attention on their alignment, their capability. Their spine, really. Pay as much attention to their courage and autonomy as to their great hugs and delicious brownies.

This is a small piece of a huge topic: a lifetime of behavior built on a strategy used to survive as a baby. We’ll explore it and others in Intro to Energy Basics.